This title is deliberately provocative. I am mindful of Richard’s van Oort’s boutade that GA wouldn’t be of much use in a foxhole, but the originary hypothesis does imply, if not a full-fledged theology of the kind one can only compile on the basis of ritual practice, not to speak of sacred texts, prayers, laws, etc., a minimal understanding of the sacred, one that is indeed implicit in any conversation between members of different cultures. Just as a traveler in a strange land will naturally assume that the locals have customs pertaining to the necessities of life, and needless to say, have a language, he will also assume they will have a conception of the sacred, of God or gods, of objects and actions forbidden and/or enjoined from a “transcendental” perspective. Indeed, it seems difficult even for writers of science fiction to avoid reference to the sacred, whatever degree of sophistication they bring to the task.
What we should dare to call the beginning of wisdom is the realization that at the origin, significant and sacred are synonymous. It is only once a ritual structure, a form of institutional representation, is established, that significance can be de-sacralized and evolve into a formal linguistic system. At the origin, when no such system exists, singling out an object for general attention rather than appropriation is indistinguishable from treating it as sacred, not merely in a “behavioral,” but in a truly, although minimally, cultural sense.
When we realize that the fact of representation itself, of taking some entity and re-presenting it by means of a sign, contains in germ all the mysteries of culture, we become able to recognize the absurdity of the ubiquitous statements about language “emerging” from the need to communicate “ideas” conjured up by our increasingly powerful brains.
Assuming that the originary hypothesis describes the minimal event of the origin of language, and that at the origin, the sacred and the significant, both equally new behavioral dispositions, are effectively identical, what is there in this scene that requires the institution of a “divine being”?
It is this, after all, that is the bone of contention for those who see no scientific reason to assume the existence of “supernatural” entities. One can accept the idea of the sacred as a behavior, of reverence and/or deferral of conflict, and even à la rigueur of a numinosity surrounding the object that first provoked this behavior. But if, as we assume, this originary object was consumed at the conclusion of the event as its “payoff” and guarantee of memorability, what then remains to be called sacred, and what sense does this sacrality possess when no longer attached to a desire-object?
The fact that the originary hypothesis has survived all these years without this question having being dealt with in explicit detail might be considered a defect of the hypothesis. But on the contrary, it is a strong indication of its validity. The idea that sacrality as attached to worldly objects requires in addition some kind of extra-worldly ground, a sacred-in-itself, is so intuitive that we are tempted to take it for granted. This does not excuse the failure to explore the matter in depth, but it reassures me that this is not the kind of omission that, once discovered, invalidates the theory in which it is found.
Culture is in the first place a practical mechanism that insures human survival by preserving the community from conflict. There is a conceptual gap between the natural world and the “rational” or metaphysical world of the philosophers, which they hasten to plug up by taking mature language for granted “as able to talk about anything.” Instead of trying to imagine “how does it feel to be a bat,” philosophers should be trying to imagine what it is like to participate in the originary event, and in the nascent society it gave birth to—to be neither an animal nor a fully-developed human, but a creature just at the point of inventing/discovering language.
The idea of pre-declarative language, which must logically have existed, since it is inconceivable that words could come together as S+P without having previously appeared in meaningful utterances of a more elementary nature, allows us to examine from an anthropological, yet no longer “natural,” perspective such concepts as “Being.” Heidegger and his disciples seem to think they can simply posit Being, without making it an object of faith, as some kind of absolute, self-evident Idea, as it was in Hegel’s Logik. But what indeed is the source of our intuitions of “Being”? To ask this question is not to disparage these intuitions; Heidegger’s, and to my mind, even more, Sartre’s, tell us much about the specificity of the human.
The philosophers think they can talk about “Being” without talking about language, as though it were an entity pre-existing “out there” waiting for us to start thinking about it. It is more excusable, although equally naïve, to present mathematics as existing independently of human language, given that its implicit laws are independent of human will. For the important thing about mathematics is that it helps us describe the world, and the fact that the Ideas of mathematics didn’t exist until we did has no effect on the calculations we make with them, whose answers are objective and whose models are, at least in principle, intuitively obvious. This is far from true for “Being,” which is a notion attested in the West only with the pre-Socratics. At the origin, significant=sacred, and Being=God. The universality in all cultures of the phenomenon of sacrality makes clear that the source of the human/cultural lies in our collective propensity to make/accept as sacred/significant some worldly object through the effect of the originary ostensive.
We have to conceptualize the God-idea if we want to talk about it at all, but we must recognize that as the first idea, it cannot be “defined.” Anna Wierzbicka, in her groundbreaking attempts at a fundamental semantics, accepts a certain number of undefined terms, which can only be restated in words that themselves depend on the presumably more fundamental ones in her minimal vocabulary. But we have never quite appreciated what this entails at the origin, because until now we have never really been able to think about the transition from non-language to language.
In the first place, this is not a transition from animal communication to human language, except in the broad sense that the two perform many of the same functions. But they are not “continuous” in their activities, and as Terrence Deacon pointed out a couple of decades ago, they are not even located in the same parts of the brain.
If we take seriously the GA formula that the first word is the name-of-God, we have provided a plausible context for its utterance, and a minimal justification for its efficacy. But we have not even begun to exhaust the “mystery” of God, since understanding through our hypothesis the motivation for the originary act of signification is just the opposite of providing the sacred with a final “definition.” On the contrary, the sacred and its “being” are what open up the universe to our exploration, including the crucial element of the universe that is constituted by the originary human relationship to sacred being itself.
To affirm the identity of the sacred and the significant is to refuse to perform the positivist gesture of dismissing the first as a mystery accessible only to faith, not to say a hoax perpetrated by the usual suspects, while at the same time viewing the second as a “natural” phenomenon, a variant on plant tropisms and animal appetites, a simple consequence of the fact that some objects affect our lives more strongly than others, so that because we fear tigers and eat apples, we “naturally” have words for them, just as vervet monkeys have signals for different predators and edibles. But whereas tigers and apples are “naturally” significant, the sacred, which has no equivalent among our fellow creatures, is a superstition that the Enlightened can do without.
Enlightenment has many virtues, the chief one having been to put an end to the dogmas of religious cosmology. That the universe was not created in 4004 B.C. is now obvious to all but a tiny fringe. But what is not, but should also be obvious is that to claim that the significance of tigers and apples and sacred relics and everything else is a “natural” phenomenon is just as absurd as claiming that the Bible provides a literal account of the origin of the solar system.
On the contrary, we should understand originary signification through our experience of the sacred. Our proto-human ancestors certainly knew how to find food, and probably had tools similar to the pre-conceptual ones our primate cousins employ today. But it is crucial to remember that the sacrality of the object/referent of the first sign was not proximately determined by its appetitive or instrumental qualities, but by the fear of danger from their fellows aroused in the members of the group—a fear attendant on the breakdown of the pre-human Alpha-Beta hierarchy. This fear deferred their attempts to appropriate the object, and those who first withdrew from this activity, indexically signaling this withdrawal, and learning thereby that the deferral of action averted conflict, were motivated to reconceive their aborted gesture as a deliberate re-presentation, inextricably of the object itself and of the originary scene on which it appeared.
The psychological details of this process may someday be reconstructed, but we know only that, given the existence of human language, something along these lines must have occurred. As GA has been insisting for several decades, the human exists because, and insofar as, it is more vulnerable to its own mimetic violence than to the dangers of the “natural” world. What is significant/sacred is in the first place a means to consecrate, make memorable and reproducible, the gesture by which we defer conflict over an object of appetite. Only at a much later time, at the beginning of the “Middle” era of Western civilization, does our understanding of the sacred reach the point at which we can separate it from these other uses, substituting prayer for sacrifice and communion wafers for sacred feasts. The miracle of the loaves and fishes teaches us that if we can enjoy the peace that comes with God’s word, the multiplication of appetitive objects becomes a secondary problem.
We might ask, if the referent of the originary sign is named by the “name-of-God,” are we then worshiping a dead animal? One that disappears after we consume it? But this absurdity shows only that at the origin, the “referent” of a sign, and the whole process of signification, is not reducible to the Saussurian formulas that apply to the structures of mature language. Only once the world is conceptually divided into signifiés, can the signifiants be understood if we like merely as labels attached to them on “the other side of the paper.”
The first sign is a signifier that invents/discovers its own signified, but that at the outset does not yet “designate” or “represent” anything. It embodies in a reproducible sound/gesture the new and unique effect of deferring worldly action within the group, while directing the attention of all to the object that cannot be acted on, but only contemplated or intended, in the mode Sartre describes as separating by a néant the observing human consciousness (pour-soi) from its observed object.
The sign invents the new, intentional attention given to its object, but this direction-of-attention can only be understood by those performing and perceiving the sign as prior to the sign, as demanding it, so to speak as an act of “worship,” as a gesture that points to what we must attend to but cannot (yet) possess. We can say in hindsight that this gesture is the first signifier, and that the object, experienced as already sacred and yet sacralized by the sign, is its first signified. The aborted gesture, which is at first an involuntary, indexical sign of the deferral of action, becomes a voluntary, self-conscious act, repeated in concert by the group as a whole as a symbolic sign of the new human language, and deferring all other action.
We have been over this before, although not in such excruciating detail. But the point of the additional detail is to show that, however explicit we make our description, we will never arrive at a definition of the signified of the first sign. Which is to say that to the question “What is God?” or “What is the sacred?” the closest answer we can give is that which prevents us from appropriating what lies in the center of the scene. Which is, from a philosophical perspective, the source of intentionality, of the pour-soi, separated by the néant of différance from its object.
And what humanity discovers, not all at once, but through the centuries, is that this scene, although existing at first only in one particular locus, can be reestablished elsewhere, between any two persons, and in fact exists already within each one of us, for we all bear within ourselves the memory of the scene and of the deferral that it witnessed and provoked. Other things will acquire significance, and different signifiers will come to designate different signifieds, but the action of signification will always return us to the originary scene and to the sacred force that inhabits it, deferring action and inserting a néant between us and the object we contemplate and think or talk about.
For a long time, we have spoken of God as embodying the power of deferral inherent in this scene, but that is not the last word on the subject.
For Buddhists, the divine is more than any specific god. From what I understand of their religion, what is sacred is the scene itself. The Bodhisattva, he who truly understands the sacred, knows that the objects of apparent interest that appear on the scene, which we point to and reason about, are ultimately illusory, for their existence is secondary, epiphenomenal to that of the scene.
And for Christians, as Girard loved to repeat, God makes his rain fall on the just as on the unjust (Matthew 5:45). Which is to say that God, as the power who controls the universe and consequently guarantees our understanding of it, does not use this power to influence nature in our favor. To demonstrate this to humankind, he let his own Son, himself in his Son’s person, be crucified. If we desire peace, the always tentative deferral of conflict that God and man gave each other through language, then we must continually regenerate it ourselves, through the unending triumph of love over resentment.