The fundamental characteristic of all human communities is their ability to communicate through language. Animals too have their “languages,” but human language alone is not bound by genetic evolution but adaptable to real-time conditions and abstract reasoning through our capacity for dialogue, the exchange of linguistic utterances. Hence the origin of human language, and of the human itself, can only be communal. Not even the most biologically oriented student of human origins would suggest any longer that language began with a “language gene” that gradually spread through a group of humans so that at some point two possessors of the gene spontaneously began talking to each other.
The originary event of language does not predetermine the varieties of human community, from the nuclear family to the transnational “community of nations,” but at every level, community is defined by the exchange of signs. Hence in my recent discussions of the “esthetic community,” I have insisted that the virtual possibility of dialogue is the necessary prerequisite, if not of our esthetic judgment as such, then of the confidence that we are able to feel in its universal significance.
Which is to say that Kant’s idea that the “subjective” yet “disinterested” esthetic judgment makes the same claim to universality as an analytic judgment must be qualified by the fact that in the latter case, no dialogue is possible beyond correcting an error, or declaring a given problem unsolvable. Whereas esthetic judgments, particularly of works of art—which Kant never considers—are meant to be discussed, and in this provide a model for similar types of behavior—for example, discussions of athletic contests, or even of the quality of wines. To share a novel, a film, or a game of baseball is to be able to talk about it afterward with the confidence that one should in principle be able to defend one’s judgments on the evidence of the work in question, so that any differences of opinion that remain can be attributed to inconsequential personal tastes. This is an important element of human sociality, not simply because it involves arriving at a basic agreement, but because the substance of this agreement is, particularly in the case of narrative artworks, revelatory of fundamental truths about the human condition.
In contrast, the frustration of our current political situation can most simply be characterized by the impossibility of dialogue, as opposed to the hostile exchange of slogans, between “left” and “right,” categories whose relative capacity for mutual dialogue has been the simplest measure of “open” and “closed” societies since their birth in the French Revolution. Neither the US nor most other Western democracies can count any longer on the existence of a coherent political community. The prognosis of liberal democracy under such conditions is somber.
One of the things that drew me to René Girard was his skeptical attitude toward metaphysics. Girard’s conviction was that the religious understanding of the human and its origin, which he saw as reaching its culmination in Christianity, was far more faithful to anthropological reality than any version of the philosophical or metaphysical one, which he treated more or less as a category error.
One result of this healthy prejudice against what amounts to a metaphysical sacré qui n’ose pas dire son nom has been that it has taken me forty years and more to integrate the metaphysical within the anthropological realm of the originary hypothesis, and I continue to discover yet more fundamental approaches to this task.
One might call this is a good thing. Since only the good die young, and I survived the publication of The Origin of Language (TOOL) in 1981, it was best that the rest of my life serve a useful purpose: the linking together of the sacred and the rational in the service of the anthropological. I am less ready than Girard to dismiss the achievements of classical philosophy, but fully agree with him that we should not seek there for the secrets of human origin. As readers of these Chronicles know, metaphysics can be most sharply defined as the way of thinking that treats mature human language as a neutral medium, one whose worldly origin and prehistory, like that of mathematics, is immaterial to its function. For Plato, it goes without saying that the Ideas are prior to the words that humans use to designate their shadows.
Surely, one might think, this “Idealist” vision is obsolete. But analytic philosophers unanimously share it with regard to mathematics, and whatever their stand toward the Ideas, they tacitly agree that the details and stages of the emergence of speaking humans from their hominin ancestors are not relevant to the operations of mature, propositional language, which, outside of Wittgenstein’s reflections on “language games,” is the only kind that is of relevance to philosophy.
Since ontological questions of this sort have always been accessible through reflection on the originary hypothesis, why has it taken me so long to get to them? The answer is that my first task was to construct a plausible anthropological “scenario” for the origin of language, conceived not as an gradual process, but as a consciously experienced event. The—at first surprising—lack of response to my hypothesis from the world of human science has meant that I could only discover its many consequences as they emerged within my own reflection.
Readers of the original TOOL will remark that in it I accepted Girard’s emissary murder/scapegoat scenario as the basis for the originary event, although I have long since come to understand that this model is incompatible with the originary dependence of sign-production on deferral. At the time of TOOL, and of the contemporary “Differences” (MLN 96, French: Spring 1981) that summed up the originary hypothesis by its definition of the human sign as the deferral of violence through representation, I was content to reconcile deferral with the emissary murder, following Girard in situating the origin of language in a moment of peaceful contemplation of the body of the victim after the exhaustion of the group’s aggressive energies. But however many “emissary murders” may have preceded the origin of language, there is no place in the scenario as Girard describes it to insert a sign, with the deferral of action it requires, between such a murder and its aftermath.
The scenic center of the originary event may be said to define the sacred, but that very sentence is ambiguous. Is it “the center” that is sacred, or the object that occupies it? And is the center not determined in the first place by the appetitive attraction that this object, most simply understood as a source of nourishment, exercises on the members of the group?
It is impossible not to identify the embodied sacred of the Paleolithic cave artists with the animals they hunted. Any attempt to show that the first sacrificial victims were human would have to explain why, in these paintings, the animals are not only far out of proportion to their human hunters, but the latter are vaguely sketched whereas many of the animals are drawn with a far from “primitive” skill that makes their portraits genuine works of art.
Yet if the first sign designates “this animal” at the moment it is pronounced, what then is signified by the sign once the worldly scene has dissolved? How indeed do the participants remember the sign? Unlike animal perceptions, which may leave memory-traces but cannot be collectively recalled, the sign allows the originary scene to be evoked as a “collective memory” by and for any and all members of the group. It is this remembered scene with its center that the sign can therefore be said to signify.
Once the originary event has taken place and has been thus signified by the sign, the shared memory of this event to which the sign gives access transforms the original group into the first human community. The memory itself is not directly transmissible to others, but others may come to be associated with the community through the association of the reproducible sign with the ritual reproduction of the event itself, as language develops more or less through the stages I described in TOOL.
As the first human action beyond a “behavior,” the sign is a voluntary human act that possesses a communal meaning. Yet a memory itself cannot be shared in any material sense. What then does my memory trace have in common with my neighbor’s that I can be assured that the sign that signifies it has such a meaning?
What makes this possible is the indelible, revelatory impression of the passage from war to peace, from mutual resentment to mutual love, that the originary event creates and exemplifies, and that can be called the transcendent effect of the sign, constituting it as an instrument of faith in the permanence of the community that it instituted. Instead of absurdly dismissing the sacred, as now seems obligatory in scientific circles, as a myth developed by conniving leaders to keep their followers in line, we should realize that the postulation of a transcendental entity as the source and stable repository of the sign’s meaning is inherent in the very notion of “meaning.”
As I have discovered over the years, these simple ideas are the hardest to come up with, because there is nothing we take for granted more easily than the existence of language. The first users of language could of course not have thought through the process of creating it, which was in effect the creation of thought itself. But whatever the complexity and sophistication of our thought, it can never, as Hegel might have wished, attain the “end of history” at which it comprehends itself.
Thus I do not have the pretension to claim that with GA the mystery of our origin has now been revealed. What GA reveals is rather the mystery itself: the fact that there is no materialist-Darwinian explanation for language, although its emergence in no way interferes with the Darwinian process of evolution. For any member of the community, the linguistic sign calls up its meaning on his internal scene of representation. In distinction to other memory traces, this meaning is not only an individual memory, but one shared by all and able to be recalled to any of its members by the use of the sign. The signs of language are not merely communicable, as are animal signals of all kinds, but they are intended as communicable on a ground of a priori confidence that our interlocutor, as a member of our linguistic community, can be expected to interpret them in a way analogous to ourselves. And this means above all that our interlocutor will indeed interpret the sign, assign to it a signified more or less like our own, rather than treat it as a worldly gesture.
How this is implemented in the individual nervous system is a question of interest to cognitive science, but not directly to GA, which need only insist on the necessity that this communal, self-transcending quality be “coded” in such a way that distinguishes significance-memory, the mode in which we learn language and other sign systems, from the memory traces we share with other animals.
The category created by the originary sign is most simply described, not as the philosophers’ Being, but as significance, which at the origin cannot be distinguished from sacredness or sacrality. The desire to transmit significance that makes us defer appetitive action and in its place emit a sign is a new, distinctly human phenomenon that has no analogy in prehuman modes of memory and/or communication.
And over the millennia since that first moment, the enlargement of the set of significant entities, linguistic signifieds, has remained bound by the same criteria, however the human community itself expands and fragments, and whether a sign is meant to be added to the communal store or merely used ad hoc, as in “Let x be …” or “Let us call this a ….” To refer to something by language is ipso facto to situate it on the scene of representation, a locus both individual and collective, accessible and, indeed, conceivable only within the context of a community of meaning, a culture.
This abstract description of the process of signification says nothing concrete about the nature of such a community, other than its capacity for dialogue among its members: the reciprocal exchange of signs among those who agree sufficiently on their meanings that their interaction can be expected to lead to a lowering rather than an increase of mimetic tension. Whence Kant’s postulation of the universality of esthetic as well as analytic judgments, which, as we have seen, should be understood not as absolute identity, but as a general accord within the community reachable in principle through dialogue.
But what of a community of meaning so divided as to its own collective essence that dialogue becomes impossible? The events of the past few months, from the pandemic to the riots, make this question particularly pertinent, and not only in the USA. I will attempt to shed some light on this urgent issue in one or more forthcoming Chronicles.