Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Personal Origins of GA
3. The Pursuit of Amateurism

No. 122: Saturday, January 17, 1998

In the second of these "personal" columns, Chronicle 113, I related the minimalism of GA to the minimalism of the Bronx itself, with its status as a way-station between (for my generation) the Lower East Side and Scarsdale or Beverly Hills. What I called in that Chronicle my attraction rather to "the structure of transcendence itself than to any possible worldly incarnation of it" is expressed perhaps yet more profoundly in a persistent--and perverse--personal trait: amateurism.

As a beginning student of French literature, I was struck by a key sentence in Chateaubriand's René (1802):

Il fallut quitter le le toit paternel, devenu l'héritage de mon frère. [...]
Arrêté à l'entrée des voies trompeuses de la vie, je les considérais l'une après l'autre, sans m'y oser engager.

I had to leave my father's house, which had become my brother's inheritance [after their father's death]...
Paused at the entrance to the deceitful paths of life, I contemplated each one in turn, without daring to start out on it.

The image of the "entrée des voies trompeuses" suggests a central intersection or rond-point from which they all diverge, like the avenues around L'Etoile. The deceitfulness is not that of any given path, but of their general condition: once it is chosen, you must abandon the others. To pause at the "entrance," in contrast, is to retain the possibility of choosing any of them and thereby to make the "latent" choice of all. To remain at this universal intersection is to remain within the unity of childhood while at the same time grasping the variety of options open to the adult.

This is the configuration of adolescence, conceived as an extended moment of transition and apprenticeship. Beyond the author's own experience of exile, René's new cultural-psychological attitude reflects and reacts to the beginning of post-Revolutionary bourgeois society. The young man--and today the young woman as well--can no longer pass in a moment of sexual initiation from childhood to adulthood; he must acquire a profession, a qualification with which to enter the marketplace. If there is one thing that the members of market society share, it is their prolonged and therefore "Romantic" adolescence.

In this context, maturity may be defined as abandonment of the transitional space of adolescence and successful advancement along one of the "voies trompeuses." Maturity is the normal goal of adolescence, but for the Romantic, it constitutes a horizon that one never wants to reach, a spiritual death one seeks to defer until the end. According as we reject or accept the Romantic's perspective, we will choose very different professions. In the first case, serious contact with the "real world" is of the essence; at best, we may hope to retire early and enjoy a second adolescence before it's too late. But in the second, we choose our professional activity with an eye to preserving adolescent openness as fully as possible; Professional life must remain maximally amateurish. The amateur does not stand inactive at the center of René's metaphor, but although he takes a few steps along one or several of the voies, he never goes far enough to lose sight of their common intersection.

The Romantic ideal is to make one's profession simply equivalent to the deferral of maturity. This originally meant becoming an "artist." But in today's world, dominated by the "youth culture" Chateaubriand already anticipated in horror, adolescent self-expression can only compete in the marketplace dressed up in all sorts of ritual trappings--in a word, it too has been professionalized. In our culture, the surest way to defer maturity indefinitely is to remain in the institution par excellence of adolescent universality, the university. A professor is someone who has never left school, who refers to everything outside academic life as "the real world."

The academy too is professionalized, but in some domains more than others. One's choice of field must be made with the end of minimizing the danger of moving too far along one of the voies to remain in contact with their unique origin. The question is not whether one can do without knowledge and discipline. The intellectual amateur is not a primitive; there is no "natural" way of thinking. But one must seek a mode of thought that can remain productive without being particularized into a technique or "methodology."

The problem posed by the professionalization of thought was first raised in Plato's critique of the Sophists. For Plato, the legitimate professionals are the artisans, the shoemakers and carpenters who employ technical knowledge for the instrumental end of manipulating the natural world. But human interaction is not an instrumental activity, and the art of rhetoric that seeks to manipulate this interaction is not a true profession but a means of deceiving others. To professionalize human dialogue is to treat others as instruments. The true philosopher, like Socrates, has no "profession."

Every field of study, including philosophy itself, risks professionalization as either a technology or, what is worse, a mode of rhetoric. Of the fields not technical in their essence, that is, in the domain of what may be broadly called the Humanities, there is, or was, in French perhaps the least pressure to become a technologist of either critical "methodology" or a narrow field of specialization. French culture is universalist, more concerned with principles than with concrete details, and this is reflected in the modes of scholarship it favors. It is no accident that the theory of mimetic desire was born in the context of French Studies. 

GA's minimality insures that it is minimally professionalizable. No doubt transformation into a marketable technique is a danger that must continually be deferred, but GA as a "permanent revolution" in thought seeks to make this deferral as effective and as renewable as possible. No formulation of the originary hypothesis can ever be definitive. Nor can there ever be a well-defined body of knowledge that can provide its context. An originary theory of the human can neither ignore any given aspect of the human nor become dependent on it.

The Bronx Romantic is drawn to amateurism because he preserves the most radical Romantic intuition: that life is adolescence and maturity is death. In order to remain at the originary center, he must vigilantly resist the seductions of professional life. In this respect, it is no doubt fortunate that the professionalism of today's academy is so different from what I encountered at the beginning of my career thirty-odd years ago. In those days, the profession was small and expanding, jobs were easy to come by, and status was obtained through seniority and publication, that is, by doing one's work. Today the profession is large and contracting, jobs are difficult to obtain, and status is a function of networking and trendiness, which is to say, it must be fought for as a value in itself. This situation, however disheartening for new entrants in the field, is the fulfillment of the Bronx Romantic's dream: it makes full absorption in professional life impossible.

The true amateur never sells his soul to the crowd. He theorizes the operations of the collective and the sacrificial with all the generosity of which he is capable, but he forbears to submit to the judgment of the marketplace. The more we respect the market as the determiner of value, the more vigilantly we must resist its judgment as to our understanding of it. The truth of the market at any given moment is never what the market at that moment wants to hear.

The power of the Romantic attitude lies in permitting us to assimilate the contours of our individual life to the originary unity of the human. This is a unity that is always virtual and can never be actualized. Professional thinkers who propose a unitary explanation of the human, such as the successive generations of Darwinists represented today by the school of "evolutionary psychology," inevitably fail to grasp the paradox inherent in reducing the human invention/discovery of the transcendent realm of the sign to the model of natural adaptation. But the Bronx Romantic remains faithful to the intuition that if one is to understand how humanity and its culture might have come into being, one must not stray far from the central singularity from which all roads diverge.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
Last updated 1/19/98