The just-concluded eighth annual GASC conference at Victoria, British Columbia was a milestone in the slow but so far continuously positive-sloped evolution of GA, from its beginnings with The Origin of Language in 1981, through the first GA seminars at UCLA, starting in 1987 and culminating in the first GA conference in 1990 (guest lecturer: the late Marvin Harris), through the MLA section in 1994 at San Diego, where Richard van Oort, then a beginning grad student not yet enrolled at UC Irvine, along with UCLA regulars Tom Bertonneau, Matt Schneider, and myself, gave papers that would later make up the first issue of Anthropoetics, founded the next year. Since then, Anthropoetics has published continuously, with at least four articles per semi-annual issue; the next will begin our twentieth year.
With Richard’s attendance at UC Irvine and the sympathetic interest of the late Wolfgang Iser, a few more adepts joined our group, including Peter Goldman, just elected the second president of GASC, and Marina Ludwigs. Then when Richard went to UBC in Vancouver in the early 2000s, a Canadian group took shape, including Andrew Bartlett, GASC’s founding and outgoing president, and Ian Dennis of the U of Ottawa, as well as UBC’s and later Ian’s student Amir Khan. The dynamism of this group eventually led them to spin themselves off from COV&R to organize the first “GA Thinking Event” (GATE) at UBC in 2007. The success of this endeavor led to a second conference, organized by Matt Schneider at Chapman University in 2008, and since then we have never looked back.
But the Victoria conference seemed to me to reflect a new stage in our development. For the first time, every one of the participants had taken the trouble to learn about GA and to show its relevance to their subject. And most of the papers went far beyond that. I won’t express any judgments here, but there were a number of really excellent presentations, and their overall quality struck me as qualitatively higher than at the previous conferences; every one brought something new to our “new way of thinking.”
One of the greatest strengths of the conference was in its choice of guest speaker, initiated by Andrew Bartlett and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Raymond Tallis, illustrious British polymath, MD, and philosopher, author of twenty-odd books as well as dozens of scientific articles, was the ideal GA “outsider.” Unlike almost all those who play this role, Tallis was open-minded and intellectually curious enough to have read through A New Way of Thinking before attending the conference, and after his talk, he was willing to engage in a dialogue with me about what we both agreed were the obvious affinities between his way of thinking, which insists on the uniqueness of the human and rejects all forms of scientism, and ours. As a trained scientist, Tallis would no doubt not wish to endorse GA’s (speculative) originary hypothesis, but he appeared to accept the idea that his notion of pointing as a sign of human intentionality was not incompatible with GA’s scenario of the origin of language, which involves (minimally) an ostensive gesture designating, rather than attempting to appropriate, the central sacred object. In addition to our personal discussion, Tallis attended the entire conference, offered many apposite questions and comments, and showed respect and interest throughout the proceedings. It was a pleasure to meet and interact with someone with such a lively and disciplined intelligence, full of wit and magnanimity. We will not find another guest speaker of this caliber in a hurry.
Among other sources of satisfaction, it was a particular pleasure to see Ken Mayers, who did his PhD in Comparative Literature at UCLA in the 1980s. Ken was the first student to take an interest in GA, and it was largely as a result of his encouragement that I gave the series of seminars, starting in 1987, that were attended by Tom Bertonneau and Matt Schneider. I had only seen Ken a couple of times over the past decades, and it was a welcome surprise to learn he would be in Victoria. I was also glad to see a couple of old Girardians, Andrew McKenna (who has been on the Anthropoetics editorial board since its founding) and Sandy Goodhart, both of whom appreciate the fundamental compatibility of GA with Girard’s fundamental intuition.
It was also especially nice to have our Australian team of Fleming and O’Carroll present in the flesh instead of merely via Skype, doing one of their whimsical but always insightful numbers, this time on paganism, complete with “native” costumes. And a group of bright younger scholars, including our old friend Amir, gave proof that GA had made it into the next generation.
Since Richard was formerly my student, I felt proud to see his organizational skills result in this eminently successful conference. Keeping us in one room throughout, in a quality setting with excellent food, was clearly a stroke of genius that enhanced the already considerable “togetherness” of the group. Even the weather cooperated; there were clouds when we arrived on Wednesday and when we were leaving on the following Monday, but from Thursday through Sunday, Victoria was at its best, which is fine indeed. Victoria is rightly considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, situated on a human-sized inlet with many ships plying the harbor and greenery all around.
I particularly appreciated throughout the conference the atmosphere of mutual respect and affection, and, so rare in an academic setting, the virtually complete suspension of one-upmanship and rivalry. I was glad to see that GA could become truly a “way of thinking” without degenerating into a set of buzzwords and provoking displays of academic vanity. Perhaps this danger cannot forever be avoided, but I am happy to see that we have been able to come such a long way without succumbing to it. I have written before, perhaps too often, in these Chronicles about GA’s obscurity, and it is anything but clear that this is coming to an end, but within our group it is a pleasure to see that our visibility can modestly increase without affecting the spirit of mutual respect and unpretentiousness that reigns over the enterprise. That Raymond Tallis graciously recognized and appreciated this spirit allowed him to enrich our conference with his active participation.
Next year we anticipate a lower-profile conference, without a guest speaker, back at High Point University in NC, where Matt Schneider, who serves as a Dean, ran a flawless small conference in 2011. The following year, 2016, we plan to hold our tenth conference in Nagoya, Japan, where Matthew Taylor, who has kindly offered his services, will now be able to start the planning clock. Other possibilities, in Europe and Australia, seem to be opening up. It is curious that a “way of thinking” developed by an American beginning with other collaborators from the US has generated a group of adherents composed of a majority of foreigners. The group in Victoria included 9 Americans, 8 Canadians, 5 Australians, 4 Europeans (including Raymond Tallis), an African, and an Asian (counting Matthew Taylor on his adopted continent). And this number excludes several non-US residents, such as Raoul Eshelman in Germany and Roman Katsman in Israel, for whom distance was an obstacle to attending. The global nature of the Internet is surely a factor in this development, but I imagine that the increasingly victimary orientation of American humanities departments is a factor as well. The theoretical exoticism of GA makes it more palatable in faraway places, whereas in the US it goes against the grain of the post-colonial focus of today’s UCLA Comp Lit program or of my own department, which has become, for good or for ill, a Francophone Studies unit with residual faculty in the traditional literary fields, at least half of whom will not be replaced when they retire.
To mix a metaphor, the double-edged bright spot on the humanities horizon today is the so-called “digital humanities.” The challenge of this field, ably represented in Victoria by Richard Lane of Vancouver Island University, will furnish the topic of next year’s conference at High Point: “Models and the Human: Digital and Analog,” as suggested by Adam Katz, who will be drafting our Call For Papers. The point is, I think, in the first place, to examine the digital trend in university humanities departments, which is no doubt motivated by a desire to find an alternative to victimary studies, and perhaps above all by the attraction of available grant money, so difficult to obtain for traditional literary research. But beyond this kind of meta-interest, there is a sense that the dominance of our culture by what I recently called the One Medium of the Internet has led to a breaking down of barriers between the genres of “arts and letters,” all reducible at some point to transmittable collections of bytes. On the one hand, as Stacey well knows (and well described in her talk at Victoria) from her struggles to retain copyright in the student journals she oversees at UCLA, this development often becomes a mindless exercise in genre-mixing that forgets the difference between the composition of an argument and that of a video. But on its more positive side, it suggests a broader approach to the transmission of knowledge, one exemplified, for example, in the inexorable progress of PowerPoint presentations at the expense of the traditional paper-based lectures that fogies such as I continue to deliver. To what extent language will continue to stand on its own in the face of the onslaught of the One Medium is an open question. In my lifetime I have witnessed the introduction of the ball-point pen, television, the Xerox machine, mainframe and then personal computing, the digital camera and videocamera, the VCR-DVD, the cell and then smart phone, and above all, the Internet. A world inhabited solely by those born after the introduction of these devices will perforce be a different one from today’s, although I have enough faith in language to expect that the reading of texts, in poetry and prose, will not wholly disappear.
GA has some right to claim that it understands the function of human language in a more cogent way than any previous “way of thinking.” And the ultimate function of language, as we know, is not “to make sense of the universe” but to focus human desire on sacred objects in such a way that their sharing may be carried out with sufficiently little violence to permit our survival. Large-scale rites have always tended to be multi-media affairs, and with the sound and image capacities of One Medium, the monopoly of language even in its most restricted domains is at the very least put into question. I am sure that next year’s GASC will shed new light on these questions. I feel confident that at the very least it will offer a number of demonstrations of the superior insight made available by our originary anthropology to those who reflect on them.
What I find most encouraging in the success of our Victoria conference is that it demonstrates that GA has been able to remain vital for some 35 years both because of and despite its obscurity. This suggests that we have reached a level of intellectual maturity at which, if we by some miracle became à la mode, we would not be disastrously affected by it. As ways of thinking go, I think that is pretty high praise.