[Those not familiar with the originary hypothesis are referred to the description on pp. 12-18, and in particular pp. 14-15, of my on-line monograph, The Girardian Origins of GA (available for $0.99 at Amazon.com).


In all the years in which I have attempted to explain GA in writing and in speech, I have tended to place the major emphasis on representation, and in particular on “formal representation” or language. One of the points I have insisted on is that human language is qualitatively different from animal “languages”; the researches and insights of such as Terrence Deacon have essentially ended the debate on this point. But it follows from my very “definition” of the human as the species that poses a greater problem to its own survival than the totality of forces outside the human community that the primary transformation of the proto-human into the human was ethical. Language and more broadly, representation emerged, per the originary hypothesis, to defer conflict, not to provide a cognitive or ratiocinative tool. But in the configuration of the originary event, the moral model of the reciprocal exchange of the sign is just as indubitably unique a human creation as language, and indeed more essential to the success of the event—and to the consequent emergence of our species. The urgent need that the event fulfills is to find a model of behavior that can defer violence within a community for which one-on-one animal hierarchy no longer provides an adequate solution.

If as it seems clear the original function of language was not cognitive but collaborative, the common designation of the central object through the sign is “arbitrary” in the Saussurean sense, not (yet) because the designative gesture is as divorced from its designatum as “cow” is from a cow, but more fundamentally, because the very practice of designating something, of pointing, is new, and its object, however appetitively attractive, cannot a priori be said to “justify” such an unprecedented act. But conversely, the sign is “infinitely” motivated since the community that makes use of it as the first sign of its language would not exist without it. Language is ethical in the most fundamental sense of being indispensable to the establishment of the originary human ethnos or communal (“ethnic”) group. The reciprocal emission and reception of a sign representing a common sacred object provides a model of equal status with respect to a “transcendent” object that can be intended but not (immediately) possessed. This model establishes the scene, with a human periphery and a sacred center, as the model of all human interactions. (It also anticipates the problem posed by hierarchy in human institutions, as will be discussed in the next Chronicle.)

This originary emphasis on the ethical allows us to explain the apparent anomalies of language viewed as an instrument of logical reasoning or the communication of information. It clarifies Frankfurt’s category of BS, which I have found helpful in describing the language of such things as antisemitic accusations (see Chronicle 429). More profoundly, this emphasis allows us to better understand the anomalies of religious thought and the inextricable quandaries that face those who inquire into the “existence of God.” Perhaps in a perverse sense it can also be said to explain the near-phobic reaction this mode of thought provokes in most of those who hear of it. The assertion that language is primarily ethical is paradoxical on its face, since to be understood, it must take language as first cognitive, making “statements of fact.” But the “statement of fact” asserts that, in fact, what is really important about language is its ability to unite (and subsequently, to divide); the first use of language is to agree on a common object we can call sacred, to “worship” it if one likes as in another world outside the “metonymic” world of appetite.

How then apply the criteria of reasoning, of the “excluded middle,” to such statements? These paradoxes too are best understood as ethical. If language was “invented” in the service of humankind, then our difficulties with language are in the first place contradictions in ethics. For as I have pointed out in Chronicle 390 (“The Fundamental Paradox of Signification”), the communal function of language is paradoxical in an originary sense that cannot be encompassed by a simple logical sequence. That is, if indeed language is as I have described it, the idea that the meaning of the word both precedes and is generated by the word itself—and that the originary “meaning” is simply being-designated, that is, being intended in the sense that this paradoxical expression refers to “intending” an object absent the intention to appropriate it—can only be expressed in a language that has already been founded on this paradox. Logic is the technique of manipulating the invariants in the language situation, provided that we accept its rules. But before we can say A=A, we must assume that the originary difficulty of choosing something to name A has been abolished, as though it had already been established that “somethings” existed before being named, and this can only have occurred as a result of the common agreement on the originary sacred central object of desire. Because we all desire this thing, we can consider it a thing, that is, something “in itself” beyond desire, something we can gesture at without our gesture either terminating in the object or being failed and forgotten, and consequently without the continued existence of the object being affected by our gesture. It is this creation of the intentional object itself that is the core of human ethics, ethics based not simply on “consciousness” but on conscience, on shared knowledge of a moral model that, precisely, includes the sacred central object in relation to which we define our equality, not in abstract terms but in those of the reciprocal exchange of the sign of designation/renunciation/intentionality.

This intuition is indeed the core of generative anthropology: it is the core of what it means to be human. That we can use language to describe reality and that we can establish rules of logic by which the relationships between (certain) signs and (certain) objects may be controlled is both the consequence and the cause of this moral relationship. We call this a “paradox” because logic derives statements from other statements, whereas at the origin such derivation is obviously impossible, since we cannot simply “translate” an originary act into a “proposition.” We may say in descriptive terms that the human is scenic in its mode of communicative existence, but our intuition of a scene is obviously not realizable or graspable in a context where scenes do not yet exist. Not that the all-too-familiar “always already” is more than a verbal finesse. The newness of language cannot fully be understood in the terms of the old, including whatever degree of proto-scenicity may be said to obtain among higher apes.

One feature of the human with which we must come to terms—and it is our recalcitrance in accepting it that has made GA so apparently unacceptable—is that we cannot grasp the nature of the human in some “axiomatic” sense more clearly than in the scenario, the hypothetically reconstructed scene, described in the originary hypothesis. This does not mean that this scene is a privileged revelation that I am doing the world the favor of transmitting to it, but that with all its necessary inadequacy it is roughly as good as we can do. As soon as we go beyond the boundaries of a single scene of origin, we make it impossible to model the scenic coming-to-consciousness of the sign.

Religious believers know this in their fashion and claim consequently that in order to fix our human nature in our minds, which for them is emphatically not a merely heuristic process, but one without which we have no real claim at a “complete” humanity conscious of its own essence, we must understand the scene as the revelation of an already-existing sacred. (The inconsistencies that this reveals in Girard’s religious anthropology deserve our attention, and will be dealt with in a later Chronicle.) For indeed, what is sacred is only in a secondary sense made sacred, as the function of “making-sacred” or sacrifice makes clear. Sacrifice always presupposes a preexisting divinity; one does not make something sacred in the strong, substantial sense of the term, but one assimilates it to an already-existing sacred being.Transubstantiation is so to speak the quintessential version of this process, whereby a humble piece of breadstuff becomes (but cannot be said to create, at least not in any originary sense) the body of Christ. The “man creates God” side of the originary event is not acceptable to the mind that focuses on the logic of the sacred— although we might say that its very paradoxicality furnishes the revelatory energy of the sacrificial event: we know we are not creating Christ’s body, but if God did not (yet) exist and we had to invent him for ourselves…

The religious mind respects the logic of the sacred as, so to speak, part of a pre-human, divine thought process, whereas for the “enlightened” atheist, the sacred is a purely human phenomenon, an “arbitrary” designation. For the latter, the logic of the sacred is not that of an (empirically verifiable) attribute, but that of a name, a label that alone confers the “quality” we pretend inherent in its bearer. The “enlightened” mind is not concerned with what I call the fundamental paradox of signification. If on the one hand I call something a cat, that doesn’t make it a cat, since if it is indeed a cat, it was already a cat. If on the other hand I call something sacred, that doesn’t refer to a preexisting quality like cat-ness, it is merely a name we give to objects intended for use in certain “sacralizing” practices. But this presupposes a world of signs and things and a consciousness that can tell them apart; it helps us not at all to understand how a first sign could emerge whose primary function could only be to establish sign-ness, signification, by separating out its object from the appetitive world, hence making it transcendent, and forcing the sign-users to signify it.

I have gone through this demonstration hundreds of times and I fail to see how it can be refuted; but it can simply be turned away from. For even if one admit that this is arguably the most parsimonious scenario for the communal origin of language, given its presumed impossibility of verification, I cannot “refute” the assertion à la Durkheim that we should not speak of that of which we have no empirical evidence. My point is that this skepticism is naive; if one has no theory of language origin, one in effect assumes with no justification other than its empirical existence the possibility of creating a universe of signs that obeys the rules of Russell’s “theory of types” in not interfering essentially or “ontologically” with the object-world to which its signs refer. Once this truly extraordinary metaphysical leap has been made, one can reason about naming and reference as though the logic of consistent designation, deduction, etc., were somehow inherent in the universe itself.

This Platonic idea, which is often expressed with respect to mathematics, conflates two things that can be distinguished only on the basis of… the originary hypothesis or its equivalent. The logic of numbers, etc., as we define them is inherent in the objects we have defined. If we define 2 as 1+1, etc., then 1+3=2+2 is inherent in the system we have created, not in “the universe.” When we apply this system to measuring aspects of the universe, it should not surprise us that the same rules apply: one planet plus three planets equals two planets plus two planets. But it is the height of naiveté to deduce from this that the universe “itself” embodies the logic of our system. The universe doesn’t count or measure; we do. It may be an objective fact that there are (now) eight planets in the solar system, but that is not a “mathematical” truth. The Platonists are right in claiming that the logic of mathematics is invulnerable to arbitrary postulations a la Dostoevsky’s 2+2=5, but that logic is independent of its “application” to the universe, which really means its application to the mathematical data we collect from applying our model to the universe. The planets are just there, they don’t themselves participate in equations.

But mathematics is the least of our concerns. In retrospect I find it well-nigh amazing that philosophers have been so little concerned with the origin of the instrument that they use with such certain intuition to construct and elucidate their theories. Is it ordained from on high that a species of mammal will have a system of signs that permits it to do… philosophy? How can one “love wisdom” and yet pay no attention to the origin of the instrument that permits one to acquire, or indeed to conceive of “wisdom”? “Anthropology” is supposedly a lower form of thought than philosophy because it is limited to empirically existing creatures, whereas philosophy applies to “mind” in general. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, arrogant nonsense. We may never be able to fully understand what it means to have language, or to put it more rigorously, to understand the workings of the universe independently of the system in which we encode it, but this by no means absolves us of the obligation to hypothesize how language might have come into being. For in the absence of such a hypothesis, we do not thereby become innocent of any presuppositions concerning language, as though it were a neutral tool whose origin is irrelevant to the presumably benign use we make of it, along the lines of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” For dealing with “nature,” this attitude may be more or less sufficient, but as someone like Bruno Latour will be glad to tell you, we only intermittently deal with “nature” without also dealing with “the human.”

The only real refutation of these principles of GA is, so to speak, “empirical”: GA has been around for thirty years and has had no impact whatever on what may be called “mainstream thought.” Does that mean that GA represents an “end of philosophy” that philosophy cannot assimilate? or worse, is GA nothing but a useless set of speculations about a mystery that is “by definition” insoluble? Needless to say, none of these possibilities can be claimed to be deducible from the terms themselves. GA is both and neither anthropology and philosophy; it is an anthropology that has no pretension of empirical verification beyond a vague sense of plausibility; yet, like but in contrast to philosophy, instead of deducing all from “first principles,” GA claims to set, pace Kant, the essence of human rationality in a worldly model rather than a “pure” construct of Reason. This contrast is not to my mind to the credit of philosophy, whose failure to take seriously the origin of the human along with representation seems so strange to me today. Nor has philosophy truly been transformed by the “linguistic turn” that leads our Anglo-Saxon philosophers and their disciples to split hairs over the definitions of words. Even Austin’s model of “performance,” which is about as close to anthropology as philosophy has ever come, is never understood in terms of the minimal conditions of human institutions and their operation, but taken in the usual Oxford sitting-room style as a curious “fact”: “Doing things with words.” How delightfully odd! If I say, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” nothing happens, but if a minister says it in the right circumstance… But the idea that somehow this relates or rather should be related to something called the originary function of languagewould be terribly out of place in such a conversation. As such statements have been “out of place” in every “serious” conversation about humanity or language, even religion.

I have no illusions that after 430 Chronicles this one will prove a revelation. Nevertheless, I think it my duty to insist on the ethical core of the hypothesis because it brings the “categorical imperative” and the Girardian souci des victimes back to the originary moment of language, the Word that was in the beginning, whether or not one need identify it with Jesus. Let it not be said that the main point of GA or of my “emendation” of Girard’s “emissary mechanism” is the “addition” of language/representation to the mix. That “addition” was necessary because the point of the human from the beginning, and not merely since the introduction of the extra layer of self-consciousness supplied by the Judeo-Christian, is the deferral of violence—through representation.


In the follow-up to this essay I will attempt to deal with complicating problem of ethics that I still feel I have not explored with sufficient assiduity, that of hierarchy—the subject, in preliminary terms, of my talk at the Ottawa GASC in 2009.