GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 4, 2010


Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:18 pm

I fell a bit behind in my reading of the Chronicles of Love & Resentment, and so I just got to the extraordinarily interesting Chronicle # 388, “Ecriture from Barthes to GA,” and wanted to make this brief comment on one small part of the essay:

The sacred is not a mysterious, otherworldly quality; it measures the human community’s sense of the danger posed to it by the mimetic desire aroused by different phenomena. What we call secularization is the process whereby these dangers come to be assessed within their concrete historical context rather than by reference to originary history as preserved in religious traditions. Pace the militant defenders of atheism, the progress of secularization over the past three centuries is far from having demonstrated the ability of modern societies to provide a rational basis for these assessments.

The difference between the sacred and secular is presented in very minimal terms here, to the disadvantage of the secular, because, presumably, the “concrete historical context” doesn’t provide the measure of danger that originary history does. That would be why modern societies have been unable to “demonstrate the ability” to rationally assess mimetic dangers—and, if they can’t do it “rationally,” than how? This seems to me a contention that is remarkable, rich in implications, and irrefutable. But I would like to probe it a bit further. First of all, “concrete historical context” doesn’t seem to me to be establishing the necessary sacred/secular distinction here, because such “contexts” must themselves be the result of secularization. In other words, it’s not as if there was previously a choice between assessing dangers in terms of an originary history or of concrete historical contexts, and only now did people choose the concrete context as their reference point. Furthermore, Gans here speaks in the idiom of modern secularization itself, which is perhaps inevitable but without some mitigation this idiom will not help us with our risk assessments. What I have in mind is the very general character of the narrative of secularization implicit here, while the only real process of secularization we can point to is the one issuing from the break with a very specific originary history, that provided by Christianity. Concrete historical contexts are produced because this particular “religious tradition” came to be seen, on its own terms, as producing scapegoats—the various “heretics” that emerged once Europe emerged (in large part thanks to Christianity itself) as a more bourgeois, inquisitive, urban society later in the Middle Ages. Since these heresies, when capable of defending themselves, could produce no new consensus, but only civil war, the only way of making mimetic dangers present was through the construction of a system of signs with the human subject (like Jesus, without the divine origin) as its origin—the human subject can in this way present itself as the sign of deferral of sacred violence, the creation of new Christs in the name of deferring violence carried out in the name of Christ. Modernity is then driven by the replacement of one constitutive human figure, around which “concrete historical contexts” constellate, after another—from the elevated (heroic scientists, artists, liberators and philosophers) to degraded (the various class, racial, sexual, and other others of the victimary period).

The linguistic turn comes into its own as a possible ideological replacement for these humanisms when the violence committed in the name of all these figures in succession leads to the deferral of the human figure itself; and the only way of doing that is by presenting the human as constituted by something else; language, a self-contained system that couldn’t have come before but doesn’t in any clear way seem to have come from humans. This is what makes possible the originary hypothesis: in its initial—scientistic, anthropological and ultimately victimary political—incarnations, the linguistic turn forbid any originary scene even more than previous modes of thought, as the originary is itself perceived as the source of violence—no mode of originarity other than those grounded in some human figure seems possible, and those have all been exhausted; but the insistence on language as a self-contained system is also what made it possible to think its origin: in considering language as a self-contained system constituted by its own internal relations, it is counter-productive to presuppose some pre-existing “content”—in this way lots of very mystifying ways of thinking about the origin of language (as a mere extension and improvement of indexical signs) are cleared away and it now becomes possible to think about language as such emerging all at once in an event.

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