Is it useful to seek a connection between my upbringing in the Bronx during the silent generation and the “new way of thinking” I named generative anthropology? Certainly not in the sense that GA would correspond to what Lucien Goldmann called the vision du monde of the social group to which I belonged, however that group is conceived. But my good fortune in grounding a fairly successful academic career on a theory that, although it has attracted a small but loyal group of younger literary scholars, has been generally ignored by the social sciences of anthropology, linguistics, and religious studies to which its chief conclusions belong, can for better or worse be attributed to my generational situation.
As I like to tell younger scholars who find it hard to believe, at the time when I obtained my PhD, there was a shortage of candidates for university teaching jobs. There was no need for an MLA Job List because university departments still hired under the “old boy” system (which included a certain number of “girls”), and above all, in post-war America the universities were undergoing a tremendous expansion, between the GI Bill and the Baby Boom, which lasted more or less through the 1970s. It was going strong in the 60s, when I got my first and last jobs. After two years each at SUNY-Fredonia and Indiana University, I was invited to apply to UCLA, and began teaching there in 1969—the year of the Manson murders, but also of our moon landing.
My unorthodox ideas were surely easier to conceive (1) with tenure (2) in a literature rather than a social science department. This was the era of “French Theory,” and although I was less than enthusiastic about much of it, it generated many ideas worthy of interest. I was particularly impressed by Derrida, whose thought, although it never abandoned its ultimate faith in metaphysics even while deconstructing it, struck me as informed by a very sharp if unrecognized sense of the anthropological. At the same time, I was particularly fortunate to study with René Girard, the leading thinker of what can now be seen as a Jerusalem-focused counterpart to Athenian post-metaphysics.
I was able to teach seminars on critical theory including GA while directing over 30 dissertations. I always got along well with my students, and am proud to say that every one who actually started work on a PhD with me finished with the degree. And I got along well enough with my colleagues, being twice chosen to chair the department.
In 1995, Tom Bertonneau, Matt Schneider, Richard van Oort and I created the online journal Anthropoetics, which is now about to publish its 57th issue, volume 28, 2. And in 2007, Andrew Bartlett created a group eventually called the Generative Anthropology Society and Conference (GASC), which has held an annual conference every June since then, with the exception of the COVID year 2020.
It has been a source of real satisfaction that although GA has never been fashionable, it has nonetheless remained productive over four decades. To dare to uphold over forty years a seemingly old-fashioned theory of the origin of language and culture, with a scene of origin no less—shades of Freud’s father-murder in Totem and Taboo!—requires a personality that combines a visceral faith in oneself with a liberal amount of chutzpah.
If the reader has followed me so far, he or she might then be interested in seeking to understand how I came up with GA, and have felt over the decades ever more convinced that it is not only fundamentally “true”—the best way to explain human origin, in contrast with the piecemeal investigations of those who consider such broad theorizing naïve—but that it constitutes anthropological thinking’s only authentic means of escape from the Nietzschean “prison-house” of (metaphysical) language.
Not that I would deny the value of empirical studies of language origin, among which I would single out From Signal to Symbol: The Evolution of Language by Ronald J. Planer and Kim Sterelny (MIT, 2021). But my contention is that failure to take into consideration the communal and scenic nature of language makes these authors unable to provide a basis for understanding what language is—what religion is, what the human is—so as to produce a valid anthropology.
One point of the “old anthropology” that has regrettably been lost to the current generation is that expressed by Roy Rappaport in his Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999): that language and religion are coeval, born in the same act, at the birth of what we can simply call the human. Durkheim or Fraser, Boas or Malinowski would have had no problem with this assertion. I find it scandalous that today’s social sciences have often seemed to abandon all regard for religion even as a historical phenomenon.
That the originary hypothesis, although formulated in my The Origin of Language (UCP, 1981) as a thesis about the origin of language alone, has implications that go well beyond the domain of linguistics, explains my decision to call GA a “new way of thinking.” In my various presentations of the hypothesis I have sought to observe Ockham’s razor in keeping its presuppositions to a minimum; literary scholars who have found it of interest as variant of French Theory need not feel obliged to deal with its broader scientific claims.
I shall return to these themes later. But under the assumption that the reader is tentatively willing to consider the originary hypothesis as a significant contribution to humanity’s self-understanding, I will pursue this attempt to explain how I came to propose it.
I was born in 1941 in Parkchester, the Bronx, to a middle-class Jewish family. My father, who had heroically completed his legal studies in 1933, in the depths of the depression, while working full-time in the Post Office, was faced with having to work without pay as a supernumerary in order to obtain employment as a lawyer. And so, like many other young men of his generation, he wound up spending his entire career in the Post Office and never practicing his intended profession. He received a promotion to foreman in 1945, but was unable to adjust to working on the night shift—I believe the real problem was that he felt uncomfortable supervising others. As a result, after a few months, he renounced his new position and remained a postal clerk until retirement.
My mother, born to a wealthier family than my father’s, but whose own father had abandoned her mother (who is said to have subsequently died attempting to give herself an abortion), was brought up by her aunt, as what Balzac called a parent pauvre. Nonetheless, in her youth, she moved in higher circles and was employed as an executive secretary in a prestigious firm. But she gave up her job when I was born, and returned to work only when I entered kindergarten in 1946, after which she was employed in various secretarial jobs for New York City, the last of which was a supervisory position. On retirement, like many of those in similar circumstances, they purchased a condo in south Florida where they spent the rest of their lives.
I remained an only child. I never thought to ask my parents why they had decided this, when most families like ours had two children, even three, although one-child families were far from unusual. In any case, those early years spent with my mother were of great significance. For one thing, they left me with a general preference for women as interlocutors; although I have had many male friends, I tend to feel more at ease with women, who are, in Girardian terms, less inclined to mimetic rivalry over intellectual matters. My mother took me with her to museums and Manhattan department stores. I took advantage of her companionship to learn to read before entering school, and composed little stories on her portable typewriter.
Perhaps my moment of greatest glory occurred in kindergarten, when the teacher held up a book before the class and I read out the title: Where Are the Apples? Today this would be unexceptional, but in 1946 I was the only child in a class of over 40 who could read. Thus I was advanced early in the next school year from the first to the second grade.
Having been used to my mother’s undivided attention, I tended to talk out in class and was often sent to the office of the assistant principal, with whom I developed a friendly relationship. Mr. Seideman sympathized with me, but my teachers from 4th to 6th grade did not. I was told that my 5th grade teacher had had a nervous breakdown as a result of having me in her class, and my 6th grade teacher was openly hostile. At the end of the year when the students were voting on various class “prizes,” she berated one of my classmates for nominating me as “most likely to succeed.” I was finally voted, not the most intelligent, but the most romantic!
Throughout my younger days, as a result of my parents’ sense that I was especially gifted, I had a sense of “election” independent of any particular achievements. This sense persisted through high school and college. In my first year at Columbia I majored in mathematics and was first in my class, but in my second year, in which I was exposed to graduate-level math classes, my grades were not particularly brilliant. In retrospect, this sink-or-swim policy was actually a good thing; to belong in mathematics, you really have to live it, and either understand it with little effort or treat it as a labor of love. (Things might well have been different had there been personal computers in those days…)
As a result, before the end of my second year, I decided to change my major to French, having been introduced to that language during the previous summer. Unlike high school language teachers, my instructors were all native speakers of French, and I eagerly immersed myself in French culture and learned to speak more or less without an accent, although I would not set foot in France until 1967, after I had finished my PhD.
As a doctoral student in the Romance Languages Department at Johns Hopkins I had the good fortune to study with René Girard before he became well-known with his first major book, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, which appeared in 1961, during my first year of study. I believe I was his first PhD directee, although the university could not confirm this; in any case, of those who later attended gatherings focused on his work, I was his senior student and the only one who had not come to JHU explicitly to study with him. Throughout the years he was very kind and helpful to me; his coolness in his declining years (after having rejected my anthropological theories) could not destroy my sense of gratitude both for his help and friendship, and for the example of his thought.
Given my sense of “election,” I had always felt that I should create what I would eventually call a “new way of thinking,” and this before I knew what this “way” would turn out to be. Having been introduced by Alain Cohen, a UCLA PhD who taught at UC San Diego, to the Batesonian school, and in particular to the notion of “pragmatic paradox” in Watzlawick, Beavan, and Jackson’s 1967 Pragmatics of Human Communication, my first efforts in this direction involved what I called “paradoxical esthetics” or l’esthétique paradoxale, which led to a volume of essays published by Gallimard on the recommendation of Michel Deguy, a philosopher and poet with whom I remained friends until the end of his life.
Girard invited me as visiting professor to Hopkins in Fall 1977, after I had been chairman of the UCLA French Department, hoping to offer me a position on the faculty. This was not to be. Yet I was even then more relieved than disappointed not to be working side by side with Girard at a time when I had not yet fully developed my own ideas.
And it was during this visit to Baltimore that I first glimpsed what would become the originary hypothesis, the foundation of generative anthropology—at the time, wholly in the context of language. Whence The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation, which I began to write directly on returning from my Hopkins visit and would be published by UC Press in 1981.[to be continued]