The Originary Hypothesis in Itself
I’m going to take a break from my regular programming (designing a totalizing version of originary thinking that can indelibly embed itself in the culture; more specifically, continuing the discussion of data as currency) to step back and take a look at the thing itself. I’m very grateful for the readers, some of them very thorough and penetrating, I’ve had over the past few years, but at the same time I’ve noticed that, with perhaps a few exceptions, not a one has taken the originary hypothesis as the basis of a self-contained “research project”—one that would engage other discourses and findings, but always on its own terms. Rather, for just about everyone, as far as I can tell, GA has some “interesting ideas,” but interesting ideas are a dime a dozen and eclecticism is a dead end. In a sense, this is “on me” for not yet making GA compelling enough, but it still makes me curious regarding where the “resistance” might be—perhaps GA gets in the way of doing some things that people really like to do.
I’ve heard GA described as very complex, but I don’t see how. The originary hypothesis is easily summed up in a couple of paragraphs, at most, and all it really assumes is that human beings are mimetic creatures. Can anyone really deny that human beings are fundamentally mimetic? How, exactly, do you think you learned to do anything? Can anyone fail to see the logic of imitation leading to rivalry? Again, have you ever watched children, or observed the simplest inter-personal dynamics? I don’t see how any great complexity or difficulty has entered at this point. Once you have a conflict between two people desiring the same thing because they are each taking the other as model and therefore obstacle, that conflict can only be resolved in one of two ways: one defeats the other; the two share the desired object. The first case is familiar from any other species; only in the second case could something like a “community” emerge. Perhaps I’m missing something but, again, I don’t see the difficulty here, so I have to say if you don’t see the foundation of human community in some way of sharing commonly desired objects, you don’t want to see it. Perhaps you prefer to see the foundation of community in the defeat of one contestant by the other. OK, but how does that defeat sustain a community? If we’ve found a way to share something, we need to remind ourselves of it every time we do so; the superior strength of one member of the group over another doesn’t need to be commemorated—it’s immediately evident and can simply be repeated or reversed at any time.
I do have to acknowledge that GA is odd in being very similar to a religion and at the same time the exact opposite of one. It is an “origin story,” and it can feel like one is being asked to “believe in” something. If you’re a secular person—and plenty of contemporary “trads” are completely secular in this sense—you’re immediately suspicious of and resistant to being asked to “believe” anything. And if you already “believe” in something, why switch over to this? I don’t see it as a question of “belief” (which I don’t “believe” in), but it does, perhaps, require a willingness to live or think in a kind of “suspense.” You have to acknowledge the irreducibility of language to any other kind of signaling, communication or information, and one could never really “prove” once and for all that every sentence we utter was not really programmed by our genetic code. Maybe we’ll discover the code tomorrow. Maybe acknowledging the irreducibility of human language sounds too “postmodern” or something. If you find it essential that language be reducible to logic, the irreducibility of language (or, as a participant in the recently completely GA conference said, “non-fungibility”) is a problem. If language is irreducible, how it is even possible becomes a question you’d have to take seriously, and if you take it seriously, it might disable certain other things you want to believe to be true. In this way, the originary hypothesis is similar to a faith, in its incommensurability with any other way of thinking about humanity. If the singularity of language means it must have emerged in an event, then everything must follow from that. Something like a conversion experience may be necessary here: you’d have to be able to abandon and revise all “priors.” Why do that to go off into the wilderness with a hypothesis which acknowledges it can never be proven, and doesn’t promise salvation?
My answer to that might not be a very helpful one: because otherwise everything you hear yourself or anyone else say is just an echo of other things other people have said, all bouncing around in a closed chamber. Where do all the “we shoulds...” come from? Why should we? Who is the “we” that should? The blanks in the formulas could always be filled in differently. You’d have to want a way out of this, and why would you if the lines you’ve been given provide you with a good role to play? There’s something analogous here to the experience Plato’s cave analogy might be getting at, which is to say that there is a kind of revelatory experience that may be required to “get” GA: that experience would be that of miraculousness of any utterance—to revise Heidegger, that there is speech rather than silence. The radical form of this experience is that you are, literally, on the originary scene itself, which has never been “closed,” only sustained and suspended, and that the very next thing you say will be version of the originary gesture that keeps the event in play or a premature attempt at appropriation that will collapse the scene. Is this complex and difficult? Or too demanding? Maybe figuring out what this might mean in a particular case is extremely difficult, and subject to disagreement and ultimately inconclusive, but this, then is the “research program,” the thing that all the talk and all of “history” and “culture” is “about.”
It’s very hard to imagine building a community around the originary hypothesis. Here is where the Girardians have a huge advantage. Once you identify scapegoating as the predominant but now discredited way of organizing communities, you can organize intellectual and sub-cultural communities around exposing and resisting scapegoating. It’s easy enough to identify who is being scapegoated at a given time, or at least to agree on who is the socially recognized scapegoat, and check and police each other through periodic quasi-ritual cleansings of scapegoating tendencies. Since Girard plugged his mimetic theory directly into Christianity, the Girardian community can be organized as a faction within Christianity, or as a form of leftism with a family resemblance to Christianity. It can’t work that way with the originary hypothesis, which “denies” that the initial (if it is “initial”—there’s not quite an originary event for Girard) scapegoating ever took place. There was a center, reinforced by ritual, but now that we can “see through” rituals, but without any founding event that enabled us to do so and that we can commemorate and repeat, there’s nothing to put in its place. There’s always a center (but I’m not sure whether the founder of GA would agree), but post-ritual it can only be a political center, and that doesn’t really serve the same purpose or elicit the same kind of devotion to the transcendent, despite some attempts. I’ve offered a way of addressing this, as many readers of this essay know, but I’m willing to grant that my elaboration of the originary hypothesis is “complex” and poses some difficulties. On the face of it, taking the originary hypothesis in its bare-boned form, there’s not anything for us to “do.” It’s a new form of inquiry, but only a community of inquirers can be organized around that; now, there are certain thinkers within the philosophy of science who would suggest that a post-ritual community can ultimately only be a community of inquirers, as in Gaston Bachelard’s suggestion that the relation between “school” and “society” be reversed, but here we start to get complex again and that’s going to be a bridge way too far for most people.
The originary hypothesis doesn’t seem to call for any sacrifices, courage or heroism—it seems pretty bourgeois, best suited for literary and cultural commentary, from academic to middlebrow. It’s certainly hard to imagine any government demanding generative anthropologists renounce their “faith” on pain of persecution, and thereby creating martyrs. The originary hypothesis won’t lead someone to throw themselves between an oppressor and his victim in some dramatic confrontation. It’s hard to be defiant in the name of the originary hypothesis. I would take issue with all this and argue that the originary hypothesis calls for a very high level of courage, one I can’t claim to have exhibited—the courage of saying exactly what needs to be said in a given situation, because it exposes everyone’s mimetic investments, and which therefore no one really wants to hear. This kind of utterance is more paralyzing than polarizing, more the creation of obstacles to action than energizing. It’s a non-heroic utterance, because, while unavoidably drawing attention to the speaker, does not accumulate resentment toward the speaker, turning him into a magnetized center—the speaker makes no claim to victimization or to power, just to being in a place where this thing needing to be said can be said this way. Moreover, you’re sure to get it wrong and will only be able to partially correct it if you can pick up enough feedback to feedback to others in turn their now more evident mimetic investments. Nothing very attractive here—just a form of discipline without any necessary reward.
I’ve often thought that a great idea for a documentary would be to just make up a list of questions, ranging from obvious political ones (what do you think about abortion, etc.) to more obscure issues regarding the operations of institutions (e.g., how do you think school administrators made a particular decision)—and then just let people talk at length, following up with questions aimed simply at letting them feel free to keep talking. We would hear the most fantastic things. Who knows, maybe someone has done something like this. I’d like even more to do something like this with language. What do people think language is? Why, when you say something to someone else, does the other person “understand”? Does the other person understand? How so, and how do you know? How do we know that others are doing something that entails “making sense” of something? I guess we’d get a lot of versions of “well, it’s worked this way all the other times.” I wonder how often people would stumble upon the sense that there’s something amazing and inexplicable here, and who therefore might be willing to be amazed one more time by the claim that it is explicable, but only in this one way that’s actually quite simple when it’s laid out but that only one person actually thought of—and if he hadn’t, it’s quite possible no one would have. Maybe you’d have to “believe” that every conversation is about how it’s possible to do what we’re doing right now (having this conversation) in order to “convert” to the originary hypothesis.
But I’ve left one thing out of consideration—the fact that GA has never had the slightest bit of power backing it—it’s just been Gans, joined more or less regularly by maybe a dozen talented and often inventive and ingenious but ultimately mostly conventional academics, and then me. Gans is certainly useless when it comes to thinking about power, whether in theoretical or practical terms—it would be interesting to do a search of all his works and see how many times he has actually used the word. I’ve certainly used it a lot, but I couldn’t say I’m any better in finding it and soliciting its interest. I’ve designed a version of GA precisely to be used by the right kind of power—maybe that means the wrong kind of power must be “allergic” to it. That’s either a white pill or a cope, but I don’t see how I could know for sure right now. But it does seem to be the case that no discourse can be powerful enough in itself to compel intellectual and moral devotion without some kind of institutional or organizational “currency”—any discourse looks “poor” if it’s still nothing more than a few guys talking about it. There will be something “missing,” and the need will be felt to supplement it with some name brand. (Still, you’d think at least a few would want to get in on the ground floor of a completely new way of thinking—what with all the talk about start-ups and all. And it’s not too late!) So, I’ve got to work on making the originary hypothesis the equivalent of a (not quite) brand in itself.