This year’s GASC conference, organized by Roman Katsman and sponsored by his home institution, Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, had been postponed from last year, and we had hoped to hold it in the traditional in-person mode. But despite our disappointment at being limited to Zoom, the quality of the papers was high and the atmosphere was cordial and friendly throughout. The GA faithful were well represented: three of the four original contributors to Anthropoetics in 1995 were online as were all three past and present presidents of GASC—which I managed to persuade the group to pronounce a la “UCLA” instead of as “Gask.” (Try imagining USC as “Usk”!)
I won’t discuss the individual papers, but I was impressed by the innovative character of many of them, both those in the literary domain and those that ventured outside it. This overall impression confirmed my notion that generative anthropology is best understood as an originary phenomenology, a way of thinking grounded in an ontology not simply intuited via introspection a la Descartes, but founded on an originary scenario that can be described and discussed, and consequently not only placed in parallel with other humanistic discourses but used to provide intuitive tests of social-science results.
This reflects the uniqueness of GA as a mode of originary thinking that remains open to everyday human intuition, while being in no way incompatible with scientific findings. The principle of a shared scenic hypothesis does not limit us to any particular configuration, once we have accepted (1) that human language and culture emerged in/as an event, and (2) that the human cannot be derived from any combination of animal traits in the absence of such an event.
Since its origin with the publication of The Origin of Language forty years ago, GA has had to deal with the fact that the originary hypothesis is non grata in the academic/intellectual world. I have come to the paradoxical conclusion that the root of this situation lies in an intuition common to both GA and the social scientists who dismiss it: that to speak of an originary event is necessarily to evoke the sacred.
This intuition entails that, in order to avoid contaminating empirical science with the “sense of the sacred,” it does not suffice to bracket or even deny the existence of God as a transcendent being. For whether or not founded in a transcendental ontology, the sense of the sacred is inseparable from what I have been calling “humanistic” thought.
I experience the sacred in the first place as an external will imposing itself on me, a will to which my first reaction is one of originary resentment, since it frustrates my desire. Nonetheless, in the originary context, I must submit to this will as providential, insuring my own survival as well as that of the human community.
The One God of the Hebrews embodies the sacred will in perhaps the clearest terms. Under his rule, resentment of the sacred is not embodied in a symmetrical countervailing force, such as the Zoroastrian Ahriman or Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, but in the paradoxically subhuman yet articulate form of the serpent.
The result of the expulsion of the sacred from social-science anthropology is that the unique aspects of human culture, language included, must be classified within the overall category of genetically determined traits. Thus the transition between our ape ancestors and ourselves is assimilated to that of speciation in general: language, religion, human consciousness, like the opposable thumb, must be understood as “adaptations” whose emergence can ultimately be explained in Darwinian/Mendelian terms. GA’s evenemential hypothesis of origin is not so much rejected in preference to a better one as dismissed as a category error.
Other considerations aside, this bracketing of the sacred in the digital era no doubt reflects the urgent need to explore the limits of artificial intelligence as a means of fulfilling the Frankensteinian project of constructing a more efficient version of human intelligence, and by extension of “the human” as such, free of the interference of an intuition whose worldly source in the interaction between the individual and the community appears irreducible to an algorithm.
The historical irony of it all is that just when we come up with an anthropology that explains in rationally comprehensible terms the titillating paradoxes of “deconstruction,” those who had allowed themselves to be titillated have abandoned such matters for “critical race theory” et al, whereas those less susceptible to titillation have sworn off all such para-scientific excursions and returned full-time to their laboratories, where they can avoid woke politics as well as “unfalsifiable” hypotheses.
How then can we hope to reverse this consequence of the reinforcement of the dominant empirical research paradigm? It is tempting to assume the role of Cassandra, claiming that it is the all-too-evident “decline of the West” that makes it unable to acknowledge the genius of generative anthropology, or in less spectacular terms, the sacred as an essential component of the human. But before resigning ourselves to a tragic fate, we should exert ourselves to seek other options.
In this context, the one thing that I would have liked to see more of in our conference, and that I hope to see more of in the future, is work with a substantive focus on GA and the sacred. Although most of the papers touched on religious themes, only Bishop Pierre Whalon’s was focused on the sacred’s fundamental relationship to generative anthropology.
Given the literary orientation of most of GA’s adepts, the sacred is not an easy subject to deal with—nor was it the theory’s original focus. Literature encounters religion on various levels, and a number of papers focused on religious themes or paradigms within literary works and oeuvres. But because literature is by definition a secular, “post-religious” activity, such analyses can touch only peripherally on the more fundamental relationship of the sacred to the originary hypothesis.
Along these lines, it seems to me of the greatest importance for the continued flourishing of GA to establish a mutually nourishing dialogue with religious thinkers, including theologians who accept not merely the existence of God but the dogmatic basis of a given religion, whether Christianity or another. I strongly concur with Bishop Whalon’s vision of GA as a potential ally of theological reflection, which, as he emphasizes, is always really about the human: religious faith is human faith.
Given the demise of French Theory and the consequent erosion of the platform in literary studies for examining the tension between the metaphysical and the anthropological, the field of religious studies remains the sole academic domain in which the human distinction of a soul informed by the sacred remains a subject of serious reflection.
But this does not require us to sign up for new PhDs. There is still a great deal of latitude in language and Comparative Literature programs for interdisciplinary research. The Urtext of GA, Girard’s 1961 Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, is as much a reflection on the sacred foundations of desire as on the novel form—and all of Girard’s works, as well as my own, were authored by professors of (French) literature.
The fact that both of us have frequently been taken for “anthropologists” is not a category error. The excitement that inhabited literary studies after the First World War and throughout the 20th century—the criticism of Valéry, the Russian Formalists, the New Critics and the Nouvelle Critique, and in particular of Girardian “mimetic theory” and GA—was a result of literature’s being perceived as a prime source of anthropological intuition. And by the same token, the return from fictional to sacred texts should not be seen reductively as “the Bible as literature,” but rather as a demonstration that the textual sensitivity we have gained through literary study can be applied to sacred texts as well.
This perspective should allow us, even in today’s climate, to escape the victimary reductionism of CRT and the like. On the contrary, the framework supplied by GA and its interaction with religious texts provides the basis for an anthropology whose political implications are generous rather than vindictive. Just as we need not espouse the ideology of slavery to recognize its historical superiority to the execution of prisoners, so we need not advocate other obsolete hierarchical distinctions in order to evaluate them in their historical context, always remembering that the first imperative of any society is to maximize its chances of survival—and that until very recently, the fundamental ethical values of any society were guaranteed by a shared conception of the sacred.
One final point. As I mentioned in my conference talk, the examination of the world’s religious texts and practices in the light of the originary hypothesis provides a template for any number of research projects that can occupy our minds and enrich our anthropological understanding. My brief analysis of Nagarjuna’s Mahayana Buddhism at our 2016 conference (see Chronicles 515–516) provides but a foretaste of our originary phenomenology’s potential as a method for comparative religious study. I very much hope that the intrinsic interest of such projects inspires other members of the GA community to explore this domain far more deeply.