When animals use indexical signals, a warning cry or conversely, a call indicating the presence of food or another desirable good, they communicate by contagion; the first emitter of the signal spreads its reaction to the others, since all are linked by common needs. A scream at the presence of a predator incites the other animals to flee; they understand it “sympathetically,” since their reaction on seeing the predator would have been the same. Similarly, a signal indicating the presence of food or water will attract other animals that can be presumed to have the same appetites.

In contrast with animals, humans pose a greater danger to themselves than do the rigors of the extraspecific world. Hence if we need a new system of communication, it is not to signal the location of either predators or food, but to avert the danger of mimetic conflict. According to the originary hypothesis, human language originates when the pecking-order animal dominance hierarchy is no longer able to regulate such conflict. The key transition occurs when the protohuman group as a whole (which need not by any means be the entire population of the local “society”) acts as a counterweight to individual dominance and prevents the Alpha from exercising its normal dominance by being first to appropriate, for example, a large edible animal encountered by a hunting party. In the proposed scenario, the linguistic or symbolic sign that represents the central object does not anticipate but aborts and replaces the act of appropriation. Even if the originary sign is not itself an aborted gesture of appropriation, it effectively substitutes for it: it designates the object–directs the interlocutor’s attention toward it–yet unlike the indexical sign, it is not linked to an attempt to appropriate it. On the contrary, in communicating the significance of the presence of its referent to the other participants, the linguistic sign also communicates the fact that the emitter does not intend to appropriate the object.

This originary sign is an ostensive, the simplest form of linguistic utterance, emitted in the presence of its referent. In the context of communication thus defined, the collective emission of the sign poses a pragmatic paradox:

(1) it designates its object as worthy of attention, and therefore of appropriation;

(2) by this very fact, it sacralizes the object, making it inaccessible to appropriation by any member of the group.

The pragmatic paradox generated by the originary ostensive precedes and is the source of the pragmatic paradoxes discussed by Watzlawick et al. in Pragmatics of Human Communication (Norton 1967). To say that the originary sign sacralizes its object is only another way of saying that it makes our relation to it paradoxical; the sacred may be defined as that to which we can relate only through the paradox just described.

Abstracting from the pragmatic situation in which signification serves to avert mimetic conflict, this originary paradox may be reformulated as what I shall call the fundamental paradox of signification:

(1) the sign refers to an object (S -> O)

(2) by this very fact, this object is no longer a part of the object world, but the object-referred-to-by-the-sign (S -> (S -> O))

It is important to recognize that this abstract formulation is not an exercise in symbolic logic; it derives from the successful negotiation of the pragmatic reality of the originary scene. The fact that in (2) the sign points to the object-as-pointed-to-by-the-sign can only become an object of logical analysis because it had in the first place the practical function of making the object inaccessible to appropriation. This is accomplished through the exchange of signs that represent rather than appropriating the object, and by so doing, represent it as representable but not appropriable, in other words, as sacred.

The imperative

Given that the simplest utterance form sets up a paradox in its interlocutor, it stands to reason that this must be true as well of the higher forms. The Origin of Language derives the imperative from the use of the sign in the absence of its referent in order to make the latter appear, no doubt originally in the form of a prayer to the central divinity. The imperative not only designates an object of desire but, taking the nominal imperative (“Scalpel!”) as the simplest imperative form, requests that it be made available to the speaker. If the originary ostensive may be said to generate originary resentment of the sacred object (which in the hypothetical event is discharged in the sparagmos by which the members of the originary community tear the object to shreds, each taking a share of it), the imperative, which requests that the interlocutor satisfy the desire of the speaker after it has aroused his own, generates in its interlocutor resentment of the speaker.

In the originary scene, the community as a whole exercises its authority through the medium of the sign to prevent individual appropriation of the object. In the imperative configuration, the emitter of the imperative asserts an individual authority that substitutes for that of the collectivity. In order that the imperative be “felicitous,” this authority must overcome the force of the fundamental paradox of signification. The surgeon’s command is not likely to lead to a struggle with his assistant for possession of the scalpel because the pragmatic paradox this command embodies is of limited force in comparison with the surgeon’s authority in the operating room.

Such imperative authority, whether temporary or permanent, is a prerequisite for the “double-bind” pragmatic paradoxes studied by Watzlawick. The paradox is these cases is caused by the contradiction between the interpretations of the object requested by the imperative as either (S -> O) or (S -> (S -> O)). For example, in the case of the robust paradox, “Don’t think of an elephant,” it is certainly possible not to think of an elephant (O), but not in the context in which this behavior is explicitly thematized (S ‑> O). “Be spontaneous” leads to a similar contradiction in the vaguer domain of general behavior.

The declarative and the esthetic

The Origin of Language derives the declarative sentence or proposition from the answer to a failed imperative (“Scalpel!” – “There isn’t any scalpel”’; “The scalpel is in the next room”). In contrast to ostensive or imperative utterances, the declarative incites its interlocutor to situate its referent on his internal scene of representation; hearing “the cat is on the mat,” we imagine a mat with a cat on it. This permits the individual to internalize the relationship that had already obtained in the originary scene between him and the central object designated collectively by the sign. The declarative neither points ostensively to a real object to which it attracts our attention nor imperatively to a hypothetical object that we must produce; it invites us to imagine a state of affairs, which by the paradox of signification we find desirable within its inaccessible imaginary context.

The declarative thus sets up a short-term version of the oscillatory relationship that obtains in more elaborate form in our experience of an artwork. Namely, we first experience the work as a representation, we imagine the world (naturalistic or abstract) that it represents and infuse it with our desire, but in order to maintain contact with this imaginary world we must continually return to the artwork, either seriatim, as in a “chronological” work such as a novel or a symphony, or through aleatory visual interaction with a work of plastic art. The poles of this oscillation are the terms of the fundamental paradox of signification; perceiving the artwork, we imagine the object (S -> O), but on doing so, we experience the dependence of this imagination on our experience of the artwork (S -> (S -> O)). An artistic representation is explicitly designed to attract our desire to its imaginary world, situating it in a context where, unlike the real world, it is not susceptible to rivalry and contagion. The spectator traditionally experiences the paradox of esthetic desire with no possibility of contact with the work’s creator, who is in Girard’s terms an external mediator, standing in a transcendental relationship to the imaginary world his work generates in the spectator.

Logical paradox

With the declarative sentence there also appear logical paradoxes of self-reference, as exemplified by the barber who shaves all and only those who do not shave themselves. Although it is not obvious at first glance, the Barber Paradox and all similar paradoxes are variants of the fundamental paradox of signification.

The Barber Paradox involves an equivalence or two-way implication: the barber shaves X if and only if X does not shave X. Substituting the barber himself for X leads to a contradiction. (Female barbers are not allowed in paradoxes.)

Since the paradoxical implication is the same in either direction, we can limit our analysis to the first half of the equivalence: if the barber shaves X then X does not shave X. The opposite implication, that if X does not shave X then the barber shaves X, can be analyzed in a similar manner.

To the extent that the sign represents the real world, we can understand the implication as a causal/temporal sequence; if (moment 1) the barber shaves someone, then (moment 2) the latter doesn’t shave himself, since he is already shaved. If we then substitute the barber himself for “someone,” the implication involves no paradox. The barber, like everyone else, needs to be shaved only once; whether it be he or another, having the barber shave him at moment (1) means he doesn’t have to shave himself at moment (2).

This situation becomes paradoxical only if it is taken out of its causal/temporal correspondence with the real world and detemporalized into a logical state, so that the implication that once the barber has shaved himself, he need not shave himself (again) becomes: if the barber shaves himself then the barber doesn’t shave himself. This flattening of worldly temporality into a synchronic state is the effect of the incorporation of the worldly description into the abstract sign-world of logic, that is, in the terminology used above, the passage from (S -> O) to (S -> (S -> O)).

We should note the analogy of this paradox with the sacralization of the object via the originary emission of the “aborted gesture”: the sign designating its object as sacred implies that it is already sacred, in other words, it flattens the causal/temporal relation that separates moment (1) in which the gesture renounces the attempt at appropriation in order torepresent the object from moment (2) in which the object is made sacred. In the language of postmodernism, the Barber paradox exemplifies the same always already, toujours déjà, as the originary emission of the name-of-God.


We cannot conceive, let alone access, a sacred referent that is not at the same time the sacred-referent-designated-by-the-sign.  Applied to the originary sacred center, the fundamental paradox of signification justifies the characterization of “God” as the name that represents indifferently its signified and its referent, so that the “existence of God” can never be separated from the “existence of ‘God,’” of the concept itself.

Indeed, the very notion of the signified derives from this paradox. The originary sign or signifier that designates its sacred referent can only come to refer to a signified once the referent is reconceived as the referent-as-represented-by-the-sign, that is, in Saussure’s terms, as a part of the linguistic sign (which he defines as Signifié/Signifiant) rather than of the object-world, or in philosophical terms, as an Idea or concept.

This allows us to understand the realm of Ideas or metaphysics as founded on an agreement to expel or “bracket” the fundamental paradox of signification by taking declarative language as given. The language of philosophy, whether it speaks of God or the cat on the mat, agrees to ignore the paradoxical dependence that links the Idea of the cat, that is, the cat-designated-by-the-sign, to the cat tout court. The founding gesture of Platonic metaphysics is to grant ontological primacy not to the flesh-and-blood animal, but to the Idea.

We must never forget that the pragmatic paradoxes of language have as their originary purpose the deferral of the potential violence of mimetic rivalry for a central object of desire. To say that the sign defers violence is the equivalent of saying that the sign creates a pragmatic paradox that defers appetitive action and the conflict to which such action might lead. The emitter of the sign is blocked from worldly action; the abortion of the gesture of appropriation displaces it from a horizontal to a “vertical” or “transcendental” plane where it functions as a signifier with respect to its original object-referent-signified.

The fundamental paradox of signification is a difficult notion to grasp; constitutive of language, it is not normally accessible to it. The bargain struck by metaphysics, to take language for granted as a neutral medium for making propositional assertions, has been supremely advantageous for the conquest of the natural world. But only GA’s “new way of thinking,” which works through rather than around thought’s founding paradox, offers a unified understanding of language, art, and religion that does not depend on ad hoc empirical data. The greatest paradox is how few minds have been willing to make the effort to think this most powerful idea of all.