I am intrigued by Adam Katz’s suggestion that the best approach to earlier thinkers’ approximations to the originary hypothesis is to determine what prevents them from formulating it in its simplest terms. The hypothesis has no prerequisites either in esoteric knowledge or in philosophical reflection; anyone might have formulated it as soon as the language was available to do so. We should consider religious creation myths, as well as the more recent secular uses of the scenic imagination, as less parsimonious formulations of the same hypothesis. But the importance of parsimony in this case is not a mere matter of minimizing the number of words or “imaginary entities.” In contrast with the accretions that Ockham’s razor can pare away, the minimal hypothesis is the core of the human. In the genesis of the human world of representation, nominalism is indistinguishable from realism.

With this in mind, let us formulate once more, as parsimoniously as possible, the originary hypothesis.

A proto-human group surrounds an object of great appetitive interest. In a pecking-order animal hierarchy, the alpha animal would normally appropriate the object, and when finished with it (e.g., by taking his portion), pass what remains on to the second-ranked animal. Once each attains appetitive satisfaction, he would lose interest in the object rather than hoarding it all for himself. In the group presently in question, as a result of growing mimeticism, no individual, not even the (former) alpha, has the authority to appropriate the object for himself. The members of the group make gestures of appropriation toward the object but fail to bring them to completion for fear of the others’ hostile reaction. Faced with this singular resistance of the central object, a member of the group makes the aborted gesture itself his intentional goal in order to communicate to the central object itself and to the others by its mediation, his renunciation of the project of appropriating it. By the fact of this intentionality, the abortive gesture is transformed into a completed action of a new type, a representation or sign. This gesture is copied by the others with the same intention; all communicate through this originary sign to the center and to each other their renunciation of their attempt at appropriation.

By designating the object, the gesture establishes it as forbidden to any single member of the group. Once the interdiction is generally understood, the group divides the object in a quasi-violent sparagmos that expresses not only pent-up appetite but resentment of the object as refusing itself to them–in other terms, resentment of the Being that is the central focus of desire, faith in which is tantamount to interdiction. After the object has been divided and no longer exists as a totality, the sign as a gesture of acquiescence to its interdiction remains in the memory of the members of the group. The sign is on the one hand motivated by its movement toward and turning-back from the object; on the other hand it is arbitrary, since it becomes an intentional goal on its own, independent of the appropriative praxis at its origin. The interdiction imposed by the sign is temporary, but the sign’s signification of interdiction is outside of time; it is the meaning of the sign. The sign is the signifier of the sacred, desired and interdicted: the name-of-god. As the sign’s persistent signified or Being to which the sign is first communicated, the central object/locus is understood as itself a user of signs and therefore as possessing a human-like subjectivity and, by extension, a human- or animal-like physical reality (“anthropomorphism”). This attribution to the central being of human-like intentionality–an intentionality dependent on the use of signs–is the non-parsimonious element of the versions of the originary hypothesis that precede generative anthropology. The desacralization or secularization characteristic of Western society since the Renaissance is the historical questioning of the necessity of the intentionality of the center to the most parsimonious formulation of the (origin of the) human.

The first humans had no vocabulary in which to formulate a “doctrine”; they had only a single sign. The emission of the sign in the originary scene was both a rational act, adaptive for the members of the proto-human group present at the scene, and an act of faith–a positive response to the “prisoner’s dilemma” in which mutual trust produces a better overall result than selfish action. If we stipulate that designating the central desire-object by a sign was the only way to preserve the group from internal bloodshed by generating an equalitarian community of reciprocal exchange out of a pecking-order society, what the participants could not allow themselves to understand about the reality of the situation was the ungrounded nature of this faith in the interdictive will of the center that guarantees communal reciprocity against individual defections. It is a mistake to think that the religious believer lives in certitude; faith has no certitude outside itself. But at the moment of greatest crisis, shared faith is strongest. The originary scene is the locus of an act of faith: anthropologically, that the other members of the group will understand my sign as an act of renunciation; theologically, that their understanding is guaranteed by the will of the central Being, the source of the interdiction of the object. The originary scene is both rational and an act of faith, and the preponderance of one or the other pole depends in a given case, however complex the circumstances, on the degree to which the positive solution to the prisoner’s dilemma is obvious or obscure.


As derivatives of the originary configuration, all cultural phenomena have the same fundamental structure. Nevertheless, the history of human self-consciousness is marked by a series of locally irreversible revelations concerning the originary scene and its nature, inspired by new experiences in social exchange. The overall path of these successive revelations in the West, although far from rectilinear, is from the more to the less sacrificial, the less dependent on faith in the central Being’s demand for the renewal of the originary sparagmos in order to renew the communal bond that permitted the positive originary solution to the prisoner’s dilemma. The relatively more independent variable in this evolution is not the (cultural) evolution of the scene of representation itself, whether in religious ritual or art, but the evolution of economic and political exchange relations in the “secular” world outside the scene. The perceived rationality of the exchange system makes the central control of desire less necessary. With the emergence of modern market society, desacralization reaches the point where the collective communication with the central will that we call religion is no longer central to the lives of large sectors of society and even certain nations. Alternatively, the “personal God” that incarnates the central will can adapt itself to this rationalization, which can never altogether eliminate the potential violence of resentment, by rationalizing sacrifice itself as charitable renunciation of satisfaction in the service of others rather than the violent renewal of the sparagmos. Roughly speaking, these two adaptations to modern rationality are respectively those of Western Europe and of the United States.

In the most highly sacralized community, all power is attributed by the periphery to the center; it is at this end of the scale that one finds human sacrifice. The victim/divinity is, as Girard points out, perceived as alternately harmful and beneficial; before the sparagmos, as the object of resentment for its resistance to the group; afterward, as the shared representative of central Being that unifies the group. Throughout, the unanimously chosen victim attracts the mimetic energy of the community, deferring mimetic violence on the periphery.

At the other end of the scale is a society built around the free market. Here the “center” serves only as a reminder of the virtual unity of the participants, who need not even share the same language or culture so long as they possess more or less the same information concerning exchange values. What must be centrally controlled are the external and internal mechanisms that assure the peaceful functioning of the market itself, which is expected to operate most of the time on its own. We may consider eBay as an exemplary illustration of the free market. Trading rules are unambiguous; market knowledge is instantaneous; millions of transactions take place between complete strangers, only a tiny percentage of which require intervention. But eBay is conceivable only in a society of individuals habituated to the conventions of the free market, which ultimately rely for their enforcement on a state or states subject to the rule of law.

A perfect market does not imply a perfect society. To the extent that individuals are free to exchange goods and services, some succeed better than others, and some have more to begin with; the market generates resentments that must be dealt with in a political process. Just as no society can survive with a total absence of central authority, so no society can be wholly absorbed by the tyranny of the center; a society fixated on its scapegoat will starve to death. The degree to which the central Being is personified is not on the same axis as the degree of sacrality necessary to the social order. The cliché that Marxism was the “religion” of the former USSR is not wholly misleading; any central authority is a mode of sacrality. But a secular “religion” such as communism that is based on a historical eschatology is explicitly a-theistic because it claims to be the truly free extension of the “capitalist” market, in which the regulatory center will “wither away.” The real central authority being exercised in socialist countries by “temporary” custodians, they cannot be deified–made permanent–in the traditional sense. The resulting quasi-religion exhibits all the embarrassing paradoxes entailed by situating the transcendent in the immanent–for example, the public exhibition of Lenin’s mummified body, treated as a holy relic but claiming that status only “historically,” as though there were a rational historical sacred that could be opposed to the irrationality of an explicitly religious sacred.

Christianity is the most highly articulated conception of the “personal God,” whose being, including the experience if not the finality of death, is fundamentally the same as that of his worshippers. The paradoxical role of Christianity is to be the principle of coherence of the most highly desacralized societies, which as a consequence tend to lose the need for an explicit postulation of the will of the center independently of those on the periphery. The paradox of Christian secularization has recently been thrown into relief by the challenge of militant Islam, whose reliance on band-level organizations to carry out their faith-affirming suicide attacks reflects their antipodal stance toward the increasing integration of nation-states into the “godless” global market, a movement that is a tribute to the power of Christian anthropology.


We may now return to our original quandary: what prevents the originary hypothesis from being formulated in a parsimonious or “minimal” form?

The key to the enigma is to be sought in the history of the “scenic imagination” itself. Hobbes, at the outset of the Enlightenment, created the first generative model of a human institution in order to explain and justify the genesis of “Leviathan,” the centralized state. Although the very possibility of Hobbes’ thought experiment is dependent on the emergence of socio-economic reciprocity in early market society–the ultimate force behind the English civil war–this first free exercise of the scenic imagination is intended to justify the abolition of the intolerable conditions that gave rise to it, which Hobbes schematizes in the violent symmetry of his state of nature as the “war of every man against every man.” If any society was ever founded on the forgetting of its origin, it is that of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the irreversibility of whose acquisition of absolute sovereignty can be guaranteed only by historical amnesia.

The forgetting implicit in the use of the hypothetical scene of reciprocal exchange to justify a non-reciprocal centralization is not dependent on Hobbes’ specific political views. Rousseau’s radical social contract is, if anything, yet more constraining; the “general will” established in the originary political scene acquires an authority that extends even to the political imagination of the participants–whence the author’s sinister quip that to make someone conform to the general will is le forcer à être libre. The anthropological lesson of both Hobbes and Rousseau is that an originary scene that brings together not proto-humans in need of a new mode of interaction but fully constituted human beings incapable of finding peace in their “natural” (pre-state) condition is a configuration of tyranny. Because the thought experiment is not at the appropriate level of parsimony, it generates too much order from too much preexisting culture.

We may contrast these early modern scenes with Freud’s father-murder scenario in Totem and Taboo (1913). Freud’s originary “social contract” is engaged in by beings not yet possessed of a fully human subjectivity. Although his originary model does not refer to language per se, it generates the primordial human behavior of interdiction, which the originary sign imposes on the members of the group. Freud’s scene lacks parsimony only insofar as it fails to respect the originary interdependence of language and interdiction, whereas the socially-mediated desires that Hobbes describes are much farther from the origin. Long before mimetic crisis could have incited a group of humans to choose a sovereign, there must have been a crisis among proto-humans in need of the most elementary form of human order. Similarly, but on a lesser scale, in Freud’s scene, if the interdiction of the women that follows the murder is to be the first human interdiction, it must be the occasion of the first use of language, in which case the sons would not have stood in a culturally-defined kinship relation to the father but only in the pecking-order relationship characteristic of animal societies.

A truly parsimonious originary scene would comfort neither Hobbes’ metapolitics or Freud’s metapsychology. More to the point, these thinkers could not conceive such a scene in the first place because they could not conceive of originary thinking as an enterprise independent of politics or psychology–it being worthy of note that individual psychology comes closer to the parsimony of the originary scene than state-level politics. What makes generative anthropology a new way of thinking is that it takes the parsimoniousness of the originary scene as the very foundation of its human ontology (and not merely of its epistemology of anthropological discovery). Such an approach to anthropology, the pioneering example of which is Girard’s mimetic theory, is consequent on the revelation at the end of WWII of the absolutely crucial problem of deferring human violence.

Today, although originary thinking remains marginal, its possibility is more important than its popularity; resistance to it is henceforth an ideological choice rather than an epistemological necessity. The discussion of how we can, or should, attempt to influence this choice is a matter for another Chronicle.