Review of Eric Gans’s The Scenic Imagination

Bob Hudson

Eric Gans. The Scenic Imagination: Originary Thinking from Hobbes to the Present Day . Stanford University Press, 2008

In Les origines de la culture (Descleé de Brouwer, 2004), René Girard comments briefly and dismissively regarding the anthropological theories of his former student and colleague, Eric Gans, suggesting a “modern allergy to the religious,” accusing him of “impoverishing mimetic theory” and, ultimately, reducing him to another social contract theorist.

What may initially appear an affront, Girard’s criticism of Gans actually speaks to the very virtues of Generative Anthropology (GA) extolled by its inventor: its modernity, parsimony and position at the end of an intellectual genealogy of thinkers who have attempted to formulate the Social Contract.  Gans, who frequently reproaches Girard for his lack of attention to modernity, characterizesmodern thought as formulating an imaginary and hypothetical scene of human origin without recourse to traditional religious or mythical narrative. Gans thus proposes in this book to trace “the most significant exercises of the scenic imagination” (20) through the writings of modern political (social contract) theorists such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, to the anthropological writings of Durkheim, Freud and Boas, (nineteen thinkers in all), ending with a defense of GA as the most complete, concise and modern originary hypothesis.

The Scenic Imagination is the sixth book in which Gans expounds the theories of GA, a science of human origins he formulated beginning in 1978 as a visiting professor—and colleague of Girard—at The Johns Hopkins University.  Building upon, breaking away from and in many ways surpassing Girardian mimetic theory, GA holds that representation—language and the sacred—emerged in a singular event as a means to defer collective violence. His thesis is that “human experience, as opposed to that of other animals, is uniquely characterized byscenic events recalled both collectively and individually through representations, the most fundamental of which are the signs of language” (1).  In previous works [The Origin of Language (1981), The End of Culture (1985), Signs of Paradox(1997), etc.], Gans has focused primarily on elaborating GA and explaining cultural phenomena in terms of the “originary hypothesis”. With GA nearing its thirtieth year and more or less fully developed, Gans now turns his gaze outward to recognize other modern thinkers who have imagined a scenic origin to human institutions.

In his first section, “The Scene Liberated,” Gans claims the Enlightenment as the first era in which sacred creation myths give way to anthropological models based in the imagined scene of representation (23).  Juxtaposing the “state of nature” arguments of Hobbes’s antagonistic Leviathan with Rousseau’s idyllic Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and The Social Contract, Gans effaces the superficial differences that traditionally separate the two, rather bringing to fore and analyzing their fundamental point of concurrence: “(T)he central human problem is the violence caused by mimetic desire” (24), which necessitates a social contract.  From Hobbes’s initial originary scene and Rousseau’s “first gesture of modern anthropology-as-ethnology” (46), Gans proceeds to examine the political pragmatism of Locke’s attempts to formulate his own metaphysically-insured antidote to the state of nature in his Two Treatises of Government.  Included within this first section are also an assessment of Condillac’s “first articulated hypothetical scene of origin for human language” (36) and Rousseau’s response to Condillac, which Gans views as an originary model of language and the social contract. The Enlightenment section draws to a close with a chapter on the scenic models of each Vico and Herder and a final essay on the anthropological basis of Kantian aesthetics.

Thinkers contemporary to the French Revolution of 1789 paradoxically view it as both a product of and punishment for the modern thought of the Enlightenment.  Two such conservative, post-Enlightenment political philosophers, Burke and de Maistre, lead off the book’s second section “The Scene Embodied.”  Beginning with Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Gans underlines the Irishman’s condemnation of arrogant, speculative social models “grounded in the scenic imagination rather than historical experience” (101), explaining the Revolution itself as a form of hubris and a return to a scene of originary chaos.  As for Maistre, who Gans claims “deserves to be called the founder of anthropology as a minimal originary theory” (107), Revolution was a mal nécessaire to atone for the evils of the Enlightenment’s abandonment of the sacred.  Insisting on the transcendent, Maistre’s own version of the originary scene appeals to Catholic dogmas of the Fall and the Passion and a defense of blood sacrifice.  Such a focus on traditional models of ritual sacrifice to alleviate mimetic tensions leads Gans to conclude that “If Rousseau is the precursor of Boas and Geertz, de Maistre is that of Durkheim and Girard” (107).

In the sixth chapter, Gans reads the philosophies of Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche through the lens of originary anthropology, while he devotes the seventh chapter to the development of the human sciences.  It is with a final series of critical readings of the scenic elements of Humboldt, Müller, Darwin and Durkheim that Gans builds up to a key essay on “Freud’s Originary Parricide and Girard’s Originary Scapegoat” (163-69), comparing and contrasting the psychoanalyst’s originary scene of father-murder in Totem and Taboo to the latter’s scene of emissary victimage in Violence and the Sacred.  He then moves to an analysis of Boas, ultimately recognizing in the Father of American Anthropology a potential “precursor of generative anthropology” (176).

The conclusion, which reads more like an epilogue than a summation, critically assesses contemporary thinkers of religion and representation (including Roy Rappaport, David Sloan Wilson and Terrence Deacon).  Many of these analyses are expansions upon articles found in Gans’s web-published Chronicles of Love and Resentment.

Let us conclude by asking: is Gans, as Girard implied, another social contract theorist?  The Scenic Imagination would lead one to answer “perhaps.”  At the same time, Gans convincingly positions himself in the illustrious company of modern political thinkers, philosophers and human scientists who conceptualize human social organization in scenic terms. Yet, to avoid this simple dichotomy, it may be helpful to view GA as a transcendence (or unification) of the partial insights of such disparate fields of study as philosophy, sociology, psychology and political science. This point speaks to the dichotomy drawn by Archilocus (revived by Isaiah Berlin) that Gans has adopted as the motto of GA: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing.”  For Gans, –the self-designated “Dialectical Hedgehog”–that one big thing for the past three decades has been and remains Generative Anthropology.

Whether or not the reader accepts the speculations of GA, The Scenic Imaginationstands on its own as a tremendously incisive, erudite and concise history of modern western political and philosophical thought. It can be read on those terms alone. Gans has an impressive ability to grapple with complex philosophical issues and to boil them down to the essential, sacrificing nothing in the process. This latest volume is a veritable showcase of Eric Gans’s talent as a critic.


#Bob Hudson#Review of Eric Gans's The Scenic Imagination#Vol. 6 Issue 1 Fall 2007