It seems increasingly obvious with the years that the postwar phenomenon, rather too diffuse to be called a movement, of la nouvelle critique, and subsequently of (post-structuralist) “French theory”—generally dated from Roland Barthes’ 1953 Degré zero de l’écriture, although writers of L’école de Genève such as Georges Poulet (Etudes sur le temps humain, 1949) had already inaugurated a French version of the “new criticism” more anthropologically oriented than the English—was in fact a new genre of thought, which we may call humanistic anthropology. As opposed to traditional literary scholars, these thinkers saw in literature the best opportunity to explore the human itself at the most fundamental level, which is that of language. What Symbolist poetry had been at an earlier moment in literary history, from Rimbaud through Mallarmé, literary analysis had now become.
Today, the historical moment in which this tendency was a major force in the academy has come and gone, although a few names (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard…) remain titillating for those in “soft” social science fields. I will repeat that I consider that generative anthropology, which begins from Girard and includes Derrida, constitutes the ultimate synthesis of this genre.
A couple of years ago, in Chronicle 568, Adam Katz suggested as a strategy for academics interested in GA that they should not see it as a substitute for thorough grounding in a specific field, but should rather, after reaching professional competence in that field, explore GA’s potential contribution to it—at first, at least, within its accepted parameters. I rather wonder if Adam still considers this a real possibility, given that the academy has become ever more hostile to any theory that suggests that ascriptive identities and the injustices they arouse are not at the center of all human relations.
What I still like to call liberal democracy is characterized by a shared sense of the limits of political action, and a tacit agreement to stretch these limits only gradually, which is to say, a general accord that however much one disagree, all sides share common norms, which permit what might be called “reasonably reasonable” discussion. There is no sense in seeking to make precise the boundaries of these norms; it is these boundaries that are the subject of debate—but not their fundamental qualities.
I think it is sufficient to mention Speaker Pelosi’s ceremonious tearing-up of the president’s State of the Union address this January to demonstrate that the victimary side of the aisle, which speaks of “Resistance” to an elected president as though to an enemy occupation, has become something other than a loyal opposition. But what more particularly concerns me is that the domain of the Humanities, which deals with human culture as an intentional enterprise, is almost entirely dominated by this same mentality. GA is not a political doctrine, but its vision of the human is incompatible with the unquestioned reliance on the epistemology of resentment (see Chronicle 621). Fortunately, its dominance is not total, whence the possibility of publishing these Chronicles under a university aegis, but we cannot expect that many opportunities will be available for introducing a GA perspective into academic fields. It is easy to understand why Eastern Europeans such as Ryszard Legutko (The Demon in Democracy; Encounter, 2016), readily compare Western liberalism to the mentality of the defunct Warsaw Pact.
In response to this illiberal “liberalism,” the social sciences, partly no doubt to sidestep this tendency, have tended to retreat into a methodological empiricism that in particular denies any qualitative specificity to the emergence of the human (see for example Chronicle 611). Yet the whole history of GA shows that humanistic anthropology cannot define itself as a methodology claiming to adopt a neutral perspective toward cultural practices, but must be rooted in a substantive hypothesis of human origin. This was already the case with the various strands of French Theory, except that the tendentiousness of their own (implicit) originary hypotheses, consonant with the growing victimary climate of the intellectual world, was largely taken for granted. Whence the marginalization of Girard (see in particular Chronicles 638 and 643), as well as the reluctance of most of his more recent followers to challenge the status quo. From what I have been given to understand, in his later years, Girard himself, who had enjoyed skewering the critical establishment in the past, was not eager to stand up to this tendency.
Thus the social sciences reject humanist anthropology as “unscientific” on the grounds of what can simply be called materialism: however complex, human behavior can in principle be reduced, like everything else in the universe, to a set of interactions describable by algorithms. Indeed, if the principle of “conservation of information” is correct, the entire history of the universe should be deducible from its origin (see “Big Questions from… Alan Guth,” Scientific American, April 2020, p. 6) in the “speck” of “an exotic form of matter” that “began to inflate” in the 10-24 second before the “big bang”—whatever this is really supposed to mean other than constituting the solution to an equation. But in any case, the increasing success of AI suggests that, however different human thought is from “machine intelligence,” it would be foolhardy to assume that humans can accomplish anything that cannot eventually be simulated by a machine.
When back in 1980 John Searle proposed, in his paper “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Behavioral and Brain Sciences), the “Chinese room” model of artificial intelligence, his point was to distinguish by reductio ad absurdum mechanical from real human intelligence, or “mind.” But the fact that the man in the “Chinese room” who “converses” in Chinese by following the program’s instructions has no understanding of the characters he is producing is an irrelevant distraction, whose intuitive basis lies in the unstated assumption that he would work at a pace many degrees of magnitude slower than the computer whose instructions he would be following. For if indeed he can always respond correctly and in real time in Chinese, then an outside witness would have no way of demonstrating his “inner” ignorance of the “meaning” of his actions. How indeed can I know whether your brain does not operate like a Chinese room? Or for that matter, my own?
Debate on this question is about as useful as counting angels on pinheads. At least until the algorithms have been written out, we cannot explain the origin of the human more efficiently than in the minimalist terms of an originary hypothesis, concerning which I am unaware of any comparable alternatives to our own. If the human be defined by the deferral of the pre-human menu of “instinctual” reactions, a deferral mutually communicated by a sign, then its innovative elements are defined by categories of thought, which is to say, as forms of cultural communication, whatever their psychophysical specifications.
Since machines have no “instincts,” their problems are not of deferring anything, but merely of functioning appropriately. I’ll leave it to the cyberneticists to simulate instincts and their deferral—which I can’t imagine a single cyberneticist has ever thought of in these terms—but for the moment I think we can take it for granted that whatever ability machines can demonstrate in solving problems, even in writing poems or painting pictures, it bears no direct relationship to human consciousness. Like all biological phenomena, language and consciousness arose because they were necessary, not, as the various social sciences never cease to assume, because primate brains were getting so big that they just had to express themselves in “conscious” language. The intriguing prospect of an AI simulation of GA’s originary event, in which the sacred emerges simultaneously with the sign as a means of safeguarding the existence of the proto-humanoid community from internecine violence, is a thought experiment that I rather doubt I will live long enough to see put into practice.
The upshot of all this is that the inheritance of French Theory is dismissed, even by those human scientists who had been intrigued by Derrida and Foucault, except insofar as it can be understood politically, in terms of épistémés that express the world-view of a dominant race/gender/class. We must not forget that the originary hypothesis which remains implicit throughout Derrida’s De la grammatologie is that language is from the first a form of “writing” and therefore of oppression—recalling the origin of the sense of écriture defined by Barthes in 1953.
I therefore think we would do best to assume that the only area of the academy in which GA can hope for a decent level of acceptance is in the most humanistic corner of the humanities, that is, what remains of departments of “language and literature.” I hasten to note that UCLA, which was in the past the more humanistic of UC’s two main campuses, being notable for its numerous “language departments,” has now, after a concerted effort to attrit most of the European ones, amalgamated them into a department of “European Languages and Transcultural Studies” (ELTS).
But students are still able to read Homer and Sophocles and Shakespeare, not to speak of Sappho and Austen. Nor has Orwellianism reached the point where all literary analyses must conform to the victimary model. Unlike social scientists, most literary scholars are not wholly devoid of esprit de finesse.
GA has no political philosophy; it implies at most a meta-philosophy, considering the worst system except… as imposing the least prior constraint on the degrees of freedom of human interaction. But if China’s Brave New World really succeeds in maintaining order and promoting general prosperity while the West continues to apologize to the world for its waning superiority, GA would be obliged to accept this too as anthropological reality. “Freedom” in the Western sense would simply have proven too divisive, in a world where technology can produce both weaponry of previously unheard-of destructiveness and the means of maintaining the high level of control required to insure that it not be used to destroy the social order. The fact that all humans would continue to share the “moral model” of reciprocal exchange is not in contradiction with this, as it has not been in contradiction with the totalitarianisms of the past.
My judgment that the Humanities is the only academic area in which GA can flourish should not be understood as an expression of resignation. It is easy to argue about politics, but more difficult, and more rewarding, to probe the secret of the satisfaction we find in works of art. No one sensitive to beauty can sincerely attribute artistic value to a work of propaganda, whether it be of political correctness or “socialist realism.”
It is never too late to learn from works of art. Indeed, it is only in what is too quickly named “esthetic pleasure,” but which is really an experience of revelation that reconnects us with the originary sense of sacred transcendence, that we encounter something like an objective correlative of our anthropological hypotheses.
Yet I remain of two minds concerning the eternity of art, and—cosmic cataclysms aside—of human culture. As we have seen from its erosive political effects, the epistemology of resentment is not content in principle with any norm of behavior that either presumes or tolerates ascriptive differences. That it has become taboo to deny that a man who wishes, even without modifying his anatomy, to be “gendered” as a woman, is a woman reflects the degree to which the victimary obsession can be carried. In a world wholly dominated by such thinking, as under any Orwellian regime, the production of authentic artworks would risk becoming impossible.
Nous n’en sommes pas encore là. Even Hollywood can make fun of PC, as witness Ruben Fleischer’s 2019 Zombieland: Double Tap. But we cannot afford to take anything for granted. The West’s clearest sign of cultural suicide, the demographic deficit that now includes the US, leaving Israel as the sole self-reproducing modern Western state, goes far deeper than PC. The strange respect that Islam arouses in those for whom sexual equality and gay marriage are the pillars of democracy is based on a reality far more significant than shared resentment: the fact that its believers believe in it, and that this belief is widely instantiated in reproductive sufficiency.
Faith lets the mortal community transcend time; art provides it with a reproducible experience of time’s irreversibility. Civilizational failure cannot be redeemed by art, merely memorialized. I devoutly hope that GA’s clarification of these truths can help reverse the tide of resentment eating away at Western civilization.