In Double Business Bound, René Girard gives a mimetic analysis of Act II, scene 3 of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, where the philosophy master intervenes in an argument between the dancing master and the fencing master as to the relative excellence of their respective arts. Instead of providing the expected pacifying mediation, the philosopher turns a pecking-order quarrel into a Hobbesian war of all against all by affirming the superiority of his own specialty over the other two.
It is easier to be amused by this example than to apply it to one’s own case. The multicultural relativism of the postmodern era, with all its self-serving silliness, reflects a situation where the universalist “philosopher” has lost the authority that had set him, in principle at least, above the specialist disputants. Ethical authority derives from the originary human event both in the form of unanimous arbitrary choice–that of the sacred central object/victim–and of free reciprocal exchange–that of the originary sign among the event’s participants. The history of human governance may be described as a movement from the first pole of this originary model to the second. But the closer we come, the more difficult it becomes to decide on the universal ground rules that the system of free exchange must obey.
The traditional sacred rulership that descends from the arbitrary unanimity of the originary scene has waned in modern society with the growth of the pragmatic authority derived from reciprocal exchange. By founding this authority on the reasoned consent, explicit or not, of the members of the group, Hobbes and other early modern political theorists in effect reduced the sacred center to a function of the group itself. This process appears to have achieved stability in the political sphere. Today, strange as it might have seemed less than a generation ago, there are no more major arguments about the best way of organizing the government of advanced societies. What remains in greater flux is the intellectual authority that guarantees the value of discourse. Although there are official licensing procedures for professional–medical, legal, professorial–discourses, what concerns me here are rather those domains left to the discretion of the user.
The authority of free-market discourse comes grosso modo in two varieties: (1) specialized expertise for the domain of production and (2) gnostic wisdom for that of consumption.
- Specialized expertise is the democratic means of avoiding mimetic conflict. Each individual has his own domain of supremacy; each level of generality, rather than a step up a hierarchical ladder, is just one more local domain of specialization. One appeals not vertically to higher authority, but horizontally to specialized technique. Today, a philosopher would have no mandate to resolve a dispute between a dancer and a fencer; the appropriate mediator would be not a fount of general wisdom but an expert in problem-resolution, perhaps an “ethicist” specialized in recreational activities. The absence of a higher authority to whom to appeal insures that there will be not be a “higher,” more general and potentially threatening conflict to resolve. The expert is not charged with preventing, or by his failure contributing to, Hobbesian chaos; his very presence guarantees that even the conflict most universal in appearance will have only local significance.
- Gnostic wisdom is dispensed by gurus, not experts. Thus it is not part of the expertise structure of practical discourse, although it may so disguise itself–e.g., as “therapy”–in order to attract new adherents. Because it is revelatory rather than empirical, it gives short shrift to epistemology; its point is to console rather than to inform. To consume gnostic certitude is not to contravene the fragmented local expertise that runs the productive system; although each certitude concerns the entire universe, the number of certitudes is just as unlimited in principle as the number of local domains of expertise. The same market system that links the local experts in its productive capacity tolerates the separation of beliefs in its consumptive capacity.
Both expertise and wisdom are forms of strong authority. The expert must be strongly believed because he has wagered his professional career on knowing more about the matter than anyone else. The Gnostic guru too must be strongly believed; like the expert, his wisdom must not be tested but simply accepted. Although both forms of authority participate in the decentralization characteristic of the modern market system, they retain a centralized structure within their own local domain. Both involve suspension of judgment, rational in one case, ecstatic in the other.
To propose a theory of the system as a whole, it is necessary to remain open to dialogue with any element of it, as neither the guru nor the expert can. GA’s authority derives solely from the minimality of its hypothesis. This authority is “weak,” guaranteed by neither expertise nor spiritual leadership. But because GA does not derive its legitimacy from either the communal sacred or individual free exchange within the originary scene, it is free to propose a model of their articulation.
What are the prospects for a third way between the well-established market positions of our two forms of discursive authority? In the not-so-distant past, the credentials of general discourses about the human were subject to far less scrutiny. The rise of expertise as a guarantee of discourse coincides with the exponential growth of discourse itself, with its authors clamoring for our attention. The same Internet that permits the existence of the Chronicles requires its users to have some means of filtering its terabytes of data.
In this respect, GA’s semi-official status is as exemplary as its intellectual position. Like René Girard and myself, Anthropoetics (including the Chronicles) has a respectable university base, but in the humanities rather than the social sciences. We are professional enough to insure seriousness, but we do not speak with the voice of a profession. The adepts of GA, including the members of the Anthropoetics editorial board, are specialists in various fields of knowledge for whom originary thinking provides a heuristic focus.
As I explained in Chronicle 180, originary thinking appeals to potential adherents through esthetic intuition; it is more congenial to the humanities than to the social sciences because the humanities are more attuned than the social sciences to the central anthropological question: what is the human? But I see no reason to consider the positivism of social science as eternal. The cognitive sciences cannot forever ignore the event-nature of our origin that is pointed to by all of human culture. Whether GA is ultimately credited with its enunciation of this truth is a secondary matter. But even if its insights were to become the standard basis for the human sciences, originary thinking itself, as I see it, will always remain an extraprofessional practice, one that nourishes and dialogues with the various specializations of anthropological knowledge without becoming fixed in any one of them. Only thus can it conserve its incentive to minimality that facilitates its dialogue with all.