I have sometimes tried the patience of the readers of these Chronicles by lamenting their paucity, for which I have all too many explanations. But rather than explore the pathology of the “Bronx Romantic” who fears being disappointed in his ultimate wager of qui perd gagne (Flaubert, who made it, and Sartre, who wrote about it, are both, of course, among history’s most famous people), a recent remark of Stacey’s seemed to shed a new light on GA’s strange and perverse career.
As my cv shows, my earliest publications, save a review article the commission for which was passed on to me by a benevolent senior colleague at IU, were all in French. Anyone who has (tried to) read The Origin of Language will have remarked that it sounds as though it was translated from German. This is the effect of writing a sustained text in English after a few years of composing almost exclusively in French. But the French connection goes much deeper. In many ways it contributes as much to the peculiar academic (non-)status of GA as my Bronx Romantic origins.
The extraordinary success of “French theory” for over a generation on US campuses, where the “theoreticians” were lionized far beyond their (often already considerable) level of celebrity in France, was due not just to its fashionably victimary content, but to the specific configuration of the French intellectual life from which it emerged. On the simplest level, French intellectuals are much more productive than Americans in terms of page count, or what Milan Kundera (per Trevor Merrill) calls graphomania. It’s not at all uncommon for a French university professor to produce a book a year over several decades. My old friend, the poet-philosopher Michel Deguy, still going strong in his eighties, has published 60-odd books, perhaps 70 by now. Although I am not in his league, my production of books and monographs, plus 400-odd Chronicles of Love and Resentment, reflects a touch of French graphomanie. But in France, where “everyone knows everybody else,” these texts would be at least scanned by a large population of “intellectuals,” today almost all university (or grande école-) based. Regular publication is of great importance because it is both necessary and sufficient to sustain one’s presence in the public eye. Whereas an American must be an assiduous networker to participate in the intellectual profession, in France, participation is just assumed, and you have on the contrary to be a regular hermit to avoid “knowing everybody else.” Which is also to say that in the US, you can publish all day long with no guarantee that anyone will pay attention to your writings.
Similarly, the rather abstract, “Germanic” style of my writing reflects the style of the “French theory” of the 60s and 70s, independently of (and prior to) its fashionableness in the US. The speculative freedom permitted by this style has permitted me to “discover the origin of language,” as would no doubt be impossible for either (1) someone trained in the American humanities and/or social sciences, or (2) a typical American adept of “French theory,” who comes to it from the worshipful angle of Americans toward European thought, often mediated by Paul de Man. If René Girard taught me one “mimetic” truth, it was to turn a skeptical eye toward the Western philosophical tradition, and all the more toward the obscurantist, quasi- or pseudo-Marxist thinkers of the postwar victimary generation. But to the extent that my work can indeed be related to that of the “French theory” practitioners, of whom Jacques Derrida is surely the most significant, it is as a variant of their own type of thought, not that of its American imitators. This makes me doubly unwelcome among the latter. Think of an American who flatters himself that he speaks French so well that he can pass for a native speaker. Even if he does a credible job, you know he’s not really French, and resent him for providing the appearance without the substance.
To put a more positive spin on GA’s irregular origin, we may say that it combines the irreverent freedom of an American upstart toward a European tradition mired in its sense of its own importance with an insider’s sense of the articulation of its essential features. This combination is already present in large measure in Girard, whose intellectual power owes more than we generally realize to the facts that (1) he is not nor has ever pretended to be “Parisian”; and (2) he spent his whole career as a French professor in the US. He is almost certainly the only member of the French Academy to have arrived there in this manner.
Being a student of Girard, as opposed to the formerly revered de Man (who, to give him credit, was certainly far more concerned than René with his students’ academic fortunes) was a license to adopt a non-Parisian “Frenchness” that did not ask to be imitated in all its details as a fashionable universal model. (At the same time, being Jewish insulated me from the fundamental premises of Girard’s thought, which are those of a very broadly-understood Catholicism.) In short, I might have a better job now if I had gone to Yale instead of Hopkins, but the weather in Southern California is certainly better than anywhere in the Ivy League, and I frankly don’t think I could have made it, or even wanted to make it, as de Man’s 473rd American deconstructor.
Thus the presumptuous self-confidence my work displays is implicitly based on the French intellectual support system. But in the absence of this system, given my failings as a networker, the self-confidence corresponds to nothing outside my thought itself. Hence those who do become interested in GA often assume at the outset that its ideas are far more widely accepted than they are, and become disillusioned on discovering the modesty of its exposure. There is a certain pleasure in having access to original ideas that are largely unknown without (I hope!) being those of a simple crackpot. But it takes a very special kind of thinker to make use of such ideas in the collective victimary atmosphere of the American academy. American academic/intellectual life, founded as it increasingly is on networking in the here-and-now, where the old “old-boy” system at best gives one a leg up for a first job, or more likely a first interview, is not a context in which I could ever have found success. I have been fortunate beyond measure to have come upon this system at a time when a few decent contacts and a PhD from a good institution could suffice to land a job at a major university.
Would my ideas have gone over better had I continued to write them in French, and marketed them in France? We can’t turn back the clock to see. But although my career seemed to be working better in the days when I wrote in French, and although I still call my own the family of my ex-mother-in-law in Bayonne (going on 100) and my stepdaughter in Paris (where we recently attended her eldest son’s wedding to a lovely young Indian lady he met in Australia), I am fairly certain that I have nonetheless done better to write in my native language and publish in the US, reviewed or not. For ideas are not given once and for all but continuously evolving, and however “French” the mode of production of mine, their native soil is American. Stacey’s insight explains GA’s hybrid nature, the “French” side of which supplies the element of craziness without which one is unlikely to produce an original, let alone an originary, anthropology.
What advantage does awareness of this etiology confer on the GA-inflected reader? It is surely significant that all those who have made important contributions to GA have done so in English. These include several English Canadians (originally thanks to Richard van Oort), including GASC president Andrew Bartlett, but no Quebecers. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, the distinguished French philosopher of science and analyst of “disaster”/tsunami/Holocaust phenomena, has been very friendly to GA as well as to me personally, but he isn’t quite persuaded by the theory. No doubt the French have little reason to appreciate a mode of thought comparable in arrogance to those generated within their tightly networked intellectual world, but whose substance is quite different, not to speak of not being “on the left.” But whether or not the French appreciate GA, I think GAers should appreciate the tension between the French and American intellectual worlds that has given rise to it.
GA is a small operation in comparison to Girard’s “MT,” not to speak of “French Theory” as a whole. But the latter is certainly en perte de vitesse, more and more clearly the reflection of the waning victimary era, whereas the rapprochement between GA and the Girardians, which seemed quite evident in Tokyo this year, shows no sign of diminishing. It is my hope that instead of the futile dichotomy between MT and GA, the one should be seen as a completion of the other, for I have no quarrel with Girard’s fundamental insights into either the nature of desire or the primacy of the “Judeo-Christian,” save in putting more emphasis on the Jewish and less on the Christian part. (This point will the subject of a future Chronicle, if not of an entire book.)
Today the era of “French Theory” is over, and outside the postcolonial sphere, recent French “theoreticians” are more curiosities than major influences. But as “theories” go, GA in its paradoxical way is more foundational, and even anti-foundational, than any of them. Whereas Girard’s deviation from French Theory ultimately falls within the Christian orbit—it has no this-worldly explanation for the emergence within the sacrificial human universe of the “Judeo-Christian,” let alone for that of Jesus himself—GA remains secular, or perhaps Judeo-secular, in its insistence on a generative anthropological model, generative, that is, of its own revelations. GA may therefore best be understood as French Theory’s ultimate form, a humanistic (non-empirical, culture-based) although not oikophobic anthropology, a “way of thinking” that offers a genuine substitute—show me another—for traditional metaphysics. From what I can see, the originary hypothesis, however it may be improved upon in detail, still remains the sole attempt at providing an “ultimate” framework for anthropological thought: a model of the originary human scene. So let’s hear one cheer, at least, for Franco-American hybridity.