The greatest confusion about the human is in its origin, whose specificity our secular age does so much to evade. One might in fact define the secular as the state of denial of a scene of origin. Since the human is essentially scenic, in its relation to the world and more particularly to itself, that is, as a community, this is in effect a denial of any genuine explanation of our existence. The discoveries of paleontology will never tell us about the origin of the human scene, and that is in fact the very purpose to which they are put: to reduce the origin of the human to that of “any other” species. Just as the principle of uniformitarianism has generated millions of words on the subject of “life on other planets” in the absence of any evidence whatever, simply on the basis that if we find it here, it must be everywhere, so the same principle appears to insist that since the human is just another species, whatever is “special” about humanity is only “relative” and we need not add new ontological categories to account for it—certainly none in any way connected with its strange penchant for religious observance. On the contrary, the most serious case one can make in defense of religion is that it is the one domain that until now has remained faithful to the ontological specificity of the human.
I used to be troubled by the fact that, although after nearly forty years I am as certain as ever that the originary hypothesis is a milestone on the path of our self-knowledge, this very fact makes it altogether impossible that it will be accepted or even seriously considered in the near future by those who wield intellectual authority. But there is a great advantage in not being too visible in our world. To be left alone by “trolls” and other pests, yet able to communicate with those few who welcome such communication, is a wonderful status that I would no doubt appreciate still more if by some hazard I lost it, even for the sake of “glory.”
In any case, my subject here is not myself but the center of the human scene, which to distinguish it from other centers I will spell à l’anglaise (and also à la française) as the centre.
One might think that nothing is simpler than the centre of the scene: every kind of scene has a recognizable centre, or at least a mechanism for choosing successive centres, as in a debate or a festival or a simple conversation. But the real matter of concern is the centre “in-itself,” that is, not the object that first became the center of attention to the proto-human group, the object of the first sign and the concurrent deferral of appropriation, but the representational status of the scenic centre that subsists after the first “ceremony” had concluded and, according to our hypothesis, the group had torn the central animal into “equal” pieces.
The greatest problem that this configuration has posed to those who have reflected on the essence of the human is how to deal with the necessary difference of status between the peripheral emitters of the sign and the centre, which is from the outset the locus of significance, the sacred, and in our post-biblical minds, of God.
This problem of the origin of language and culture in the absence of a centre is addressed by Rousseau in his most significant proto-anthropological work, the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. One must recall to excuse certain awkward moments in Rousseau’s exposition that in the pre-Darwinian era, the human species was an anomaly, since it clearly had a history not implicit in its originary essence, so that the first humans had therefore to be imagined either literally as the Bible described them, or conceived as physically identical to modern humans yet originally without a culture, and in particular, without language.
In the Discours, Rousseau distinguishes between three stages of “early man.” Following the “state of nature” that preceded any kind of social order, the second, la société commencée, is the one best remembered and which bears the adjective “Rousseauian.” In this stage, humans are isolated and egalitarian. Their populations being thinly scattered over the countryside, no one is required to live under the domination of another, since if another tries to assert such domination, one has only to go elsewhere. Human interaction is primarily determined by what Rousseau calls la pitié, which is more empathy than pity, but which (in contrast to Hobbes’ war of all against all) keeps violence at a minimal level. Similarly, Rousseau conceives the origin of language as taking place between mother and child; here again he uses a category of differential human interaction that is devoid in principle of resentment or oppression. Clearly the absence of oppression in these societies is in Rousseau’s mind linked to the absence of a cultural/representational centre.
But then, the population increases, there is no more free space, and the Fall occurs when Le premier . . . dit “Ceci est à moi!” What is interesting about this is that, however fanciful the idea of a sparse human population with no permanent social relations, it is nonetheless true that the simplest societies, hunter-gatherer groups without sedentary agriculture and who therefore accumulate no “surplus” beyond the immediate needs of consumption and shelter, although not without language and religion, are indeed egalitarian. The association between sedentary landholding and inequality is real, and as I have described it in many places, its most rudimentary form would appear to be that described by Marshall Sahlins in his 1972 classic Stone Age Economics, where in the islands of Melanesia, the “big man” who produces more than others comes to dominate the feasting cycle by providing other families with food, eventually (as Sahlins seems uninterested in investigating) taking over the ritual system before gaining other powers over his fellow islanders.
Jacques Derrida’s aim, in his postmodern classic De la grammatologie, is to show that language has always-already been “writing” from the first, that is, not immediate man-to-man but fundamentally hierarchical. He takes as his text the later, posthumous Essai sur l’origine des langues, where Rousseau, seeking to demonstrate the superiority of Italian to French music, attributes an idyllic form of centrality to “southern” societies, where meeting around the well that supplies water to the vicinity becomes the source of language, mate-exchange, and “festivals.” (The reader is referred to my discussion of Rousseau in The Scenic Imagination, Stanford, 2008, although it does not emphasize the advance constituted by this introduction of a centre.)
Derrida denies Rousseau’s sketch of an egalitarian scene of culture; language is not only always-already writing but always-already the non-reciprocal expression of authority. The centre, which, as our neo-atheists like to imagine, religions call God or something similar to mask the authoritarian nature of the tyrannies they are designed to disguise, is not really other than human, merely other than you and me, embodying the monstrous otherness of the sovereign, the man-who-plays-god. That the first human society was indeed egalitarian and that the originary concept of God, which is the basis of all others, even of those who identify God with the Emperor or Pharaoh, is of a being outside the human order, is incompatible with the political subtext of all postmodern political theory, which is that of “revolutionary” resentment. In the West, this resentment is henceforth bereft of the scientific veneer provided by Marx’s confidence in “capitalism’s” self-destruction through the “falling rate of profit” and other similar mechanisms.
Once one understands the suspicion of the centre to be the central postmodern theme, as though centrality were merely a synonym for oppression, one has come, if not to the end of philosophy/anthropology, then let us say, to the beginning of wisdom. It is sadly as though for Derrida, its discoverer, the différance that permits the existence of the sign, hence of the human, constitutes an original sin, a falling away from an ideal equality that must always be sought after, rather than, as it is in fact, the very principle that allows human equality to be conceived, that is, as the equality of worshipers around a center. The nature of this worship has evolved from idolatry to an object-denying reverence for the scene itself, as in Buddhism, or in the West, to an understanding of the essentially human locus of this divinity, even if necessarily other than any individual and mediated by the sign or “spirit,” as in the Christian Trinity. But its essential différance has always remained the same.
Thus to reduce our politico-philosophical disputes to geometry, the “atheistic” postmodern rejects the scenic configuration, which distinguishes ontologically between centre and periphery, as opposed to a mere scattering on a plane, where in the Hobbesian relations between any two elements, each exercises its “will to power” on the other, resulting in a battle for supremacy that ends in death or enslavement. The idea that the scenic structure that defines humanity is precisely the solution, however fragile, to this untenable situation is beyond the ken of these thinkers, who in their Nietzschean misery can be only God or nothing.
It is for me an irrefutable criterion of sérieux in this domain that one not dismiss religion as a sign of a lower stage of human understanding. Whether or not religious beliefs can one day be comprehended in a grand anthropological synthesis, the claim that the transcendence that they personalize or reify is simply a mystified human trait is quite simply a fallacy. The existence of a representational culture that is not inscribed in the genome of human individuals is not a chimera but a fact. What Plato reified as Ideas are quite simply a “secular” version of cultural transcendentality. The Hebrew notion of God is a more unified version of the transcendental that takes into account the primacy of the centre over its indefinitely multiple attributes. For Socrates/Plato the Good is, in any case, an Idea of a higher valence than that of more specific notions. We may say that the Judeo-Christian God is the transcendental guarantee of the Good, albeit not necessarily its agent—for, as Girard liked to remind us, “God lets his rain fall on the just as on the unjust.”
And if we ask why the notion of a transcendent center, which has sustained humanity for all these millennia, is no longer viable, one might hazard the guess that the West, after the horrors of the preceding century, has lost faith in the violence-deferring powers of its traditional religious conceptions of this transcendence, without as yet being willing to accept their supplementation, not to speak of replacement, by the purely anthropological construction that the originary hypothesis provides. Putting its faith in the “Enlightenment” opposition between religion and science, our intelligentsia takes the second as excluding the first, forgetting the Hegelian dialectic that allows the replacement of one idea with another only if it subsumes it in an Aufhebung that retains its essential content.
This “Hegelian” synthesis is no doubt the simplest expression of the mission of GA as I conceive it: to put an end to the war between man-creates-God and God-creates-man, and to promote dialogue between the two in the open-ended elaboration of the originary hypothesis.
To begin anew: the human is defined by the transcendental status of the centre of the human scene, which can be attained only through the deferral of appropriative action and its mediation by the sign, the aborted gesture of appropriation. Human beings come to usurp the central position in “sacred” kingships and empires, but the notion that human sovereignty is itself transcendental, rather than a role consecrated by the transcendental in the interest of the human community, leads to the leader-worship common to the totalitarian dictatorships of the past century and the démocratures of our own.
The originary hypothesis does not imply a particular political system. But I must say that I am thankful for the liberty that liberal democracy, even in its currently troubled state, allows me to investigate these propositions in a manner that no dictatorship would ever permit. Which is why, whatever technological progress may occur in dictatorships, they will never produce revelatory ideas of fundamental anthropology, and indeed have no desire to, since their very claim to legitimacy comes from the conviction that our “brave new world” is no longer what it once was, and needs no longer concern itself with its original anthropological foundation.
The centre as unique locus of significance is by this fact the focus of resentment. Its desirability makes the queue structure of animal hierarchy untenable, and focuses all attention on itself. The passage from the Alpha-Beta pecking order to the collective sparagmos at the origin of the human is what inspired the 20th century’s two closest approximations to an originary hypothesis of the human, Freud’s father-murder in Totem and Taboo and Girard’s more rigorous scenario of “emissary murder” in La violence et le sacré—in neither case including what the animal hierarchy was originally designed to facilitate, the distribution of benefits, particularly of food, among the community.
I have often observed that today’s humans still follow the ancient patterns, and that the simplest way to understand the remote past is to appreciate its connection with the present. An example I have given many times, yet that is generally ignored by “real” anthropologists, is the phenomenon of the gift, analyzed by Marcel Mauss in his famous Essai sur le don. Mauss finds a curious pattern in primitive societies, where, by delaying reciprocation instead of engaging as we do in instantaneous “commercial” exchange, members of the group—in exchanging favors, children in marriage, ceremonial gifts—cultivate rather than minimize the relationship of indebtedness that non-reciprocal gift-exchange creates.
But this is exactly how we conduct our own social relationships: we exchange gifts on birthdays, we reciprocate dinner invitations rather than paying our host, and even our “capitalist” exchange-system is saturated with delayed exchanges of favors (“I owe you one”). Similarly, one who expresses skepticism about the crucial importance of food-distribution has only to remark that virtually every significant encounter among humans outside of the strictest professional relationships involves the distribution of food, whether feast, dinner, lunch, drinks, or coffee.
Thus Freud’s and Girard’s exclusive focus on murder is aberrant. It should be explained by their justified emphasis on mimetic violence as the primary obstacle to animal hierarchy. Freud’s “sons” resent the father’s monopoly of the women (Alpha primates do not habitually exclude other males from all access to females, but these proto-humans, being, as Girard would put it, more mimetic, are less tolerant of sharing). Girard’s model does away with the “family drama”; the scapegoat/victim is selected, on the model of the Greek pharmakos, as a stigmatized figure from the margins of society whose death is unlikely to be avenged. But whereas Freud’s model at least has a place for the primate Alpha, promoted to master of the harem, Girard’s wipes away all preexisting hierarchy in a “mimetic crisis” which, in his view, allows for the emergence of a new central figure and presumably a new divinity.
In neither case is the central function of the old system taken into consideration: the distribution of food. A more serious flaw is that neither propose an origin of human consciousness dependent on the unique human trait of representation. It is indeed curious that although philosophers since Descartes have concerned themselves near-exclusively with the reflective nature of the scene of consciousness (Je pense, donc je suis), even if, like Nietzsche, they affect to reject it as contre nature, these anthropological models both make guilt the source of this consciousness without considering that, in the absence of a prior interdiction, or in our minimal hypothesis, a moment of deferral, the violence of the murder would provide nothing to feel guilty for.
These matters can clearly benefit from much further research and reflection. Hence it would be helpful if we could stop wasting our time in discussions of the human that simply ignore what is essential about it. The essential traits I have described here require no neuroscientific investigation to be discovered, although such investigation could certainly tell us a great deal about their implementation in the nervous system. But until those who study the human mind have absorbed an equivalent formulation to Sartre’s néant that captures the deferral at the core of human symbolic thinking, they will continue to have nothing to say that bears on the essence of the subject.
To end on a more positive note: for many years, well before I conceived the idea of the originary hypothesis, I have had the intuition that paradox, however defined, is the distinctive element of human representational culture. I won’t trace the history of this intuition here, but will merely point out that it is this paradoxical element that natural science quite rightly seeks to expel, but that anthropology, in the broad sense in which I use this term, must continue to respect, all the more so given the apparent waning of the traditional Western religions that have maintained it in “supernatural” form. The paradoxical relationship between human periphery and sacred/significant centre is the crux of the matter. I will discuss this in a subsequent Chronicle.