I spent the first years of the new century adapting to a new marriage and to a new phase in my career at UCLA in which I was no longer in full harmony with my profession. UCLA had always treated me as worthy of advancement. But when I came up in 1997 for promotion to Above Scale, or “Distinguished Professor,” although I had already published 11 books and many articles, I was turned down for the promotion. As I later learned, I was rejected not only by the extra-departmental professors evaluating my file but by the (new) Dean, who later told me that she frankly didn’t think I deserved it. The fact was that I had never cultivated the other people in my field, and my anthropological writings were not such that these literary scholars felt able to exercise an independent judgment on them, save in the sense that they could observe my relative lack of professional visibility.
I was shocked by this rejection, and my affection for UCLA has never recovered from it. It took me two additional attempts, and ten more years, to obtain this status, and it is likely that I never would have been promoted had there not been a change in the administrative procedure that allowed a new Dean to approve the promotion on the recommendation of the department without the formation of a so-called ad hoc committee of outside faculty.
Meanwhile, the domain of French letters was no longer what it had been in the days of Sartre and Camus, or even of Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Duras. The most popular area in the department was now “Francophone” literature, that of France’s former colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. Fortunately, by chance I had taken over the role of teaching French film. A colleague in the film school had proposed we teach a joint course together on filmic and literary realism back in 1994, and following that experience, given that no one in the department was teaching film, I learned enough about French film and the basic cinematic techniques to revive our film program, from lower-division to graduate, and would eventually direct several doctorates in film. This was a fortunate change, since interest in traditional French literature had greatly diminished, and in my last decade or so of teaching I taught more classes on film than any other subject, although I continued to offer my GA seminar.
Stacey having encouraged me to do more research for my books, I spent a good deal of time researching The Scenic Imagination from Hobbes to Freud (2007), which presented these modern originary scenes not as mere fantasies but as modeled on a genuine originary intuition: humanity was in its origin a communal phenomenon.
At the same time, my interest in film and my “romantic” spirit led me to a project on the life of American actress Carole Landis, who had committed suicide in 1948 at the age of 29. This was something of a vacation from my anthropological reflections, and it involved both interviewing some old actors and more hours of library research than even my dissertation, leading to Carole Landis: A Most Beautiful Girl (2008) in the U of Mississippi Press Hollywood Legends series.
Meanwhile, as a result of a trip to Vancouver and meeting with a coterie of admirers of Girard called “The Sparagmos! Group,” including Pablo Bandera, Andrew Bartlett, Christopher Morrissey, and Richard van Oort, who was at that time teaching at UBC in Vancouver, the stimulus was provided for the creation of the GA Society and Conference (GASC). This was formed (and its initials established) a year or two after the first GA Summer Conference, organized by Andrew Bartlett, was held at UBC in June 2007.
I continue to be amazed that this organization has not only maintained a formal structure with dues, a president, and a secretary-treasurer, a position ably filled since the outset by Ian Dennis, Professor of English at the U of Ottawa, whom I have always considered “the adult in the room,” but has put together a conference every year since then, although our 2020 conference scheduled for Bar Ilan University in Israel had unfortunately to be postponed in view of the Covid epidemic. A cohesive group was formed that has held together ever since, with a few defections but above all with the addition of new and, recently, younger members largely inspired by the writings of Adam Katz on various internet forums. This year’s conference, our 16th, will be held at Palo Alto under the direction of GASC founder Andrew Bartlett, along with Zack Baker and Zenon McKinnon, two members of the generation of my grandchildren.
The era of “French theory” and “deconstruction” was a time of intellectual experimentation, when the vocabulary of philosophy and that of the social sciences intermingled in ways at times undisciplined, but which in the broader sweep of intellectual history sketched out the contours of a new anthropological perspective, one that reflected more deeply than in the past on the scenic elements of interwoven human lives and given “textual” density via the literary and/or visual language of novel, drama, and film.
I need not repeat here points I have made elsewhere about Jacques Derrida’s perverse but highly insightful anthropological intuitions, which can all be understood as scenic, and of which the most fundamental is his idea of différance: the deferral of immediate action that permits the constitution of scenes and the signs that accompany them. It is of secondary importance in the greater scheme of things that rather than treating la différance as a foundational anthropological concept, Derrida saw it primarily in the context of deconstructing the metaphysical edifice of philosophy; but as a consequence, those attracted to Derrida’s thought, and Derrida himself, never saw GA as relevant to it. And if Girard’s thought has survived in better condition than Derrida’s (Girard and mimetic desire were referenced in the Friday May 12, 2023 New York Times crossword puzzle!), it is because its concepts (mimetic desire, “scapegoating”) can be applied directly to worldly situations without reflecting on their role in humanity’s historical development.
GA has the potential to restore to our understanding of history in the past and present a Burkean respect for order and tradition to counter the Woke illusion of having revealed the primordial moral truth behind millennia of oppression and exploitation. But the present era is skeptical of originary constructions. The originary hypothesis requires of those who would explore its possibilities a new mindset that is able to abandon the “prison-house” of metaphysical language for a free act of tentative adherence to an intuitive model.
About ten years ago, Adam Katz and I proposed a book on antisemitism to an organization called the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP), whose director Adam had encountered at a conference. Our book was accepted and was published in 2015 by Brill in the Netherlands under the title The First Shall Be The Last: Rethinking Antisemitism. But although we had been promised that we would be asked to participate in public discussions of the book, these were limited to a single “book launching” in New York City attended by twenty-odd people. The book received almost no publicity from ISGAP, and its price is so excessive that it can hardly have sold more than a few copies even to libraries.
It is instructive to note how closely the support of our book by ISGAP resembles the status of GA in the world of the social sciences. Just as the originary hypothesis violated a taboo, so did our approach to antisemitism. Instead of dealing with the unpleasant history of the subject, which has been well documented by scholarly historians, our point was to explain antisemitism in terms of what we conceived as its essence. Our title was borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount, and indeed many passages in the New Testament suggest that the fate it predicts was to be that of the Jews, whose arrogance (“Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”) is blamed for Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.
Our point was that this Pauline perspective was above all a critique of Jewish firstness, the Hebrews’ paradoxical recognition that there is only one God for everyone, but that at the same time, as those to whom this was first revealed and who proclaimed it in the Torah, the Jews present themselves as the One God’s “chosen people,” whether or not they declare this explicitly.
Given the success of Christianity and its universalization of monotheism in the West, the Jews’ firstness, which inspired John Paul II to call them the Christians’ “elder brothers,” was an obvious source of resentment, one that makes pogroms, expulsions, and finally even Hitler’s project in all its horror all too understandable.
But this is not what an association formed to combat antisemitism wants to hear. It sounds too much like a justification for antisemitism—as though the act of explaining it is by its very nature indecent. Somehow this idea had not penetrated the minds of the decision-makers until they actually had the book in hand, but when they realized what they had approved, they could find no role for it.
Yet had we had a chance to defend it, we would have pointed out that however important it may be to mobilize people to fight against antisemitism here and now, it must be understood in the context of the history in which it is rooted, in which the “absurd” Christian belief in the Resurrection, which guaranteed the extension of the One God’s worship to non-Jews, was the capstone of the Axial transformation of the archaic into the modern world.
To understand this historical phenomenon does not imply that antisemitic acts and doctrines must be “accepted.” The only deeds that we can influence are those to come, and understanding the evil ones of the past is not helped by rejecting their rational explanation. It is unfortunate that it is only in the wake of the Holocaust that we have really come to understand these truths, but it does no honor to its victims to refuse to explain their fate. On the contrary, it is only by making past evils understandable that we render them easier to prevent in the future.
How then can this point be made with respect to GA as a whole? In the first place, we should point out that it is GA that made our explanation of antisemitism possible. GA’s originary perspective on the sacred understands monotheism as a progress over polytheism, not because GA is itself monotheist, but because it sees monotheism as an anthropological advance. Monotheism’s conception of the sacred is closer than those of the various polytheisms to its basis in the human “sense of the sacred,” which, however varied its expressions have been, is like language essentially the same throughout all human societies.
In a word, what drove different groups of hominins to abort their act of appropriation and transform it into a sign was the same phenomenon everywhere, and recognizing this is certainly one of the great advances in human self-consciousness. The sacred itself is a fundamental human characteristic independently of how it is or is not conceived as incarnated in a divinity, and in that context, the greater correspondence of monotheism to the human condition is a simple fact. But when Christianity arrived to spread this Jewish revelation/discovery to non-Jews, resentment of the Jewish pairing of the One God with the sense of being God’s exemplary people—the root of antisemitism—became inevitable.
By the same token, the originary hypothesis may well be the best model so far advanced for explaining the emergence of the human. But it seems certain that it can only come to be generally accepted as a result of the research in the human sciences that it is able to inspire, research that will both flesh out and modify the conclusions of my own less than fully scientific speculations.
I am nonetheless confident that this new way of thinking already provides a sufficient basis for a rethinking of the social sciences, founded on the integration of the human sense of the sacred, along with the sign, the scene, and the event, into the core of anthropology. It will be up to those who share this intellectual faith to overcome the taboo of the Société linguistique de Paris and demonstrate to the world that yes, it is possible to propose a useful, rational hypothesis concerning the origin of humanity, its language, its religion, and its culture.