Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Eric Gans in Vancouver: Public Lectures Not to Miss

Eric Gans

Vancouver is this weekend host to a conference discussing the work (and its ongoing extension) of one of the most important intellectuals of our time - his importance for our increasingly decentralized age partly reflected in the fact that his non-charismatic work is not as well known as certain lesser intellectuals who cling to the public showmanship and sacrificial theatre of old. Eric Gans is a prophet for our age when each of us should aspire to be a little leader in our own little neck of the woods. Gans' work, Generative Anthropology, provides us a deeper understanding of what all humans minimally share, an understanding of how culture or language first emerged, in a memorable event, and is since re-presented or generated through history on scenes, or in events, of shared consciousness.

In a global village where cultural and cognitive differences among individuals and populations remain significant, a firmer grasp of those aspects of human nature or culture that we all share helps provide us intellectual and spiritual tools to meet all comers, face to face, and hopefully to engage them in useful exchange, or, if need be, better to confront our enemies, whatever our neck of the woods.

Now is not the time to try more seriously to summarize the work of Eric Gans (though following the links above will get you started). But if you're in Vancouver and you are interested in real thinking, you'd be a fool not to make time on Saturday to see Eric Gans himself present his discipline of Generative Anthropology to the public, in Room 527 of the Vancouver School of Theology, University of British Columbia, 1:30-3:30. (Directions and link to map here) The lecture is titled "Generative Anthropology: A New Way of Thinking". Another public lecture being given as part of the Generative Anthropology Thinking Event is by another great scholar, Eugene Webb of the University of Washington, on Friday afternoon, 1:30-2:45, also in Room 527 of the Vancouver School of Theology. Prof. Webb will speak on "Stepping Back: Religious Faith and the Differentiation of Consciousness".

Covenant Zone blog is also organizing a chat, Friday evening, with a great student of Generative Anthropology, Adam Katz, whom we have often linked at this blog; anyone interested in attending should send me an email by early Friday morning (truepeers@gmail.com) for details. Sorry for the late notice.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Having listened to Gans and read a bit of GA work (both Gans and Katz) I’m still not entirely sure what to make of this ‘new way of thinking.’ Here are a few early impressions though.

GA does provide an intriguing critique of postmodernism, which it does seek to replace. Not being familiar with a lot of postmodernist cultural criticism, I don’t have a solid background in the battle Gans is fighting. The lens GA provides to evaluate identity politics (or what he calls victimary culture) is certainly productive for Gans, and it’s refreshing to see a scholar in the humanities deal with white guilt. Also, GA does seem to excite those secularists who maintain sympathy for religion and wish to continue a dialogue with religious adherents.

I’m guessing GA will find a receptive audience (academically speaking) among dissidents in the places where postmodern and postcolonial ways of thinking have become dominant. This would suggest that theology and aesthetics may prove to be more productive domains than politics (well, theory has its bastions of identity politics; postmodernism hasn’t had a major impact on empiricists). This guess could be proven wrong though.

Part of my problem with GA might be that I don’t really ‘get it.’ As I understand it now, language, morality, and society can be theoretically traced back to the attempt to resolve some primitive understanding to work out distribution non-violently. Okay, that’s a massive simplification, because the centre is given its value through a social process of imitation, but anyway, I sort of understand the basics. Shifting this theoretical event to the political realm though, the key thing GA would appear to be interested in is how people deliberate about the centre (or is it how people ‘learn’ that they want what’s in the centre?). I’m unclear on whether GA offers a normative theory about how people should deliberate. I suspect ‘non-violently’ would be offered as an answer. On ‘deliberation,’ it would be interesting if someone with a GA framework could seriously engage deliberative theorists such as Habermas to see if GA brings anything new to the table. That type of theoretical work isn’t for me however.

As for empiricists, GA (like postmodernism) appears sceptical of their entire venture. This paragraph by Katz is particularly damning:
Since progressive politics must be interested in defending the power of the self-appointed social scientists first of all, it is ultimately the politics of those driven by a visceral hostility toward any public, shared sacrality, religious or secular (“patriotism”), which is to say everything that makes citizens “irrational.” Progressives, therefore, enter those institutions predicated upon some claim to disinterestedness, impartiality, or objectivity (the media, judiciary, academy, and government bureaucracies, especially the “helping” ones) and seek with great tenacity to control them in the name of a circularly defined and self-certifying “expertise” while, by simultaneously “debunking” the very values responsible for the veneration we would like to direct toward such institutions, using them as bases for projecting new modes of aristocratic political domination.
http://www.newenglishreview.org/custpage.cfm?frm=5083&sec_id=5083
This interpretation doesn’t entirely fit with my impression of the business. For example, some of the best social scientists in the US have been of a conservative bent politically (and I know many liberal, or ‘progressive,’ leaning social scientists who are strong supporters of constitutionalism, “at one level the highest form of conservatism”). A bias in favour of liberal democratic forms of governance is pretty much universal and has even managed to spawn its own popular sub-field (democratization). Katz’s argument about the aristocratic pretensions of social science is, I’m guessing, exaggerated for effect, though it probably indicates an existing gap between empirical and GA forms of thinking and analysis. At the moment I’m still not sure if GA can/will produce an empirical research agenda in the social sciences. Since that’s really not what it was formulated to do, I’m very hesitant to condemn it on those particular grounds.

Alright, those are some initial impressions which I though you might be interested in as a fan of GA.
Cheers
Na

truepeers said...

Thanks for your impressions; I assume you are the young man (or are you perhaps the singer?) I talked to about Adam Katz, after Gans' talk on Saturday. Hello again.

Let me attempt a few clarifications in response to your comments:

GA does provide an intriguing critique of postmodernism, which it does seek to replace. Not being familiar with a lot of postmodernist cultural criticism, I don’t have a solid background in the battle Gans is fighting. The lens GA provides to evaluate identity politics (or what he calls victimary culture) is certainly productive for Gans, and it’s refreshing to see a scholar in the humanities deal with white guilt. Also, GA does seem to excite those secularists who maintain sympathy for religion and wish to continue a dialogue with religious adherents.

-yes, I agree, but remember also (maybe this is what you are saying) that some of the GA people are serious people of faith. Gans' claim that GA provides a basis for believers and non-believers to come together and to understand their difference, by reducing it to its minimal basis, seems, both logically and by empirical observation, to be correct. I know of no other place in the intellectual world where a conversation between believers and non-believers is seriously furthering our understanding of what we all share as humans.

I’m guessing GA will find a receptive audience (academically speaking) among dissidents in the places where postmodern and postcolonial ways of thinking have become dominant. This would suggest that theology and aesthetics may prove to be more productive domains than politics (well, theory has its bastions of identity politics; postmodernism hasn’t had a major impact on empiricists). This guess could be proven wrong though.

-I really believe Gans is correct when he says all disciplines in the human sciences could benefit from GA. This, of course, is not to say where it will be more or less difficult to introduce this way of thinking to academic colleagues who tend to be conservative or reactive in defending disciplinary and intellectual boundaries. (In one of his Chronicles of Love and Resentment, some years ago, Gans suggested young scholars might want to get tenure before dabbling too much in GA; that might be practical, but it ultimately depends on how intellectually ambitious and willing to take risks you are. Certain ambition can't be fulfilled if you leave it too late...)

I don't believe that there is any part of the social science academy that is not significantly touched by postmodern thinking or identity politcs. Of course, there is more or less interest in theory, depending where you are. But most generally speaking, we live in postmodern times and certain ideas are everywhere, part of our cultural mainstream. Anyone studying this society, with whatever method, has to come to some kind of terms with it as such. Having said that, there are also signs that the postmodern age is coming to an end. This is what Gans suggested in his talk when he said he finds that it is now easier for him to dialogue with the purveyors of identity politics, i.e. with the postcolonial theorists in his own department.

Part of my problem with GA might be that I don’t really ‘get it.’ As I understand it now, language, morality, and society can be theoretically traced back to the attempt to resolve some primitive understanding to work out distribution non-violently. Okay, that’s a massive simplification, because the centre is given its value through a social process of imitation, but anyway, I sort of understand the basics.

- I think you are getting the gist of it. As Gans said, GA reduces to the argument that, if we are to think about the human clearly or well, we need to have some hypothesis of how the human came into existence in the first place, how we first moved beyond the animal world, with its pecking order "society" and "languages" of indexical signals, to the uniquely human forms of symbolic language and society.

Gans' hypothesis on the origin of the human developed in conversation with and criticism of his teacher, Rene Girard. Girard argued that we stopped being animal when our mimetic capacities became so developed that no alpha animal could keep order vis a vis his competitors. If an alpha animal only has to deal with one competitor at a time, someone will come out on top and the pecking order will remain in place. But if there is a mass confusion of hands reaching for the same thing, forgetting the pecking order in a fit of mass mimetic rivalry, the group will overpower the alpha and chaos and disorder will ensue. The solution to the mass "mimetic crisis", said Girard, was to find a scapegoat who, once killed, would act temporarily to resove the crisis as everyone's hysteria or resentful energy would be focussed on the victim whose death would pre-figure a mythic resolution to the crisis. The victim, at one moment the focus of resentment, would in the next moment be remembered as a God who had had, when present, the power to stay the crisis; and this scapegoating was the (violent) basis for the ritual sacrificial feast, the first form of human economic distribution.

In contrast, Gans argues that before there can be any kind of sacrificial feast (which would have first involved animal meat, not human flesh - human sacrifice, argues Gans, is a relatively late development in human history) there first has to be a sharing of a sign (i.e. a moment of deferred desire). Girard says the sign (enabling the mythic memory of the victim as a god) only comes after the feast. Gans asserts that humanity begins with a peaceful gesture (not, of course, that the sign forever defers our capacity for violence, but that the solution to violence is always a renewal of the shared sign).

In other words, the sacred centre first emerges through a sharing of a sign representing the thing that everyone wants to get their hands on. We create peace by all agreeing to defer our desire to possess something. Instead we renounce it and take satisfaction in this symbolic re-presentation of the thing. And now that we share in a sign of renunciation, we have a model of sharing that can be transferred to a sharing in the material thing. We can divide up the meat more or less equally and engage in an ethic of reciprocity. Note that the earliest human societies are indeed egalitarian, quite unlike the animal pecking order.

Shifting this theoretical event to the political realm though, the key thing GA would appear to be interested in is how people deliberate about the centre (or is it how people ‘learn’ that they want what’s in the centre?). I’m unclear on whether GA offers a normative theory about how people should deliberate. I suspect ‘non-violently’ would be offered as an answer. On ‘deliberation,’ it would be interesting if someone with a GA framework could seriously engage deliberative theorists such as Habermas to see if GA brings anything new to the table. That type of theoretical work isn’t for me however.

-Well the basic idea is to emphasize the importance of exchange, reciprocity, and this includes all manner of political or ethical deliberation. Of course the nature of this deliberation will change over time and place. GA does not offer any fixed idea about what kind of deliberation we should have but suggests we need to always seek ways to increase the freedoms in our systems of exchange. So what is normal for GA is to seek out new kinds of spaces, like here on the internet, where we can expand the exchange of political opinions.

Among other things, those with an empirical bent and an interest in GA might conceive ways to measure the flow of opinion - are we expanding exchange, reciprocity, in the world - or to produce or represent surveys of opinion with aid of anthropological thinking drawn from GA.

As for empiricists, GA (like postmodernism) appears sceptical of their entire venture. This paragraph by Katz is particularly damning

I think you are misreading Adam Katz (but I am going to email him a link to this thread, so he can speak for himself if he wishes). My understanding of Adam is that he wants to reaffirm a basis for disinterested social science in the academy. What he is condemning in this passage is the way the left promotes its projects under the guise of a value-neutral and empirical social science. The problem is that these "progressive" "projects" are are not constructive, open-ended, projects (whose openness would entail a space for truly disinterested thinking interested in defending and promoting openness), expanding the freedom of exchange in our society. Rather, they are deconstructive critques that erode the sense of a shared sacrality (e.g. a faith in a common national and constitutional life) that is necessary to organize or increase freedom and exchange. And so, the left has the effect of enthroning an "aristocracy" of experts who only contribute to profaning our national life (by always finding ways to claim that the normal - what the nation might or has held to be sacred - is a source of victimization).

Adam is very interested, for example, in opinion polling (see his most recent essay at New English Review), an empirical discipline, and the ways it could be used to expand the freedom of political exchange. I believe he is less interested in whether, at any given moment, we take a relatively "left" or "right" position, as long as we are helping develop projects in which both positions can be expanded or refined to help us better formulate or realize political choices.

At the moment I’m still not sure if GA can/will produce an empirical research agenda in the social sciences. Since that’s really not what it was formulated to do, I’m very hesitant to condemn it on those particular grounds.

-Maybe it all depends on young people like you. There is certainly no reason, in theory, that GA couldn't be used to develop all kinds of empirical research agendas and it is in fact designed in part to allow for this. But GA is, at present, a discipline that has attracted people mostly trained in forms of literary or esthetic studies, because its own intellectual origins are here (though, btw, I was academically trained in history departments which are rather more empirical social science than theory departments). These people are not trained or inclined to do empirical research to a great extent. (But here's an example of how GA and empirical research are being brought together by a literary scholar.) If GA succeeds in overcoming the resistance that any form of thinking that is truly trans-disciplinary in its potential faces, then it will influence a range of relatively empirical and theoretical human sciences, just as previous trans-disciplinary paradigms (e.g. those of Marx or Freud) did.

I am a great believer in GA, because I have seen its effect on my own thinking. But I no longer work in the academy and I can certainly appreciate the difficulties a young person would face taking this way of thinking into narrowly disciplinary environments with colleagues who are unfamiliar with it. Still, if you have time and courage to read and think for yourself, you will benefit from a study of GA. If I can help in any way let me know.

AK via truepeers said...

No sooner does Adam get home from a long trip than he sends back a brief email:

"If that is the young man, he is certainly very promising as a reader and perhaps future practitioner of GA... of the passage he quotes, I never say, of course, that there aren't plenty of conservative academics (or judges and lawyers, for that matter)--simply that those are the best places for the Left to build up power bases and manipulate categories we all depend upon for their own purposes. But the broader point you make is the more important one, anyway."