In my latest essay for Anthropoetics, I argued for a language or semiotic based notion of ethics, piecing together the concepts of joint attention, language learning, disciplinarity, and what I called “upclining,” or the retrieval of the signs of more originary events through the signs of the present. All of that is fine, but it now strikes me that an even simpler, more fundamental way of grounding all those concepts, and of proposing an originary ethics, is right at hand. What is ethical, and all that really matters, is remembering the originary scene. This may seem hard to understand, and even impossible: the originary scene is a theoretical construct, derived from a synthesis and transformation of recent thinkers (Girard and Derrida in particular), and while we GA-niks take it to be true, we do so because we believe it provides the most compelling theoretical and analytical account of culture, religion, society and anthropological phenomena more generally, and not because we experience any bond to an actual originary scene (the way in which Christians may experience a identification with Jesus, or Jews with the revelation on Mt Sinai). The originary scene is not peopled for us in that way.
But how could we understand a sign without remembering other scenes upon which we understood signs, or use a sign without commemorating all those other scenes. And any sign bears with it the traces of the scenes upon which it was performed before it found its way to us—a proper care for the sign is a tribute to those earlier scenes, and through them the scenes before those. A sign well used is a sign that defers violence, even violence several or many degrees removed from the scene upon which the sign is used—using a sign to defer the first stirrings of resentment so as to potentially marginally replenish the social store of civility is iterating the sign’s use on the originary scene. But what kind of sign use will do that? We’re not talking about being nicer to people. Sometimes the proper care of the sign involves confrontation, sometime bluntness, sometimes subtlety, sometimes a strong line of BS—the only way we can know is by drawing upon our intuitions as sign users, and since our intuitions as sign users ultimately derive from the originary scene, sharpening, honing and sensitizing those intuitions take us back through the past, following the trail of auto-probatory signs to the first one.
It follows that any future-oriented ethics will be shallow, self-serving, and even fraudulent—none of us knows the slightest thing about the future, or of the way any of our actions will play out in the vast networks of activity comprising our world so doing something “to make things better” requires an unethical degree of arrogance. Similarly, acting according to some “principle” (even “freedom”) is an attempt to evade attunement with originary intuitions, to stop listening to the imperatives that would have us turn our head back to the ostensive from whence they originate. In both cases, we are dealing with escapism and fantasy. Originary memory is taking care of language—by which I don’t mean trying to maintain it as a transparent vehicle of communication, or ensuring that words be used in their proper meaning; what I mean is that everything anyone says makes it possible to say something else that couldn’t have been said otherwise, and that in articulating one of those things that couldn’t have been said otherwise one remembers by carrying forward the very first utterance that made everything said since then possible. It is by thus heading back into the past, enriching the originary scene with everything that has happened since and therefore, in a sense, happened there, is still happening there, that we open up possible futures.