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SEHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind
Updated 4 June 1995

book review

originary thinking: elements of generative anthropology

Eric Gans, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993)

Peter Gilgen

Eric Gans, whose recreational activities include distance running,[1] has covered a lot of ground during the past decade. Since 1981, the professor of French at UCLA has published four books of altogether more than a thousand pages on the need for and the theory of generative anthropology. His latest book, Originary Thinking, marks an end of sorts. In the first part, Gans offers "a general introduction"(vii) to generative anthropology and a description of its method, "originary analysis." The second part presents an outline of aesthetic history from its beginning to the postmodern present. It can be safely inferred that Originary Thinking is intended as a definitive exposition of a method now firmly in place and ready to be adopted as a primary tool in all of the human sciences. The first part consists of a synopsis of the analyses in The Origin of Language (1981). In the second part, Gans resumes the discussion of high culture initiated in The End of Culture (1985) and extends it through the postmodern "exit from aesthetic history"(219). Precisely in this "refusal of art," argues Gans in a manner worthy of Hegel, lies "an invitation to science" and thus the possibility for originary thinking. The influence of Science and Faith is obvious in the justification of the human sciences that pervades the present work. A critical appraisal of Originary Thinking entails a general discussion of generative anthropology as well as an analysis of Gans's total narrative that unfolds over the course of all four of his books on the topic.

In The End of Culture, Gans proposes "a new set of principles for the conduct of human science"(1985, x). On the one hand, these principles provide solutions -- or at least the benefits of a coherent, if at times reductive, theory -- for hitherto unresolved problems. On the other hand, generative anthropology for Gans amounts to more than just another set of tools that could supplement the plethora of methods within the human sciences. Undeterred by the contemporary skepticism towards totalizing and universal claims, Gans ascribes to cultural relativism and to "the currently fashionable victimary discourses" the responsibility for the loss of a common ground, namely "our unity as a species," that is, "the human in universal terms"(vii). While this rhethoric might have uncanny overtones, it should be stressed, in all fairness, that Gans's concept of the human does not naively ontologize a particular set of values as human nature -- in spite of Gans's shakily rationalized "unabashedly occidentocentric" preferences (1985, ix). Rather, Gans thinks through the minimal structural requirements for the emergence of the human.

At the beginning stands the insight that the simultaneous origin of language, of culture, and of the specifically human (for Gans does not seriously consider the possibility of animal language) must have been collective, as well as event-like. Previous hypotheses have either stressed the contractual or the event-like nature of this origin, but were unable to unify both of them. For how could a convention concerning a particular sign be established, if some sort of language as the medium of this agreement were not already in place? And if a herdsman -- or Herder -- recognizes the bleating of a sheep as its distinguishing mark, which thus becomes its name, how would this solitary shepherd communicate his discovery to other humans? For Gans, the first task of his undertaking consists in constructing a plausible originary scene that combines both of these equiprimordial conditions of language and culture.

Rene Girard's theory of the scapegoat shows how a first collectivity could be imagined. More than just a randomly assembled group, but not yet a full-fledged society with elaborate rules and structures, this collectivity must be imagined as constituted for the purpose of deferring mimetic violence. By singling out an emissary victim and thereby avoiding direct -- that is, instinctual -- retribution, the members of the group experience for the first time a moment of "non-instinctual attention." Henceforth, this process can be repeated whenever a "mimetic crisis" arises and is thus institutionalized. Gans proposes a slight but influential change in Girard's scene. Instead of an emissary victim, he imagines a killed animal surrounded by hunters at the center of attention. Each hunter is eager to claim his prey. But as each one of them extends his hand in a gesture of appropriation, he becomes aware of all the other hands reaching in the same direction. This symmetry suspends the gesture midway. The center remains untouched, while the extended hands are turned into an ostensive sign designating it. Not only is this moment the birth of the sign, but it also institutes communal economy by overcoming the previous instinctual order of sheer dominance and by translating the reciprocity of the sign into actual material equivalence when the prey is divided among the hunters.

Clearly, this scene depicts an event, while, at the same time, stressing the collective element. It avoids the paradox, for becoming a language user and becoming human are seen as coextensive. For Gans, all subsequent cultural developments can be described in terms of and relation to this originary scene. Its structure is the very structure of representation itself, while the actual referent occupying the center is subject to change in any given cultural context. In light of Gans's (and other Girardians's) frequent attacks on Freud's and subsequent psychoanalytic theories, it is important to point out that this uniquely significant center whence any symbolic system originates is nothing other than the name of the father -- as Gans's parallel "name of God" confirms further.

However, that the originary hypothesis is not entirely original does not weaken its systematic claim. In fact, as far as the genealogy of syntax is concerned, Gans's generative perspective offers a most relevant critique of ordinary language philosophy. The fourth chapter, largely based on the more extensive discussions in The Origin of Language, contests particularly Searle's stubborn insistence on the primacy of the proposition and on so-called sincerity conditions for all speech-acts. Besides Derrida's devastating deconstruction and largely independent of it, this marks easily the most comprehensive (and certainly the most constructive) critique of speech-act theory and its underlying propositional model of language. Instead, Gans presents an evolutionary theory of syntactical forms -- from the first ostensive sign to the "constative declarative" proposition. He charges philosophy with an ahistorical and thus "metaphysical" understanding of language and expresses his hope that philosophy, instead of emulating the empiricism of the positive sciences, "may yet be persuaded to become a branch of human science"(85).

Nevertheless, the declarative is assigned a special function in Gans's generative frame as well, but for diametrically opposed reasons. Precisely because the declarative is the form of language that no longer requires the presence of its referent in order to be understood, it becomes operative on the next level of cultural development. Its implicit diachrony "permits the full separation of understanding from belief"(91). This, however, is the basis for the emergence of fiction.

In the concluding chapter of the first part, Gans juxtaposes the two paradigms of fiction that dominate the contemporary scene: narrativity and textuality. Since generative anthropology is itself an authoritative narrative, it comes as no surprise that Gans rejects the narrative's reduction "to a mere accident of textual substance"(101). While language always presents itself as a text, its anthropological import lies in its interpretation as a narrative. Already the first (transcendental) sign establishes this dialectic; and subsequent exegeses of sacred texts are its most elaborate expositions. Against logocentrism, Gans thus asserts the primacy of the text. But, at the same time, he assigns to this primacy a specific (proto-)historical moment and rejects the indiscriminate post-Nietzschean exaltation of the text. In a passage vaguely -- but not coincidentally -- reminiscent of Augustine, Gans links human time and narrative. Just as human time is always framed by the timelessness of eternity, the textual center always already encompasses its narrative revelations. Doubtless, this constitutes an astute analysis of Christian hermeneutics. However, it could be debated whether the rabbinical tradition -- mentioned only in passing (108) and assimilated all too quickly by Gans -- is not part of a counter-tradition of textualism that only re-emerged with full force in postmodern literary theory. If this is the case, as Susan Handelman suggested about a decade ago, then Gans's one-track history is, indeed, in need of supplementation.[2]

The second part of the book at first glance appears to be a case study, an application of originary analysis to aesthetic history. But if Gans's previous books are taken into consideration, a more pressing connection between the originary hypothesis and the historical development of aesthetics can be discerned. In The Origin of Language, the analysis of the development of language is followed by a description of the emergence of the genres of discourse. To be sure, the 'logical' derivation: dramatic, lyric, narrative (epic), is exactly the inverse of the historical emergence of these forms in Greece, which, here as elsewhere, serves as Gans's main model besides Jewish culture. While this contradiction triggers an engaging reflection on the "circularity of history"(1981, 237) and the increasing detachment of literary forms from their ritualistic origin, such intricacies are streamlined in Originary Thinking. The next installment of this story can be found in the third part of The End of Culture, probably Gans's most brilliant writing to date. Here, he juxtaposes the "narrative monotheism" of the Jews to the emergence of a secular aesthetic culture in ancient Greece. Although both models have profoundly influenced Western culture, they favor very different ways of sublimating resentment. While Judaism stresses morality above all, it cannot escape, as Gans shows, the problem of representation which nevertheless does not become thematic. Greek culture, on the contrary, is entirely depending and reflecting on the aesthetic domain. For a generative theory of cultural forms in the West, the Greek example has more to offer than the "narrative monotheism" of the Jews.

The abrupt ending of The End of Culture should have made it clear even to an unsuspecting reader that the end of the story still awaited telling. This tacit promise is fulfilled in the second part of Originary Thinking. Gans discerns five paradigms in the aesthetic history of the West. Classical aesthetics exemplifies the secularization of the sacred center. Unlike the faithful ritual re enactment of the originary scene, the aesthetic reproduction is determined by an openness that can admit any content. Here, the separation of form and content is achieved. The structural center of signification alone, not the actual object occupying its place, is taken into consideration. The scene of representation is thus made explicit as an imaginary, internalized scene. The structure of simultaneous identification and resentment, operative in classical tragedy, is a recasting of the originary paradox, the center's simultaneous attraction and repulsion. As a matter of principle, the self of the spectator is always excluded from the center. The protagonist of comedy, unworthy of centrality and thus of resentment, reinforces this exclusion, the rationale of which is grounded in the social structure of the Greek polis.

The moral egalitarianism of Christianity requires another aesthetics. In the neoclassical aesthetics, the dichotomy between center and periphery is no longer self-evident. The scene of representation must itself be represented in the artwork in order to justify significance. In medieval art, martyrdom (Chanson de Roland) and election (Dante) confer significance, while Renaissance art -- Gans cites Marlowe and Shakespeare -- explicitly asks "the question of the protagonist's place"(152).

When every individual is assured of its own, unique soul, it is only a small step to the total internalization of the scene of representation. This shift from the public center to the private periphery lies at the heart of the romantic aesthetics. This development must be seen in connection with the emergence of modern bourgeois society. In the aesthetic as well as in the social sphere, the links with the traditional past are severed. The aesthetic domain itself functions now as the main mediator between the individual and the originary. In an act of self-aesthetization, the self becomes the center and, by the same token, due to its remoteness from the whole, the exemplary victim.

Initially conceived as a reaction to the exalted subjectivism of romanticism, realism in fact reinforces the crisis of mimetic art. Once the imitation of the ordinary becomes the standard, the distinction between center and periphery collapses. By the same token, popular culture, which refuses the deferment of desire (and thus, strictly speaking, desire itself) and instead anticipates the division and consummation of the central object, challenges the ascetic sublimation of high art. The post-romantic aesthetic snobism reacts to this challenge by asserting the autonomy of the aesthetic domain and purging it from the intrusion of experience. The resulting opposition between the worldly and the aesthetic domains is turned on its head by the modernists who rehabilitate desire and, in fact, take it to be a pre-representational force. Under the auspices of this primitivism, the originary scene must appear as the beginning of repression. Scandal and spontaneity are to shake off this yoke. However, as the modernists forget systematically, only the originary scene of representation makes this critique possible in the first place. But once the pre-representational source of the spontaneous and ever-new dries up, the always deferred end of culture becomes thematic.

The postmodern, as Gans observes, "presents itself as an end of history within time"(207). The last vestiges of authenticity come under the scrutiny of postmodern irony. The distinction between popular and high art is recast as an opposition between a primary, seemingly authentic, unmediated work (of which modernism provides the most radical examples) and a secondary work that always includes a reference to its own derivative nature. This ironic stance, however, no longer permits a vision of an originary scene. Instead, it foregrounds the inescapable representationality of the aesthetic domain. This, concludes Gans, "forces the scene-in-itself [. . . .] upon the theoretical consciousness"(219). In other words, now that the end of art is reached, the time has come for generative anthropology. Only from this end-point does the origin become transparent.

There is no room for any misunderstanding: as the reconstruction of the overarching narrative in all his anthropological writings shows, Eric Gans belongs to the tradition of the big system-builders. It is true, however, that Gans formulates a hypothesis, the verification of which "can never become an established fact, but only a heuristic probability"(1981, 6). Thus, he maintains an essential openness in his theory that does not admit to an "end of history"(viii). In the wake of this resistance to closure, a serious problem arises. From what standpoint does Gans proceed? Does he not posit himself, rather safely, at the precise moment when a new universal theory of the human sciences -- and of the human in general -- comes to itself? Does he not claim that the ontological continuity between the scene of originary representation, subsequent representations and meta-representations (as in the representations of representations in logic) can be only grasped under the perspective of his generative anthropology?

Originary Thinking is an end not unlike Hegel's end of history, which Gans, incidentally, misconstrues (131). But that can be excused. After all, it has been quite a run.

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1. See "About the Author," Science and Faith (Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990); Eric Gans had previously published The End Of Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); and The Origin Of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981). Page references to these books will appear parenthetically in the body of the text. Page references that do not include the year of publication refer to Originary Thinking.

2. See Susan Handelman, The Slayers Of Moses: The Emergence of Rabbinic Interpretation in Modern Literary Theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982).