Sunday, November 17, 2013

Genius: Generative or Generic?

I had the very good fortune of seeing historian Darrin McMahon (Florida State University), author of the recently published Divine Fury: A History of Genius, deliver a lecture last week as part of Rhodes College's year-long Communities in Conversation lecture series. I want to write a bit here about some of the questions his book and lecture inspired in my own mind-- and left lingering there-- but before I do that, a preliminary aside.

I'm not sure if I'm just reaching "that" age or stage in my career but, this year in particular, I've found myself disappointingly underwhelmed by many of the academic lectures and fora I've attended.  That isn't because they haven't been interesting or because they've exhibited some sub-par level of scholarship, but more so because they just haven't been-- for lack of a better word-- generative.  That is to say, I didn't leave with something else to think about, with persisting or persistent questions, with a bait or a hook that I could throw out into other waters.  On the whole, I'd say the lectures I've seen over the last year or so have erred on the side of analysis and, as a consequence, I've found myself more often than not leaving with a nicely-wrapped, fully contained, but dead-as-a-doornail argument, exegesis or evaluation.

No so with McMahon's lecture last week, much to my delight (and relief!).  An intellectual historian by training, McMahon recounted the history of "genius," beginning with the ancients and proceeding through various medieval, Renaissance and Christian modifications, which reached a kind of apex in the 18thC when it was dramatically redefined by the scientifically-minded moderns who, as we all know, were nothing if not utterly in thrall with the project of precisely refining human categories.  As a result of that refinement, according to McMahon, we see in the 19thC (esp in Germany) the rise of what he called a "cult of genius," a kind of quasi-religious fixation on human excellence and exceptionalism that extended well into the first part of the 20thC.  (McMahon's discussion of the early 20thC "good genius v. evil genius" contest-- personified in his account by Einstein and Hitler-- was particularly interesting.)  The waning of the importance of religious or supernatural explanations in the modern period and following, coupled with the emergence of a discourse of human equality, meant that "geniuses" were no longer understood as actually divine (or possessed by the divine), but they never stopped being metaphorically so.  They were, as is indicated by the etymology of the very name "genius," creative in the way that God(s) was/were: capable of manifesting or bringing into existence something ex nihilo, unrestrained and unrestricted by normal human conventions or limitations, something like a causa sui incarnate, that is to say, gods in the flesh.

Yet, sometime over the last half-century, democratic sentiment seized control of the category "genius" and effectively vacated it of its historical content.  McMahon's example of this-- the Apple "Genius Bar", which can be found in every retail location-- reveals our contemporary ambivalence with regard to the category of genius.  We still employ it, desiring in our use to indicate a deference to excellence, even if no longer exceptionalism, in human being and doing.  But, as McMahon noted and as is analytically true, if everyone is or can be a genius, then no one is or can be a genius.

It was this last point, so ingeniously demonstrated by McMahon's study, which provided for me the bait and the hook to throw into other waters that I have been so missing in other lectures I've attended this year.  Much of my own research is centered around aporetic concepts like "genius," that is to say, ideas that we employ as "real" possibilities only on the (largely unacknowledged, if not outright disavowed) condition that their perfect realization is and remains an impossibility.  The later work of Derrida, of course, was primarily focused on elucidating a long list of such concepts-- friendship, hospitality, giving and forgiving, community, humanity, sovereignty, democracy, et al-- and it seems to me that "genius" is a concept of the same kind.  It is a concept that, perhaps like all concepts of exceptional excellence, must function as a regulative but unrealizable ideal.  McMahon's address crystallized for me, perhaps for the first time, just how essentially undemocratic the category of "genius" is... and/yet/but (as Derrida was fond of saying) also how indispensable that same category is for democracy, which is why I left his lecture with the truly generative question: is the fundamentally undemocratic nature of genius its virtue or vice?

As Derrida put it in Rogues, "the great question of modern parliamentary and representative democracy, perhaps of all democracy... is that the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternative."  For what it's worth, this is the question that, in one or another of the almost infinite iterations that it can be posed, keeps me up most nights and that keeps me working most days.  To wit, I'm very grateful to McMahon's study of "genius" for generating another way to cast my line into these waters again.

Listen to Darrin McMahon's interview with Jonathan Judaken on Counterpoint here.


Joshua Trott said...

I enjoyed your point about the value of generative thought. I also love in when others thoughts and writings create questions for me. To some extent it is the author's power to do that, but on another it is based on the reader/hearer's interests and curiosity.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am from Australia. Please find an introduction to a unique genius via these references.
His critique of conventional philosophy
An introduction to his Art & Literature