Speculation on the origin of humanity and its institutions does not begin in the Enlightenment; it is at the heart of all culture. But in the Enlightenment, for the first time, this speculation acquires the status of a more or less rigorous anthropological thought-experiment, no longer concerned with what the gods have given humanity, but with what it has generated on its own. Such thinking may not propose verifiable/falsifiable theses, but it rises to the level of an anthropological hypothesis in a domain where verification/falsification is an ethical rather than simply logical operation. The human scene as event exceeds the scope of any empirical model based on repeatable phenomena: a scene exists only insofar as it is memorable, and what is memorable is not deducible from what is or might be observed. Enlightenment models of the origin of fundamental human institutions mark a new use of the scenic imagination as the basis for what we may call the science of origins.

Rousseau, the “first anthropologist” (Lévi-Strauss), used the sparse ethnological data available to him in the construction of originary models whose radicalism was sufficiently revealed in the famous phrase, “Commençons donc par écarter tous les faits,” [Let us begin by putting all facts aside] from the Discours sur l’origine de l’inégalité. Rousseau’s nineteenth-century heirs would accumulate increasingly precise and objective data at the price of abandoning the construction of originary models. The specificity of customs and beliefs not only appeared to point up the inadequacy of such constructions–an appearance that remains unchanged today–but, by revealing the gap between the primitive and the originary, suggested that the human can only be understood through the former, attested by observable data, rather than the latter, which is not. This empiricist position, clearly articulated by Durkheim at the end of the century, was tacitly held throughout. On this score, even the most radical romantics were closer to Burke than to Robespierre. Their affection for the primitive was homologous to Burke’s preference for tradition; they merely displaced humanity’s Fall into the hubris of self-generation from the French to the Neolithic Revolution.

This development is not simply as a disillusioned retreat from the anthropological optimism of the Enlightenment; empirical reality aside, it is, from a purely theoretical standpoint, a needed correction. It is no accident that the generation of the scenic center from the periphery that flourished in the Enlightenment was epitomized in the “social contract,” generative of political institutions rather than of the human in general. The center for Hobbes or Rousseau was a horizontal concentration of human appetite, not a locus of transcendence; the “sovereign” is not, as it would be for Durkheim, equated with the sacred. The Romantic retreat from Enlightenment originary thinking is the effect of the reintroduction of the transcendental element of the sacred into the human scene. This development, prefigured in the reality, if not the theory, of Enlightenment politics in such phenomena as the Revolutionary cult of the Etre suprême [supreme being], was thematized in the Restoration, most significantly by Joseph de Maistre, whose conception of the centrality of sacrifice is closer to René Girard’s than to that of Durkheim’s students, Hubert and Mauss.


Another by-product of the Romantic distrust of originary models was the emergence, in the first half of the nineteenth century, of the notion of biological evolution, including that of humanity. Darwin’s conception of evolution, infinitesimally gradual and “uniformitarian,” stood in obvious contrast to the dominant religious model of divine creation. Creationism is a latter-day rear-guard defense against this “scientific” denial of the eventfulness of human origin. The following passage presents a far earlier, but, in a very different way, equally naïve defense of this eventfulness:

It is very hard for us to realize the feelings with which the first dwellers on the earth looked upon the sun . . . But think of man at the very dawn of time: forget for a moment, if you can, after having read the fascinating pages of Mr. Darwin, forget what man is supposed to have been before he was man; forget it, because it does not concern us here whether his bodily form and frame were developed once for all in the mind of a Creator, or gradually in the creation itself . . . think of him only as man (and man means the thinker), with his mind yet lying fallow . . . think of the Sun awakening the eyes of man from sleep, and his mind from slumber! . . .
Max Müller, Introduction to the Science of Religion(London, 1871)

Max Müller, whose reflections on language and religion antedate the publication ofThe Origin of Species, locates the origin of religion in the encounter of “the first [human] dwellers on the earth” with the, so to speak, naturally transcendent spectacle of the sun, an encounter that provides Müller with an originary model, indifferently solitary and collective, of the scene of representation. “Man” encounters the sun as an individual, yet his awe is the source of the collective phenomenon of myth, deprecated in Müller’s most memorable phrase as a “youthful disease of language.” Müller’s Condillac-like restriction of scenic interaction to sensation and cognition (“think of the Sun awakening the eyes of man from sleep, and his mind from slumber!”) ignores the social dynamic within which language and religion are generated. Although Müller deserves praise as the only nineteenth-century thinker to directly link the origin of these central cultural phenomena, his work illustrates his century’s difficulty in integrating the sacred into the collective scene of the “social contract.” In the relation between humanity and a transcendent Other, a scene with only two characters, a single human being and the sun, appears more parsimonious to a liberal Protestant scholar such as Müller than one that views the scene of the sacred as a locus of collective interaction.


The generative use of the scenic imagination, increasingly moribund throughout the nineteenth century (one recalls the Société linguistique de Paris’ famous 1866 ban on theories of language origin), was revived through an infusion of scenic data from ethnology. Fleeing from the scenic imagination into the empirical study of the primitive, the ethnologist discovers the centrality of this imagination in primitive culture itself, which is dominated by ritual models of the originary scene.

Because human time, made up of events and not simply of phenomena, is not merely evolutionary but historical, any description of our activities is undecidably both particular and universal. Each human culture–indeed, each human representation–is both a specific example and a model of the human-in-general. The quest for the most fundamental forms of social organization that drives ethnological research cannot avoid this ambivalence, however much its deniers describe with loving care the “thick” specificity of each culture while attributing to humanity itself no specificity other than biological. In contrast, at the time of the early systematization of data on primitive religion by such scholars as Morgan and Tylor, generality bore no stigma; the difficulty lay rather in including in one’s model the eventfulness that separates the human world from the natural. Durkheim, although he fails to make eventfulness into a generative principle, criticizes both Müller’s “naturism” and Tylor’s “animism” for neglecting the essentially social character of the religious event. For Durkheim, it is the sacred that distinguishes human society from its animal counterparts; semiosis–human language–begins with the binary distinction between sacred and profane. Durkheim was the first anthropological thinker to understand the sacred as constituted by interaction among human beings rather than by either their collective or individual awe before the spectacle of nature, or their collective or individual communion with gods or “spirits,” whose apparent immortality reflects that of the already-existing sacred sign.

Yet the most spectacular scenic imagination of the early twentieth century belonged, not to Durkheim, but to Sigmund Freud. For Freud, human life was a series of scenes of which the first, consciously repressed but perpetually reenacted in the unconscious, were the most determinant. Freud’s early notion of the “primal scene” is akin in significance if not in content to the originary hypothesis–it is, indeed, an originary hypothesis scaled to the life of the individual. The family drama of the bourgeois child is an allegory of the genesis of humanity itself.

Time has revealed the weaknesses of Freud’s ahistorical model of the human psyche as well as of his curative technique. What remains of value is his scenic intuition of the human. The same may even be said for Jacques Lacan, whose refinements transform Freud’s physiologically defined “stages” into developmental phases of the scene of representation (“imaginary,” “symbolic”), beginning with the Ur-scene of the “mirror stage.” Unfortunately, this process, in conformity with Lacan’s structuralist fetishizing of the semiotic, detaches the psychoanalytic model of the human psyche yet more completely from its grounding in history.

Yet Freud himself made one major attempt to ground his key psychic model of the “Oedipus complex” in a hypothetical scenic event. In Totem and Taboo (1913), Freud attempts to link the ontogenetic scene to its phylogenetic original through a renewed exercise of the scenic imagination, now nourished with ethnological data.

Freud’s originary scene, the most scandalously audacious speculative model of early ethnology, is rejected by even the most devout Freudians–especially by the most devout Freudians. This return from Durkheim’s prudent empiricism to the speculative mentality of the Enlightenment is not merely isolated; it serves as a caution even today to anyone tempted to follow in the master’s footsteps. Freud’s scene of the collective murder of the “father” by his “sons,” a throwback to a distant era in the eyes of mainstream social science, is prophetic from the perspective of generative anthropology. Seen more broadly, Freud’s model of the origin of internalized interdiction or guilt is a model of the origin of representation in general. The sons, no longer dominated “instinctively” by the father, must consciously reconstruct a social order. Dividing the women among them requires a system of classification, the origin of which is the sacred significance attributed to the father, whose posthumous influence makes him immortal like a god–or a sign. Although the Oedipus complex appears to give desire for the mother priority over mimetic rivalry with the father, in Freud’s description of the originary murder scene, the “mothers” are forgotten. The modern family drama to which Freud’s scene serves as prologue does not obscure its value as a model of the origin of representation whose crucial operation is the generation of a new set of ethical relations, guaranteed and memorialized by a shared representation.

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Ideas, the signifieds of the signs of language, do not die, but live on in latency until they are thought once more. Combine Durkheim’s concept of the sacred with Freud’s scenic violence, add a dash of de Maistre’s theory of sacrifice, and you arrive at Girard’s originary scene, the beginning of a new chapter in the story of the scenic imagination.