Now that Anthropoetics has gone through ten issues and the list of Chronicles nears two hundred, it seems appropriate to take stock of the GA enterprise and to draw some conclusions about its future.
On the positive side, we have shown that an e-journal can be a viable activity. As the Internet grows, the number of hits at our site continues to increase. The great virtue of electronic journals, aside from being essentially cost-free–UCLA allots me a yearly Anthropoetics budget of $0–is that every issue from first to last remains fully accessible, far more so than even the latest number of a print journal. Old articles continue to attract as many readers as recent ones; even old Chronicles are constantly being read.
Our impact on the intellectual scene is more difficult to gauge. The last decade or so has witnessed the decline of the French style of humanistic theorizing whose influence had once spread to the social sciences. If Derridean deconstruction, Foucaultian “discourse analysis,” and Lacanian psycho-semantics were the last highly visible modes of “French theory,” Generative Anthropology may well be the last doctrine of potential intellectual significance to emerge from this tradition.
The creativity of the humanities depends on the credibility of the humanist’s claim that literature (and, mutatis mutandis, the other arts) is a privileged source of anthropological revelation. The high point of literary anthropology, or at least of its ambitions, was reached in the romantic and post-romantic eras, notably in the work of English and German romantic and French symbolist poets as well as of several generations of novelists from Balzac and Dickens to Dostoevsky and Flaubert to Proust and Joyce. Mallarmé’s poetry was an authentic act of research into the foundations of language and culture, as in a more sensational vein was Rimbaud’s dedication to le raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.
As the twentieth century wore on, the literary world became increasingly dominated by theoreticians rather than creators. Valéry, Blanchot, Bataille, Sartre are littérateurs, not great literary writers. What came to be called critical theory depended increasingly less on contemporary literary practice. Yet the era of “French theory” that reached its apogee in 1968 continued to feed at least nominally off the last important French literary movement, that of the nouveau roman. Although the theorists of the Barthes-Foucault-Derrida generation were no longer literary creators at all, their ideas continued to be nourished by literary texts that they still conceived as part of a living tradition.
A graduate of and professor in American universities, René Girard is neither part of the Parisian literary establishment nor nourished by a direct connection to contemporary literary creation. While figures like Foucault, Barthes, Lacan, Deleuze, Althusser were bringing together the centrifugal presuppositions of “French theory,” Girard was creating, beginning with La violence et le sacré, a more ambitious system of thought than any of them with the explicit intention of providing a new foundation for the social sciences. But in transcending the sophisticated yet ultimately parochial cultural politics of the “theorists,” Girard’s ambition overstepped the bounds of the possible influence of humanistic thought on human science. Mimetic desire could at first be deemed, or at least, passed off as, a “literary” concept. This was no longer possible for the scapegoat mechanism and the rest of the vocabulary of Girard’s “fundamental anthropology,” the direct ancestor of GA.
Humanistic thought stands or falls by the guarantee provided by textual analysis. Once it leaves the shelter of the literary text, it withers and dies in the thin air of the social sciences, where hypotheses may be proposed only by those certified as competent in each field’s methods of systematic data-collection. The era of speculative thinking is no more, not because such thinking is no longer capable of generating useful ideas, but because every area of anthropology has become professionalized. Only victimary status still provides some degree of universal authority, breadth of terrain being counterbalanced by narrowness of focus. And even here, the institutionalization of the various genres of victim studies generates new sets of professional specializations–and a concomitantly less victimary orientation.
There is no world without resentment. The idea of a universal perspective on human affairs that puts aside our own resentments is illusory. This truth is the most valuable intellectual legacy of Marxism, despite its error in thinking that to enunciate this truth is to transcend its limits. Because human desire is not contingently but essentially in disequilibrium, there can be no well-defined goal on which all can agree. This does not mean, however, that the goal of universal peace is illusory. Although every human situation will provoke resentment, our goal is not the elimination of resentment but the deferral of violence. Where ritual societies purge mimetic tensions through sacrifice, market societies recycle resentment into economic, political, and cultural systems. The most crucial social goal–can we at least agree on this?–is to continue to expand the process of converting the energy of resentment into something exchangeable in one of society’s many marketplaces.
The several human sciences study the human on the different levels at which this conversion is accomplished. The most concrete is that of the economy, the locus of interaction where by far the most energy is expended. Where the passions that count are those that can be harnessed to drive the market, desire is bounded by objective criteria: whatever its semiotic qualities, a product has to work. Thus economics is the human science that strays the least from the rationality of natural science. It takes its lessons from the most successful economies because they dominate the global marketplace.
The second level is that of politics. Here popular resentments express themselves through voices/votes rather than marketable goods. Central power reflects and/or dominates this popular will. Even if we accept the “Fukuyama thesis” of the inevitable dissolution of political centralization through expanding market circulation, the non-linear nature of this process and the unpredictability of the resentments it is bound to generate guarantees a future for independent political reflection.
Finally we come to the sphere of culture, the scholarly domain of the Humanities. In the past, humanists studied the classics, what they considered to be “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” Today, they are more likely to be found examining the recent works of members of the world’s least successful economies–for it is here that the ethical role of culture in human society is most critical. The “amateur” science of Generative Anthropology understands this radical change; it understands as well why the post-colonial world of the humanities has so little interest in sharing its understanding.
My conclusion is by no means that we should abandon the GA enterprise. To withdraw from the world of the intellect on the pretext that our work is “misunderstood” would be an uncharitable expression of resentment. There are times when making a difference requires that one must defer for an indefinite time the pleasures of market success.
Resentment is today’s central concept, but very few are willing even to name it, let alone to situate it in the theoretical context it requires. “Injustice” attracts attention and compensation; “resentment” inspires cynicism and repugnance. Yet to recognize the ease with which we translate our resentment into righteous indignation is to accept the need for an anthropology that neither glorifies this emotion nor explains it away. For GA, resentment is not Nietzsche’s ressentiment but the human reaction to a perceived violation of our common humanity, as defined by the reciprocal equality of language.
We should not be tempted by the thought that more charismatic personalities and a shrewder marketing strategy might have succeeded better in promulgating this new way of thinking. A world in which a small band of humanists could single-handedly redefine the human sciences would be a far more dangerous one than ours. We can only hope that the ethical and cognitive value of GA will be demonstrated over the years through its further development by others. We must have faith in the continued existence of brave souls willing to cast off the tired metaphysical vocabulary of the “history of ideas” and engage in originary anthropological thinking.