GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 22, 2014

Originary Memory

Filed under: GA — adam @ 9:41 pm

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.


  1. A sign is the expression/representation of an abstract idea. A principle is simply the more/most important of our abstract ideas. An appeal to an originary sign is an appeal to an originary principle.

    That the originary sign(s) always deffer violence is of course a guess. Many of our more-originary signs do not defer violence but enhance human creative survivability. E.G. PIE *kwel-(1)the abstract idea which leads to the wheel.


    There, I gott the requisite contrariness out of the way, and I now say that this idea of an originary memory really hits home with me. You may not like the association but it is closely related to Jung’s archetypes. I know that etymology doesn’t even begin to get us back to the originary scene – But it does get us closer. I understand what you say in this piece is that GA is the system that seeks to map the wheel-ruts of language/humanness back to their origin. It is the same goal of etymology.

    What really struck me is my intuitive/emotive sense that I often mentally associate certain ideas with certain physical geographic places. There is no seeming reason for this. The places are not where I was when I first learned of the idea. The only thing that is really clear to me is that I intuitively/subconsciously associate abstract ideas with “scenic” categories. Do others ever get this feeling? I know most religions (as you say), and spiritual disciplines (e.g. astrology) assign importance to geographical place.

    Comment by tommy704 — February 23, 2014 @ 10:54 am

  2. I don’t mind the association with Jung, who wanted to be an originary thinker, and certainly not with etymology, which is an originary inquiry, as far as it goes. Contemporary cognitive grammar tries to do something similar.

    All signs are grounded in events, and they never completely lose their “eventness,” even after they get repeated so many times and in so many contexts that they seem to have shed all those associations. Originary memory would certainly involve trying to “listen” to echoes of earlier scenes in words and grammatical constructions. But the memory, I think, comes more in the need to do this than in the discoveries actually made.

    Comment by adam — February 27, 2014 @ 9:01 pm

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