As I begin the fourth year of these Chronicles, I am more convinced than ever that the ethical models or “anthropologies” that we create are framed as solutions to our personal situations in the world, but not in a simple manner. For the formulation of these models is a means of resolving the problems they purport to solve, not directly, but through the intermediary of one’s success in promulgating one’s solution to others. Yet a trace of the originary problematic remains, not because we can think back to the moment when we faced “the world” bereft of imaginary recourse to authorial fame and fortune, but because this very possibility depends on freedoms already present in the original milieu. It is not naive to seek the originary in the present once one understands that the nature of human temporality defines each situation by the possiblities it allows for fleeing it.
In describing these situations, we need something like the Marxist notion of class, which our era has enlarged to include gender, ethnicity, race, and the other “ascriptive” qualities of physique, age, handedness…. Yet the narrow understanding of theory as class ideology is a perfect example of what this understanding purposrts to denounce; it might be dismissed as sophomoric pseudo-sophistication were it not so effective in serving the self-interest of those who proclaim it. By denouncing “bourgeois universality” as the ideological instrument through which the bourgeoisie dissimulates its power, one dissimulates one’s own far cruder acquisition of power on the basis of strident particularism. If indeed “all is political,” then all that should matter is the degree to which the nakedness of political power is deferred. It is one thing to attempt to justify one’s values as universal, and another to simply justify those values as one’s own. In this regard, victimary thinking lacks–deliberately forgoes–the crucial nuance that separates sacrificial from post-sacrificial thought. As our century of victimary resentment comes to a close, perhaps we can appreciate a little better the bourgeois virtues.
The late Lucien Goldmann, one of the few recent Marxist thinkers worthy of the name, is remembered today chiefly for his thèse d’état on Racine and Pascal, Le dieu caché [The Hidden God] (Gallimard, 1959), where he develops an esthetic based on the coherence given by “great artists” to the praxis of their social class. What Goldmann would later call “genetic/generative structuralism” (le structuralisme génétique) found many revelatory connections between the Jansenist movement (and the two great writers associated with it) on the one hand and the situation of the 17th-century noblesse de robe on the other. It was less successful at making specific correlations between class praxis and broader categories of esthetic form such as the modern novel, no doubt because its Marxist underpinnings focused it too narrowly on the public sphere of production. I am reminded of this limitation, yet also of the spirit of Goldmann’s own project, in directing Karen Andersen’s doctoral dissertation, which persuasively seeks the origin of the modern “analytic” novel (roman d’analyse) in a specifically feminine experience, that is, in the category of human activity that most fundamentally resists the public sphere of economic production. Such research is fundamental to our understanding of the human, which exists only in the mediating space between the particular and the universal.
I say this as a prologue to a series of reflections by means of which I would like to clarify in what sense Generative Anthropology is the expression of my own personal history. I have no taste for personal confessions, but in light of recent experience, I think it is important to define as clearly as possible the aspects of my own background that led me to transmute René Girard‘s mimetic anthropology into something as curious as GA. It has become more urgent for me to determine–for myself, but also for those whom my thinking might influence–whether GA reflects what Goldmann would have called the praxis of a well-defined social group or merely a bizarre individual’s yearnings for fame. The binary division is, of course, made to be deconstructed. The praxis of a group is realized in the activities of a diverse set of individuals whose diversity is increasingly thematized as essential to the welfare of the group. Thus at a certain point the “group” may come to be understood as a set of individuals who define themselves by their non-membership in the group. Such is the perverse situation into which I was born.
The modernist is always (already) in the process of renouncing his privileges and recapitalizing this renunciation as “culture.” As a member of what used to be called the “white collar” class, I have never felt that I possessed sufficient privilege to be able to capitalize its renouncement. My hostility to modernism is that of a latecomer to the “universal” high classical culture that absorbed and survived the Romantic revolt, but on whose decadence the modernists avidly fed. Modernism is the extreme form of the esthetic aristocracy’s war against the “middle class” as representative of the market system.
It would be easy enough to create a portrait of this intermediate stratum in my own image. It is profoundly “meritocratic” because resentful of the essential (as opposed to existential) merit that is the hallmark of aristocracy. If today it has neoconservative tendencies, this reflects its lack of sympathy for group victimary privilege. But this vision fails to reflect my own divergence from the liberalism of this class, which is to say, its own modestly modernist tendency. Most of the members of my class–even defined in the most literal sense as the Bronx High School of Science class of 1957–have become true liberals, not merely beneficiaries of liberalism. Accession to higher cultural and financial standing has generated in my classmates a mildly guilty sense of privilege–one that, despite modest worldly success, I have never shared.
My particular place in and relationship to the lower middle class reflects that of my parents. My father finished college and law school and even passed the bar examination, but never practiced law. In the depths of the depression there were no paying jobs; in order to marry my mother, he clung to the security of the Post Office, where he had worked throughout his college years. So many sacrifices for nought; he remained all his life a postal clerk, incapable of dealing with the extra pressure and inconvenience of even the lowest supervisory position. My father was an educated man, but not a cultured one: the education never really sank in. My mother, an orphaned member of a better-established family, was always attracted to the trappings of culture and “gentility,” yet unwilling to push my father to help her acquire them.
Does this analysis suggest a mimetic relationship between father and son, mediated by the mother’s cultural attitudes? The attempt at “class” analysis seems to dissolve in a mist of socio-psychological detail, which Sartre alone of major thinkers has attempted to sort out by means of his “progressive-regressive” method. But while honoring the reflection that culminated in an immense study on Flaubert (L’idiot de la famille), I would prefer to find in my own (auto)biography not infinite detail but a simple model, a heuristic by means of which to show how the ideas of GA both reflect and universalize the fundamental relationships to the world that I learned from my early milieu.
The idea that we are all bound to particularity to the same degree, that we all universalize our particular experience with the same naive insistence, denies the conditions necessary for its own emergence. One’s adherence to one’s own culture always takes place against a background of cultural attitudes that offer models of both imitation and distancing. The dual nature of mimetic desire as a universal human characteristic makes both attraction and hostility inextricable. As soon as I take on a cultural attitude of belonging, I permit its thematization, by myself or by others, and consequently its “antithetical” denial. The Hegelian dialectic, like all other operations of human culture, is a figure of mimesis.
The “universal,” or better put, the originary position in culture cannot be the privilege of any class. But there are individuals, found in greater concentration in certain social classes than others, whose relation to culture is more abstract and therefore more “minimal” than others’. At the center of the continuum between affirmation and denial lies not equilibrium but a neutrality that reflects the lack of affective bonding. One predisposed to disaffection is more likely than another to become the spokesman for a universalist understanding of the human. To step back from the concreteness of culture is to privilege resentment over love and the power of identification. In contrast with the “humanist” gestures of the privileged toward Man in general that mask their neglect of humanity in particular, the movement of abstraction reflects a merely tentative relationship to one’s social milieu, geographical place, level of achievement.
What most distinguishes GA from other secular ways of thinking is its insistence on starting from an explicit rather than an implicit hypothesis. (Although religious thinking denies its hypothetical nature, the religious “act of faith” in fact poses its own originary hypothesis.) By naming the hypothesis, and consequently naming itself as a “doctrine,” GA offers a target to resentment that in medias res approaches avoid. It eschews the self-serving “smallness” that my colleague Doug Collins has persuasively enthroned as the essence of modernism. To proclaim that “small is beautiful” is to seek and acquire power in the most concentrated of institutions.
What the neomodernists of the postmodern era oppose to the originary hypothesis is not a better hypothesis, but no hypothesis at all. GA’s “democratic” universality, which imposes a minimal constraint on the human, is confronted with the “aristocratic” alternative of ostensibly unconstrained particularity. But the democratic alternative, in its minimality, defines an aristocracy of the spirit, whereas the aristocratic denial of universality performs the democratic function of allowing each participant to retain the myth of his or her inviolate self-substantiality.
Just as the market operates by exchanging values ostensibly independent of it and even hostile to it, most people in democratic society would rather be implicit aristocrats than explicit democrats. The minimal hypothesis, because it is a part of the culture to which it applies, cannot escape the laws of desire even as it defines them. For the first time in history, the “truest,” most universal doctrine is not simply condemned and suppressed, but simply ignored, because it lacks a clientele among the groups that form the liberal-democratic social order. That there is no “class” for which GA is the ideology is all too clear; this is what confines it to the marginal position that the apostles of “smallness” claim to covet but ever flee in practice. Its truth-claim remains confident, however, if only because it is the one way of thinking that dares to affirm, without falling into the Nietzschean abyss, the necessity of ressentiment. I have borrowed many terms from Derrida, but not this one. Yet supplement, margin, remainder, hymen, frame, différance itself are merely its figures.
Much more needs to be said on this topic. This Chronicle only makes a few gestures toward the social matrix from which GA emerged, the milieu where every content of desire is a failed mask for mimetic form that, to quote a book title by my Bronx Science classmate Marshall Berman, “melts into air.”