Let me repeat the first sentence of the original 1981 edition of The Origin of Language (TOOL): Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity. To the extent that the word mystery has a genuine referent and is not merely a synonym for hoax or ignorance, there is only one human mystery, the mystery of language, which is also the mystery of the sacred and of the representational culture that separates us from our fellow creatures. Given that we have no way of understanding this mystery from without, we can assume that we will never understand it fully as the product of simpler components, which is another way of saying that faith will always be necessary, that we can only postulate, not demonstrate, the human essence we seek to explain.
Nonetheless, there is no need for mysticism. The object of Generative Anthropology (GA) is to minimize the mystery of the human sign, the sacred, and the other cultural phenomena that derive from it. It remains within the limits of “philosophical” reflection, discoursing on the elements of human experience without reference to the material substrate (neurons, synapses, genes, etc.) that embodies them.
We know from Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species (Norton, 1997) that human language is neurologically discontinuous with animal signal systems; their headquarters are located in different parts of a brain. And from our own experience we are well aware that human “calls” such as laughter, tears, and cries of pain are not continuous with language. Nor can language be understood simply as a “behavior.” There is no need to redo Chomsky’s demolition of B. F. Skinner’s attempt to conceive language as a system of conditioned reflexes. (See his “A Review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior” in Language, 35, 1, 1959: 26-58, reprinted in Readings in the Psychology of Language, ed. Leon A. Jakobovits and Murray S. Miron, Prentice-Hall, 1967.)
But perversely, the clear indications that human language is sui generis appear to have led empirically minded linguists to focus entirely on the cognitive content of language as a way of “expressing thoughts” rather than on its communicative function. Since, on the one hand, human symbolic language differs absolutely from animal indexical signals, but on the other, it is transmitted to our fellows primarily by the broadly similar mechanism of articulated sound, the implicit conclusion is drawn that there is no particular need to concern ourselves with the latter aspect, since the true uniqueness of human language must be found in the former. But on the contrary, what is specific about human linguistic “behavior” is in the first place not its content but the uniqueness of the communication situation itself. The neglect of this insight is particularly troublesome given the notion of joint shared attention central to the work of the very same Michael Tomasello who thinks that religion can be dismissed in a throwaway sentence (see Chronicle 519). This kind of interaction is precisely what distinguishes humans from animals; as the occasion for language, it contains the act of signifying at its very core, lacking which we would merely have two persons attending to the same thing.
One of the key problems that has beset the current state of inquiry into the origin of language is the unreflective, one might say unconsciously Chomskian equation of “language” with its present, mature state, as manifested in all known languages. It is surely of interest to study child language acquisition, as has been done in recent years in great detail. But a child learning a mature language tells us nothing about how language itself came into being.
That we know of no speakers of “elementary language” does not of course mean that linguists believe that the structures of language appeared all at once; even Chomsky assumes that our Language Acquisition Device (LAD) evolved from a simpler state. But although it has often been noted, not without some surprise, that our fellow apes do not point, the idea that pointing at something is actually the emission of a sign, and therefore already a form of language, seems never to arise in the context of language origin. This is an idea that Raymond Tallis comes close to in his book on The Hand (Edinburgh, 2003), which expresses a view largely compatible with GA, as I had occasion to remark a propos of Tallis’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the Generative Anthropology Society and Conference (GASC) in 2014.
Let us then rehearse the basic scenario of the originary event, with which readers may already be familiar. The purpose of this scenario, and of the originary hypothesis in general, is not to offer a guess as to was wirklich geschehen ist, but to provide a heuristic model that, in contrast to real-world events, includes only content relevant to the meaningful result that is presumed to emerge from it. The notion of the laboratory, as developed by the beloved French epistemologist Gaston Bachelard (e.g., La formation de l’esprit scientifique, Vrin, 1938), is as a place where distracting sources of variability are reduced to a minimum in order that experiments may be carried out in which the values of specific parameters are determined. The originary event as described by the hypothesis is so to speak a thought-experimental laboratory.
The fundamental “Girardian” intuition that presides over GA is that human representational culture comes into being when our immediate ancestors had become too mimetic to be able to continue to rely on animal mechanisms of violence-inhibition. The pecking order that operates among higher animals depends on the group’s forming a queue structure rather than a centralized community. The hypothetical originary event presupposes only that the progression of mimetic ability has reached the point at which this serial hierarchy breaks down.
Let us imagine an appetitive object, such as the cadaver of a large animal discovered or killed by a hunting party. The members of the group surround the object, the Alpha among them. But the level of mimetic tension in the group has risen too high for the Alpha to be able to rely on his primacy as in the past: appropriating the animal, taking his portion, then passing the remainder to the Beta, and so on. Under the pressure of increased mimetic rivalry, the Alpha taking the first piece of meat, from being simply at the head of the queue, comes to be viewed and resented as a unique privileged figure in opposition to all the others who for the moment are not benefiting from the meat distribution.
Hence the Alpha’s potential act of appropriation is contested not by individual rivals but by the group as a whole. Like the hands of children at a party reaching out for the last piece of cake, all make a gesture of appropriation toward the object, but, observing this symmetry, all including the Alpha hesitate to incur the aggression of the others by prolonging their gesture toward the object.
Thus the members of the group are obliged to defer their appropriation of the animal, and consequently abort their gesture. “Defer” (différer) is a term “anthropologized” from Derrida, who uses it to refer to the hesitation implicit in the choice of a word in a paradigm. But before the existence of linguistic paradigms, the originary object of deferral must have been the potential violence attendant on a worldy rather than a “symbolic” act. It is this aborted gesture of appropriation, designating the object but no longer directed at appropriating it, that we postulate as the first sign.
This suspension of appropriative activity would convert the “theater of action” in which the hunter/scavengers confront the animal as a source of nourishment into a scene where action is for the moment impossible but the group’s attention remains jointly focused on the animal at the center. The aborted gesture would then come to be collectively understood a new form of communication, directed both at the central object itself as the first “deity” and at the other members of the group. This originary occurrence of joint shared attention would arise through the consciousness shared by the participants of both their own gesture and that of the others, coupled with the awareness that peacefully exchanging this gesture in contrast to fighting over the central object makes this new form of exchange memorable and desirable, worthy of being repeated. The idea that the sign both reproduces and participates in the “aura” or numinousness of its referent while at the same time leaving it intact is the essential structure of signification.
In a less minimalistic form, mediated through his construction of the psyche around erotic energy, this same core intuition presides over Freud’s scenario of father-murder in Totem and Taboo, which was the direct ancestor of Girard’s scene of emissary murder. Indeed, the desire to distance himself from Freud may well have influenced Girard’s choice of the marginal scapegoat in the place of the patriarch, although the Crucifixion already paradoxically unites both figures. Regardless of the ostensible appetitive motivation of the group (for Freud, access to the women in the patriarchal harem, for Girard, finding someone to blame for a plague or other calamity, for GA, instituting a communal system of distribution to replace the failing pecking order), the core of all these scenes is the designation of a central figure by a sign, which I have consequently called the name-of-God. Once this is accomplished, GA is happy to accept the idea shared by both Girard and Freud that this central figure will be torn apart by the peripheral participants, although for a different purpose and certainly with superior alimentary results than in the other scenarios.
The event of the origin of language is the true origin of the human. Language and the scene of representation on which it takes place adds a new dimension to animal existence. This dimension can be understood as that of eventfulness itself, in which an incident leaves its trace as a sign shared with the community rather than a mere epigenetic inflection: an event in the human sense is ipso facto a signified.
The originary event cannot simply be assumed to have occurred in the minimalist fashion that this exposition of the originary hypothesis describes. Any such hypothesis must be in some sense a just-so story. But its heuristic value is undiminished. The point is that, unlike the progress of genetic evolution through mutation and selection, the emergence of culture, of a shared system of representations, starting ex hypothesi from a single shared representation whose sacred referent embodies significance-sacrality itself—this emergence is by its very nature self-representing. The precise instant at which the aborted gesture of appropriation that is the source of the first sign acquires a value in itself, not as a signal but as a sign that paradoxically both reflects and at the same time creates the separation of its now-sacred referent from the “horizontal” world of appetite, could no doubt not be determined empirically even were we capable of reconstructing the entire history of human evolution. It is nonetheless functionally a unique moment of creation that can only be understood as an event taking place on the scene shared by the proto-human participants.
All other theories of language origin agonize over the necessity of passing from, as Engels’ Dialectics of Nature put it, quantity to quality. But what distinguishes language is not the qualitative complexity of its content; it is the nature of the communication it enables. It is counterproductive to create complex cognitive blueprints that, once fulfilled, would allow language to “emerge.” Language is ipso facto a conscious, interactive phenomenon; it is our evidence for consciousness itself in a sense beyond animal awareness. The scene of consciousness exists in individuals when and only when it subsists as well as a scene of representation shared by other members of the group, as the basis for a cultural/linguistic community.
In my first descriptions of the originary event, I simply assumed that all the participants, fearful of making the first move and being attacked by the others, spontaneously aborted their appropriative gestures toward the central object and acquired the consciousness that they were not merely deciding not to appropriate, but that their aborted gestures had themselves become intentional signs embodying both deferral of action and the public communication of this deferral, while representing the object itself as the common focus of interest. The dynamics of the situation would lead to the pragmatic paradox that the more the object was represented and focused on, the less it could be appropriated. This progression would persist until the entire group, realizing that they were all agreed on the desirability of the object and on their common need for access to it, would approach it together in a collective sparagmos that would end with each participant possessing a roughly “equal” portion.
But Adam Katz suggested in “Remembering Amalek: 9/11 and Generative Thinking” (Anthropoetics 10, 2 (Fall 2004 / Winter 2005) that the discovery that to designate the object by an aborted gesture was in effect to represent it should not be assumed to have occurred to all the participants at the same moment—in other words, that an element of firstness was a necessary constituent of the scene.
One might say in defense of my original scenario that this differential element is of a lower heuristic order than the unanimous conclusion of the scene, with the creation of a human community linked by the sign, which I conceive here as taking place in a single event although the consciousness of the gesture as a sign no doubt emerged through many false starts. But I think the important factor in Adam’s emendation is not so much the gradualness of the discovery/invention of the sign as the differentiation this discovery would have effected among the participants. Since clearly the end result would not single out any individual initiator, given that the ethical equality of all the participants in relation to the center (what I call the moral model) is the necessary outcome of the signing operation, one might ignore this differentiation. But as we well know, as soon as surpluses come to be accumulated beyond the needs of immediate consumption, firstness will reappear as a social reality with the introduction of hierarchy, and will remain the norm, with a few minor exceptions, throughout human history. That is, the moral model of linguistic reciprocity will remain with us as our ethical foundation, but will no longer supply the model for the exchanges of goods and the power-relations they guarantee in the social order, as it had done at the origin and as it still does in the remaining “hunter-gatherer” societies. Linguistic and moral exchange will remain symmetrical, but economic and political exchange will henceforth be conducted among unequals.
Indeed, this may be said to have been inevitable from the outset. The moral model cannot dictate the entirety of human behavior, even human cultural behavior, and this because the scene of representation, on which the human pour-soi is free as Sartre defines it, is not limited to the public scene of ritual but belongs to each individual. If I have the freedom to intend the central object, then I have the freedom to contemplate manipulating it in a new way, and to formulate projects (Sartre’s term as well) that are not shared spontaneously with the group.
This is in my view the real importance of Adam’s emendation. An innovation such as the sign cannot be the “emanation” of a situation; it must be the product of innovative reflection of the kind that the scene of representation permits us each as individuals. Thus even if all the members of the group got the idea of the sign at the same time, the essential point is that each of them would have to grasp it as an individual reflecting on the scene shared with his fellows.
No doubt my depiction of the psychological nuances of the communicative relationship thus established is wholly speculative, but what must be understood as its minimal core is the sense, for the first time, of a scenic communication mediated no longer through an instinctive appetitive gesture or a signal derived from it via the Pavlovian process of “conditioned reflex,” but through a gesture that has so to speak turned back upon itself as a self-conscious, voluntary act, one that will be understood by all as referring to the common interdicted, sacred, significant object of desire.
To be continued…