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  • From First Hesitation to Scenic ImaginationOriginary Thinking with Eric Gans
  • Andrew Bartlett (bio)

Taken together, the publication of Eric Gans’s The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day (2008), the recent release of Adam Katz’s anthology The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry (2007),1 and the organization of three international gatherings devoted to generative anthropology2 suggest a recent infusion of vital energy into the forward movement of generative anthropology. The goal of this review essay is to add a little to that infusion. The essay surveys the six major books of Eric Gans in which the originary hypothesis is defined, developed, tested, and taken onto various intellectual terrains. It has been composed with the readers of Contagion in mind. Insofar as it has a definable stance, that stance emphasises elements of generative anthropology that might encourage scholars and students familiar with the ideas of René Girard but more or less unfamiliar with the thinking of Eric Gans to begin studying Gans free of inhibitions about discontinuities between his way of thinking and that of Girard. This essay’s mode is one of affirmative exposition rather than critical suspicion. Its multiple suggestions are advanced in the conviction that neglecting one thinker for the sake of the other does an injustice to both. [End Page 89]


The person ready to study the book where generative anthropology began—The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (1981)—should be set for an extraordinary experience. It stands as the most austere, abstract, and taxing of Gans’s books; but by virtue of those very qualities, the most rewarding and the best basis for understanding subsequent elaborations of the hypothesis. The Origin of Language may feel odd to readers who come to it working “backward” from later volumes or articles. In it, key terms in the later works, such as “resentment,” “mimetic,” “scenic,” even the adjective “originary,” do not figure prominently. In expositions where Gans explains the differences between René Girard’s institutional theory of representation (which proposes that language evolved somehow as a side effect of ritual) and Gans’s formal theory of representation, there is an odd thickness of cautious deference, a propriety verging on a reluctance to disagree. In Girard’s thought, the maximal form of human culture, the institution of ritual as it evolved from episodes of collective murder, is foundational; by contrast, in Gans, the minimal form of human culture, linguistic exchange as it has evolved in a dialectic of desire and representation, is foundational. Nor for Gans are the earliest “victims” of collective violence human ones; Gans’s hypothesis puts an object initially of appetite (most easily figured as food), transfigured by the sign into a desire-object, into the center of the scene of representation. The humans in generative anthropology are less murderous and more hungry than those in mimetic theory; the economic-consumerist element of human beings enjoys a privilege in Gans’s system that it does not have in the system of Girard, with its more orthodox otherworldliness.

Generative anthropology is about human language. It takes linguistic exchange, the deferral of violence through representation, as the essence of the human. The title The Origin of Language reflects this. Gans’s hypothesis is that human language began with a communally mediated abortive gesture of appropriation toward a central object of appetite in a scenic event; that abortive gesture of appropriation is the gesture of originary thinking. Originary thinking now, even as I am doing it here, does what it did then at the beginning of human thought: it reflects on its own origin. The emission of the first human sign, that first abortive gesture of appropriation, is the object of the hypothesis. The mimetic paradox of rivalry and imitation familiar to students of Girard precedes the emission of the first ostensive gesture-sign, generating the double-bind circumstances that make possible its being chosen. For Gans, the collective violence familiar to students of Girard follows the emission of the first ostensive [End Page 90] sign; indeed, violence is intensified by the abortive gesture of appropriation—because what was an object merely of appetite before the...


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pp. 89-172
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