Linguistics even in our post-Chomskian era still takes NP + VP as the fundamental form of the sentence; anything less is a “defective” transformation. But once we attempt to explain how à partir de rien NP became associated with VP, we discover that this synchronic model not only does not provide us with an answer, but does not even permit us to ask the question. Thus the foundation of perhaps the most advanced of the human sciences is surrounded by a taboo even more constraining than those of primitive religion, which at least attempts through etiological myths to explain the origins of cultural forms.
Although traditional grammar does not recognize the existence of the ostensive as a distinct utterance form, it is willing to grant syntactic status to the imperative as a poor relation of the declarative sentence. Although the imperative has no true tense, its verbal form may be considered a sort of immediate future. Similarly, although its nearly universal zero-morphology attests to an apparent ignorance of the category of person, it can generally be classified functionally with the second person. We need not concern ourselves here with the related third- or first-person forms (Let him; Let’s).
From our perspective, the imperative is characterized not by “defective” but by nascent grammaticality, which we shall define as a linguistic form’s degree of self-containment or “context-free-ness,” considered as an intentional model of reality. From this definition the situation of the imperative between the ostensive and the declarative on the grammatical scale follows immediately. The ostensive is meaningless in the absence of its referent; the declarative can do without a real-world referent. The imperative operates in the absence of its object-nominal or -verbal, but can be satisfied only upon the object’s being made present. The declarative stands at the end of the scale of grammaticality as the telos of linguistic evolution, after which no substantial progress is possible. This explains, if it does not excuse, the grammarians’ inclination to treat all other forms as imperfect declaratives irrespective of their evolutionary status.
As we have noted, the ostensive makes no formal distinction between verbals and nominals; because verbality proper is a quality of predicates, the very term “verbal” is at this stage an anachronism. If the ostensive “Run!” designates the presence of running, the imperative “Run!” would similarly request running from the interlocutor, indifferently by asking him to run or “do a run.” But the “nominality” or substantivity of this object obtains in principle because only as a substance capable of being an independent object of the imagination can it become an object of desire. Yet the fact that in mature languages the imperative is always considered to be a form of the verb, and that nominal imperatives like “Scalpel!” are categorized, if at all, as elliptical forms of the verbal imperative (“[give me the] scalpel!”), cannot simply be attributed to the perversity of grammarians. What it demonstrates is that by subordinating the appearance of the desired object to the action of the interlocutor, the imperative has already taken a major step in the direction of predication.
Let us now consider more precisely the intentional structure of the imperative. The ostensive is an expression not of individual but of social concern, the significance of its object being measured by its capacity to arouse the community to action. The individual speaker of the ostensive thus expresses an interest in the object no greater than and possibly even less than that of his addressee, because the speaker, being already aware of the significant object, may be assumed to have already at least begun whatever action its presence might require. The ostensive may indeed be wholly altruistic, warning the hearer of a danger to which the speaker is immune. It creates a symmetrical situation with regard to its object, which it situates on the scene of representation as equally present to all interlocutors, retaining the nonviolent symmetry of the originary sign.
It is not a priori apparent from the consideration of the two forms simply as intentional structures that the imperative should be a less public form than the ostensive. If the ostensive points out communally significant present objects, the imperative may equally well refer to communally significant absent ones. The ostensive reference to a present object creates a model of reality—the simplest possible—in which this object becomes the unique and therefore unifying object of attention. A collective imperative would use essentially the same model, although now its referent would become the object of a communal effort to procure it. Examples of the collective imperative are not hard to find: the sanguinary shouts of crowds, Kill the umpire! or Down with X! as well as the celebratory Three cheers for Y! and Long live the king! In these cases the imperative functions to “spread the word” within a group and to reinforce a particular decision concerning what is to be done, the content of which may be nominal as well as verbal.
Because the originary ostensive as name-of-God would remain associated essentially with the scenic center rather than the animal that was eventually devoured, this dichotomous representation of “the sacred” remains ever a conundrum whether for believers (who cannot point to the object they originally pointed to/deferred appropriation of) or non-believers (who speak of “God” as a being while believing “he does not exist”). Thus in ritual the repetition of the originary collective ostensive is always already a collective imperative; to evoke God is to call on him, and to call on him is to presume not that he will “come” but that he is already there. I think the reader will agree that our depiction of the hypothetical originary scene gives a plausible real-world configuration to these paradoxical frontiers of language/culture, while showing, to the extent that it can be shown, that their paradoxes cannot be “resolved” by Creationism or “materialism” or anything in between.
A closer examination of collective imperatives reveals their apparent symmetry to consist rather of a reciprocity that is necessarily unstable, hovering between the asymmetry of the true imperative and the group identification of the first-person Let’s! construction. In this context, it is noteworthy that the typical example of the “collective imperative” is less the expression of the need of a community genuinely threatened by some outside agency or of its pleasure on the discovery of an object of collective satisfaction than the cry of the mob intent on discharging its violence on a designated victim. The fact that GA does not follow—as the original TOOL in fact did—Girard’s scapegoat/emissary murder scenario of the originary event does not mean that it should be taken, as Girardians often do, as a bowdlerized substitution of a rationalistic “social contract” for the originary reality of human violence. The origin of language is, as Chairman Mao would have reminded us, not a tea party. And the sparagmos in which the original “sacrificial” animal is divided up may be assumed to discharge not only the hunger but also the resentment derived from the frustrated mutual aggression of the participants. But the simple instinctive discharge of aggression is not a cultural phenomenon. Even a lynching “consecrates” its victim, often in a violently degrading fashion. The sparagmos, to be one, that is, a sacrificial feast, must follow the deferral of instinctual appropriation, just as the provision of food must be, as it remains to this day in human interaction, the chief reinforcing mechanism for sacrificial activity. We should not ignore the evidence of such “primitive” cultural phenomena as the ostensive sign and the sparagmatic communal gathering in our own lives, just as we should not fail to note the pervasive presence of “Maussian” gift-exchange in our social relations everywhere outside the market-place.
The action of the sacrificial/scapegoating mob is motivated not by instinct but by desire—a desire founded on representations. The indifferently ostensive and imperative designations of the victim by the mob are a degraded version of the original designation of the sacred central object in which the originary resentment directed at that being takes precedence over awe at its numinous centrality. Indeed, the merely aggressive rather than alimentary nature of the mob’s desires—which serves to indicate their liminal rather than central social significance—makes the mob’s common action a less fraught process, since dividing the spoils is, if at all, of less concern than causing pain and death to the victim.
It is worth noting that collective imperatives tend in less violent circumstances to be addressed not to the group formed by the speakers but to a real or undefined figure of authority who is called upon to carry out the desires of the mob. Thus when baseball fans shout “Kill the umpire!” they have no intention of performing the “murder” themselves, or even of inciting anyone in particular to perform it. The task of the totally undefined “murderer” is to satisfy the collective desire while the collectivity incurs neither danger nor guilt. A more sinister version of this are the cries accompanying the execution of “enemies of the people”; these are nominally imperatives addressed to the executioner, but the mechanism of desire remains the same. Only at the most extreme moments does the mob return to the participatory frenzy of the originary sparagmos, and at such moments, it is no longer useful to speak of an “imperative.”
The scene of representation, once established in the originary event, can be recreated between any two members of the community, because once the protection of nonviolent presence vested in the sacred object is deemed to extend over nonritual communication within the community, the size of the group involved would be unimportant. In the originary event that gives birth to human desire, the individual desires of the participants for the sacred object cannot be satisfied; the object can only be possessed in common, leaving a residue of resentment. In contrast, the imperative form overtly expresses such desire qua desire, which is to say, claims for it potentially communal significance. The imperative is a more “secular” mode than the ostensive, one more oriented to the practical world. Its existence alongside the ostensive allows for continued dialogue—for example, the operating surgeon’s conversation with the assistant who presents him the requested instruments: “Scalpel!” – “Scalpel!” “Forceps!” – “Forceps,” and so on. This was not possible with the ostensive, which outside the ritual context is rather a means for revealing an unexpected presence than for facilitating continued action. It is indeed difficult to imagine a cooperative work situation without the imperative, the use of which would tend to contribute to the lexical categorizing of necessary implements and therefore to their distinctly cultural quality as tools.
It is significant that in Wittgenstein’s 1953 Philosophical Investigations, which bring together the linguistic speculations that occupied him during the last decades of his life, the “language games” that he analyzes turn constantly to explorations of the “elementary linguistic structures,” questions of how an imperative is used to request something and how the same word can be used as an ostensive in reply, with the ultimate goal of carrying out a predetermined praxis. For example:
. . . is the call “Slab!” in example (2) [which describes a language in which a builder calls out the names of building materials to request them from an assistant] a sentence or a word?—If a word, surely it has not the same meaning as the like-sounding word of our ordinary language [i.e., the noun “slab”], for in §2 it is a call. But if a sentence, it is surely not the elliptical sentence: “Slab!” of our language. . . . [Y]ou can call “Slab!” a word and also a sentence; perhaps it could be appropriately called a ‘degenerate sentence’ . . . ; in fact, it is our ‘elliptical’ sentence. (P. I. p. 8, §19, Blackwell, 2001 )
What is missing from these fascinating if confused speculations is a plausible origin for the exchange of signs that gave us the tools of language in the first place. It is nonetheless significant that the last great theoretician of the philosophical proposition, of the declarative raised to an ontological principle, ended his philosophical career fascinated by what he clearly intuited were more originary linguistic structures.