GA aficionados may be a bit perturbed by the recent emphasis on love, knowing that the originary scene is supposed to turn on the deferral of violence through representation. So I thought for this week’s Chronicle to return to some fundamental GA matters, in hopes of clarifying the familiar Girard vs Gans question of the originary status of violence. As it will appear, this clarification also makes clearer our originary notion of love.

For non-GA aficionados, I’ll explain briefly that RenĂ© Girard’s originary model involves the deviation of the generalized aggression of mimetic crisis onto a marginal figure who comes to be unanimously blamed for whatever provoked the crisis, and whose destruction (“lynching”) brings it to an end. For Girard, this scapegoat or emissary victim (which in neither Girard’s scheme nor mine need be a human being, although Girard doesn’t appear to accept this) inaugurates signification posthumously; his remains are the first signified. My view is that the originary scene of humanity can’t be a scene of wordless violence. Because what makes us human is our use of representations, we become human upon emission of the first sign. In GA’s originary scene, this occurs as the members of the group hesitate in their individual attempts to appropriate the central figure; as each sees the others move toward it (the “gesture of appropriation”), they each individually abort the gesture, which becomes by that very fact a sign of their renunciation of the center as an object of appetite, and thereby its representation. Within this minimal scene we may go on to situate the sacred, the religious, the moral, the economic, etc.

In my recent book, Signs of Paradox (Stanford, 1997), I announce a “return to Girard” in which I emphasize the violence of the sparagmos or tearing-apart of the central object subsequent to its representation or “naming” by the aborted gesture of appropriation. Once the sign has reassured the participants that they will not themselves suffer the victim’s fate, they can appropriate it in approximately equal parts (Homer’s “equal feast”) in a way that provides the model for sacrificial ritual.

This is reasonable as far as it goes, but it can be recast in a more inclusive form if we note that the prehuman situation before the aborted gesture must have been characterized, by the very logic of my argument, by attempts to appropriate the central object without the prior reassurance given by the sign. Between the time when an alpha animal maintained the group’s pecking order and the restoration of order through the reciprocal emission of the sign, there is an indeterminate period of “mimetic crisis,” whether purely imaginary, or, as we may well follow Girard in assuming, real. The paralyzing fear of the rivalrous violence to which appropriation might lead, or in simply mimetic terms, the blockage of action through the impossibility of mutual imitation, could arise only subsequent to this crisis, to which this blockage puts an end. Thus we may conceive the sparagmatic violence of the group appropriating the object as surrounding the peaceful moment of language and deferral as an electron “surrounds” its nucleus; it is everywhere at once within a certain zone surrounding the center. The Girardian refocusing of the group’s aggression on the emissary victim precedes the emission of the sign; the Gansian sparagmos of the already-designated central figure follows it. But at a close enough proximity to the emission of the sign, both forms of sparagmos become indistinguishable.

In the hesitation introduced by the sign is all human language and culture, which matures as the representational element becomes more insistent and more elaborate. This is the originary moment of mutual love among the members of the group, but we should emphasize the mediation of this peripheral love by the central figure. At the moment of emission of the sign, this figure is not a mere scapegoat blamed for the crisis that provoked his selection, but a sacred object inaccessible to the participants. It is in this inaccessibility that we discover the sacred otherness of the Other that we later find in our fellow humans. The moment of language, signification, culture, in a word, of the human, is one of peaceful deferral surrounded by violence “on all sides.” It is valuable to identify this moment as that of love in order to emphasize the priority of the sacred over the human in this intimate domain as in so many more clearly cultural ones; what is centralized is sacred before it is human, as the eighteenth-century thinkers Vico and Rousseau had already understood.


The difficulty of this originary concept of love is its distance from our own experience. The familiar complaint about the pansexualization of our culture reflects as it misinterprets our tendency to associate sexual desire with any intense experience of otherness. This tendency is indubitable, but to interpret it as a sign of superficiality is itself superficial. “Superficial” desire is that of themensonge romantique, desire mimetically induced for an object seen only through illusion, such as Emma Bovary’s desire for her lovers. On the contrary, I would claim that sexuality permits an authentic experience of originary love that would otherwise be limited to a spiritual elite. The most significant effect of pansexualization is not the spread of pornography, sexual harassment, or illegitimacy, but the generalized expectation of love in sexual relationships. This is anything but a pernicious development, even if it provides a less stable foundation for the family than the respect for lineage and the arranged marriages it motivates.

But what sexual love tells us about sacred love today was originally, and traditionally, learned by other means. It seems strange to us that the rise of sexuality to cultural predominance could be a “late” development, since sexuality is a fundamental biological phenomenon. The myths of psychoanalysis help us to cope with this disparity by anachronistically sexualizing human origin as they do individual ontogenesis. But sexuality is not in essence a collective phenomenon; the single center vs multiple periphery structure of the scene of representation is not natural to it. In this light, it is significant indeed that through the expedient of making all the women in the group into a single collective object under the control of the “father,” Freud’s own attempt at a sexually motivated scene of origin attributes to its “object” the divisibility characteristic of the edible rather than the sexual. This is not only contrary to current eth(n)ological knowledge, it is a maximal rather than a minimal hypothesis, requiring a tremendous tension between the hypothesized one-many structure of sexual relations and the one-on-one pairing to which demography would naturally conduce.

As I have stated in my books and articles on GA, a minimal hypothesis of human origin must situate its founding event at the most critical or vulnerable rather than the most biologically fundamental locus of the prehuman social order. Violent rivalry among males poses a real danger to the social order that has no analog in male-female sexual-reproductive relations. The emergence of sexual interdictions and patterns of exchange should be understood on the model of the originary interdiction of the sacred center rather than vice versa. Neither for GA nor for theBible is the sexual shame experienced by Adam and Eve an originary sentiment. On the contrary, their shame is the result of their prior disobedience of the sacred interdiction of the tree of knowledge. Adam and Eve have not become human sign-users through a mimetic intensification of sexuality; they are ashamed of their sexuality because they recognize it as provoking desire, which, as they have learned as a result of their disobedience, is dangerous and must be deferred–for example, by putting fig-leaves over the offending organs to defer both their sight and their activity.

We err by thinking of the originary scene as a kind of preformed embryo of human history. Our originary intuition of linguistic reciprocity explains our sense of morality just as our originary intuition of the inaccessibility of the center explains our sense of the sacred; but the joining of reciprocity and sacrality in human love is exemplary not of a lost originary fulfillment but of the inexhaustible capacity of human history to create new degrees of freedom and through them, new insights into our potentialities. In reconstructing the originary function of the different traits that characterize the human, we should not project onto the origin what only the pain of history has taught us to combine. The creation of the modern couple bound not merely by sexual desire but by the hope, and often the at least partial fulfillment, of mutual sacrality, is the really significant, if generally unheralded, achievement of our society’s “pansexualism.”

And for this, even if we must suffer the proliferation of Freudian and Lacanian myths of origin at the expense of originary thinking, it is a price worth paying. As our public rituals distance themselves from us more every day, we ever more desperately need the enrichment of intimacy that only the continuing evolution of love makes possible.