The current flurry of Girardian activity in France gives new visibility to the critique of Generative Anthropology by the proponents of mimetic theory. As I see it, Girardians (and Girard himself) level two related objections at the originary hypothesis:

1. The hypothesis describes a social contract by which the culture of the sign emerges from a rational agreement inconceivable in the midst of mimetic crisis. Culture cannot be founded on the deferral of mimetic violence but only on the relief that follows the discharge of this violence in the emissary murder.

2. The originary hypothesis ignores the central cultural phenomenon of scapegoating. A theory for which the central being of the originary event is an object of appetite rather than an emissary victim can account neither for the scapegoating events, disguised but legible, that we find at the center of all sacrificial rites, nor for the cultural texts that derive directly or implicitly from these rites, including the Passion story.

I have responded to these and related critiques on a number of occasions, but I have generally avoided direct polemics with Girard, both out of respect for the Master and because at a time when Girard’s work was not accorded the attention it deserved, I felt it important to stress our common generative approach to central anthropological questions rather than the differences between our specific hypotheses. (An exception is the recent Chronicle entitled René et moi, which was written in response to Girard’s own published remarks.) Now that mimetic theory no longer appears in danger, there is no reason to avoid answering these objections directly. The present Chronicle will respond to the first objection concerning violence; a subsequent one will take up the question of the scapegoat.


Those who claim that I treat the first sign as the result of a social contract in the traditional sense have not only not read my work very carefully, they fail to recognize the revolutionary significance of the social-contract model itself, which is the first example of the characteristic Enlightenment use of a communal scene as a heuristic for explaining social institutions.

The originary hypothesis does not postulate a nonviolent utopia either before or after the originary event. What is at stake is not how much violence to include in the originary event, but the generative capacity of this originary violence. In my view, our task as anthropologists is to model the genesis of the fundamental human institutions, including language. Even if we accept the Girardian scapegoating scenario, which I adopted in my first work of Generative Anthropology, The Origin of Language (1981), what must emerge from the originary scene is a cultural/representational institution that for the first time memorializes an event and begins human history. What Girard calls the “first non-instinctual attention” paid to the remains of the victim is literally meaningless in the absence of a form within which this attention can be preserved and transmitted.

In semiotic terms, the Girardian claim is that the indexical relationship between the victim’s remains and the locus in which the slaughter takes place, on the one hand, and the sense of peaceful relief from mimetic violence on the other, is so powerful as to render nugatory any further explanation of the origin of the symbolic representational institutions that fall under the heading of the logos. If Christ is the incarnation of the logos, then the model of emissary victimage that the Crucifixion both obeys and reveals to us suffices to explain the totality of forms in which the logos is transmitted to humanity. Hence the Girardian account contains no attempt to model the emergence of language, or even of ritual in the sense of deliberate repetition according to a fixed pattern rather than the mere unfolding of a mechanism.

The culturally directed violence of the sparagmos within the event proposed by the originary hypothesis is no “less violent” than the emissary violence of Girard’s scenario; it is merely less irrational, since it seeks appetitive satisfaction as well as the discharge of aggression. That virtually all known acts of sacrificial violence terminate in a meal in which part or all of the victim is consumed, and that in traditional societies all eating of meat is linked to such sacrificial feasts would seem to suggest that appetitive satisfaction is not merely an indirect consequence of the establishment of a sacred order but its chief motivating factor. Since it is in order to sustain and reproduce life that a means must be found to avert internal violence, it stands to reason that the two moments, Eros and Thanatos, should be found together in the scene of origin.

The Origin of Language presents a synthesis of the Girardian and GA scenarios: after the emissary murder, the participants take advantage of the newly peaceful “non-instinctual attention” to divide up the body of the victim, whether for food or as relics of the resolved crisis. But when it comes to effecting this division, there is no obvious procedure to follow, the old animal pecking-order hierarchy having been dissolved by the preceding mimetic violence. Since the body of the victim is the object of a sacred interdiction, each individual participant, including the former alpha animal, would hesitate to come forward to take the first piece; hence it is plausible that the common desire to do so should lead to the production of the aborted gesture of appropriation that would constitute the first ostensive sign.

But as I subsequently realized, if this is how the sign originates then one can dispense with the preceding mimetic crisis and war of all against all–the Big Bang–and postulate simply a minimal crisis or little bang of a small group confronted with a desirable object. Neither evidence nor logic obliges us to derive the originary moment from aggression against a marginal member of the protohuman group itself, or against any protohuman at all. Prehistoric cave-art paintings represent animals with great care and humans as stick-figures; if the originary sacred object was a human victim, why is it that not until thesourire grec in the sixth century B.C. are deities represented in wholly human form?


The purpose of the originary hypothesis is to provide a plausible explanation for the emergence of the sign, which is at the same time that of the sacred. However much violence surrounds this emergence, the originary sign itself is not an act of violence. Signs defer violence, even if this violence subsequently reemerges. Girard himself describes language and thought as emerging in the aftermath of the emissary murder; indeed, his only relatively concrete pronouncement on the subject of the origin of language (we may ignore his reference to the remains of the victim as “the first signifier”) is not without resemblance to GA’s account of the birth of the ostensive:

Le meurtre collectif, on l’a dit, ramène le calme, en un contraste prodigieux avec le paroxysme hystérique qui précède ; les conditions favorables à la pensée se présentent en même temps que l’objet le plus digne de la provoquer. . . . Qui dit l’origine de la pensée symbolique dit également l’origine du langage, le véritable fort / dad’où surgit toute nomination, l’alternance formidable de la violence et de la paix. Si le mécanisme de la victime émissaire suscite le langage, s’imposant lui-même comme premier objet, on conçoit que langage dise d’abord la conjonction du pire et du meilleur, l’épiphanie divine, le rite qui la commémore et le mythe qui se la remémore.
(La violence et le sacré, p. 323)

[The collective murder, as we have said, restores calm, in a prodigious contrast with the hysterical paroxysm of violence that preceded it; conditions favorable to thinking arise at the same moment as the object most worthy to be thought. . . . To speak of the origin of symbolic thought is also to speak of the origin of language, the veritablefort/da that is the source of all naming, the formidable alternation of violence and peace. If the mechanism of the emissary victim generates language, imposing itself as the first object [referent?], we can understand that in the beginning language should represent [literally: say] the conjunction of the worst and the best–divine epiphany, the rite that commemorates it, and the myth that recalls it.]

The “fort/da d’où surgit toute nomination” opposes the significant object to its absence, just as the first ostensive name-of-God opposes the significant/sacred central object to the insignificant/profane periphery.

The phenomenon of deferral, Derrida’s différance transferred from a metaphysical to an anthropological context, from its creator’s paradoxical non-concept of the non-presence of meaning to the deferral of violence, is central to human culture. Deferral is the source of Sartre’s néant or space of freedom between the human mind and its “intended” object; it is also that of Girard’s non-instinctual attention. But lacking formalization in an anthropological model, this terminology remains metaphorical. In a brilliant Saussurean intuition, Derrida inserted deferral into the interpretation of the differential paradigms of language, but the primary object of deferral is not the differential meaning of the sign, which depends on the absent features of the other members of the paradigm, but the pre-human, “instinctual” act of appropriation that the sign replaces with meaning tout court.

Girard’s theory of culture, taking its watchword from Heraclitus (“War is the father and king of all”) attributes all creativity to violence. The sacred, from which derive all cultural phenomena including language, is nothing but the violence that we expel from the human community to have peace: la violence ou le sacré. The peace thus obtained, during which we are able to proceed rationally, that is, economically, with the satisfaction of our worldly appetites, is effectively outside of culture, the terrain of méconnaissance on which we discharge our mimetic rage against arbitrarily chosen sacrificial victims. Because humanity can never defer this rage, merely discharge it, the elaborate forms of representation with which we surround this discharge of violence provide no independent insight into its originary basis.

The most powerful argument in favor of the originary hypothesis is independent of the necessarily ambiguous evidence of such phenomena as prehistoric cave art: it is the heuristic value of tracing the various aspects of human culture to their roots in the hypothetical originary scene through the procedure I call originary analysis., Language, morality, religion, political and economic systems, ethical and esthetic forms–all the central human institutions from the most general to the historically specific can be understood as elaborations of moments of the originary event’s deferral of violence through representation. In contrast, mimetic desire and scapegoating are ahistorical categories for which, in Girard’s mature system, the Christian revelation as prepared by the Hebraic tradition–the history contained in the Christian bible–supplies the only independent historical determinant.


The classical Girardian approach to what the French call a différend is to demonstrate that the two parties are frères ennemis whose positions, whether moral, intellectual, esthetic, judicial, diplomatic, or military, are figures symmetrically reflected in the mirror of rivalrous mimesis. The more the opponents try to distinguish themselves from each other, the more clearly their agon reveals their underlying identity. Could some third party apply this Olympian perspective to the present discussion, he might well find the difference between Girard’s and my interpretation of the originary event no more significant than that between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Yet no thinker is close enough to the truth to be justified in theorizing away all difference but his own. The most frivolous cultural difference requires of us an ethical and intellectual choice that contributes to the self-awareness we call anthropology. Nor does this self-awareness have an upper limit that we can aspire to attain; it progresses (and sometimes recedes) through ethical revelations large and small, stimulated by the competition of war, or more productively, of the marketplace. The great religious revelations have irreversibly transformed our understanding of ourselves, but this understanding does not cease to evolve; it is coextensive with human history. Neither the Gospels, nor mimetic theory, nor Generative Anthropology can hope to have the last word; we can only attempt to improve our grasp of the first.

[to be continued]