Releasing the Hedgehog
Since Adam Katz is running the GASC conference this year, which is focused on the “linguistic turn” directly linked to the postwar victimary developments that led to Girard, deconstruction, and GA, I asked him what he thought I should focus on in my conference talk. His answer was release the hedgehog.
I came up with the originary hypothesis over 40 years ago, on my 1978 visit to Johns Hopkins, described in detail in The Girardian Origins of GA (available at Amazon.com for $0.99). The hypothesis first appeared in print in the first edition of The Origin of Language, published by UC Press in 1981; a second edition just appeared this year.
Alas, this was the end of the 60s-70s era of la nouvelle critique, before the academic takeover by the New Left and the clogging of the marketplace with excess PhDs began to impose first mass conformity and then political orthodoxy on humanities departments, where today one must check with the Dean of Diversity before studying white male authors. Had I been able to anticipate this, I might have made more of the extraordinary luck I had of being just old enough to slip in under the wire. I had been hired at UCLA in 1969 without competing candidates, without even having to present a paper or teach a class. They were glad to find me, a promising young PhD, in the days before such persons had become a glut on the market and could redeem themselves only through uncritical devotion to post-colonial or gender-bending studies.
At any rate, success in the humanities today being what it is, I feel fortunate that I was able to have had a decent career at UCLA, to receive a decent pension on retirement, and above all to have found over the years a group of students and others willing to explore the insights of GA. But my personal destiny is not the point of either our GASC conferences or of these Chronicles—about which I will insist for the record that they are not blogs, a term that scarcely existed when I started them, and that refers to expressions of personal opinion, like diary entries, that require the reader to be interested in their author in order to appreciate them. The Chronicles are intended to be read as essays, a genre whose irony was finely appreciated by Gyorgy Lukács in Die Seele und die Formen (1911), from the days before he converted to Stalinism, as describing an entire domain by means of a small example. Such as, for example, describing all of human culture via a hypothetical scene of originary language.
Release the hedgehog, as Henri happily confirms, was Adam’s way of saying: let us not be shy about proclaiming GA to be what we have always claimed it to be, a genuine revolution in thought. It is the ONE BIG THING that the hedgehog knows, the proof of whose validity being that all the foxes who write about language and related subjects are unable either to assimilate it or to refute it.
Let me give an example. I recently participated at a conference along with a distinguished professor of philosophy. After reading my paper (unfortunately he could not stay for my talk), he assured me, with no apparent desire to be insulting, that my thesis was perfectly plausible, and perfectly unoriginal. This from someone who meticulously analyzes the details of self-consciousness without the least concern for the fact that what he and his colleagues call “self-consciousness” is mediated at every instant by language—hence by the structures of the originary scene, my description of which was in his eyes perfectly plausible, unoriginal, and irrelevant.
What better demonstration of the power of metaphysics—but of the still greater power of the originary hypothesis, so that even when seen, it remains invisible, so vast a sea-change would it require for the practitioners of analytic thought to dare to make it prerequisite to the intentionality that they conceive as nothing more than a refined form of perception. Unless it is explained as the specifically human mental structure of shared representation, of language, the Hegelian-Sartrian pour-soi, along with all its antecedents, is merely an arbitrary psychological construct.
Which is not to say that philosophers never speak about language. In particular, since the “linguistic turn,” they speak constantly about it, yet without ever stopping to concern themselves with how such a thing as language might have come about. In conjunction with the devastating wars of the 20th century, humanity has learned to think very badly of itself, and it is no accident that virtually all this philosophizing has been done on the Left, which is to say, by thinkers who consider in principle that the human social order in itself is not just in need of adjustment but fundamentally unequal and unjust—a conjunction so familiar that we scarcely realize that it was inconceivable before the French Revolution.
The Enlightenment’s revolutionary critique of religion was in fact a critique of the human itself, although the critics did not realize this at the time. Religion had always understood the importance of evil, and by this understanding, isolated it as sin from our sacred essence, even if, as in the days of the Flood, and later of Sodom and Gomorrah, only a few humans successfully embodied this essence.
We were all once considered, in Milton’s words, Sufficient to have stood, but free to fall. The Left may most simply be defined by the rejection of this formula—for although its roots lie in the English Revolution, the term “Left” itself, and the full sense of what it represents, only emerged in the French. The irony that attributes all virtue to the sinister side of the assembly hall is no mere jeu de mots.
So long as philosophers considered, as many still do, “ideas” independently of language, understood merely as a transparent medium that records them—a truly absurd conception, if looked at critically, yet one that until now has never been radically challenged—they in effect treat language as a gift of God. Or to put this in secular terms, their attitude toward language is founded on an uncritical faith in transcendence, hence in the sacred, although they never think about this, since it is simply taken for granted. Only through anthropological reflection does it become apparent that “taking language for granted” is in fact an enormous act of faith—an anthropomorphic God not being, as is often naively imagined in the West, a requisite of the primary religious faith in the transcendent guarantee of the unity of our collective mental space without which language would be inconceivable.
Once the philosophers began to question this faith, their reflection on language was indistinguishable from a critique of Western society, understood as the model of society in general. Deconstruction was conceived as a revolutionary activity, intended to undermine the linguistic Potemkin village constructed by the millennia of metaphysicians, who had served their rulers by proclaiming to the masses the myth of presence, retailing the disinformation of écriture as though it were a revelatory, immediate reality.
If we look beyond its politics, which like all human passions can be a source of revelation, we can see something in this critique of metaphysics that transcends its “socialism”: an intuition of communal unity that precedes all hierarchical division. Yet in the deconstructive universe, this negative Eden is not nostalgia for the paradise lost with the big-man’s usurpation of the center of the communal scene, but the purely conceptual negation of a hierarchy always already inherent in language itself.
This is the sense of Derrida’s denunciation of the falsely symmetrical dichotomies of white-black, male-female—or for that matter, Right-Left. The notion that “presence” is a myth, that language is toujours déjà écriture, is perversely made to demonstrate the contrary of what it in fact reveals. Presence is deferral; something is only present to us because it appears on a scene, separated by a néant. And its recuperation by divine authority, before it can become a model for earthly usurpation, is mediated by the transcendence without which representation, as the foundation of culture, and thereby of the human itself, is inconceivable.
Given how simple the originary hypothesis is, it is striking how its very simplicity makes it unintelligible to those in the academy who study the question. This is partly out of professional pride, but above all because the fox-like busyness of academic specialization makes the hedgehog appear a mere amateur, focusing on his little model when there is a world of data to be processed. Unfortunately, without an originary model of the scene of language and culture, the more data one collects, the less one is capable of understanding how radical a change language brought about. In the days when religion was taken seriously, this difference was felt by many as too vast to be explicable by science. Today, this problem has been eliminated simply by considering the difference not vast at all: to quote Daniel Everett’s How Language Began, “Language is not that difficult” (see Chronicle 567).
What indeed explains why the phenomenologists’ notion of intention, which can be traced back to Kant, is never explained in terms of language? Intentionality is recognized as a trait of specifically human self-consciousness, and if there is one obvious difference between our consciousness and all others, it is that it is full of language. But just as astronomers are obsessed (on zero evidence) with finding life on other planets, philosophers and psychologists want to find language everywhere. Human language is no more than a fancy variant of what began with DNA, or with crystals, or atoms—the propagation of patterns.
Is it not obvious that, when Sartre speaks of the néant that separates the pour-soi from the object of its thought or perception, it is our possession of language that permits us to “insert” the sign between our perceptual apparatus and the object, putting it on scene as an object of thought, reflection, and potential communication? Even for Robinson Crusoe on his island, it is only through conversion into signs that his perceptions and feelings are potentially connected to the entire human community.
At the very least, one might expect that this simple idea might have been at some point entertained, if only to be rejected; but it is not. For the distinguished philosopher of whom I spoke above, who has spent his entire career reflecting on the nuances of human self-consciousness, the idea that this consciousness is inseparable from language, by which it is potentially connected to the consciousnesses of other humans, is certainly not denied. But it is taken for granted, bracketed, as though the real secrets of human self-consciousness lay deeper than the words in which we express them. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a formulation of self-consciousness independent of any reference to human interaction. What is more intimate, more secret, than the pour-soi?
GA is an unquestionably “Western” operation; a product of the Hebrew-Greek culture of the declarative sentence—and on the sociological side, of alphabetic writing. It is no coincidence that these two peoples, although they didn’t invent the alphabet, were the first to take advantage of its “digital” portability and communicability for cultural and not merely commercial and ritual purposes. This is in contrast with the incredibly complex aristocratic Chinese writing system, or even with the Babylonic cuneiform in which the Pinafore’s Major General could write a washing bill. Not coincidentally, Western culture, the high point of which is the Crucifixion (please forgive the double entendre), is indelibly focused on the scenic center in its tension with the periphery, with the importance that gives to sacrificial resentment, including the race-gender resentments of today’s victimary Left—not to speak of the righteous resentment that burns in the heart of Islam, in this sense the most “Western” of religions.
But the reflections begun with the 2016 Nagoya GASC concerning a Buddhist or “Eastern” understanding of the scene were not a throwaway compliment to our Japanese hosts. The West created modernity, no doubt, but that does not prevent this modernity from interacting with approaches to the scene by cultures that, despite their extraordinary creativity and refinement, could never have created it. Indeed, in comparison with the West, one could say that Asiatic culture has reflected more deeply on the scene of human interaction (whence our desire to acquire its wisdom through “mindfulness” classes and the like), while the most powerful thinkers of the West have fled its dangers by converting it into a laboratory for exploring the natural world.
To envision the potentially empty scene of representation itself as the ultimate focus of human endeavors is neither more nor less faithful to the originary hypothesis than the exaltation of the sacred central figure as the bringer of peace. Nor does this dichotomy imply—on the contrary—that no fruitful synthesis is possible. I am sure that historians on both sides of the Urals can find plenty of incipient examples of such syntheses, even among individuals and movements that evolved in complete ignorance of the existence of the contrasting culture.
But even a model of the scene in which the essential role of language, once it has served its originary purpose of bringing the community together in peace, is to negate itself in the contemplation of the empty scene itself, can yet be understood only on the basis of an originary hypothesis of the origin of language.
My hope is to live long enough to witness the day when our “intellectual world” finally musters the grace to admit this self-evidence.