Given the essentially (“ontologically”) egalitarian origin of the human and the enduring ethic that derives from it, we have apparently set ourselves up from the outset for an unending moral problem by being unable to close off the possibility of institutional human difference, or simply, hierarchy. Biological differences of course exist, but that hierarchy is a category of its own independently of differences in age, gender, and natural attributes such as physical strength and intelligence scarcely needs demonstration. The early and still-surviving egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies have differentiated roles, but their distribution systems are fundamentally symmetrical; gender differences, which modern feminists can contest as “unequal,” are not thus understood by societies that conceive of them as dictated by “nature.” In this regard the Bible’s “originary feminism” (see Chronicle 419) is not without interest.
One of the important advantages conferred by Adam Katz’s inclusion of the phenomenon of firstness in our model of the originary scene is that it provides a template for the future emergence of hierarchy, whose establishment at the origin would be clearly inconceivable. Given that for GA to be a functional anthropology, all fundamental human characteristics must have their roots in the originary event and consequently deserve a place in our model, hierarchy is too pervasive a form of human behavior for us not to situate it at the origin. We might even say that the difficulty of doing so, and the impossibility of fully justifying it whatever its originary roots, given the strength of the moral model, is the theoretical correlative of how easily resentment can be aroused against any perception of human difference, from revolutionary movements to mobs trashing American diplomatic establishments in the Middle East.
Similarly, the inclusion of firstness in our originary model is not a given but a matter for our decision. A first approximation of the emergence of the sign would not speak of firstness, since it is not of significance in the event; no trace of human firstness is presumed to be passed on to the community after the conclusion of the scene. Nevertheless, a model of human genesis that fails to give an account of firstness would produce a defective human ontology. The eventual usurpation of the central role would appear in such a context as a product of rivalry with the sacred center but lack any basis in human interaction, whereas we should recall that the very beginning of the hominizing process is the result of an accrued mimetic rivalry among (proto)humans. The reciprocal exchange of the sign at the origin defers this rivalry beyond the bounds of the event and so permits its “happy” conclusion in the sparagmos and “equal” division of the object. However, this does not imply that primitive human equality is devoid of rivalrous sentiments. On the contrary, we may consider the performance of the sign as a (resentful) expression of renunciation, at the same time as the sign’s reception continually defers resentment by demonstrating the symmetrical renunciation of the others.
The human element of (potentially representable, memorable) firstness does something different from animal hierarchy. Firstness is innovation, not simply taking first place in the queue. Katz’s point is that the defining innovation of our species, the conversion of the appetitive gesture through its “abortion” into a sign, must have begun as the behavior of only one or two participants. The specific point of innovation is the gestalt of the sign, which is no longer an action-toward intended to grasp the object, but a form, a gesture-in-itself, which as such could be imitated by the others. The gradient that leads to the general adoption of this innovation is not difficult to conceive; the performance of the sign is both non-rivalrous (toward the others) and self-absorbed (toward the self). That is, on the one hand one is less likely to incur violence from the others, but on the other, to the extent that one is absorbed in the “ludic” or “esthetic” performance of the sign, one is less obsessed by the (impossible) possession of the object.
In the originary event, in order that there be an event, the gradient created by the innovative “interpretation” of the aborted gesture of appropriation as a sign is necessarily toward diminished violence and more internal absorption in the production of the gesture-sign, concomitantly with the “worship” of the object as the communal guarantee of the sign. This last is a delicate point that I think deserves a more subtle explanation than the Girardian idea that the object/victim is perceived as beneficial because it brings about a cessation of violence—but only after its sparagmos/lynching has already taken place. The worshipful attitude should rather first be associated with the originary resentment toward the center that cannot be possessed, but whose non-possession preserves the group from internal violence. The sacred nature of the object is not a “deduction” but a dynamic outcome of the whole (pacifying, community-creating) process of aborting the gesture and “converting” it into a sign. In this context the first to do so become(s) the mimetic model(s) for the others in precisely the measure that the frustrated movement toward physical possession is relieved by absorption in creating the sign, which as an auxiliary object of envy by the others (which makes them imitate its production) only increases the “transcendent” value of the object to which the newly minted sign refers, to the point where this object’s necessary role in the production of the sign leads to the familiar scenic configuration around a sacred center.
The center, in all this, remains a place of desire as well as of interdiction; as much as it becomes forbidden, it remains desired, not merely “mentally,” as part of the signification process, but concretely, that is, appetitively, and this concreteness is eventually realized in the sparagmos. (From a religious perspective, this concrete/mental distinction is understood as the split between God as the permanently transcendental presence and the edible object of sacrifice at the center whose transformation/transubstantiation into the body of the God is a process that depends throughout on the prior reality—the faith in the reality—of the Godhead.) Which is to say that, from the perspective of firstness, there exists from the beginning a hope that the unique and transcendental position of the sacred, while not losing its privilege, can nevertheless be possessed by me. Indeed, the human subject is from the beginning inconceivable without this ambition. Thus we may say that the equal reciprocity of the originary event is but hierarchy deferred. The animal hierarchy that preceded could not survive the creation of a human community communicating via representations. But the existence of representation and its central object only fuel a new, human desire to share this centrality, one that might be described as substituting oneself for it (“becoming God”), but that could never forget the necessary priority of the center, without which representation would not exist, nor the originary resentment that attends it.
One wants to “become God” precisely to the extent that one knows this to be impossible; it is the archetype of paradoxical desire. For to “want to be first” implies that firstness exists as an object of desire, and such cannot be the case in the absence of the specifically human mode of firstness, which alone truly deserves the name (in contrast with domination, competitive advantage, etc.)—although to make our point clearly we would do better to call it signification, the designation by a sign of what is significant. This specific mode is in fact created by what we might call a “transfer of firstness” from the first to use the aborted gesture as a sign to the object he thus designates; his own priority is not maintained as a value, but transferred to the object, which is thereupon “divinized,” made sacred (yet not as a sacrifice-to, but in itself). Thus the human “first” only functions as such in the mimetic process of creating the sign-referent structure; I imitate him because he seems to have found in the aborted gesture a source less of frustration—as would be the case for his non-imitators—than of peace, absorption in the sign itself as a kind of second-degree possession of the object. (Would anyone compose lyric poetry without a similar impetus?)
Hierarchy in the human sense is simply the perpetuation, via institutionalization, of firstness. Instead of “transferring” the priority of the gesture-sign to that of the object-divinity, the “big-man,” the first hierarch, usurps the centrality of the latter. I first explained this in The End of Culture in 1985 using Marshall Sahlins’ portrait of the “big-man” in Stone Age Economics (Transaction, 1974) as one who deprives himself of leisure and even of food in his quest to hold feasts for the other members of the tribe and thereby take over the central cultural-ritual function of redistribution, previously divided symmetrically among the group in what were once called “totem feasts.” I have never had occasion to reject this formulation. No doubt other scenarios are possible. But the important thing is that a human hierarchy is not, as a stable social form, the equivalent of the animal pecking-order hierarchy, nor does it derive from it, any more than human language derives from animal signals. No doubt it may tend in this direction, notably when the collectivity need not establish itself as an autonomous social order, as in an ad hoc group that emerges when order breaks down in a crisis, or in a parasitic (e.g., criminal) sub-society. Criminal gangs, like the tyrannies described by Montesquieu, tend to generate one-on-one leadership challenges. But even the loosest gang has a sense of itself as a community and consequently requires that the leaders be affirmed, that is, consecrated, by the group as a whole; the random challenges typical of animal groups, given that violence in humans is unmitigated by “instinct,” would destroy even the loosest forms of human organization.
In any case, our concern here is less the internal dynamic of power in hierarchical social orders than the moral issue of a system of control that contravenes the fundamental model of reciprocal exchange. As I attempted to explain in the Philosophy section of A New Way of Thinking, after the various pre-Socratic attempts to come to terms with hierarchy as the human consequence of the natural order of things, the emergence of metaphysical philosophy in Plato can be explained as an attempt to understand hierarchy, not as the usurpation of sacred centrality, whether or not divinely guaranteed, but as a necessary component of the “good society.”
Firstness, in other words, is not necessarily self-abolishing or self-alienating; it can in the appropriate circumstances become self-perpetuating, despite the reciprocal nature of the underlying human exchange system. Thus society does not merely generate and “discharge” resentment; advanced societies make states of inferiority and therefore feelings of resentment permanent, even if a “permanent state of resentment” may well not be experienced explicitly as resentful but as “humble,” or resigned, perhaps in the hope of some eschatological triumph (“the last shall be the first”). The dynamic of the market system is characterized by what I have called the “recycling” of resentment, e.g., as ambition to rise in the hierarchy, but there is surely no guarantee that this process will maintain the system in equilibrium. There is a sense in which all human historical progress takes place against the horizon of “originary” equality, which is at the basis of all apocalyptic thinking (“last judgment” being a way to separate individuals on moral, that is, equalitarian grounds, contrary to or at any rate independent of hierarchy); but despite the hopes of various generations of revolutionaries, this horizon becomes ever less clear as history “progresses.”
The originary hypothesis makes clear the ontological priority, in terms of human genesis, of the reciprocal world of the exchange of signs, which subsists despite the existence of hierarchy. No doubt we can understand why, in a given context, expertise or authority gives particular value to one discourse over another. But this realization, however “reasonable,” is always secondary with respect to the resentful feeling that I too, should have a voice—a feeling that social media such as Twitter now exist (finally? happily? regrettably?) to satisfy.
GA’s ambition as a “new way of thinking” is to narrow the gap between the fundamental discourses by means of which the human attempts to understand itself. In the current context, the question of man/God priority becomes that of a transcendental guarantee of ethics, and ultimately of the definitive ethical value, that of human equality, “all men created equal.” It is more parsimonious to “deduce” this principle from the originary hypothesis than from the arbitrary starting point of The Critique of Practical Reason—as Kant himself might have been persuaded to admit had he been able to grasp the specific, and paradoxical, connection between human language and the “reason” that argues from propositions. But a residual paradox always remains. Thus to the extent that the originary hypothesis purports to model human reality, that is, to act as an anthropology, it cannot comport a “value” system. We can “deduce” an ethic of the “golden rule” from the originary ontology of the human established by reciprocal exchange, but we cannot then appeal to this ontology as a source of guidance to judge the values prevalent in a given society if they somehow fail to follow their “deduction,” whose originary basis cannot be both a representational given (“first principles”) and a—hypothetical—empirical reality (the originary event).
That this example of the fundamental paradox of signification is perhaps the most disturbing of all makes perhaps the best case for the religious affirmation of the priority of the sacred. Faith in such a case would be justified by the need to found our moral intuition on a source of value external to the merely “empirical” derivation of our “moral sense” from a hypothetical event. We might add that if our social order were indeed that of the egalitarian hunter-gatherer, we would be less in need of such transcendental guarantees, since the social order itself would seem to illustrate directly the superiority of the “moral model.” But in a world where every individual’s status is differentiated and inscribed in myriad hierarchies, to mediate between our “instinct” of reciprocity and the reality of our lives, some act of faith, whether in a transcendental religious system or in the innate harmony of our moral instincts, appears well-nigh indispensable.
But although the configuration of the originary hypothesis may be said to approach asymptotically or “paradoxically” that enunciated in the proposition that “all men are created equal,” hierarchy cannot be given a similar justification. There can be no “originary” justification of hierarchy, whose growing scandal in the protohuman world, we should recall, was the proximate cause of the emergence of “egalitarian” humanity, which, having abandoned the animal pecking order, arrayed itself symmetrically around an inaccessible center—permanently, with respect to the meaningful essence of the sign, but to our good fortune only temporarily in its concrete manifestation that permitted humans to obtain nourishment. This symmetrical, reciprocal configuration is only strengthened “theoretically” by taking firstness into account, as the symmetrical outcome suggests that the originary function/operation of firstness is precisely to abolish itself in collective equality.
But if that is the fate of originary firstness, which after all characterizes the very founding gesture of humanity (and as I suggested in “Originary Feminism,” much of human history can be elucidated by supposing that language and other forms of representation were originally confined to the violent/masculine half of the population, which traditional religions even today tend to consider closer to the sacred), how can a more permanent institutionalized firstness be justified, unless by force majeure? The clear practical advantages of hierarchy have evidently asserted themselves, but such arguments as John Rawls provides in his Theory of Justice are mere rationalizations. (See Chronicle 322.) The clear similarity of his “original position” to our hypothetical originary event only shows that reflection on the problem will ultimately lead back to a similar scenic configuration, as with the “social contract” thinkers of the early modern era. But in such a symmetrical situation, the idea of somehow choosing in advance a configuration of future dissymmetry (Hobbes’ contractors choosing a sovereign) is a thought-experiment of no hypothetical value whatever for conjecturing how hierarchy came into being from a state of equality.
It seems to me that it is this tension in all human societies beyond a minimal level of development that gives rise to the notions of the “Fall of Man,” “original sin,” expulsion from paradise, etc. This in no way denies that this retrojection of “sin” into a pre-hierarchical world is, like the postulation of firstness in the originary event, a justified insight with respect to not merely potential sin but its conceptualization: our conceptualization of firstness obliges us to imagine that in Paradise we already dreamed of “being God,” as the story of the Tree of Knowledge suggests.
But although the members of hunter-gatherer societies are surely all sinners in their hearts, they nevertheless inhabit a social order that, all other things being equal, is not haunted by an indelible collective sense of sin. There are many ways to look at the nineteenth century’s passion for ethnology and its cult of the “noble savage.” But with all its artifice and colonial bad faith, the Rousseauian intuition of a société commencée existing before the first (Neolithic big-) man, saying ceci est à moi, instituted the “fallen” hierarchical world in which we all live, is a genuine anthropological insight that confirms the vision of Genesis. Hierarchy has done wonders for humanity, but it is always and ineluctably bad before it is good, the object of a resentment that is continually deferred but never abolished, as utopias are made to be continually striven for but never attained.