The expression qui perd gagne (“he who loses, wins”) provides the central theme of Sartre’s three-volume psychobiography of Gustave Flaubert, the “family idiot” who became the most important French novelist of the nineteenth-century, and notwithstanding his bourgeois life style, France’s leading exemplar of the pure artist. The epileptic fit that ensured Gustave’s release from the obligation to pursue his professional studies only confirmed his childhood intuition that to win as a writer he had to lose as a bourgeois, even as a bourgeois man of letters. Having renounced a “literary career” like that of his friend Maxime du Camp, Flaubert devoted himself uncompromisingly to narrative art, spending five years or more on each of his novels where Balzac had composed the 99 titles of the Comédie humaine in 20 years. Flaubert found fame by being contemptuous of fame, and unlike the more ambiguous Marcel Proust, his resentment of bourgeois success left him untouched by snobbery. The snob cannot afford to want to lose; he will abandon one game only for the sake of one more prestigious. For Flaubert, aside from family loyalties, the only game worth playing was that of art. Yet, as Pierre Bourdieu astutely saw, it was just this anti-bourgeois posture, however uncalculated, that was rewarded with respect and even popularity by the bourgeois public. The era when Emma Bovary can dream of decorating her home and herself with ideas from Parisian magazines generates a market for an art that will denounce the new world of consumption before it can be tempted by it.
The question I would like to ask here is whether GA is itself a mode of qui perd gagne, or in the terminology of card games, of misère. Just as Flaubert’s art is that of the eternal idiot de la famille, perhaps the simplest explanation for the limits and strengths of GA is the Bronx Romanticism at its root. I have explained elsewhere how this ultimate hedgehog theory that traces humanity to a single scene embodies the Bronx Romantic’s need to remain as close as possible to the adolescent fount of the totality of adult possibilities.
I would submit that GA is optimally, if not deliberately, designed to perpetuate as long as possible the deferral of its public visibility. By the very fact of calling itself an anthropology, it guarantees the suspicion both of social and biological scientists, for whom it is not “real” science, and of humanists, to whom it looks like a fellow humanist trying to sound scientific. Neither I nor anyone else in the GA community has the authority to use the term anthropology.
Deliberate or not, the strategy of deferral has served over the years to protect GA’s emergence as “a new way of thinking.” To seek a place in the mainstream would be to face constant polemics; GA’s obscurity has allowed its core ideas to evolve in tranquility. But now that GA has begun to venture into the public sphere—a phenomenon marked in 2007 by the publication of Adam Katz’ The Originary Hypothesis and the Vancouver “GA Thinking Event”—it might seem time for the misère to come to an end.
I will propose two avenues for GA’s insertion; first, the traditional academic one of textual analysis as a mode of cultural self-reflection; and second, the public debate over the role of religion in humanity’s self-understanding. No doubt, at a given time there is never more than one real controversy; insulated by the immense institutional inertia of university life, current academic debates over the place of culture in advancing social justice may be considered as slow-motion variants of the more pugnacious battle between Darwinists and believers that in turn reflects the anxieties that surround the role of religion in today’s globalizing community.
The postmodern trend of victimary thinking remains well established in the academic world. Although this trend was shaken momentarily by the events of 9/11, given the absence of further successful attacks on American soil, the lessons of the new, “post-millennial” era are being absorbed only very slowly into our cultural life. Nonetheless, after a run of nearly fifty years, victimary thought’s anti-establishment claims no longer excite the critical-minded, while from a practical professional standpoint, its agenda is now so securely embedded in both the form and content (the “canon”) of cultural analysis that new departures arouse few anxieties. Indeed, the various postmodern disciplines are increasingly preoccupied with strategies of integration rather than mere confrontation; slowly but inexorably, they must deal with the fact that there is no “next stage” beyond liberal market society.
To take an example close to home: in the past decade, my own department has been transformed beyond recognition by a new focus on the “Francophone” world of France’s former colonies; UCLA has become arguably the premier university in the country, if not the world, for Francophone studies. Next year, four professors out of thirteen will be specialists in this field in which there were none a mere dozen years ago. Meanwhile, already in 2002, my colleague Françoise Lionnet and I held a little joint GA-Postcolonial conference. The GA content was, admittedly, more symbolic than real, but the conference’s very existence testifies to the lack of tension aroused by GA within a field initially defined by the colonisé’s resentment of thecolon. One might conclude from this that, all other things being equal, a GA-oriented post-colonial Ph. D. dissertation would not be a disadvantage in the job market. For the moment, this conclusion remains purely speculative.
Can it be demonstrated that tracing the fundamental characteristics of the human to a hypothetical originary event makes us better readers of texts? The truly significant question is whether GA fulfills its claim of offering a new and better explanation of the origin and persistence of language, religion, and art. If this is the case, then it is worth everyone’s effort to extend the originary hypothesis to the specific problems of cultural analysis; conversely, each adaptation will enrich the minimal theory with a deeper understanding of humanity’s historical possibilities. GA’s hypothetical human ontology makes the “hermeneutic circle” between originary thinking and cultural analysis more than an abstract epistemological construct on the Gadamerian model; analysis and synthesis cooperate in the open-ended yet grounded creation of a theory of the human.
In the hypothetical originary scene, the nascent human community survives only because it is able to defer immediate appetitive satisfaction and agree on a common “meaning.” Our hypothetical originary event belongs to the broad category of situations that fall under the rubric of “the Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in which the separate members of a group must be dissuaded from opting for “defection,” despite a preferable immediate payoff matrix, in the interest of safeguarding the greater reward to be reaped by the group as a whole.
The current debate over religion has revived the Enlightenment polemic between the religious and naturalistic-atheistic etiologies of three apparently irreducible categories of being—the universe as a whole, life on Earth, and human self-consciousness—of which the last is critical, as it provides our knowledge of itself as well as the others. In the present state of the controversy, the participants prefer dispute to debate, refusing to specify the subject of their argument in such as way as to generate a virtual community of debaters. In Prisoners’ Dilemma terms, each group prefers the narrow rewards of defection to the global payoff of mutual confidence.
The originality of the originary hypothesis lies in explaining humanity’s defining trait, the origin of language/religion/representation/culture, as its solution to the Prisoners’ Dilemma brought about by the decay of pecking-order primate hierarchy. The hypothesis is germane to the religious debate because the current controversy is implicitly centered on this very same origin. GA’s account of the generation of transcendence from immanence offers the parties to this debate a parsimonious shared heuristic, whether they are disposed to consider it as adequate (naturalists/atheists) or as requiring supplementation by extra-natural forces (supernaturalists/theists). The empiricist counter-claim that a “naturalist” account of human origin will eventually emerge from the discoveries of neurology, ethology, genetics, etc., is not only irreconcilable with the conviction of religious believers that human origin is not accessible to the methods of natural science, but forces the uniquely transcendental nature of human representation into the mold of genetic selection, making the eventful appear uneventfully from the uneventful, and the conscious, unconsciously from the unconscious.
As the originary hypothesis suggests by analogy, it is only in a moment of crisis analogous to the originary event it hypothesizes that any heuristic—the solution proposed by each of the various religions being, at the very least, a heuristic—can impose itself on the participants as the necessary means of achieving the deferral of violence through representation. The dialogue de sourds between the omnipotence of God and the universal validity of Darwin parallels the struggles taking place in the real world. Today the crucial instance of the Prisoners’ Dilemma in the political domain is posed by the extension to the entire globe of liberal, market-based democracy. Contrary to current cliché, recent history does not refute the idea that liberal democracy is the system into which all other sociopolitical systems eventually flow. Yet this seemingly ineluctable movement constantly generates resentful incentives to “defection”—traditionalism, utopianism, nihilism—that the liberal-democratic system must struggle to convert to participation within it. Arguably, these resentments will eventually, if only after violent delay, metamorphose into entries in the political-cum-economic marketplace. Physical destruction itself, in the form of terrorism, is a candidate for such absorption, on the condition that it not go “too far.”
If the battle between God and Darwin, like that between Islam and the West, is not (as the European intelligentsia believes) a conflict between reason and superstition, but a phase in an ultimate movement of integration—one that, ironically enough, has progressed further in the United States than elsewhere—then the possibility of a minimalist diminution of polemical violence in the first case cannot but provide a model for a similar pacification in the second.
The argument that, ultimately, the world must turn to GA or perish cannot be empirically demonstrated; it can be persuasive only en situation in the intellectual crisis it attempts to resolve. The liberal values of the West can conquer the world spiritually as well as materially only if these values can be shown to reflect the minimal core of humanity, purged of all traces of geohistorical particularism. As the Western world’s most placeless place, the Bronx is minimality’s most credible homeland.