I had already completed a draft of this Chronicle before the events of September 11, but its subject-matter is not altogether irrelevant to the questions posed by these events to our anthropological understanding. We have language and other modes of representation because we are threatened by violence, which, according to a hermeneutically circular definition, is mimetic conflict pushed to the point where it must be deferred through representation. No witness to Black Tuesday will question my minimal definition of the human as the species that has more to fear from itself than from the rest of the universe. Fear and the accompanying deferral of action are the beginnings of a particularly human wisdom that also goes by the name of original sin. There is more fundamental anthropology in Genesis than in all the “scientific” demonstrations that humans differ no differently from other animal species than they differ from each other.

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A recent discussion on the GAlist began with the following conundrum posed by Chris Fleming of the University of Western Sydney:


. . . recently I instructed quite a few members of my department to “check out” the GA website, read through the “Introduction to GA,” and then have a look atAnthropoetics. The quite bizarre result of this “experiment” was not that these academics–a few of whom told me that they [spent] hours on the site–didn’t “understand” GA. They (independently) told me that they’d read through the things I recommended, but just couldn’t quite work out what was being argued through; surprisingly, two of them could tell me that GA […] concerned “the deferral of violence through representation,” but admitted that they couldn’t explain what that MEANT.


This unsettling reaction may be understood on many levels. But before we explore the personal equation or the difficulty inherent in any attempt to close or even to theorize the gap between the humanities and the sciences, I think it most useful to consider it a reaction less to the ideas of GA (no one failed to “understand”) than to its problematic status as a research program in the academic context within which most of us operate.

It is my strong impression, given the vast increase over the past few decades in the personnel and activity of knowledge-related fields, that conditions pertinent to the “sociology of knowledge” increasingly determine what kind of knowledge will be assimilated and disseminated. As a scientific colleague recently noted, the traditional concept of “academic freedom” is irrelevant to those filling out grant applications. I am not speaking here of any kind of conspiracy; quite the contrary. If I have anything to complain of in the contemporary academic scene, it is rather an excess of democracy than an excess of elitism. Generative anthropology is less attuned than either victimary or positivist (“materialist”) thinking to the communal style of today’s academy.

To think anthropologically is to renounce the metaphysical point of departure based on the declarative sentence, or, to put it another way, on the idea that “mind” can be abstracted from its implantation in human beings. This ideal of objective representation is that of science itself. Because GA is anthropology not as a positive science but as an ontology of the human, it is not organized around a particular research program. But this characteristic, which makes GA disconcerting to Chris Fleming’s colleagues, makes it a potential meeting ground not only between the humanities and the social sciences but between these sciences themselves. Of all the scientific studies I have read concerning the origin of human language, I cannot think of one in which confronting the hypothesis that defines human culture as “the deferral of violence through representation” would not have aided the author to reframe and sharpen the conclusions derived from his or her research.

Here is an example from the extremely active field of primatology. In a long, passionate, and deliberately “unscientific” article (“Ape Language: Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” in The Origins of Language: What Nonhuman Primates Can Tell Us, School of American Research Press, 1999, 115-88), the distinguished primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh (SSR) conceives an imaginary debate between herself and “Wally,” a composite of those social scientists who maintain that there is an unbridgeable chasm between ape and human communication. Without claiming that apes have languages directly comparable to ours, SSR gives examples of intentionality and communication of intent, symbolic reference to absent objects, deception, premeditated revenge, and so on, insisting throughout that the strict separation in kind between human and ape language is more a self-serving myth than a scientific hypothesis, and, in conclusion, affirming that the point of research into both human and ape communication is not to establish where these functions are “located” in the brain, but to improve the quality of this communication: “Behavioral science will be judged . . . by its creations rather than by its explanations of cognitive structure . . . Localizing skills in the brain does not build a better mind” (187).

It is impossible not to respect the passion of someone who has dedicated a lifetime to understanding our primate cousins and who clearly shares a good deal of the humanist’s impatience with the bloodlessness and spurious rigor of much social science. Yet I think that a little originary thinking would have considerably sharpened and focused this author’s quarrel with the skeptics.

I have no ideological or theoretical difficulty in accepting SSR’s judgment that there is real communication between apes or even that the bonobo Kanzi is really using language when he tells his conspecific Tamuli to return to the author the keys Tamuli has stolen from her. Such revelations, by throwing discredit on the neat absolutism of human-animal difference, only help us better to understand the theoretical importance of the originary scene. What is the difference between ape and human? Even if we deny with SSR the existence of a “human-ape linguistic gulf (118),” we cannot deny that human language and culture differ considerably from those of apes. What is most characteristically human is not merely to be different from other species but to define ourselves by this “absolute” difference. In another article in the same volume–“The Game of the Name: Continuity and Discontinuity in Language Origins,” 229-68–Iain Davidson comes close to this idea by suggesting that these binary distinctions are not found in nature but are a product of the human ability to “name.” But his hypothesis of how “naming” might have come about on the basis of exchanges of signals relies on a contingent “trick”:


[we hypothesize] two hominids communicating with each other using a bodily gesture(-call) that indicates the observable presence of prey or predator through iconic movements of hand and arm . . . If that gesture were accidentally or incidentally traced into a more permanent medium (such as the side of a stream channel), then the trace itself might become an object of attention in the absence of the prey or predator. . . . Some such trick is needed to achieve the distinctive discontinuity between nonhuman primate and human communication represented by the uniquely human, and languagelike, ability to pay attention to the communicative act itself, rather than to the object of communication. (261)


I will let my readers judge whether they find this scenario more convincing than those I have suggested for the originary hypothesis.

Let us grant that bonobos can communicate their intentions in language, that chimps can use tools and even use tools to make tools, even (why not?) that these apes have some kind of proto-religion. This only increases the burden of explaining why human evolution was driven by the capacity for representation by signs whereas that of bonobos and chimps was not. Some have been tempted to lay down the burden by blaming it all on a chance genetic mutation. (That this absurd notion has been taken seriously by authorities in the field such as Derek Bickerton consoles me for their neglect of the originary hypothesis.) On the contrary, the closer our cousins come to displaying a linguistic competence less developed than but similar to our own, the more crucial it becomes to explain why this competence never came to drive their evolution and consequently failed to generate a historical culture.

To reiterate the originary hypothesis, the crucial, generative function of human language, over and above communication about the natural world, is the deferral of potential conflict, reflecting René Girard’s still-ignored observation that the mimetic nature of intelligence makes the most intelligent animals increasingly susceptible to such conflict. At the point where the need to contain mimetic conflict surpasses the capacity of animal communication, the only alternative to annihilation is the emergence of formal and institutional representation, ritual sacrifice and language.

However dependent our everyday use of language may be on context, linguistic signs, in contrast with signals, typically have a context-free meaning or signified. To speak of an event of language origin is to propose a specific moment of emergence for a sign whose meaning “always already” emancipates itself from this original context of utterance. Yet the linguistic sign, liberated from its context, continually recalls it. Because words are products not of biological evolution but of cultural creation, they bear the mark, some more explicitly than others, of their event of origin. Whenever we use a word, we revive and renew its entire etymology as the history of the binding between this particular signifier and its signified. Not only Biblical exegetes but modern thinkers from Locke to Heidegger have mined words for ontological–I would call them anthropological–truths.

Signals may be manipulated by their users, and there is no need to affirm dogmatically that the higher primates use them with no sense of intention. (There is in any case a distinction between the number of levels of intention or “theory of mind” accessible to humans and non-humans.) Let us then accept SSR’s reproach that the dogmatic distinction between “call” and “utterance” only provides an alibi for the refusal of skeptics like “Wally” to recognize the real similarities between ape and human language. The important point is not intentionality as such but the fact that that animal signals derive from sounds or gestures that express the drives or “instincts” of their producers. In contrast, I hypothesize the first sign of human language to have been an aborted gesture of appropriation, a checking or deferral of our appetitive drive toward its object. It is the anti-instinctual, interdictive nature of its origin that distinguishes human “symbolic” communication from animal language. Of course the fear of one’s fellows that overrides appetitive-mimetic desire for the central object is itself “instinctual,” but the inhibition of appetitive desire that it effects is not the drowning out of one drive by another, but its deferral and displacement from the untouchable object onto the shareable sign.

Granted that apes can learn some language, engage in ritual-like practices, have elements of a “theory of mind,” none of these demonstrations of primate cousinship reduce the plausibility that the differentiation of human from ape was triggered by the inadequacy of ape communication. The object of originary thinking is to provide a plausible function for human difference so as to be able to explain the emergence of the human as that of “absolute” difference itself.

Davidson is correct: binary distinctions are facts, not of nature, but of language. But not even this binary distinction should be hypostasized into a fact of nature. The natural, prehuman world has plenty of de facto binary distinctions. Biology, in particular, has a neat way of creating such distinctions: speciation–two creatures that can produce fertile offspring are of the same species; otherwise, they are not. The difference between these and absolute (de jure) distinctions is created by their formalization in language by a creature whose survival depends on explicit binary distinctions. Durkheim saw that the most fundamental binary distinction of all is the social/ethical opposition between sacred and profane. To separate the potential combatants requires an interdiction of ontological force that is the creation of ontology itself. This does not mean that language “creates reality.” Language does not even create our perception of reality. What it creates is a différance or deferral of violence by means of a representation of its object as different. The primary difference is that between the significant and the insignificant, the sacred and the profane, this meaningful thing and everything else. Where Derrida goes wrong is in presuming the symmetry of this difference on the Saussurean model of a grammatical paradigm.

Apes have no notion of difference; humans do. This is no denial of ape intelligence, and surely no invitation to treat bonobos as Cartesian robots. It is simply a fact of evolution that at some point difference, the basis of all signification, became necessary and was created/invented. Saying that this creation makes us “absolutely” different from animals is really only another way of saying that our difference may be thought of as vanishingly small in concrete, relative terms. Both SSR and “Wally” ought to be able to agree on this.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the “incomprehensibility” of originary thinking is that it focuses on the never completely graspable moment of emergence of the “vertical” sign from its “horizontal” context. Language is born in paradox; the sign both expresses and denies appetite and, in so doing, transforms it into desire. Human culture plays out this paradox in narrative time, forever re-presenting the genesis of representation. Generative anthropology is founded on a minimal model of this paradox.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the chief result of this focus on the moment of origin is an increased sensitivity to historical specificity. The very fact that mimetic desire and the need to defer the conflict it arouses are always the same implies that the means to effect this deferral cannot remain fixed; the new human community created by the deferring sign will have the free time (French loisir, “leisure”) in which to generate new desires and new conflicts. The absolute nature of sacred significance both permits and obliges us, in contrast to our closest non-human relatives, to generate the continuous series of relative changes in the objects of significance that we call history.