With the lifting of most travel restrictions, we were able to hold our first conference in three years in what the French call le présentiel at the University of Ottawa. It turned out, however, that the only persons present at the start of the conference, other than Ian Dennis, the organizer, and Zenon MacKinnon, who was there to receive the student award, were Matt Schneider, Ken Mayers, and myself—the first two being participants in my first UCLA GA seminars and friends of Tom Bertonneau, a founding contributor to Anthropoetics (and creator of its name) who passed away from ALS last September, and to whose memory a session of the conference was devoted. Andrew McKenna, an old and loyal friend, joined us on Wednesday.
Given the ever-decreasing funding available for academic travel by those not subsidized by research grants, and on the other hand, the ever-increasing sophistication of distanciel technology, the traditional sit-down academic conference seems destined to become a luxury item more and more reserved for corporate-subsidized spreaders of Wokeness. Zoom does have its advantages; we noted with pleasure the greater readiness of Zoomers to participate in dialogue with the speakers, given the considerable reduction in intimidation by figures seen on the egalitarian screen as opposed to in person.
This being said, aside from their indispensable presence for the tribute to Tom, I was particularly glad for the opportunity to spend some time with Matt and Ken. They along with Andrew McKenna had been present at the primordial GA conference held at UCLA back in 1990, where our speaker was the late Marvin Harris, known for his materialist anthropological analyses, in particular for championing Michael Harner’s theory that the Aztecs slaughtered and devoured large numbers of human prisoners as a substitute for the large meat animals as yet absent from the subarctic Western Hemisphere. Matt Schneider’s power-point for Tom included a number of photographs of all of us during the reception following the conference.
There were a number of excellent papers and many others worthy of interest. What interested me the most personally, as someone now entering his ninth decade, was what I sensed as a new degree of willingness by more than a few participants to accept GA as a truly fundamental anthropology that explains not merely the origin of language but that of the human in general.
My talk emphasized the root of GA in René Girard’s understanding of mimetic desire that makes humanity alone in the animal kingdom the source of its own greatest danger, and, as the sole means to prevent its self-destruction, the inventor/discoverer of language and the sacred, products of what Jacques Derrida called la différance or deferral. Derrida himself, who always remained “in the margins of philosophy,” limited this conception to the semiotic domain, but its anthropological foundation lies in the deferral of physical appropriation through the collective force of our sense of sacred interdiction, resulting in the contemplation of its no-longer-contested object on the linguistic scene of representation.
I emphasized that this biblical-Girardian vision is incompatible with the Greek-metaphysical understanding of language as independent of any worldly origin in human interaction, and how much my understanding owed to Girard’s fundamental lesson that, however indispensable the post-Hegelian efforts of metaphysics at self-transcendence that culminated in deconstruction may have been to the synthesis I have attempted, the Bible is ultimately a surer guide to our anthropological self-understanding than philosophy.
If we would understand the emergence of humanity and its steady if far from linear historical progress, we must view our originary discovery of language and the sacred as means of deferring the potentially violent conflicts inspired by mimetic desire. Whence GA’s definition of the human and its culture as founded on the deferral of violence through representation.
Whether or not I was able to get this across to all the conference participants, I think that I made clear that it was Girard’s insistence on the all-but-Satanic force of mimetic desire that led me to understand that language was in the first place a means, discovered under the guidance of the sacred—whether conceived as embodied in the human community itself or in a transcendent being—to defer any individual attempts to implement this desire by allowing all to represent what seemed to be possessable by only one. This process allowed for a peaceful transition from the ape Alpha-Beta distribution system to egalitarian one of the human “equal feast,” still practiced today in pre-hierarchical societies, and in a less self-conscious form, by modern humans.
Among the generally excellent crop of papers, I will single out two that struck me as representing compelling new possibilities for GA’s participation in the current intellectual “conversation.”
The first was Magdalena Złocka-Dabrowska’s paper on “GA in Dialogue with Malinowski’s Concept of the Trobriand Islanders’ Kula Ring.” As opposed to anthropologically oriented professors of literature like Girard and myself (and just about everyone else in GA), Magdalena is our one and only professor of anthropology. She has been a faithful participant in the GASC since attending the 2015 conference at High Point, and very effectively hosted our conference in Warsaw in 2018. Her GA interpretation of Bronislaw Malinowski’s key analytic model provides GA with an opportunity to participate in a professional dialogue that has hitherto excluded it. (Now if we could also find a linguist interested in our theory of the origin of language…)
The second was Chris Fleming’s fascinating piece “I Know I Am but What Are You?” which associated GA with the therapy involved in the cure of addiction. Girard’s work has been successfully adapted by psychotherapists, first and most notably by Jean-Michel Oughourlian, who has published several volumes of Girardian psychiatric theory (including a forthcoming translation, by our own Andrew McKenna, of his recent work L’altérité). His focus on mediation and the therapist’s role in making the patient aware of the presence of the mediator in his own psyche can be seen as a restatement of Freud’s metapsychology in more fundamental, mimetic terms.
But Chris Fleming seems to have discovered a more dynamic therapeutic role for GA, based on a dialectic of deferral as a means for the cure of addiction as well as the prevention of suicide—despite the rising crime rate, by far the leading cause of violent human death. The therapist tells the addict or the prospective suicide not simply “no!”—the equivalent in Girardian terms of revealing the presumably hidden mediator, or for a Freudian, uncovering the repressed source of his obsessive dream or other symptom—but rather, “yes, but not yet,” extending in time the deferral of succumbing to the destructive temptation and thereby permitting the subject to gradually acquire the strength to overcome the obsessive drive to self-destruction.
Chris’s idea strikes me as a brilliant intuition that I hope he will develop farther into a psychological model based on GA’s originary conception of the human. I was especially happy to welcome this effort by someone who has been over the years one of the GA community’s most creative (and not exclusively “academic”) thinkers.
Given the considerable number of papers of real quality, Anthropoetics should have no trouble filling both issues of Volume 28. Above all, as we will necessarily be transitioning to either mostly- or all-Zoom conferences in the future, it was reassuring to see that the format works well, and that we can all expect to become more comfortable and proficient with the medium. At the conclusion, Andrew Bartlett made the excellent suggestion that any participants present at the conference site would do well to bring their laptops and take their place along with the others in the Zoom portrait gallery.
As we had already witnessed at the 2019 Conference in New York, a younger and increasingly post-academic generation of young people have, largely through the online activities of Adam Katz and/or Denis Bouvard, become attracted to GA. Zack Baker, who works outside of “academe”—and who contributed a provocative paper, “Technology as Scenic Design,” to this year’s conference—has created his own GA website: http://generativeanthropology.com , with references to Adam’s and my work, among others. Other GA material on the web includes a YouTube series in five parts entitled Lets [sic] Read The Origin of Language by Eric Gans (including Adam’s introduction to the second edition), with explanations by Trudiltom, who is I believe a young Australian.
I find very exciting that generative anthropology has acquired a momentum of its own that in no way depends on my initiative, nor on passively repeating my ideas. This is the way real intellectual movements are born. It is a source of great satisfaction that young people can be attracted to GA for its inherent intellectual qualities rather than as a “job skill” at precisely the time when the traditional universities, particularly including the most prestigious, are increasingly dominated by woke dogma.
The emergence of this para-academic intelligentsia is in sharp contrast with the post-WWII intellectual fermentation within American universities that made my own academic career so much smoother than those of young scholars today. I very much look forward to the growth of this element, which combines the qualities of youth with the non-fetishistic respect for the Western intellectual tradition that I hope to have infused into GA. Zenon MacKinnon, the recipient of this year’s GASC Student Award, who is sixty years my junior, and who presented his paper relating GA to the anthropological writings of Giorgio Agamben, is another young man of great promise. All this gives me hope that these ideas can survive on their own power in the face of the current decline of the “soft” intellectual disciplines, and play a major role in what is hopefully emerging, in Allan Bloom’s terms, as the re-opening of the American mind.
Let me end this Chronicle with the expression of my profound gratitude to all those who have stuck with GA over the years, and most of all, to Ian Dennis, who organized this conference thirteen years after running the excellent conference in Ottawa in 2009. As our Secretary-Treasurer since the outset, Ian has devoted far more time and energy to GASC than anyone else. I hope and trust that he will recover from the strain this conference has put on his health, and that he will remain for many years to come our “adult in the room.”