generative anthropology


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generative anthropology

a theory of human origins in which American philosopher/anthropologist Eric Gans elaborates on GIRARD's notions of mimetic desire and sacrifice. Generative anthropology is advanced by Gans’ most important books The Origin ofLanguage (1981), The End of Culture (1985), Science and Faith (1990), Originary Thinking (1993), and Signs of Paradox (1997). In these works Gans argues that the evolution of humanity was made possible by the figure of the sign. According to this thesis the original sign was produced by the stalemate which occurred when a group of mimetic animals gathered around an object of collective desire. Because the object lay at the centre of the circle, with the animals forming the periphery, Gans argues that no single animal could appropriate the object without sparking a mimetic war of ‘all against all’. As each animal reached for the object the others followed, as the others followed so the model animal, the originator of the first action, drew back for fear of igniting a frenzied struggle. Following this theory o f ‘homo-mimeticus ’ we can understand how Gans uses Girard's concept of MIMETIC DESIRE to explain the development of the sacred. Akin to LACAN's category of the symbolic, the object was elevated above the early human group. It was made sacred because it seemed to stand beyond appropriative action. This factor in turn elevated its worth, which further contributed to the prohibition against its possession and consumption. Elevated beyond the original scene of the aborted gesture of appropriation, what Lacan would call the real, this inflated idea of the object became the originary sign. Long after the original object had lost its worth and been divided up amongst the main protagonists, the symbol continued to influence the group. In relation to its elevated position the early humans began to represent lack, they were bound together, fixed by its centrality and omnipotence. For Gans the creation of the sign is the origin of language and the structure upon which the early social sphere was built. In religious terms the invention of the sign represents the birth of God.

Generative anthropology sees the periodic consumption of the scapegoat as the attempt to re-state the legitimacy of the sacred at times of disorder and undifferentiation. By re-staging the originary scene, the destruction of the body of the victim pays homage to the symbolic omnipotence afforded the transcendental sign. This is why Girard's scapegoat is a paradoxical figure -at once loathed, as the embodiment of otherness, and sacrilized as the cure for social disorder. See also ANTHROPOLOGY; GIRARD, ORIGINARY POSITION, REVENGE.