It is fitting that Sigmund Freud, the great psychologist of the scene, should be the first thinker to construct a genuine scene of human origin. Hobbes (see Chronicles 176 and215) situates the origin of human ethics in a communal accord or “social contract,” but nothing in the state of nature as Hobbes describes it would permit its solitary inhabitants to become parties to such a contract. Vico (see Chronicle 234) is well aware of this incompatibility, but he relies for humanity’s scenic discovery of the sacred on an extra-anthropological Providence. In Condillac’s wholly human scenario (see Chronicles 178 and 179), there is no scenic event; language, information-bearing but not sacred, emerges seamlessly from nature. Freud’s father-murder is the first self-consciously event-centered originary scene, even if its author never clearly grasps that the key element of such a scene is not the violence exercised by its peripheral participants on a unique central figure but the deferral of this violence through an act of representation.

Totem and Taboo (Norton, 1950 [1913]; tr. James Strachey) attempts to develop a comprehensive psychoanalytic model of communal interdiction (“taboo”), beginning with the fundamental and universal interdiction of incest, which Freud associates, as did Durkheim, with the prohibitions of the “totemic” clan. The dramatic scene of parricide recounted in chapter 4, section 5–seven eighths of the way through the book–is presented as a founding explanatory model for the ethnographic data presented earlier, although its notoriety has tended to eclipse the rest of Freud’s argument:


One day, the brothers who had been driven out came together, killed and devoured their father and so made an end of the patriarchal horde. United, they had the courage to do and succeeded in doing what would have been impossible for them individually. (Some cultural advance, perhaps, command over some new weapon, had given them a sense of superior strength.) Cannibal savages as they were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him. The violent primal father had doubtless been the feared and envied model of each one of the company of brothers; and in the act of devouring him they accomplished their identification with him, and each one of them acquired a portion of his strength. The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things–of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion. (p. 176)


A few words of explanation are in order. The “patriarchal horde” was a conjecture of Darwin’s concerning the earliest form of human society: a mature male, his harem of females, and immature males (“brothers”) to whom the women were forbidden. (Significantly, the women, for whose sake this murder purportedly took place, are not mentioned in Freud’s key paragraph.) The “totem meal” is a feast in which the members of a totemic clan are allowed to eat as a collectivity the totem animal that is forbidden to them at all other times.

The status of Freud’s “criminal deed” with respect to human origin is never made explicit. If the Darwinian horde was the social order of “primaeval man” (quoted on p. 156), then there were humans before what Freud refers to as “the beginning of . . . social organization . . . moral restrictions and . . . religion.” Yet whatever Darwin’s notion of the primeval, the logic of Freud’s text suggests that the fundamental traits of the human are those that appear after the scene of parricide. This leaves an obvious opening to Freud’s critics: if its aim is to explain the origin of “moral restrictions,” particularly the incest taboo, then the scene is unnecessary, since the father had already forbidden the women to his sons. What is more, the very fact that we can speak of a father and sons implies the prior existence of family and therefore of human “social organization.” Finally, for the sons to join together, they must be able to identify themselves as a group, an identification inconceivable in the absence of a system of representation and therefore of human culture.

All these objections are duly noted in René Girard’s critical reading of Totem and Taboo in chapter 8 of La violence et le sacré (Grasset, 1972). For Girard, Freud is correct in tracing totemic classification and the incest taboo to a founding murder, but the patrocentric ideology of psychoanalysis prevents him from realizing that this foundation depends on the scenic configuration alone, the “emissary victim” being not the already-central father but an arbitrarily chosen member of the murderous group.

For Girard, the emissary mechanism generates significant/sacred difference from a trivial local imbalance that emerges chaotically within the mimetic war of all against all. The mimetic crisis is resolved by the division of the formerly undifferentiated group into the unique victim and the community that has newly defined itself by excluding and destroying it. As a result of this sequence of events, the community conceives the sacred central figure as both harmful and beneficial, bringer of violence and bringer of peace–the double valence of the sacred. To avoid the common objection that scenes of origin contain from the outset the categories they were meant to construct, Girard’s scene begins with no difference at all. The mimetic crisis, having eliminated all trace of prehuman difference, is resolved when a new, sacred difference is generated through the emissary mechanism. Girard’s objection to Freud’s model of tragedy (part 7, p. 192-93), which opposes the lone protagonist to the undifferentiated chorus, is that the protagonist was originally indistinguishable from the others.

Yet despite the fantastic nature of the father-centered “horde,” there is a baby to be saved before tossing out Freud’s bathwater. Even if–setting aside the problem posed by the fact that primitive religion was and is focused mostly on animals, somewhat on women, and almost never on men–we grant full credence to Girard’s model, the emissary murder as Girard describes it does not suffice to generate the human because it is not a self-conscious event and does not therefore constitute a scene, nor does the mere repetition of the mechanism. Insofar as the lynching of the victim becomes a source of meaning, it cannot remain a paroxysm of violence; it must become ritualized. But at that moment, it is the repetition, no longer of a mechanism, but of a representation.

The Freudian father is taxed with redundancy because his murder was motivated by the very interdictions that this murder was supposed to bring into being. But this redundancy of interdiction with which Girard, quoting Lévi-Strauss, reproaches Freud’s scene (“[there is] a vicious circle that makes the social emerge from a process that presupposes it,” p. 265) is rather a point in its favor. For a new order to emerge, it must come about as a result of the breakdown of an old order. The “father’s” dominance enforces a prehuman mode of interdiction founded not on a represented rule but on the animal emotion of fear. When a rival is no longer afraid to challenge the alpha animal, the two fight for supremacy, a fight that may involve the enlistment of allies. In conditions of anarchy, or where wealth may be gained from activities stigmatized in the larger society, humans too return to pecking-order systems of this type, although they cannot sustain an independently viable society in the long run.

The preexistence of the central interdiction of Freud’s murder scene is precisely its strength as an originary model: all that need be added to the prior configuration of authority to transform it from animal to human is its representation within a scene. Representing the “father’s” central power is the revolutionary act that bridges the gap between the one-on-one pecking-order hierarchies of animal societies and the center-periphery one-against-all model that obtains only among humans. To put the father in the center of a scene of representation is to reveal the universality of his power that had previously been experienced separately by each son–perhaps along with a local coalition–and consequently to expose the father to the resentment of all the sons constituted as a community. Parricide is inherent in the structure of the scene itself.

Freud’s scene, which implicitly originates in the breakdown of the animal social order of the protohuman “horde,” is conceived as a scene of representation; the murdered father, in contrast with Girard’s scapegoat-victim, is truly memorable–representable (by the “totem”) and ritualizable in sacrifice. In order that the victim become the scenic source of culture, it must be made the center not only of an act of violence but of its deferral. Freud’s sons have always already deferred–in time–their project to kill the father; after the murder has taken place, they defer through exogamy–in space–the possession of the women he has kept for himself. Ending the first deferral insures the permanence of the second; in the absence of paternal interdiction, the sons would, as Freud himself makes clear, fight among themselves over the women. No doubt, as Girard rightly points out, the sexual rivalry they must prevent is not dependent on common paternity, but the essential point is that the institution of a rule of exogamy enforced by the group as a whole must be explained by the replacement of the animal system of authority, whether or not similar to that of the Darwinian-Freudian “horde,” with one founded on the human scene of representation.

Yet the scene that brings together the community of “sons” cannot be generated merely by their hostility to pre-existing paternal authority. Qua alpha animal, the “father’s” authority is only virtually central; communal allegiance to a sacred center must challenge and supersede fear of the bearer of animal authority. The minimal condition of the new collective order is that it form around a new center. In the last analysis, both Freud’s uniquely predestined central figure and Girard’s arbitrary victim suffer from the same defect: the centrality of both presupposes in the minds of the originary participants an already-human “theory of mind.” In the two models, the central figure is blamed for violence and credited with peace. Rather than being itself an object of common desire, this figure is perceived as the unique obstacle to the realization of this desire, whether its object be the “father’s” women or the benefits of collective order that Girard’s scapegoat is accused of destroying. In both cases, there is a shift of interest from the object of desire to the rival accused of obstructing its appropriation; both scenes have two centers. In Girard, these are (1) the original object of contention, and (2) the emissary victim thrust forward by the scapegoat mechanism to put an end to this contention; in Freud, the sons kill the father (2) in order to possess the women (1). The shift from one center to the other is the point at which a theory of mind and therefore of human representation is smuggled into a scene that is purported to generate it. In Freud’s case, the representation of the father as center is a simple given; in Girard’s, for the repetition of the originary murder to be a cumulative cultural rather than an identical natural event, the designation of the emissary victim, described as the result of an arbitrary mechanism, must be in reality the moment of deferral, and therefore of representation, that constitutes the human historicity of the scene.

Of further interest in Totem and Taboo, as well as in its partially rearticulated summary in Freud’s final work, Moses and Monotheism, is the link between Freud’s analysis of the “totemic” derivation of what are indifferently names and terms of classification and Freud’s own theory of language. This will be the subject of a future Chronicle.