Gans invented a new science of human culture and origins he calls Generative Anthropology, based on the idea that the origin of language was a singular event and that the history of human culture is a genetic or "generative" development of that event. In a series of books and articles beginning with The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (1981) Gans has developed his ideas about human culture, language, and origins. In 1995, Gans founded (and continues to edit) the web-based journal Anthropoetics: The Journal of Generative Anthropology as a scholarly forum for research into human culture and origins based on Generative Anthropology and the closely related Fundamental Anthropology of René Girard. Since 1995, Gans has web-published his Chronicles of Love and Resentment, consisting of reflections on everything from popular culture, film, post-modernism, economics, contemporary politics, the Holocaust, philosophy, religion, and paleoanthropology. In 2010, the Generative Anthropology Society & Conference was created for sponsoring annual conferences dedicated to Generative Anthropology.
Generative Anthropology grew out of Gans' association with Girard at Johns Hopkins University. Gans was Girard’s first doctoral student, receiving his PhD in 1966. But it was only on the publication of Violence and the Sacred in 1972 that Gans became interested in Girard's idea of mimetic desire and the connection between violence and the sacred in Girard's work. The concept of mimetic desire forms one of the cornerstones of Generative Anthropology. Girard argues that human desire is essentially cultural or social in nature, and thus distinct from mere appetite, which is biological. For Girard, desire is triangular in structure, an imitation of the desire of another. Desire, therefore, leads to conflict, when two individuals attempt to possess the same object. In a group, this mimetic conflict typically escalates into a mimetic crisis which threatens the very existence of the group. For Girard, this conflict is resolved by the scapegoat mechanism, in which the destructive energies of the group are purged through the violence directed towards an arbitrarily selected victim. Girard sees the scapegoating mechanism as the origin of human culture and language.
Gans agrees with Girard that human language originates in the context of a mimetic crisis, but he does not find the scapegoat mechanism, by itself, as an adequate explanation for the origin of language. Gans hypothesizes that language originates in "an aborted gesture of appropriation," which signifies the desired object as sacred and which memorializes the birth of language, serving as the basis for rituals which recreate the originary event symbolically. The originary sign serves to defer the mimetic violence threatening the group, hence Gans's capsule definition of culture as "the deferral of violence through representation." For a more detailed explanation of the originary hypothesis, see Generative Anthropology.
For Gans, language is essentially "scenic" in character, that is, structurally defined by a sacred center and human periphery. In the secular culture which develops later, "significance" serves as an attenuated form of the sacred. The scene of representation is a true cultural universal and the basic model for cultural analysis. Generative Anthropology attempts to understand the various means by which transcendence or meaning (which is always ethically functional) is created on a scene of representation.
Eric Lawrence Gans was born in Bronx, New York on August 21, 1941. He went to Columbia University at the age of 16 and received a B.A. in French (Summa cum laude) in 1960. Going on to graduate work in Romance languages at Johns Hopkins University, he received his M.A. in 1961 and a Ph.D (with Distinction) in 1966. After two years as an Assistant Professor at Indiana University, he moved to the Dept. of French at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1969, where he became full professor in 1976. In 1978, he served at Johns Hopkins University as a visiting Professor. From 2007-2014 he was honored as a Distinguished Professor at UCLA until he resigned after being found in violation of the UCLA sexual misconduct policy. Since 2015, he is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at UCLA but is forbidden to teach or advise students.
In 2015, Gans was found guilty of violating the UC Policy on Sexual Harassment and the Faculty Code of Conduct. In 2011-2012, Gans began sending unwanted and unsolicited emails to his female graduate student, professing his love for her. Gans acknowledged the feelings were one-sided: “There is no doubt an asymmetry in our affection.” According to the results of the Title IX investigation launched in response to the student's complaints, Gans continued his advancements after his student repeatedly tried to get him to cease.
Gans, however, denied his advances were unwanted in an interview with The Daily Californian:“I’m an old-fashioned guy. I treat women with a kind of reverence. Some women appreciate this, but some don’t.” Gans alleged the Title IX was a set-up orchestrated by the department chair and described his former student as “[...] a weak person, she was intimidated by them, (and) she wasn’t the best student."
The main source of criticism directed against Gans's work comes from Girard himself, who claims that Generative Anthropology is just another version of social contract theories of origins. Gans has responded to Girard's criticisms and defended his theory in his books and articles. Others take issue with Gans' conservative political views as expressed in his Chronicles of Love and Resentment. Gans has entered into constructive conversation with contrasting views on Middle Eastern politics in his published dialogue with Ammar Abdulhamid: A Dialogue on the Middle East and Other Subjects.
The Generative Anthropology Society & Conference (GASC) is a scholarly association formed for the purpose of facilitating intellectual exchange amongst those interested in fundamental reflection on the human, originary thinking, and Generative Anthropology, including support for regular conferences. GASC was formally organized on June 24, 2010 at Westminster College, Salt Lake City during the 4th Annual Generative Anthropology Summer Conference. Further information, including how to join, can be found at the Generative Anthropology Society & Conference Website.
Since 2007, Generative Anthropology Society & Conference (GASC) has held an annual summer conference on Generative Anthropology.
2007 - Kwantlen University College of University of British Columbia (Vancouver, British Columbia)
2008 - Chapman University (Orange, California)
2009 - University of Ottawa (Ottawa, Ontario)
2010 - Westminster College (Utah) (Salt Lake City) and Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah)
2011 - High Point University (High Point, North Carolina)
2012 - International Christian University (Tokyo, Japan)
2013 - University of California, Los Angeles
2014 - University of Victoria (Greater Victoria, British Columbia), Canada
2015 - High Point University (High Point, North Carolina)
2016 - Kinjo Gakuin University (Nagoya, Japan)Phi Beta Kappa (elected in junior year)
Woodrow Wilson fellow 1960-61
Prix de la langue française - Académie française 1977
Chevalier des Palmes Académiques 1982