One is easily tempted to invert the ubiquitous rhetoric of “silenced” or “subaltern” voices into a litany of lamentations about the fate of “white males” and majority culture. But neither of these self-annihilating claims gets to the heart of the question of authority in contemporary discourse.
If these words are coming to you via the Internet rather than a mass-circulation periodical or a television talk show, the reason is neither that their author belongs to an oppressed minority nor that he does not. It is that the universalizing discourse of the “eternal amateur” (see Chronicle 122) lacks the essential sign of authority in the contemporary world, that of expertise. No doubt it is easier to be credited with expertise in some areas if one can claim a certain gender, ethnicity, or class affiliation. But these special domains are less significant than the publicity they receive makes us imagine. Day in, day out, we live by the discourses of “specialists” in “fields” of knowledge.
Just as we rely on brand name to assure quality and certification to assure professional competence, we rely on specialization for discursive authority. And just as we wouldn’t let our eyes be operated on by a heart surgeon, we are not likely to pay attention to the ideas of a scholar trained in one field when they touch upon another. In our complex world, it is surely better as a general rule to rely on the specialist than the person on the street. Yet there is more here than meets the eye. The rational explanation of the advantages of expertise coexists with a more profound ethical explanation: for each to be an expert in his own field diminishes the risk of mimetic conflict. The democratic ideal is not so much equality of means as equality of discursive authority–equality in the exchange of signs. No doubt some bear more responsibility than others and some reap greater rewards, but even the humblest is entitled to a domain of competence in which he reigns supreme. “Socially-conscious” films of the thirties/forties often showed an executive/officer asking a worker/soldier for advice about a technical detail crucial to the enterprise at hand, the point being to demonstrate that every person is a specialist, not a mere cog in the wheel.
In pre-modern society, when sacred ritual was the chief mechanism for maintaining peace, religion was the guardian of our central anthropological intuitions. In the early bourgeois era, secular culture, the subject-matter of the Humanities, came to challenge religion in this role. Today, although we need mourn neither the “death of God” nor the “death of Art,” the primacy of these institutions is no more. It is not so much that the source of anthropological intuition has moved elsewhere as that a priori anthropological truth has lost its cultural preeminence. As a result of progress in the circulation of ideas, goods, and, most characteristically, of goods that express ideas, we perceive the human universe as continually regenerating itself rather than as realizing a “plan,” divine or human, that was or could have been set out in advance.
The university incarnates the democratic ideal in the realm of knowledge. Each professor is an oligarch willing to negotiate with outsiders only on the neutral terrain of interdisciplinary committees. But once the division of expertise has been implemented in the field of knowledge, how is general thinking about the human possible?
In the democracy of academic specialization, there is no privileged road to anthropological truth. All fields of knowledge are presumed equally important both to the general public and the student population. Whence the nearly universal disappearance of the undergraduate “core” program. No one any longer has a firm idea of what the young-person-in-general should be expected to know. Each department and subfield clamors for a larger share of the curriculum–and from what Olympian perspective can it be dissuaded? Just as the budgets passed by state or federal legislatures reflect the give and take of democratic market society, the undergraduate curriculum in a democratic university can only be a product of intellectual-political compromise. We should accept this with good grace rather than lamenting the passing of the good old “liberal arts” curriculum.
Liberal arts education has declined because it is increasingly difficult to defend the universal human truths the Humanities preserve from the verifiable ones assembled by the social sciences. The quasi-sacred authority of the humanist based on textual knowledge and the je ne sais quoi of cultural intuition or taste gives way to the data-based authority of the social scientist whose conclusions are “falsifiable.” Cultural studies replaces cultural study not because we no longer respect the great texts but because it is no longer possible to grant them the equivalent of a class distinction from other texts. The assault of social scientists on the Humanities generates works such as Pierre Bourdieu’s 1992 Les règles de l’art with its “sociological” analysis of Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale that rivals traditional literary analysis in detail, if unfortunately not in textual or narrative sensitivity. Bourdieu’s analysis singles out Flaubert not as a “better writer” than his contemporaries but as a better social scientist.
Although the future financing of the Humanities may be reduced and/or focused on less traditional objects, neither the cultural masterpieces of the past nor the artistic traditions within which they have been understood risk being forgotten. Of more urgent concern to this writer, in a sense inseparably “subjective” and “objective,” is the fate of Generative Anthropology. Where the intuition-based Humanities tradition has tolerated in the name of “theory” a good deal of speculation on fundamental anthropological questions, the social sciences demand hypotheses supported by hard data. From the standpoint of originary thinking, cultural phenomena such as art and religion cannot be explained by means of correlation matrices of empirically established “factors”; their esthetic or spiritual “necessity” or “rightness” can only be understood as derived from their crucial originary function of deferring mimetic violence. But this distinction requires an ontological argument of the sort that social scientists are notoriously uninterested in following.
We are all familiar with the critique of the “hegemonic discourses” of past eras that prevented the other members of society from being heard. But the suppressed discourses we recover under such circumstances are by the very nature of “subaltern” situations incapable of presenting a challenge to the established ones; they reveal lost potential, but not genuine alternatives. Although, for example, we are more sensitive to women’s contributions to the genesis of the modern novel than in the past, and more likely to read second-level women novelists like Mme Riccoboni or Fanny Burney, the preeminence of the “crossover” novelists Mme de Lafayette and Jane Austen has not been seriously challenged. And if it is unlikely that we will unearth unknown masterpieces in the arts, it is even more so in theoretical and scientific domains.
I think that today things are different. Generative Anthropology is a new but not a “subaltern” way of thinking. Quite the contrary of being restricted by the limited perspective of the disadvantaged, it takes a more universal view than the public discourses of the day. Nor is it a coincidence that GA prefers the minimal Girardian model of “triangular” mimetic desire to the widely accepted Freudian-Lacanian myth of the sexually constituted subject. An anthropology that privileges the unavowable mimetic relation of resentment is bound to be “unpopular,” and that it alone can explain the resentment it arouses, arouses still more resentment. Deferral of resentment is the function of all cultural phenomena, including theories about culture; the foregrounding of mimesis puts the knowledge-function of theory (the self-knowledge that, however distorted, results from the originary operation of the sign) into unavoidable conflict with its peacekeeping function. The paradoxical structures of mimesis must be evacuated from the discourse of authority, either by reducing them social-scientifically to evolutionarily derived “behaviors” or by humanistically reducing them to the mythic context of individual psychology.
GA maintains a bastion outside of the authority of specialization within which the mimetic foundations of the human can be elaborated. It cannot define itself as a “field” without cutting itself off from humanity’s ultimate ethical enterprise of self-understanding. That the voice of originary thinking is not the voice of authority gives it a critical advantage in the search for anthropological truth. In the human domain, unlike the natural, theories affect the objects of their theorizing. A theory can avoid this only if the dialogue it generates maintains a low enough profile not to influence events. Neither to be silenced altogether nor to occupy a visible place in the public conversation of the age is to realize the dream of the observer whose observations do not affect his human object of study.
The attempt to construct the human in general–to provide an ethical and intellectual basis for what are otherwise the merely diplomatic trade-offs of “multiculturalism”–must take place outside the bounds of specialties. Yet because it would be a strategic error to abandon the community of knowledge altogether for that of prophecy, we must adapt to exploring the margins of our departmentalized world. The pleasures of such an amateur’s existence are the reward for our interest in originary thinking.