The first TOOL was chiefly devoted to a discussion of the basic utterance-forms (ostensive, imperative, interrogative, declarative), speculating on how they might have evolved from the original ostensive gesture/sign. This sequence of forms will be developed in the following chapters. This focus on language rather than ritual, formal rather than institutional representation, was reflected in the book’s subtitle: A Formal Theory of Representation.
As the reader may have realized, the originary event of language as I have described it is also that of sacred ritual. Indeed, the spectacle of a group of humans whose gestures designate a central object inaccessible to them not coincidentally resembles the configuration of virtually all religious services. More specifically, it suggests the preliminaries of ritual sacrifice, which culminates in the sparagmos that we hypothesize as following the emission of the sign. The “linguistic” moment of deferral and the moment of distribution, whether or not followed immediately by consumption (presumably the hunters would bring back meat for their women and children and others too feeble to participate in the hunting party) are two phases of a single event. There would be little profit in inventing the sign if it did not lead to an alimentary outcome for the group superior to that of the pecking-order system, which had formerly allowed everyone to be fed.
The unity of this scenario provides a model for the complementary relationship between the formal and institutional elements of our representational culture. In the originary event, this separation is merely potential, since the sign has not yet been revealed as detachable from the event as a whole. What has been created is less “language” or “the sacred” than the scene of representation, the shared space within which we contemplate an object that, from appetitively attractive, has become significant. This scene within which we defer the “reflex” of the appetitive, being inhibited from action not by a conditioned reflex, but by a will outside the realm of the appetitive itself, marks the inauguration of the human.
By its nature, the sign is an individual act, even when performed with others. This act of intending its object, which sacralizes the central god/offering and keeps it from consumption by any individual until the formation of a new human collectivity, can subsequently be performed by the individual subject independently of the public scene, and while it may recall the scene as a whole, it would nonetheless specifically re-present the scene’s central figure, the original object of the aborted gesture. The new category of significance contains within it both the sacred—the quality of indefinitely attracting and thereby deferring human appetite—and the desirable—the same quality, but with the horizon of the deferral experienced as finite rather than transcendental. The persistence of the sign after the sparagmos realizes the difference between these two modes of significance. The animal itself is eaten as an object of desire, but the sign remains as a reminder of its transcendent central role, as the name-of-God.
It is the aim of GA to remove the artificial frontier between empirical anthropology, and “human science” in general, and the speculative anthropology we call philosophy. Philosophy originated in Greece with the political liberation of the inherent freedom of the sign from ritual constraints. It has ever since remained metaphysical according to what I consider the most useful definition of that term: thought that takes for granted the existence of mature human language, that is, language that includes declarative sentences or propositions.
But now that GA has provided the birth of our signing ability with a plausible real-world foundation, the problems of both philosophy and the human sciences can be placed on a new footing. The new way of thinking that is generative anthropology is not a panacea for solving the world’s ethical problems, let alone those of empirical social science, but it should allow thinkers of all disciplines to situate themselves in a non-confrontational manner toward the totality of the human culture we share. It is time that the Enlightenment divorce of science from religion, however necessary and even inevitable within the Judeo-Christian world itself, be followed by a reconciliation that renews their sense of common purpose.
Unlike the hypothetical utterance forms of “elementary” or pre-declarative language, no evidence of which subsists, the institutional or ritual aspect of the originary event is well documented and cannot be discussed without concrete reference to actual practices. This task transcends the speculative limits of GA, but the anthropological community would surely benefit from taking its originary insights into account.
The preceding Chronicle sought to demonstrate the underlying affinity of Jacques Derrida’s conception of la différance to the aims of GA. Derrida’s original French neologism is not unsurprisingly richer than the English deferral, as the French word différer means both defer and differ, and différance, which is pronounced the same way as différence, meaning simply “difference,” adds to it the gerundive verbal element of the act of deferring. Although Derrida’s idea was intended not as an anthropological concept but as a “deconstruction” of metaphysical “presence,” it requires only a small change in mindset to convert it into a key anthropological term.
In Derrida’s conception, the deconstruction effected by the revelation of la différance exposes the mythical nature of sacred presence in order to liberate us from the dominance of the authoritarian center. Derrida never saw that it was precisely this deferral of the appetitive relationship between the human subject and the object of his desire that embodied our freedom from the animal world of instinct, as reflected in Sartre’s conception of the pour-soi—that (sacred) presence in the human sense was made possible as a result of différance rather than being undermined by it.
As Derrida implies but cannot explain, deferral is much more central to the act of signification than simply delaying the application of a paradigm. Even if that “paradigm” contains but a single member, any use of language is a deferral. Before humans invented/discovered the sign, no creature could relate to objects in the world other than appetitively. Inappropriate appetitive urges, when not blocked at the source by innate reactions, could be countered by learned inhibitions (“conditioned reflexes”); but deferral as it emerged in the originary event is a voluntary, cultural act.
I imagine that Derrida would have agreed with me that la différance is the minimal definition of the human. But he would surely not have wished to situate it at the first moment of human history as the source of language and representation itself. Derrida’s différance denies the very notion of origin; it is always already constituted by a set of differences, and offered as a refutation of phenomenology’s conception of the scene of representation as the presence of the object to our consciousness.
As implied by the nostalgic text cited in the previous Chronicle, this debunking of metaphysics was in fact its final affirmation. Metaphysics, even when it distinguishes with Kant the “thing-in-itself” from the “thing-for-us,” affirms that our specifically human understanding of the world is independent of language and is merely expressed in it. But for the Nietzschean aftermath of metaphysics, the language of philosophical reason betrays a secret nostalgia for the plenitude of the sacred Word, for the “language of presence” as sole guarantee of revealed truth. Save in asides such as the quoted passage, deconstruction inverts the positive sense of this affirmation but does not question its substance. The object’s presence being always différée, we cannot claim any unmediated knowledge of it. Hence any claims that may be made of such knowledge are mystifications, tools of oppression. To deconstruct presence is to reveal the hidden (political) agenda of metaphysics.
For GA, on the contrary, the metaphysical myth of presence is indeed a misprision of la différance, but it is properly the latter, not the former, that provides the characteristically human understanding of the world. “Presence” is less a sinister myth than a theologically inflected understanding of what is in fact the separation of consciousness from its object, as inaugurated by the originary abortion of the gesture of appropriation. Something can be present to us only if we stand back from it and contemplate it independently of our appetitive interest in it; we sacralize the originary object of our intention by deferring its appetitive role. Its numinous presence to us depends on its absence from the animal world of appetite that would henceforth be doubled by the human world of representation.
Once this is understood, deconstruction’s critique of authority imposing its mythical-theological presence on the duped multitudes is shown to be based on the false premise, one that Derrida strangely shares with Rousseau, that language is itself a form of oppression rather than the fundamental locus of human reciprocity. On the contrary, language cannot be understood as a product of social hierarchy. The originary sign as the name-of-God is a guarantor not of tyranny but of the human community’s liberation from the reign of the strongest. The equality before God that monotheism would later make explicit in the face of the god-kings of the ancient empires was there from the beginning at the birth of human society.
The relationship between language and ritual has scarcely been explored in recent decades. The nineteenth century Sanskritist Max Müller saw language as emerging in the context of sacred ritual, and the coevality of language and religion was more recently explored in its broad outlines by Roy Rappaport in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999), but this line of inquiry has not been pursued by recent students of language origin. The throwaway quip about religion cited in Chronicle 533 is emblematic of the désinvolture of not just one highly respected scholar but of the entire field.
No one expects contemporary linguists to share Müller’s concern for religious practices, but they should be aware of the originary unity between the simplest form of formal representation and the basis it establishes for its eventual institutional repetition, if only as a way of understanding how the sign acquired a “portable” linguistic association with its referent while at the same time guaranteeing the reaffirmation of communal solidarity, to use Durkheim’s term, in the ritual repetition of the entire event.
Such matters are, indeed, quite susceptible to being studied empirically, provided the “religious” be understood as an anthropological reality rather than as a fanciful excrescence on “secular” rationality. The underlying identity of significance and sacrality is not a mere metaphor. Although the idea is understandably absent from the metaphysical/philosophical tradition, the characteristics attributed to God are in fact those of the embodied or “incarnate” signified. The sign is “immortal,” and in the originary event and on the scene of representation to which it gives birth, it is “omnipotent” in interdicting the central object, and “omniscient” in embodying a knowledge of the whole configuration that the individual participants do not possess—the foundation of Durkheim’s insight that the sacred embodies the ethical values of the community that transcend individual interests.
The identity of origin, God, and the word / logos / verbum affirmed in the first line of the Gospel of John is inscribed thereby in Christianity and in Western civilization as a whole. It is time we began once more to take it seriously.
To be continued…