This reflection on the place of GA on the “intellectual scene” was inspired by the recent creation, after four consecutive annual summer conferences, of the first international GA organization, the Generative Anthropology Society and Conference (GASC). I would like to suggest how I think we who work within the ambit of GA should understand our role as thinkers and scholars.
In its simplest representation, the intellectual universe within which we operate can be mapped on a plane as a circular field, a central concentration surrounded by a vast periphery–in other words, a scene. Every writer, including myself; the partisan of every idea, including the originary hypothesis, may be placed within this scene. The distance of each from the center may be measured by any number of “objective” criteria, of which citation indexes are the best established.
A more complex mapping would take into account the relations among the individuals within this field, noting the existence of subordinate fields within the larger one. The individual points would then become nodes, the dimensions of which would be determined, say, by the number of citations for each, and these nodes would be grouped together at distances proportional to some function of the number of mutual references. Additional axes of correlation would permit more discriminating measurements. But that is not necessary for my present purpose. It suffices to note that in the public intellectual life of a nation, and increasingly of the world, those intellectuals who appear in the media and are commonly read and cited form a “natural community” at the center, all of whose members, with rare exceptions, readily become acquainted with each other. Hence it is not a drastic simplification to designate this central group as the “establishment” and to measure influence and prestige within the universe centered on it purely by distance from the center. Associated with the establishment are a set of general-interest publications that are not strictly academic, but almost certainly attract a substantial portion of their readership from academics. To cite a few American examples: The New Republic, the New York and various other Reviews of Books; the Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, other left- and right-wing journals of opinion, and the more scholarly segments of broadly targeted journals such as the New Yorker. Similar publications exist on a smaller scale in other countries. Thus the intellectual establishment comprising a few dozen periodicals, a few thousand contributors, and marginally, a more diffuse set of writers whose works are regularly cited and reviewed, may be said to inhabit the center of “the intellectual scene.”
To view the intellectual world in this way inevitably arouses resentment in all but those closest to the center. To situate GA in this context is to see it as both, on the one hand, an extremely marginal mode of thought, and on the other, ineluctably attracted to the center, obsessed with making its way ever closer to it by making itself palatable to it. Needless to say, this is a rather disheartening prospect.
But there is an alternative model of the intellectual universe available to our community of ideas. GA can present itself not as a peripheral candidate for centrality but as inhabiting another scene than the one centered on the establishment. Nor is this simply an arbitrary act of judgment. GA has been in existence for over three decades; it can be traced back to my visiting professorship at Johns Hopkins in 1978, which led to the publication of The Origin of Language in 1981. These thirty-odd years have seen the publication of a number of books and articles and a good deal of online material, over thirty issues of Anthropoetics and nearly 400 Chronicles of Love and Resentment. Yet to my knowledge, not a single one of these writings has ever been mentioned even once by any writer or in any publication that we would place within the establishment.
It is my intuitive sense of the value of this second model and of the necessity to preserve it that, beyond the obvious explanation of sour grapes, explains my personal abhorrence of “publicity.” One cannot seek publicity without implicitly, and not just implicitly, adhering to the values of the establishment, where remaining distant from the center of its scene is tantamount to intellectual failure.
Although I have made some feeble attempts at publicizing GA, my rare attempts to contact members of the establishment were made in the hope of genuine intellectual exchange. In 1997, I wrote to Jacques Derrida asking him if he would participate in a special “deconstruction” number (4, 1) of Anthropoetics, to which he replied very briefly but favorably. The fact that he subsequently declined to participate despite his written promise only proves my point. (As explained in Chronicle 340, I was no doubt remiss in asking Richard van Oort, who was a graduate student at UCI at the time, to make the preliminary contact rather than going down to Irvine myself, but it seems unlikely that this would have affected the outcome.) As an A-list member of the intellectual establishment, one who aroused at the time in academic circles something of the excitement reserved today for Lady Gaga, Derrida had no time to waste on Anthropoetics once he discovered that we were asking him to react to our ideas rather than merely “interviewing” him about his own. In his own way, Derrida was simply demonstrating that we did not indeed inhabit the same intellectual scene. Indeed, the great man’s admission (from what Richard tells me) of the challenging nature of our project as his reason for not participating in it reflects GA’s unique independence from the intellectual establishment.
No doubt the two scenes are in no way comparable in size and influence. But there are some advantages to having our own pond to be big and little fish in. Resentment of the big pond down the road is hard to avoid, and I would be the last to claim to be exempt from it. But as I have tried to insist, love is not the absence but the transcendence of resentment. No Supermen here.
Let me add that GA has never been, at least not since the first GA seminar at UCLA in 1987 (which was itself the product of discussions with a pioneering group of graduate students, notably, in alphabetical order, Tom Bertonneau, Tom Haeussler, Ken Mayers, and Matt Schneider), my private pond. More recently, GA has attracted a cadre of loyal adherents who for four years and counting have devoted a good deal of energy to organizing conferences around it. One wonders how large the group and how numerous its publications can become before it appears on the public radar. Meanwhile, there is great satisfaction in an intellectual fellowship that is not based on the transmission of establishment-centered influence.
Thus far I have presented the relation between GA and the establishment independently of the ideas that reign within the two scenes. Yet the very ease with which this operation may be performed reflects a condition that is not, or at least not obviously, inherent in the existence of an “intellectual scene”: the postmodern domination of the establishment by victimary thinking. There is no need to belabor this point in American academia, where upward of 90% of humanities professors vote Democratic (and I suspect that most of those who don’t consider the Democrats insufficiently “progressive”); the situation in Europe is still more extreme. The conservative opposition too is marked by this disequilibrium. Playing within the intelligentsia the role of a small group of defenders of a position espoused in the outside world by 50% of the electorate dictates a certain shrillness of tone, a tendency toward populism and even anti-intellectualism. Which explains why, despite its own shrillness in the political realm, the New Republic deals more seriously with scholarly issues and publications than comparable journals of the right. The crudeness of the discussion of deconstruction in a publication such as the Weekly Standard may be merited by its creator’s political views, but not by his philosophical views.
That GA accepts firstness “from the first” insulates it against victimary thinking, at the same time as it refuses to accept the Nietzschean ontology that separates the resenters from the “artists” or “supermen.” But victimary thought continues to plague the West and cannot simply be wished away. Not only does today’s intellectual universe firmly reject appeals to traditional modes of firstness, it cannot be expected to accept an anthropology that gives any positive value to firstness. Rawls’s theory of distributional justice is at the limit of liberal tolerance for hierarchical difference.
Given the investment of victimary thinkers in the equation of their resentments with “injustice,” for partisans of GA to attempt to refute the victimary through direct combat would be strategically unwise. But more than this, it would be a practical misapplication of the theory they seek to promote. For if GA remains content to develop its ideas within its own modest institutional framework instead of seeking to rectify, as its own victimary “injustice,” its lack of recognition by the establishment, it will be offering in its organization as well as in its intellectual content an alternative to establishment thinking. The very point of considering GA as occupying a separate intellectual scene from that of the establishment acts as a refutation of the latter’s valorization of victimary resentment, confirming by example our theoretical position that the productivity of a given human scene is proportional to its ability to defer resentment. This puts GA at the antipodes of victimary thinking, which is based on the contrary idea, traceable to Rousseau and his followers in the French Revolution, that righteous indignation in the victimary cause is the path of justice and that “consciousness raising,” as it later came to be called, is the ethical calling of modernity.
Conceiving the universe as bi- and potentially multipolar regardless of the relative sizes of the poles is a liberating gesture, one that Gregory Bateson called schismogenesis, and that GA understands as a demonstration of the power of the scenic–which is to say, the human–to reproduce itself on an indefinite number of “other scenes.” Our strength lies in remaining faithful to this conception. The activity of GA as an alternative scene to that of the intellectual establishment provides a lesson in the operation of the free market. Every market has its own rhythm, a slow-motion version of the oscillation between the sign and the imaginary referent that we find in the esthetic experience. One leaves the scene of the market for another scene in order to devise a new product or idea that one then brings back to the marketplace for its evaluation. For the duration of this process of deferral, the local scene becomes its own market. Eventually, the two markets may fuse, but during the period of separation, which may be prolonged, one concentrates on improving the quality of one’s product, in the faith that this quality and not the power-relations prevalent in the marketplace will be the final determinant of its value.
From a Girardian perspective this behavior might be seen as a form of coquetry or dandyism, a strategic turning away from the establishment designed to attract its attention. And we have no reason to prevent it from someday producing such results, although this has certainly not been the case up to now. But the weakness of this mimetic analysis is that it cannot recognize, let alone evaluate in terms of its potential “market value,” the intellectual content of GA as a new way of thinking.
In an analogous spirit, the lyric poetry of the Bronx Romantic discussed in the previous Chronicle accentuates the importance of the local scene as a place of discovery; the human universal is accessed only through an individual incarnation of desire. Whatever role Beatrice or Laura really played in the lives of the poets who celebrated them, they served as reaffirmations that access to universal truths about the human is available only on an internalized scene of personal experience, which for the lyric poet is centered on a unique beloved. With a little imagination, one might compare the practitioners of GA to a fraternal group of lyric poets whose ability to develop the originary hypothesis is dependent in each case on an individual intuition of the scene; each writes his “poem” and then shares it for evaluation with the GA community.
No doubt there is potential for resentment in the fact that the originary hypothesis itself had an origin and thereby established a firstness; but if the hypothesis is indeed a useful theoretical gesture rather than a monument to its creator’s personal vanity, then each “application” of it not merely enriches GA but redefines it. Our confidence in the productivity of our paradigm should allow us not only to maintain our independence from the establishment but to remain always ready to enter into dialogue with individual thinkers whose work we find useful–and not to become discouraged when, as is often but need not inevitably be the case, these thinkers fail to engage with the originary hypothesis and its radical consequences for anthropological reflection.
I am proud to have been able to attend four GA summer conferences and to witness the birth of the GA Society and Conference. I wish the new GASC officers, Andrew Bartlett and Ian Dennis, as well as the other board members, Peter Goldman, Adam Katz, Stacey Meeker, Richard van Oort, and Matt Schneider, much courage and energy. Whether or not we gain undying fame and mention in the history books of the (increasingly uncertain) future, we have already set an example for others by our refusal to drink the Kool-Aid of victimary hostility to modern civilization and its accomplishments. Thus we offer hope to those who have come to despair of “Western” market society’s ability to transcend its victimary accretions and to continue to fulfill, in the face of its many enemies, its promise to all of the “pursuit of happiness.”