There are many ways to describe the human condition, or the human predicament, and it is traditional to repeat those of the philosophers. Yet the breakthrough inaugurated by René Girard is dependent on setting the metaphysical tradition of the philosophers aside in order to extract the anthropological wisdom in the texts of the Judeo-Christian tradition: the Bible, of course, but also the artistic and literary works in this tradition, which, even in the classical era, have much more in common with the Bible than with the writings of the philosophers.
The fundamental difference between these modes of writing is that the biblical and the esthetic retain what philosophy must abandon, a direct link with human origin. But the genius of Girard, following such thinkers as Freud (Totem and Taboo) and Durkheim (Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse), was to see in religious texts the basis of a theory of the human that need not apologize for its “unscientific” source. Whatever modifications GA has made to the Girardian model, it owes to Girard this fundamental new source of understanding—whence this tribute to his priority, to his firstness.
The originary hypothesis presents the discovery of the sign as a means to defer potential violence. My original formulation of the hypothesis paid no attention to the detail of how the originary sign was communicated within the group, but described it loosely as a spontaneous collective action. But Adam Katz pointed out that a non-instinctive action, in contrast with Girard’s proposal of an originary “emissary mechanism,” could not arise spontaneously in the group as a whole, even if it contained only a few persons. Language is never a “mechanism.” Because the emission of a sign is always a conscious act, it follows that the originary sign could not simply spread by “contagion” from one person to another. It must have been inaugurated as the result of an insight—that the appropriative gestures the members of the group were making were no longer phases of a movement that would end in the appropriation of the object, in whole or in part, but had become self-contained ends in themselves, signs possessing a form and designating the object no longer as something to be appropriated but as forbidden to each individual and thereby to the group as a whole. To the extent that this was a genuine insight, it had to occur to one or more individuals before the others, and the first to grasp it would then become a model for the imitation of the others, if only because by formalizing the aborted gesture, he made it more easily imitable.
Awareness, as opposed to the reality of firstness, was presumably not present in the originary event, since there is no reason to assume that the priority of any member would remain in memory after the sign came to be shared reciprocally by the entire group. The focus of the originary action is not on the participants, but on the interdicted center. Once the others have imitated the first sign-user to become sign-users themselves, they would have no reason to recall the first’s priority.
The event is presumably generated, we recall, by the breakdown of animal hierarchy, where the Alpha animal’s “going first” was the very principle of order. But unlike taking the first piece of meat, producing the first self-conscious sign was the beginning of a deferral of appropriation whose imitation would lead to peace rather than war. The participants would resemble the group of presumptive stoners in Jesus’ scene in John 7-8 with the “woman taken in adultery,” where firstness is refused when no one casts the first (non-deferred) stone.
The importance of Adam’s inclusion of firstness in the hypothetical event is all the greater for its lack of salience in this event itself. For in more advanced modes of social organization, firstness will become a major force, and this could not be the case were it not present in latent form from the beginning, in the egalitarian societies we presume existed at the origin of humanity in contrast with the pecking-order hierarchies of apes. No human initiative can take place that is not a product of the innovation of one or more individuals. Girard’s failure to theorize language reflects the impossibility of conceiving language as born in any kind of collective “mechanism.”
The tension between equality and firstness is familiar to us as the opposition between Left and Right, which dates only from the French Revolution. This reminds us that the most fundamental anthropological categories are not necessarily manifest in society’s central institutions. It is only with the emergence of liberal democracy that the duality of moral equality and the capacity for individual initiative becomes embodied in discrete institutions (elected parliaments, the market). And as has often been pointed out, it is only recently that the two parties in the US, and in many other advanced democratic countries, have come to clearly reflect these categorial differences as much or more than the specific interests of social groups identified with these categories.
The weakness of basing an anthropology on the commonplaces of political thought is that, as in all things cultural not grounded in the originary, one finds one’s values in medias res, a formula satisfactory for literary composition but not for fundamental anthropological understanding. The opposition between Democrats and Republicans, the party of “equality” and the party of “liberty,” does not bear on its face an explanation of why these two components are fundamental, or of how they are articulated. The Left’s disdain for the Right reflects the fact that our intuitive morality (the “moral model”) demands perfect reciprocity. The contrasting “Nietzschean” exhortation to respect firstness (which Nietzsche makes far too easily into a principle of natural hierarchy) can only be rescued from proto-Nazism if we understand it in its originary context.
The two categories of reciprocity and firstness are articulated on the one hand as language’s egalitarian reproducibility and on the other, as the asymmetry of linguistic communication, where the speaker acts and the listener defers action and speech for the time of reception. Both firstness and reciprocity are inherent in human language, not because that is somehow the “nature” of sign-systems, but because both these elements are necessary to language’s originary function of averting mimetic conflict. Although preliminary versions of these relations are found in animal communication, we should beware of seeking human categories in animal interaction. One animal gives a signal and the others follow. We may call this an example of “firstness” if we like, but it is not exercised in a context of conscious reciprocity and therefore arouses no awareness of the first-later distinction that generates resentment in humans. Animals do not have a sense of equality. They are mimetic enough to want what they see in the possession of others, but it is meaningless to speak of animal “morality,” with respect to either egalitarianism or pity. Nor is the authority of the Alpha erected upon an established animal equality; he is merely the one who can defeat any individual challenger. It is more than a category error to speak of animal firstness; it obscures the key moment of the transition between animal hierarchy and human reciprocity, which only once established can support human hierarchies, which are structures of firstness.
A final point about language. My intention, after Adam Katz and I put the finishing touches on our current antisemitism project, is to write a book with the tentative title “What Is Language For, Anyway?” (I am preparing a Chronicle on the subject.) It never ceases to amaze to me that with few exceptions, it remains an unquestioned given that the core function of language is the emission of propositions whose truth-value can be empirically ascertained. Even exceptional works such as Bruno Latour’s insightful discussion of religious language in Jubiler (2002), although they grant a special status to this mode of language, fail to see it as more fundamental than the truth-telling language of their analysis. But propositional language is the core of metaphysics, aka “Western philosophy,” which views texts like Hamlet, let alone the Bible, as anomalies best left to English professors.
No, the originary purpose of language, and of representation in general, is the deferral of mimetic violence. Pointing to the central bison rather than trying to appropriate it embodies a deferral that separates humans from their appetites, and permits them subsequently to satisfy these appetites with a greater possibility of peaceful distribution. But if this was true in the beginning, it remains true throughout history for all uses of language. As was already clear to Durkheim, who unfortunately never developed a theory of language as such, emitting verifiable propositions about the world is a conquest of self-restraint, a phenomenon of the “laboratory” rather than of the bricolage of everyday life, an adaptation of language to a higher goal of human utility that vastly augments the productivity of the social order. Truth-telling is indeed a possibility inherent in language, but its originary locus is the free space of deferral, Sartre’s néant, in which the representing human mind operates. It is this space that permits individual discovery, firstness, that can through language reenter the reciprocal universe of social interaction. This is the simple explanation for the obvious fact that humans innovate constantly through representational culture, which provides them in this respect an advantage of several degrees of magnitude over other creatures.
Why does the world refuse to understand this? No doubt because someone has to be the first to do so, and those in authority, whose interest is to defend the complex specificity of their subject-matter, have no interest in recognizing the firstness of “amateurs.” Fortunately for the practitioners of GA, there exists a small but flourishing Girardian world, for the moment at least well financed, that unlike the rest of the intellectual marketplace has some small stake in these ideas. My participation last November in a Girard-Derrida colloquium in Paris sponsored by the Girardian Association Recherches Mimétiques reinforced my sense that any progress toward the recognition of GA will most likely begin in this quarter.