I was recently asked to read a set of applications for a local postdoctoral fellowship on the theme “Sacred and Profane.” There were fifty-nine applicants in the modern period, recent and incipient PhDs in history, philosophy, literary and cultural studies, anthropology, and a smattering of other fields. These young people, most of whom come highly recommended from elite institutions, are a good sample of the academic leaders of the next generation. The assigned subject struck me as particularly welcome, given the characteristic neglect of the sacred dimension in the university–as the meager funding for the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion bears out. The congeniality of this subject to Generative Anthropology was surely the reason I was asked to read these applications in the first place.
The sobering fact is that not a single one of the fifty-nine made any use of the constitutive ideas of GA. Not one referred in his project description to René Girard’s work on the sacred (it was mentioned once in a bibliography), although the usual names of “French theory,” from Bataille to Foucault and Derrida, were much in evidence. Nor were generative ideas presented under other rubrics. Scarcely anyone referred to Durkheim, and no one mentioned Frazer, Robertson Smith, Freud’s Totem and Taboo… The focus on the originary that informs every sacred rite and text was roundly ignored.
When I pointed this out to the colleague in charge of administering these fellowships, he remarked that although Girard aroused some interest twenty years ago, no one any longer teaches this material–my own efforts being a negligible exception. Like deans, directors of academic Centers evaluate ideas the way stockbrokers evaluate companies, and mimetic theory was not showing a profit. Yet when I offered the explanation that its “weakness” was that, unlike feminism, post-colonial studies, or cultural studies generally, it did not express the resentment of a well-defined clientele, this explanation, obvious to any student of GA, caught him unawares. It is precisely because GA can explain the success of these other theories better than the theories themselves that it is unpopular. The mimetic theory of desire and the anthropology that has sprung from it are too powerful for their own good. Those who employ the rhetoric of justice cannot admit the resentment without which they would never have thought of justice.
It is disheartening for a man of my relatively advanced age to discover after years of attempting to promote a great and widely ignored idea that this idea is already considered a thing of the past. We can accept that our modes of thought must be superseded by better ones; we would have it no other way. But the conceptions of GA are more powerful than the tired and underpowered ideas that hold the field. At best, thinkers like Bataille express awareness of the problematic relationship between violence and the sacred; they never articulate this relationship into a model. Or if Bataille is really better on the sacred than Girard, one would think it would be worth demonstrating. Our fellowship applicants find it more useful to our understanding of “sacred and profane” to confront Bataille with figures like Maurice Blanchot or Pierre Klossowski (author of Roberte ce soir) than with Girard; such are the privileges of “theory.”
Standardization is indispensable for a large, complex enterprise, and the very connectivity that allows marginal activities like Anthropoetics and these Chronicles to survive on the Internet intensifies the contacts among academics and the attendant rigidity of their lingua franca. Just as programmers complain about the bugs in Windows 95, I complain about the bugs in the academy’s intellectual software. When persons who formerly saw each other at conventions twice a year attend conferences together twice a month, trying to revamp the language of intellectual communication becomes as impractical as rewriting Microsoft Word. The increasing dominance of the profession by the cruder forms of victimary thinking is a reflection less of the politics of its members than of the principle formulated decades ago by the legendary Mancur Olson: small determined groups organize, large diffuse groups do not. The trump card of the victimary is our fear of blackmail by those whose victimization we might be accused of perpetuating, and the most fearsome are those most willing to perturb the system to make themselves heard. The more squeaky the resentment, the more oil we pour on it. It would be indecent to point out that today’s academy rewards the champions of the world’s resentments far better than the representatives of their purported oppressors; it would be as though one were to complain of the disproportion between Jews and Nazis in chairs of Holocaust Studies.
But after all the ironies have been savored, the fact remains that the ideas that this column exists to perpetuate are failing to reach the current generation of young scholars, and that whether one call these ideas Mimetic Theory, Fundamental Anthropology, Generative Anthropology, Girard, Gans, or whatever, they are not being practiced by sufficiently numerous and well-placed people to ensure their survival into the next generation. I hope by raising the issue to raise our own level of resentment so that we may become more active on behalf of our intellectual cause than in the past.
While I am in so frank a mood, I will point out a key, perhaps predictable, weakness of our intellectual ambit: its lack of communal cohesion. That we know better than anyone that mimetic rivalry is a reality of life does not foreclose the possibility of intellectual solidarity. Nor does a propensity to becoming interested in the theory of this rivalry connote in some obvious way a rivalrous personality incapable of recognizing the merits of others. Yet it is rare that former students of Girard even bother to cite each other’s work, let alone attempt to build on it. A comparison in terms either of academic success or of mutual assistance between the students of Girard and those of Paul de Man would be embarrassing. Not only are Girard’s students reluctant to cite each other, they are not even likely to refer more than obliquely to their mentor, even when their work relies on and develops his ideas. I would like to see this situation change, in my own intellectual interest and in that of all of us. We should abandon the distorting tendency–in a world whose watchword is the denunciation of “the Subject”–to equate ideas with persons (“I use Foucault and a little Lacan”). Once we resolve to think in terms of ideas, we are then more ready to give credit to their creators, whatever their current market value.
The failure of socialism has made Humanities departments the last refuge of the revolutionary intellectual whose function is to articulate the resentment of the oppressed. As the political expression of this resentment has been discredited, its cultural expression becomes the sole guarantee of the theories that exalt it. I do not deride this resentment; it is as justified as any other. Perhaps it can only be integrated into the modern (that is, Western) system of thought by the kind of mediations practiced by our victimary colleagues, who are amply rewarded for their services. But however valuable these services, they are not consonant with the spirit of institutions designed to provide knowledge of the human whose value is independent of the individual or group that articulates it.
This is no doubt an unpropitious time to expect from the institutions and organizations of the Humanities openness to new ideas that conflict with their dominant political mindset. But this does not mean that individuals cannot be found within these institutions and organizations who are open to new and challenging ideas. A recent experience, as encouraging as the fellowship applications were depressing, was a recent visit, on Wolfgang Iser’s kind invitation, to his graduate seminar on cultural theories at the University of California, Irvine. The seminar had already read and discussed some of Girard’s and my books along with those of other theorists such as Geertz and Leroi-Gourhan. The dialogue went on for nearly three hours; rarely have I had so challenging and responsive an audience. Such an occasion gives proof that, given a chance to compete on an equal basis with other modes of thought, originary thinking can make a powerful impression on the minds of the next academic generation.
Victimary ideas are the university equivalent of bilingual education; they serve above all the interests of their academic sponsors. The “dominated” both inside and outside the developed world will profit far more from acquiring and adapting to their needs the techniques of economic and political rationality than from learning new means to denounce the social order that created and, however imperfectly, practices these techniques. The best way to promote genuine equality among the peoples of the world is not to indulge and excuse unproductive expressions of resentment, but to work toward integration into the world exchange system on the level of ideas as well as of goods and services. As developments in less ideologically charged areas like popular music make clear, the result is not deadening “McDonaldization” but enriching cultural interaction. The Western-originated exchange system is not the adversary but the only competent agent of this interaction. Whatever its problems, they can only be resolved from within; the alternative is resentful isolation a la North Korea.
Perhaps sooner than we think, we may expect a return to generative thinking, which American anthropology abandoned two generations ago for the relativistic Boasian culturalism that is the direct intellectual ancestor of the multi-culti of today. GA’s usefulness in facilitating intercultural dialogue will be recognized when the interested parties come to understand that to affirm the moral superiority of less over more successful individuals and societies is to offer them the same consolation that masters have traditionally provided their slaves.