Although language and the other forms of human representation are now recognized as unique in the animal kingdom, exploration of the specifically anthropological ontology characteristic of the linguistic sign is a virtual monopoly of generative anthropology, which hypothesizes that the transcendent status of the sign emerges in an originary event through the collective deferral of appetitive behavior. Saussure’s analysis of the sign as consisting of the communally shared relation between signifiant and signifié respects its ontological specificity more clearly than Peirce’s potentially unending chain of interpretants, but neither of these two pioneers of semiology attempted to understand language and its emergence as an anthropological phenomenon.
There is nothing mystical about claiming that the sign has a different ontology from the elements of the real world. A sign is not a thing; it is a complex of things and the relations among them, mediated by the community that exchanges them. Human language and other forms of representation exemplify a new mode of being discontinuous with earlier forms of communication and organization. Were all sign-users to vanish, this ontology would vanish with them, and the sign-traces left behind would become mere worldly objects–although their discovery by a future sign-user could restore them to their particular status.
The apparent similarity of the semiotic type-token relationship to that, for example, of the genotype and phenotype of a given species seems obvious only because we use language to describe it. Each horse is an individual, not a token in the sense that the last word of this sentence is a token of the word “horse.” A genotype is an ideal construction to which each individual member of the species Equus caballus corresponds only approximately; a word-type is manifest in each token of a given word. And nothing in the natural world is analogous to the translatability of the type horse into that of Pferd or cheval while retaining essentially the same conceptual extension.
The inadequacy of social science’s ontology of language is revealed most strikingly in the naïve attempts to associate the emergence of language with a mutant “language gene” that can only be expressed–in this case, literally–when the mutation occurs at least twice in a particular group. (A “God gene” has also made its appearance.) The requirement of plural mutations is a particularly egregious consequence of the failure to distinguish between a human community of language users and a prehuman collectivity. The focus on the individual’s genetic makeup even when dealing with the self-evidently collective phenomenon of language reflects the limits of natural science’s materialist ontology.
Similarly, although human groups have been examined systematically at least since the days of Durkheim, the dependence of human communities on the exchange of symbolic representations is taken for granted rather than becoming an object of reflection in its own right. The notion of “human community” seems at first glance unproblematic, yet, like language, religion, and all phenomena of representation, it exists only through the mediation of the reciprocal exchange of signs around what was at the origin a sacred center. This scenic configuration exists as a virtual scene of representation in the imagination of every human being, which, when actualized, becomes the template of an event, a memorable experience that offers a potential occasion for the exchange of signs.
A human community is not a worldly object but a set of members and the relations between them as mediated by the representations they exchange and the things they exchange through the mediation of these representations. Although there are obvious parallels in the mass behavior of human and animal collectivities, the animal pack, whether of ants, birds, lions, or apes, is held together only by the affinities of its individual members for the others; it has no sense of its own cohesion as a community. The set of micro-relationships that make up an alpha-beta hierarchy suffices to maintain social cohesion even among the highest animals and to preserve it from one generation to the next. The human communal organization that emerges from the originary event reflects the breakdown of the alpha-beta system; the human community, symmetrically arrayed around a sacred center, becomes aware of itself through the reciprocal exchange of representations of that center. What Durkheim calls the “solidarity” of the group that is reinforced by ritual is each member’s awareness of the shared possibility of this reciprocal exchange.
Human communication is symbolic where the nonhuman remains indexical. Animal subgroups are defined by physiological traits, including signals; human subgroups, by shared representations. Not only is our sharing of signs irreducible to prehuman modes of sharing, but Kant’s transhuman category of “rational being” is gratuitous. No logic based on our own practice can permit us to claim that “rationality” is a universal possibility generalizable beyond the human. Even if sign-using beings exist elsewhere in the universe, we have no reason to assume that their sign-systems and the nature of the communities they found are analogous to ours.
Enlightenment ontology has no place for the uniquely human category of symbolic representation. The more difficult question is not why there is a mode of being unique to the human but how it could come about that this uniqueness might be one day denied. This is part and parcel of the problem of thinking the sacred. Religious representations refer explicitly to the sacred, and the theological discourse that interprets them thinks the sacred on that basis, but to think the sacred outside of sacred dogma–the attempt to do so is at least implicitly at the core of what we call “anthropology”–is a problematic task, perhaps ultimately an impossible one.
What makes it impossible to think the sacred in philosophical or metaphysical terms is that it inheres in a collective scenic context and that its effect is not “portable” outside that context–in contrast with the esthetic, which retains its charge between the collective and the individual scenes of representation. The ostensive that points to the sacred is a communal, not an individual one. I can show you an object that is worshiped, but I cannot show its worshipfulness; the sacred cannot be grasped either in the object or in my private or mystical experience of it. Durkheim describes the functioning of sacred objects and rites but he cannot help us to understand the constitution or being of the sacred in the absence of a plausible generative scheme–the construction of which he considered incompatible with positive science–of how the sacred came into being, along with language and other forms of representation.
How did a given society come to project itself onto sacred figures and discourses that impose a communal ethic on individuals whose short-term individual interests run counter to moral reciprocity, even if they benefit from it in the long term? The problem of the social order is a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where cooperation is the best strategy taken collectively, but not individually. (Indeed, the needs of any collectivity are subject to such reasoning. If too many plants grow in a given area, they all suffer; some must be “persuaded” to sacrifice themselves for the common good. But the selfish interests of the members of a human community are controlled by communal representations rather than through the evolutionary emergence of stereotyped behavior.) The dogmatic irrationality of sacred discourse is sometimes evoked (for example, by Rodney Stark) as means of overcoming the Prisoner’s Dilemma; defectors are less likely when the price of admission includes professing belief in highly implausible narratives. But once again, sacred discourse is not a simple product of natural selection; it can only be explained by a generative scheme. The specific “irrationalities” of sacred discourse must be given a plausible origin in the configuration of the originary event. It is the ostensive nature of the originary sign that gives the sacred its “irrational” referentiality. An ostensive sign points at something; it cannot point to a signified or idea. If humans like to tell stories, it is because the originary referent of the sign was not an abstract notion but a particular being whose presence in the sacred center, necessary in the abstract, is contingent in its specificity as the center of this event. The meaning or signified is inherent in the structure of the sign, but it is not sufficient to motivate its origin; at the origin of the sign as meant is the sign as referring.
Language makes no formal distinction among its referents between objects of interest in the everyday world and the object of “interest” that gave rise to the originary transformation of the deferred appetitive gesture into a sign. The ultimately spurious dichotomy between “believers” and “unbelievers” depends on the inherent impossibility of distinguishing the sacred from the significant. The religious rituals that impose this distinction reflect its fragility rather than its ontological evidence. In valorizing the distinction, the believer affirms that the social cohesion brought about by the sacred cannot be attributed to the members of the community and their “interests” alone, that the common object of desire that inspired the exchange of signs was only a place-holder for a Being, desire for whom is the newborn desire for community itself. For his part, the non-believer takes all this for granted; because the human community and its various modes of representation have obvious utility, they need not be explained by anything other than natural selection.
Before the emergence of the scientific attitude in the early modern era, coincident with the rise of the market, atheism of this sort was inconceivable; the only alternatives to faith were skepticism or admission of ignorance. Not that the birth of the scientific attitude is coeval with a new, post-sacred explanation of the human; it signals rather that a sacred explanation is no longer necessary now that the marketplace provides the model of a self-sustaining human institution that liberates the individual to focus on the conquest of the natural world. Descartes’ God is not required to guarantee the sanctity of the human community, only the coincidence of the thinking mind’s internal scene with the external universe. The exchange of signs among such minds no longer presupposes explicit universal acknowledgement of the sacred otherness of its originary source.
Reflection on the transcendental ontology of the human is equally absent from the current dialogue de sourds over religion and atheism. The debaters are too comfortable taking pot-shots at each other from positions fortified since the Enlightenment to explore the minimal common ground cleared by the originary hypothesis.
The debate’s new horizon is the avoidance of global apocalypse. The long-term catastrophes predicted by the new religion of Global Warming are benign distractions compared with the increasingly plausible threat of imminent annihilation at our own hands. Under these circumstances, the neo-Voltairean discourse of a Sam Harris or a Christopher Hitchens bespeaks a desperate urgency. The common-sense solution for murderous religious fanaticism is to eliminate the religious traditions that breed it. Nor can one retort that atheists Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot have outkilled Bin Laden by many orders of magnitude; their massacres too were justified by “faith.”
The proper reply is rather that the human community, born in the transcendence of the individual appetites of its members, cannot simply renounce its potential to obey even a suicidal sacred imperative. The solution, if solution there be, lies in insisting neither on the universal sameness of human desire nor on the equivalent multiplicity of its embodiments, but on the difference between those embodied desires that tend to preserve the global human community and those that tend to destroy it. The fault line does not lie between religion and atheism, or even between reason and fanaticism, but between the modern market system and the traditional “Maussian” world, whose fierce resentment of modernity has bred in some a will to annihilation. If it is too late to turn back the clock and leave the Umma to its own devices, neither is there anything to be gained by declaring religion refuted by natural science. Such a proposition can only confirm the intuition shared by saints and jihadists alike that Western civilization is not so much evolved beyond its sacred origins as ignorantly or perversely determined to deny them.
The originary hypothesis will not dissuade the jihadists. But this does not mean that its significance is merely “theoretical.” Although the difficulty with which the hypothesis finds adherents is not a sufficient condition of its long-term validity, in our consumption-driven world it is no doubt a necessary one. As an originary theory of the human, generative anthropology provides a critical understanding of the other originary theories that we call religions. We work to promote this understanding in the hope that the grandchildren of the jihadists, and our own, may be brought to accept it as the minimal foundation of a global human community.