The originary hypothesis is close to forty years old, having first been formulated during my visit to Johns Hopkins in 1978. Not only have some of its basic constituents changed, notably the dropping of Girard’s lynch mob conception not long after the 1981 publication of The Origin of Language, but over the years I have tended to emphasize different elements of the scenario. This seems like a good opportunity to recall a couple of those aspects that I have had less occasion to reiterate in recent years, but which strike me as having a renewed relevance in our day.
The Origin of Language put great emphasis on the Ockham’s-razor minimality of the hypothesis. When I opened the book with Mysteries should not be multiplied beyond necessity, I saw the creation of as simple a scenario as possible as the theory’s greatest virtue.
At the time, this seemed uncontroversial; but times have changed. My impression is that in the era of big data, simplicity is no longer a value in itself. Anything that smacks of non-empirically grounded intuition is looked upon with suspicion; where is your data set? Hence, for example, the contempt for religion that I noted in Michael Tomasello’s A Natural History of Human Morality (see Chronicle 519). This is a man who recorded every utterance made by his child for over a year. In contrast, religious language makes wild assertions without the least attempt at furnishing empirical proof. No wonder Tomasello feels religion can be dismissed as nonsense conjured up to reinforce one’s authority over credulous followers.
In any event, getting the causality right is surely more important than minimizing the list of parameters. But as opposed to the natural world, where the farther we go the more complex everything seems, Ockham’s razor in human matters is more than just a rule of thumb for efficiency in the laboratory. A corollary of the big-data approach to causality is to consider that any simple cause-effect explanation is just a kludge to which we were obligated back in the small-data days when we couldn’t handle all the parameters. Even today, this is difficult. But just wait another few years when we’ll have million-qubit computers; then we’ll really be able to understand causality. Or rather, we won’t understand it at all, but our computers will, and at any rate they’ll be able to make predictions with currently unimagined degrees of precision.
Forgetting my doubts about this approach to the natural world, the beginnings of which, whatever their benefits, have made it no longer possible for the layperson to have the faintest idea of the fundamental composition of the universe, well over half of which appears to be undetectable (“dark”), I think I can say with some authority that we are obliged to give credence to simple explanations in cultural as opposed to natural matters. This is more a matter of attitude than of “fact.” The physical-physiological causality involved in forming the first sign is no doubt as complex as your big-data equipment has the capacity for. But to understand it from within human culture is to grasp it in its own terms from the standpoint of the creatures who were motivated by a conscious judgment that could only explicitly take a small number of factors into account.
It is the big-data temptation that leads to the ludicrous assertion that language “emerges naturally” when our cognitive level reaches such and such a threshold. The absurdity of treating language as a biological-cognitive function whose communicative setting is simply irrelevant reflects the big-data reduction of causality to a web of correlations none of which “means” any more than another, whatever the naïve participants in the activity may think about it. After all, economists and psychologists have shown us that people ceaselessly misunderstand the “real” motivations for their acts. The first users of language may have fancied they were designating a significant/sacred object, but what they were really doing was finding a new outlet for their overactive neurons.
All of which leads me to a related and even more important element of the originary hypothesis. The most pertinent way of describing the minimality of our hypothesis’ causal chain is that it is an event, a memorable occurrence that establishes a new category of activity, the marking of the deferral of appetitive appropriation by a sign that originates as an aborted gesture of appropriation. It is conscious in a way no animal action can be conscious because its conscious nature is inherent in the sign that is shared with the other members of the group. That is, it is marked by the very act that constitutes it, an act that finds its purpose outside itself, in designating the object of its renunciation as sacred/significant, which minimally means that, rather than seen as an object for appropriation, it is understood by the newly funded human community as something that can only be approached via the sign.
A corollary of this reflection is that not just the originary use of language but every use of language must be understood as an event, a term that must be understood as referring to an exclusively human, cultural phenomenon.
Language and “Writing”
One of Derrida’s most famous and significant points about language was that, in contrast to the apparent immediacy of speech, the truly exemplary form of linguistic communication is rather writing, l’écriture. This assertion generated among the faithful many delectable paradoxes for the purpose of denouncing the oppressive central authority that Derrida associates with the “myth of presence,” by means of which it persuades its subjects that its decrees are of divine origin. In undermining this authority, Derrida, while deconstructing Rousseau’s metaphysical faith in the immediacy of speech and the decadence of writing, in fact extends this decadence backward from writing to language itself. For Derrida, to claim that language is “really” writing is to claim that all language makes a false claim of presence, of sacred authority, which is only a mask for political authority. That primitive human societies are egalitarian rather than hierarchical is a fact too trivially “anthropological” for Derrida to consider.
Nevertheless, like most of Derrida’s intuitions, his idea of the primacy of “writing” is essentially true, if only we return to GA’s primary point about language, which is that it is a mode of deferral. A sign is not a signal; it is a product of conscious renunciation, just the opposite of an assertion of immediate “presence.” Which is to say that, as Derrida himself never realized, it is precisely this différance, this espacement, this écriture, that is what presence is. Language is present to its referent the way we are present at a theatrical performance: in its presence, in which we know ourselves to be existing before it, not stuck up against it, as Sartre describes the beings in the world of the en-soi.
And just as writing embodies deferral more obviously than speech, emphasizing the author’s distance from both the referential world and his interlocutor, so does writing emphasize more clearly than speech its inscriptive or record-making character. Scripta manent, verba volant is true only for societies that have a written language; purely oral cultures preserve their sacred texts in memory.
Properly understood, the “inscriptive” character of language is evident; there is no need to assert it as a Derridean paradox. By marking the language-event with a sign, the user of language, oral or written, inscribes it in the universe of human culture, and more specifically, makes it an object of personal and collective memory that belongs to the cumulative history of humankind. Whence my insistence that we understand the origin of language as an event, even if the heuristic model furnished by the originary hypothesis will most likely never be identified with a specific time and place. Yes, the sign must have emerged through a number of stages. But there is gradualism and gradualism. A series of events is not the same as a series of unmarked occurrences such as take place among animals.
Just as it is absurd to say that at some point we begin to have “ideas” and that speech emerges because we “want to express them”—an absurdity that has nevertheless become almost a truism in the recent literature of the human sciences—it is equally absurd to speak of animals as “unable” to mark the events of their lives by signs. Neither the action nor the desire are part of the animal repertory, un point c’est tout. Lacking a sign-system, the animals have no way of referring to, hence of culturally sharing these occurrences. The first signing event was no doubt repeated a number of times before its discovery of sacrality/significance became universally accepted, but it was an event from a start, a memorable occasion, if not the memorable occasion that we find in “myths of language origin”—or in the first sentence of Genesis.
Philosophy and Anthropology
Philosophy understands all this, in its way. Hegel’s world-spirit is in fact the historical spirit of human culture, historical because conscious of being part of a series of events. Beginning with Being and Non-Being in a universe of prehuman abstraction from which consciousness in and for itself eventually emerges, Hegel provides the most thorough depiction of the metaphysical organon. Here, even in the supposed absence of humans or of an anthropomorphic God, the universe is driven by ideas, which is to say, by the human scene of representation and its contents. But although today Hegel’s speculations are dismissed as “metaphysical,” it is not enough to deconstruct them in what are in the final analysis equally metaphysical terms. Philosophy cannot find its ground in itself, but it cannot find a ground either in the denunciation of its groundlessness—although the paradoxical configuration of this activity prepares the way for GA’s more rational approach both to the origin and nature of human culture and to paradox itself.
In Science and Faith, written over thirty years ago, I criticized the social sciences for their dogmatic gradualism, which Big Data has only reinforced. On the principle that natura non facit saltus, cultural innovations are described as proceeding by imperceptible steps so that no moment of sudden revelation is ever envisaged. As for the revelations that our religions are founded upon, the task of science is to study their gradual emergence, their revelatory reality being “bracketed” for use in the non-scientific universe of ritual devotion.
Hence the primary challenge that GA responds to, even before attempting to fulfill its mission of providing a plausible scenario for the origin of language, is to persuade the intellectual community that such a revelatory origin both can and must be thought. The originary hypothesis describes the emergence of a totally new form of behavior that could only have appeared as a revelation to its participants because the very categories that it inaugurated were categories of revelation.
Unless the first object to become the referent of a sign was the focus of common attention in a wholly new way, it would not have been so designated at all. There is no gradual path from animal signals to human signs. The only gradual element of the process is getting it to stick and be reiterated until it becomes expected rather than extraordinary, so that from a unique event the use of language becomes banal—although, even at its most banal, every use of language remains an event, an inscription.
Even after nearly forty years, it is still asking much of a reader to entertain the hypothesis presented in these pages, which has no doubt more in common with the speculations of “French theory” than with the more positivistic modes of scholarship favored in our hypervictimary age. It seems no longer necessary to follow Derrida in unveiling the oppressive nature of the myth of linguistic “presence” now that, in the academy at least, (Western) oppression is universally acknowledged. Hence we believe that our only chance at objectivity lies in undertaking a data-driven study of human behavior without recourse to metaphysical niceties, forgetting that it is these niceties alone that differentiate us from our animal brethren.
But on the assumption that there is nonetheless a potential audience for these ideas, this second edition of TOOL is intended to present the underlying theory in a more concrete and logical fashion than the first, where I still relied on Girard’s human-sacrifice scenario of the originary event. The text is more clearly written, and disencumbered of many secondary observations and reflections on the linguistics of the 1970s.
I can assure my reader that, at the very least, the originary hypothesis that an event inaugurates the human world of representational culture still stands, undamaged and undaunted, as solitary now as it was when I first formulated it in 1978. If only in tribute to its ability to survive on its own for nearly four decades, I hope you will be willing to give it a second look.