I have been arguing for the past twenty years or so that Generative Anthropology is, insofar as the term can be used in human science, essentially true. But the current trend of autobiographical “witnessing,” far from a mere spinoff of the talk shows, reflects a central question of anthropological epistemology. So much must be taken on faith in using a model like that of GA, that however “objectively” such a model is presented, there is always a point in asking the question “D’où parlez-vous?” [Where are you speaking from?] Whence the interest of investigating GA’s personal “origin” in my own hypothetical socio-psychological predisposition to such theories. This interest is not biographical, nor even ultimately sociological, since sociology has no way of discussing the overall human (anthropological) significance of the social formations it studies. But we must begin from these personal and sociological givens if we are to gain a meta-anthropological appreciation of GA capable of preventing its reduction to a reflection of the socio-psychological status of its inventor.
My first approximation to a self-definition will be as an example of “Bronx romanticism.” Without speaking of anything like discrimination or “victimization,” third-generation lower-middle-class Americans like myself were not well integrated into American culture. When I was born, ethnicity was still something one divested oneself of; back in the 30s, my uncle changed his (and my mother’s) family name from Finkelstein to Fintell. My father finished college (CCNY) and law school, but never practiced law because of the depression and never acquired the esthetic tastes of a man of culture. Thus although I was comfortable enough with cultural materials to abandon mathematics for the Humanities, I was not enough at home in my own culture to study English, of whose colonial nature I am suspicious to this day, resenting less the colonization of the thirteen colonies than my own. Whence the attraction of a foreign language, particularly that of the country that helped us–Lafayette, nous voilà!–to throw off the English yoke.
But the acquisition of French culture, and of culture in general, was of too great consequence for someone of my lowly but respectable social status to take lightly. Whence my intense and durable resentment of modernism–and the reason why I became a “dix-neuviémiste” [19th-century specialist] rather than a “vingtiémiste” [20th-c. ditto]. Modernism is a distillation of everything about culture that excludes me, not excepting a generous helping of antisemitism. The modernist, typically of upper bourgeois stock, despises the culture of the bourgeoisie and above all the lower “white collar” aspirants to this culture, who cannot afford to treat it with the contempt of those who already possess it.
Freudianism, and even more so, Lacanianism, is a form of modernism, the latter in its arrogant, mystifying style more so even than in its elusive content. The mimetic theory of desire, on the other hand, is founded not on Nietzschean arrogance but–however drastic the oversimplification–on Christian humility. The individual is not invited to make himself interesting via a personal myth–the primitive and essential function of Freud’s “primal scene”–but to shed all pretensions of “originary” uniqueness. The simple mimetic triangle offers the possibility of constructing a more convincing collective model of the origin of desire than Freud’s attempt in Totem and Taboo to invent an originary scene on the basis of Oedipal frustration.
GA’s minimalism, in contrast with the richer but less rigorous Freudian mythology, reflects the tabula rasa of a class lacking all cultural baggage beyond intelligence and self-discipline. In opposition to modernist mystification, GA simplifies. Its challenge is to avoid being reductive. Here a sociological analogy offers clarification. The meritocratic social model espoused by the white collar class is not “reductive”; in imposing intelligence as a criterion, it privileges and encourages the trait that best correlates with potential creativity, that is, the potential generation of new degrees of freedom. Similarly, GA’s minimal model is all the richer in potentiality because its understanding of the human is bound by the fewest constraints.
Why is GA a manifestation of “Bronx romanticism”? It is, in the first place, the creation of one from the Bronx, that is, of one without a well-defined culture of his own; it sets human equality at the origin of all cultural phenomena. Because the path by which the universal reciprocity of the originary scene leads to such phenomena is always historically reversible, there is no culture, however aristocratic, from which I am in principle excluded. The opening-up of the cultural to one defined only by the desire and capacity to acquire it–the representative of white-collar respectability as opposed to blue-collar resentment–is an essential element of GA. But it is only one half of a diptych.
The other half, which adds to “Bronx” the qualifier of “romantic,” can be revealed only in something of a confessional mode. (I will trust the readers of these Chronicles not to spread it to those among whom it would be likely to damage my reputation.) The romanticism of originary thinking depends on the simplest of paradoxes: in imposing the requirement of a minimal theory, which I am at the same time the first to create, I leave minimal room for competition. The richer the original content of the theory, the easier it is to participate in its elaboration; the quirks and absurdities of Freudianism have done anything but hamper its development. GA’s generative structure makes this maximally difficult. Its minimalism is the maximal defense of my own contribution to anthropological theory.
At this point, the oxymoronic nature of the expression “Bronx romanticism” might seem to reflect the quasi-unviability of the theory it illustrates. It is here that my sociological argument must transcend itself in anthropology.
Like Virgil in the Divine Comedy, sociology can only take us so far. It is an “etic” theory, one that situates the theoretician in another world from the theorized. As even George Soros understands (see Chronicle 82), this is not the way human institutions really work; the etic model is justified only in “local” cases when contamination between the two universes can be limited. More typically, the highest level operates as a “market” on which the theoretician’s views can be discounted. Such is the case, for example, with political opinions: pundits analyze the nation’s political configuration, at the same time contributing to and thereby modifying that configuration–but there is no universal political truth to which these views tend.
But I am not providing sociological sources for my own ideas in order to pigeonhole them in a sociological grid. Rather than reducing GA to its sociological determinants along the lines of the “sociology of knowledge,” my idea is rather to demonstrate the world-historical generativity of my own particular social origins. Some moments of historical space-time are more productive than others, and the present exploration of my own is founded on the assumption that the truth of GA is associated with a certain social experience, not put into question by it.
I’ll develop these points further in a future Chronicle, hopefully in an Anthropoetics article, perhaps even in a book. It seems to me that lack of previous social standing coupled with the desire to acquire cultural knowledge gives a pretty good approximation to the indefinite status, not only of the participants in GA’s hypothetical originary scene, but of those in John Rawls’ liberal-democratic “original position.” Human culture is “for” everyone, but whether one seeks to understand how human culture arose or wishes to create a model of the “good society” to which it presumably tends, the best model of “everyone” must eliminate all a priori privilege, while at the same time requiring a genuine commitment to the social order that excludes such figures as Sartre’s “least favored member of society”–no social order can be driven by the needs and desires of those with the least ability or commitment to offer it. The “Bronx romantic” is therefore not a bad approximation to “everyone.” As we shall see, this figure’s marginal position in the academic world is itself not without significance.
To be continued…