The “Generative Anthropology Thinking Event” (GATE) held in Vancouver from July 26 through July 29 was probably the most significant event in the history of GA since its inception. Unlike the GA conference at UCLA in 1990, it was neither organized or initiated by myself, nor were its participants largely confined to my own students. Andrew Bartlett of Kwantlen University College in British Columbia, whom I first met at the 1995 Chicago COV&R conference, was the moving spirit behind the operation, which enlisted the aid of Richard van Oort and Chris Morrissey, Andrew’s comrades in the local Sparagmos! group; the fourth member, Pablo Bandera, although he did not deliver a paper, came all the way from Phoenix, Arizona to attend the first part of the conference.
The conference consisted of fourteen papers and an informal Q&A session. Along with myself, two other veterans of the 1990 conference were present: Matt Schneider, Professor of English and now Associate Dean at Chapman University in Orange, CA, whose opening lecture included a nostalgic history of the UCLA GA seminar, and Doug Collins of the University of Washington, who drove up with his emeritus colleague, Eugene Webb. Adam Katz came from Connecticut, Peter Goldman from Salt Lake City, Ian Dennis from Ottawa. The youngest participant, irrepressible Amir Khan, celebrated his twenty-sixth birthday at the conference, as did GA itself, if we trace its beginning to the 1981 publication of The Origin of Language. (Coincidentally, 1981 was also the founding date of Kwantlen College.) Beyond the prevailing intellectual enthusiasm, I was touched by the warm sense of community that enveloped the conference. Andrew and his wife Joanne kindly put Stacey and me up in their home, and the evenings and a good part of some nights were taken up by conversations both personal and intellectual.
The success of any conference can be measured by whether the participants are as enthusiastic at the end as they are at the beginning. In this case, the answer was clear. Three people volunteered to host GATEs each year through 2010; Matt Schneider is planning to hold next year’s at Chapman in late June. In the meantime, here are a few reflections on what the conference might mean for GA.
Ultimately there are no “applications” of GA in the sense that one can separate a doctrine from its application. GATE did not so much apply GA as expand its horizons.
In the spirit of anthropological minimalism, the originary analysis of a given historical phenomenon seeks its source in the separate moments of the originary event. Every event or institution is subject in principle to the tension between, on the one hand, its status as a mode of exchange by means of which the members of the community continue to experience, in however limited form, the reciprocity of the originary exchange of signs; and on the other, the resentments generated by the necessarily imperfect implementation of moral reciprocity in any real-world interaction. Because the originary hypothesis supplies minimal foundations for both historical exchange systems–derived from the originary sparagmos that follows the emission of the sign–and their moral critique–derived from the reciprocal exchange of signs that inaugurates the event–it directs research toward the parameters of a given system that permit or require deferrals of reciprocity. To the extent that we use language, we share the originary model of reciprocal interaction; we cannot conceive of being able to understand our native language but not speak it, or vice versa. The most fundamental historical polarity distinguishes between “Maussian” gift–exchange that extends the moment of deferral between acts of exchange and the transaction in which, on the contrary, deferral is reduced to a minimum. These two poles are the dominant modes of exchange respectively of traditional and modern/market societies.
The substance of historical narratives cannot be deduced from the originary hypothesis, but the heuristic device of tracing the forces that confront each other in a given historical event back to moments of the originary scene allows us to make explicit what the event reveals about the human-in-general. It is precisely because the uses of a heuristic are by definition incalculable in advance that GATE was a significant event. It showed that GA could provide an anthropological basis for the specific esthetic, religious, political, or philosophical foci of a number of specialized scholarly interests, whether it be (to quote a few examples) Byron’s romanticism (Ian Dennis), Joyce’s modernity (Peter Goldman), Stanley Cavell’s critique of Austin’s speech-act theory (Amir Khan), the roots of constitutional democracy (Adam Katz), the comparative study of primate and human behavior (Richard van Oort), or the foundational categories of religion (Andrew Bartlett). In turn, each specific analysis enriches our understanding of the potential of the originary event, which is to say, of the human itself. Scholarship, like religion, is a form of human self-reflection.
A historical phenomenon whose relevance to the heuristic potential of GA is more than merely biographical is what I have called Bronx Romanticism, the characteristic attitude of the lower-middle-class, largely Jewish youth of my generation. I have made the connection elsewhere, so I will merely sum it up here: like the romantics of 1830, the Bronx Romantic seeks an achievement of such universal scope that it cannot become the object of a specific career objective; hence he remains as close as possible to the undifferentiated state of childhood, avoiding the specialization that would signal the irretrievable abandonment of his original aim. Life in the “academy,” and particularly in the Humanities, is the closest available approximation to this condition.
Now that GATE has demonstrated the usefulness of the originary hypothesis as a heuristic for interpreting cultural phenomena, it becomes of interest to invert the question of GA’s relationship to its biographical roots: what is it that makes the strategic “universality” of the Bronx Romantic a valid model of universal humanity?
The common trait on which this homology depends is resentment. The Bronx Romantic’s dream of universality is a refusal to accept the order of things in which he finds himself, against which he has no means of rebelling openly. Unlike the grievances of self-identified oppressed groups, his resentment does not define a community, nor can it be presented as a reaction to systemic injustice. Although his sentiment may be shared by others, this allows at best for mutual commiseration, not organized protest against the social order.
It is this nakedness of the Bronx Romantic’s resentment that makes it a closer approximation to the originary resentment of the first humans than the collective sense of victimage aroused in a hierarchical social order. What makes the originary scene effective in deferring violent conflict is that the participants’ resentment is directed at the sacred center rather than at privileged Others. Ironically enough, in an age when anthropological reflection makes resentment virtually its sole discovery principle, it is the Bronx Romantic’s devaluation of worldly plurality in the name of the minimally human that provides the most universally applicable model of resentment. The very reason for GA’s limited popular appeal–its lack of a client group whose resentments it comforts–is the sign that it embodies the most general relationship between the individual human being and the human community. No doubt group resentments retain great attractive power among those who cannot credibly share them; the privileged often find it easier to identify with the grievances of a victimary group than with those of their fellows, or even their own. But democratic politics constantly reduces the extraordinary to the ordinary, assimilating victimary resentments to the standard issue grievances negotiated in the political sphere. Meanwhile, if not everyone is a member of a victimary group, everyone in the modern world is heir to Rousseau’s legacy of the victimary self.
Instead of viewing history from the binary standpoint of victim and oppressor, GA allows us to understand it as driven by the need to defer resentment. Before the modern and especially the postmodern era, resentment, even at its most violent, tended to express itself within the unchallenged framework of the social order, for example, in peasant revolts that merely led to the replacement of one prince by another. The postmodern division of a given society into oppressors and oppressed has had currency only within the space for absolute resentment opened by the Holocaust.
Today, the ferocity of Islamic fundamentalism reflects its role as the exemplary expression of traditional society’s resentment toward the modern market system. To the market’s tendency to treat virtually all desires as fungible it opposes the absolute ethic of the suicide bomber, whose act is the ultimate existential refutation of market exchange.
Even if the West’s physical vulnerability to Muslim terrorism has been exaggerated, we should not underestimate its ideological vulnerability. The Western left finds in the West’s hegemony, which is nothing more than its successful adaptation to modernity, the “root cause” of Islamic hostility, just as it blamed the West for the Soviet bloc’s hostility before 1989. From the victimary perspective, the oppressor’s crimes alone are blameworthy. Whatever the horrors of “red terror,” including 9/11, they pale in comparison with those of the “white terror” that preceded it, to which it is merely a reaction. Hence the Abu Ghraib abuses, in the course of which no one was killed or even injured, arouse more indignation than the thousands of murders committed by Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
It is no small matter that Radical Islam’s offensive is accompanied by Holocaust denial, that is, effacement of the founding event of the postmodern era, which anchors victimary thought in the historical event of the genocide of the Jews. Contemporary history is recast as the modern market system’s victimization of the traditional world, which is the actual or potential Muslim world. The literal-minded response that the Holocaust indeed took place cannot rebut the real point of Muslim Holocaust denial, which is to assert that, after WWII exhausted the violence internal to the Western system, Islam, as the non-Western world’s historically privileged belief system, is the real heir to the Holocaust’s victimary crown.
The minimal core of the current conflict is not between religions but between exchange systems. The West must be defended against those who seek to spread Islam’s founding jihadism to the entire globe as an alternative to the global expansion of the market. Were it not for the accident of fate that placed the supremely valuable commodity of oil in land controlled by Muslims, it is likely that Islam would long ago have adapted to the market system.
What is necessary in the present conflict is not to engage in “dialogue” with terrorists who desire our destruction, but to comprehend their resentment in terms maximally accessible to the terrorists’ potential emulators, if not to the terrorists themselves. Perhaps some sense of this necessity explains the recent modest growth in GA’s visibility. The current spate of “atheism” books expresses the Western intelligentsia’s frustrated inability to understand the originary human function of religion. Alone of Western modes of thought, GA is capable of dealing with religion in anthropological terms without either adopting its hypostases or treating them as superstitions. Although it would be rash indeed to claim that the just-concluded conference heralds a new era, recent history suggests that our civilization may well find GA’s “new way of thinking” beneficial, perhaps even indispensable, to its survival.