Why a “Generative” Anthropology

I have taken up the task of reporting on the works of Eric Gans and the broader subject of Generative Anthropology (or “GA” for short) as many people in my circle have seen others in the reactionary sphere turn to Generative Anthropology without understanding why or what its significance is. So here begins a new project of mine, this blog. I had previously made a youtube “Let’s Read” series where I would summarise the works of various authors, but as I delved into more and more intricate literature that is further removed from any public discourse on the subject, youtube became a less viable platform for introducing these ideas. Thus, I am choosing this outlet to discuss more topics that I see as unsuitable for youtube viewers. Starting with Gans’ “The Origin of Language” that most reading this by now may have heard of, have a brief and vague awareness of its subject matter or even understand it well beyond I do, and are here to add to what I have written (which is greatly appreciated). Thus, let us examine this approach to constructing an origin of language that pertains to an event and is social rather than evolutionary.

The Significance of Representation

Gans is well aware that there have been no empirical efforts to reconstruct a primal scene over the last few decades of anthropological discourse. Which is to say that, it is the view of many social scientists that the shift from a prelinguistic consciousness to a linguistic consciousness was one that was microscopically slow and thus, paradoxically ‘unconscious’ and hence unobservable. Instead, Gans claims to put forward the first ‘originary scene’ of language that is collective and quote “evenemential” (which is french for pertaining to an event). But moreover, Gans lays out some criticisms in the preface of his book of other authors, predominantly philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his criticisms can be summarised as making the accusation that some other authors’ originary scene demands a prior deferral of action. Which is to say that either they are abstracting too far away from the human condition, perhaps to something isolated and individualist as in the case of Rousseau, or that such a ‘scene’ isn’t really ‘originary’ because the deferral of an action has already happened. But to reiterate, the biggest emphasis in Gansian theory is this dialectic of the originary scene as collective and evenemential. It has been useful to read blog entries that explain these ideas in a more digestible way before reading the text; a lot of the time so far I recognise what he is talking about from GA blog or Brussels Journal and then can use my memory to think about what he is writing, not just trying to configure it then and there. So for now, it is important to understand the question of “Why a generative anthropology?”.

The most basic means of knowing – perception, induction, testimony, if you like – may provide us with some link between our consciousness and the world around us, but we will never have direct knowledge of it. Instead we know nature only phenomenologically. However, the significance of representation, the way we speak, symbolise, portray, etc, is that the same standard of knowledge need not carry over. Referents may remain mysteries, but surely not our representations of them as representations are direct. The only means by which this standard wouldn’t carry over is by representation being inseparable from its referent and similarly with the meta-signs we use to represent the latter. That is to say the subject of representation could only be held to the same epistemic standard as its objects if not only the two were the same, but they were also inseparable from our very representation of representation itself. But if this were true, how would thought itself be possible?

So why is language our starting point? Simply because to talk about any subject we must recourse to language, as only through representing a subject with signs which we are already familiar with are we able to grasp it and understand it. For this reason, the fact that representation is not understood by many, is disagreed upon, and is something of a mystery is itself the greatest mystery. However, this is not to reduce language to a set of manipulable symbols used to understand the objects we perceive in this world, which is the position intuited by most people of our times when being introduced to the subject. Instead, Gans argues that this “pure” theory of representation is insufficient as it offers no meaning for metarepresentation, for the representation of representation itself, without contradicting its universality. This pure theory is merely a matter of pattern seeking, of explaining our normally non-reflective use of symbols in terms of the syntactic, phonetic, and morphological. Instead, Gans is interested not in patterns, but in representation itself, to understand language to represent representation as it were.

The first reason why this pure theory of language fails to explain meta-representation is because to even put forward such a theory from the beginning assumes you have some transcendental, object-referent distinction that the proceeding theory must be subject to. By such a view you could not even begin to talk about the relationship between signs and their non-linguistic object, so such a pure theory requires an antecedent theory of meta representation. Similar to say logic, which expresses how the state of affairs in an objectless world distributes itself across propositions, furthermore meaning that which is true or false is outside the realm of logic. A fact made clear by the distinction between soundness and validity, as what logical means is there to prove soundness? So because all logical approaches to representation require some transcendental distinction between sign and object, the only verifiable theory of representation is a theory that is historical, that is anthropological, so this is where Gans begins his methodology.

Gans asserts that the only construction of this transcendental hypothesis we are looking for, one that does not mistakenly presuppose an object-referent distinction, is owed to Girardian theory. It is Rene Girard that first provided a meaningful ontology through his own transcendental hypothesis. In contrast, to this ontology we have sought out, the social sciences have what is commonly called a “physics envy”, this being the desire to emulate the objectivity of the Newtonian system but instead, Gans simplifies the social sciences and the phenomena they study to systems of representation. With of course exceptions such as economics, geography and other empirical studies that, although remain operational, still do so at the expense of their roots in representation. So nonetheless, Gans’ biggest concern for the social sciences is this epistemic problem we have put forward, that of a study that neglects the representational nature of its own subject matter. The social sciences are in essence theories of representation which, being themselves representations find no concrete epistemic ground to stand on.

But if we are to accept this, there must be some guarantee of the correspondence between representations and the reality they purport to represent. In Philosophy, this has been achieved through the mind and its objects being unified by the metaphysical, that is some transcendental relationship that cannot be established by the sciences. But if it be recognised that the social sciences are in essence theories of representation which, being themselves representations, can invoke no essential epistemological superiority to their subject matter, then it becomes clear that it is necessary to posit an ultimate guarantee of the correspondence between representations and the reality they purport to represent. Philosophy has always done this through what we have called the “metaphysical” affirmation of the unity of the mind and its objects. This unity, whether immediate or mediated imminently or transcendentally, is evidently incompatible with scientific discourse, because it is not subject to verification within the realm of the discourse itself.

However, just as the user “Imperius” who’s blog is entitled “Divinity, Society, and Politics as One” has informed me, Gans separates Generative Anthropology from metaphysics. Which is to say, formal meaning is not material, evolutionary or unconscious but social. Imperius leaves propertarianism in this regard, as it is Curt Doolittle’s view that formal meanings are a reflection of the material world, a view that is positivist, justificationist and ultimately falls in on itself. So nonetheless, Generative Anthropology sees to combine formal representation with sociality as the material world cannot be measured with concepts of meaning, identity, morality or culture, but instead, these are ideas that are conceived from a “shared attention” that is measured by meaning, in contrast to material reality. “Shared attention” merely referring to the convergence of attention from the group onto some central object that is the source of its newly discovered/created communal being. As we will see.

Moreover, the Girardian Hypothesis is transcendental not because the first object of representation is marked as sacred, but because it marks the very form of representation and its cultural expressions. The sacred according to Girard being an irreducible primitive category that is made unexplainable by any effort to represent it in any way other than metaphysically. This would mean the origin of the sacred and the origin of representation were one of the same and thus, the two categories were interchangeable. In contrast, Gans points out the materialist nature of this by noting that the originary category of the sacred is brought about by the a posterior reflection and representation of the profane. Which intuitively seems desacralising in itself, as if Girard is explaining the sacred by the profane.

Girard’s Hypothesis

So now we should turn to laying out Girard’s hypothesis which consists of the following characteristics:

  1. The origin of representation must be evenemential
  2. The emergence of a quantitative difference
  3. The transcendence of non significant (“animal”) mechanisms for maintaining the collectivity
  4. The Event
  5. The victim’s body as the first signifier of the sacred
  6. The reproduction of a sign

Now, to explain each point we have just listed. The first of which being, the origin of representation must be evenemential (pertaining to an event) as a continuous process would have no way of distinguishing the first representation’s separation from its object. This is one of the biggest contentions by new readers of Generative Anthropology, but it is one of the most dismissable given an accurate understanding of what is meant by this. However, we will return to this later.

Furthermore, the second characteristic of the Girardian Hypothesis is the emergence of a quantitative difference. Which means that man has a uniquely mimetic quality to him, all animals see themselves mimicking the behaviour of members of their own species and potentially that of other species as well, but man is unique in the rewards for his inclination towards imitation.

The third quality of Girard’s theory is the transcendence of non significant (“animal”) mechanisms for maintaining the collectivity. The imitation of appropriative behavior leads to potential rivalry among members of the same group, that amongst animals is solved by adherence to a hierarchy that limits rivalry to one-on-one relationships. But amongst men this breaks down as we acquire a certain threshold of mimeticism that creates conflict ‘spillover’ to other members of the group.

From this we get the 4th quality of Girardian Theory which is that of the event. Where the mimetic conflict that has surpassed the threshold unique to man for the previous characteristics given finds itself an emissary victim. A figure that is suspicious and baselessly decided to be the cause of the conflict by the group, a diseased, crippled, of strange appearance or origin-apt to member arouses the suspicions of the group and is collectively murdered. Discharging the groups aggression and creating the conditions for the sacred and representation.

From here, the 5th step is the victim’s body as the first signifier of the sacred. In the sudden quietness that has come from the discharge of such violence, the first non-instinctive attention of the group descends upon the body of the victim. Simply because the victim is perceived by the group to be both the cause and the resolution of the crisis that had just played out. The victim is the significance of the process, of the cycle and is transcendental, having a quality of sanctity endowed upon him.

The 6th characteristic is the reproduction of a sign, because the group has found itself reaching an unprecedented level of communal peace, the group will use new victims to resolve future crises. Here we see the origin of ritual sacrifice in the representation of the originary event. Girard also posits that the origin of language coincides here with the exclamations, screams and shouts accompanying the originary event. But the origin of language is not Girard’s main intention.

The Significance of a Transcendental Hypothesis

Now, this event is not to be considered unique and distinguishable unitarily as a single moment in history, but rather is to be seen as a mechanism that is reproduced when met with a set of critical circumstances. Many new to this will outright reject it because they have mischaracterised the event as the latter. Instead, the event marks an origin of representation that then begins the gradual evolution of its more explicit forms (e.g language), although the first form of shared attention is not gradual and is absolute. So community doesn’t “evolve” from a Hobbesian conception of the state of nature, it doesn’t emerge gradually from a condition of violence, but the violence is instead the result of a crisis unseen by the animal world. It is this that pertains to an event.

Gans’s first commentary on Girard is recognising the seeming disparity between ritual, the sacred, religion, culture on one side and violence on the other. It is of an “anesthetic” character as Gan’s puts it. It is simply anti-intuitive, especially given the hypotheses concrete, evenemential and absolute nature. For this reason, one might discredit Girard for de-sacralising representation, for de-mystifying previous theories and demonstrating that representation is violent towards the objects it represents. Additionally, the victim-as-sign appears before the sacred, making the former and the latter distinguishable and independent from each other, meaning the language of the sacred emerges from the function of the sacred and not the representation of it itself. From this, Gans sets out to provide a fuller theory of representation, not one that places the sacred as antecedent to representation, but one that sees representation as the very form of communal presence.

Gan’s argument begins with the notion that if the body of the victim is a collectively constructed, universal and transcendental sign that the community emerges from. It would mean that any meaning from its representation could only come to be at the very moment of the victim’s murder. So in order for this meaning to extend beyond this event, there must be a linguistic sign, a gesture or a word coined for it. A sign that must be coined by those members of the group present in the original situation, simply because the presence established at the moment of the murder has never existed separately from it, it has no existence outside the community. So the question becomes, can the reality of presence, the primordial manifestation of communal peace and the collective murder, be separated from the originary event?

Our theory would answer that this presence we have just noted is itself the origin of representation, which will manifest itself in things far removed from the sacred, in much more obfuscated ways. The evolution of representation then in Gansian theory is one that only needs to refer to this original generative representation. This is the generative nature of the model, as it is one that is self-sufficient, it is auto-referential, it is the realisation of a generativity present in the original sign. So hence, Girard’s theory is one that is institutional, it is concerned with the sacred, the communal solidarity, the esthetic, etc’s presence in the originary event while Gan’s theory is formal, it concerned with how these forms reproduce themselves and how overtime, this presence becomes an abstraction. The two not being contradictory of course, but differences in emphasis.

So we have spoken about this transcendental sign, this referent that stands outside the referent-object distinction, a sign that refers to the totality of the significant and that all signs indirectly refer to. While also, it is a sign that no individual has the power to reproduce. And it is a sign that is not arbitrary, but it is a being that was once living, that’s death is real but also mythical and ultimately, appears with the original event as an epiphany. All of which being guaranteed by an institutional deference to the sacred. And this representation reproduces itself, is generative as it were, because the very existence of the community is permanently dependent on it. So there we have it, this first transcendent sign is spawned from a collective presence. From this communally constructed empty form of representation, the transcendental sign is given content.

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