Two weeks ago, in Chronicle 111, I developed the idea of GA as an individual creation attributed to “Bronx Romanticism.” Since the chances are that the reader is not from the Bronx, I thought it might be useful to give this term a more universal sense.
One consequence of living in the postmodern era is that it is no longer possible to dismiss ethical attitudes as simply out of date. This does not mean that we live in an era in which “anything is possible.” It means simply that we must justify our actions by their ethical content and not by their apparent conformity with the direction of history. This applies, for example, to religious practices, the very focal point of Nietzsche’s dictum that “God is dead.” On the contrary, these practices are flourishing widely enough a century later to put in doubt the dogma, in force in the intellectual community since the Renaissance, that modernity goes hand in hand with “secularization.” Similarly, postmodernity suggests we should doubt the demise of a more secular but supposedly equally obsolete notion: that of the unique individual Self and its destiny.
The “Bronx” I refer to as the homeland of my romanticism is less a place than a state of mind, specifically that of the post-Depression generation expected to find success in prosperous postwar America not just for themselves but for their parents. The Bronx High School of Science (BHSS), when I attended it from 1954 to 1957, was composed in large majority of such persons, mostly male, and overwhelmingly Jewish. Very few of these people still live in the Bronx. The Bronx is a place of transition, and in the case of this particular generation, of transition deferred and thereby intensified.
Yet not all the inhabitants of this particular Bronx could be called Romantics. The typical BHSS graduate became a doctor or engineer and made a good living, without suffering too much angst as to his or her uniqueness. American society is the 1960s, even more than today, was la carrière ouverte aux talents [careers open to persons of talent]: there was a shortage of MD’s and PhD’s, and there’s always a shortage of people with 150 IQs. But given that the intense pressure to succeed generated by the failed parental dreams of the Depression was comparable to that faced by the post-Revolutionary bourgeois youth depicted in Balzac’s novels, it was not surprising that at least some of us would be more attracted to the structure of transcendence itself than to any possible worldly incarnation of it. To define oneself as unique in a mimetic world is Girard’s mensonge romantique [romantic lie], but to seek this uniqueness is not a lie but a paradox, one I think Girard himself has lived as well as I.
The search to be recognized by others as unique might seem to be the ultimate in self-centeredness but, seen in a different perspective, it is the essential postmodern ethical act. In an arguably “posthistorical” world defined by its suffering less from the “positive-sum” and therefore solvable problems of poverty, hunger, and pollution than from the apparently zero-sum game of mutual recognition, the individual’s search for unique self-definition can be rewarded only insofar as it benefits the self-definition of others.
I touched on this point in my recent reflections on celebrity: the celebrity is “loved” not because we really identify with him/her, but because our “acquaintance” with the celebrity, however distantly mediated, serves as a weapon against the others within our own milieu. But this formulation is cynical because our relationship to celebrity is cynical. A celebrity, after all, is someone whose recognition is mediated through the mass media, that is, through a channel in which information flows only one way. (Which is not to say that the mass communication-system as a whole receives no feedback from its consumers. On the contrary, as Gianni Vattimo points out in The Transparent Society [Johns Hopkins, 1992/1989], providing this feedback is the very raison-d’être of the social sciences.) The requirements of the public stage are not those of self-definition in the common sense of the term, but of self-display, even self-mutilation. The public personality is not a “self” precisely to the extent that the costumes worn by stage performers differ from those suitable for everyday life.
Self-definition in the sense in which a Bronx Romantic uses the term is not the establishment of a stage persona, but the creation of a message of uncontestable originality. At the same time, the viability of this message is paradoxically dependent on its capacity for contributing to the enrichment of the messages of others. There is a simple analogy to this in the market system. In the absence of monopoly, I will sell my goods only to the extent that others find buying from me beneficial. If the goods in question are themselves means of producing messages, as all goods potentially are in consumer society, the analogy is better. If the “goods” in question are ideas, the analogy is perfect. Whence my hope of creating a unique idea that at the same time would facilitate the creation of new ideas by others.
This simply stated goal already determines the key feature of GA: its minimalism. Minimalism is not merely an empirical feature of GA in contrast with other systems, in the sense that the mimetic theory of desire is more minimal than the psychoanalytic theory. Ockham’s razor not only determines the evolution of the theory, it is the horizon of the theory itself. Which is to say that, rightly considered, there are no “personal features” of GA by which I as its “creator” could wish to be remembered. GA is a cultural theory / theory of culture that is vanishingly cultural and maximally theoretical–vanishingly creation and maximally discovery. The Bronx Romantic, like all Romantics, wants to be remembered. But because the Bronx contains nothing memorable, he devises a theory that lets him be remembered for having reduced memorability to a minimum.
The use of such a theory is in the adaptability of its explanatory model to all the phenomena of human culture, that is, to all uses of representation. Representation is never simply “expression”: even when one “says what one feels,” one represents oneself as… (Erving Goffman was one of the rare social scientists to appreciate the paradoxicality of this structure; Gregory Bateson, in a very different mode, was another.) Cultural interpretation is the creation of models for what lies behind or rather within the process of representation-as. Today we have put aside the old, naive models of cultural expression, but the new, cynical models, simplistically associated with postmodernity, simply imply that because there is nothing but representation-as, there is nothing to represent. Vattimo, in the book mentioned above, can only reject “patriarchal” monism for “chaotic” pluralism. But what we represent is not our fixed human essence but the focus of our mimetic interaction. We represent the object of our common desire in such a way as to avoid coming into conflict over it. We make it alternately the victim of our violence and the divinity that has deferred this violence. GA fosters respect for the minimal necessity of this deferral that makes human existence possible.
My UCLA colleague Sara Melzer ended her recent post to the GAlist by remarking that the Internet was the appropriate locus for the Bronx Romantic’s appropriation of French literature to American placelessness. I think a generalization of this idea offers both a useful model of GA as well as an insight into the current GA presence on the WWW.
Think of the postmodern self as a WWW site, an extension of the near-ubiquitous personal home page. Your site contains links to other sites; you choose which sites to link to, but not the sites that link to you.
In this model of human self-representation, the “recognition” reflected in created links is always granted in function of one’s own self-image. Each person constructs his own page, and links do not signify adoration of another image, but auxiliary means of enhancing one’s own. No one wants his page to be nothing but a conduit to another page. Your user is not supposed to remain on the linked page, but to return to the page on which the link was found. If he doesn’t hit the Back key, then your page must be redone.
Hence the more I might strive for substantive “celebrity” by loading my site with striking images, the less likely your user is to hit the Back key to return from my site to yours, and therefore the less useful it would be for you to link to my site in the first place. In order to obtain maximal recognition, I must provide a service that enhances the interest of your site while minimizing its chances of becoming your obtrusive rival. The most effective service, according to these criteria, is GA.
Minimization is close to Doug Collins’ concept of “prehumiliation,” which I have often found useful. But the difference is that whereas prehumiliation reenacts (or “pre-enacts“) the primordial passage from victim to divinity, minimization reduces the divinity/victim differential to a minimum. GA is not so much prehumiliated as preshrunk. The Bronx Romantic seeks recognition for providing the least obtrusive mediation between the personal imageries of others.
Such imagery no doubt includes, on another level, his own; but this is expressed on another level of the Bronx Romantic personality and in another form, that of lyric poetry. And that is another story…
To be continued…