This “plague year” seems an appropriate time to attempt to clarify what exactly I mean by paradox, and why I consider it, properly understood, as the minimal criterion of the human. Paradox encapsulates the revolutionary difference between the prehuman mind, which presents the world to itself through perception, and may be able to signal its perceptions to others of its species, and the human mind, which represents this world by means of a conscious, communally shared system of signs, that is, in language.
I had been drawn to the phenomenon of paradox several years before I conceived the complex of ideas that evolved into generative anthropology. In 1975 I published with Nizet a pair of “paradoxical” essays, Le Paradoxe de Phèdre suivi du “Paradoxe constitutif du roman,” and in 1977, Essais d’esthétique paradoxale at the Editions Gallimard, my last book before The Origin of Language in 1981.
As noted previously (e.g., Chronicles 389, 580, 641), the key source of this interest was making the acquaintance, via Alain Cohen, of the Palo Alto school of psychology headed by Gregory Bateson, and in particular of Watzlawick, Beavin, and Jackson’s Pragmatics of Human Communication (Norton, 1967), which develops the idea of pragmatic paradox, the classic example of which is the Jewish mother who tells her son: “Be spontaneous!” The priority of the pragmatic to the logical is a simple matter of common sense.
Pragmatic or logical, in the absence of semiotic representation, paradox is inconceivable, and vice versa: the term “paradox” in its various guises always refers to a conflict between what a sign is and what it “says.” Visual “paradoxes” are such only by analogy; they are tricks of our perceptive apparatus, which itself makes no assertions about the world, whereas this sentence is false is not merely misleading: it claims yet possesses no stable meaning.
Consequently, looking back on the prehistory of GA, I would add the element of paradox to the Girard-Derrida dialectic as the primary constituents of the originary hypothesis.
The notion of la différance is presented by Derrida as a non-concept, but its anthropological root is in paradox. Derrida describes différance as taking place in the mind of the perceiver who seeks to match a signifier to a potential signified, situated in the experientially temporal but essentially ontological gap between perceiving a cat and identifying it by means of the word cat. In this model, the signifier cat is not itself deferred from referring to a worldly cat.
As a metaphysician, albeit a post/anti-metaphysical one, Derrida does not examine the originary anthropological basis of signification, yet it is there that originary paradox is to be found. For différance is prior to the constitution of paradigms; it is inherent in signification itself. What is deferred/differentiated in the first place are appetite and its renouncement, a gesture of appropriation and the sign made from its deferral.
It is this originary association of the sign with paradox that justifies the first sentence of the back-cover notice of Essais d’esthétique paradoxale: Loin d’être une anomalie du discours logique, le paradoxe est antérieur à la logique (Far from being an anomaly of logical discourse, paradox is prior to logic).
Absent the propositional language in which logic is defined, paradox in the this sentence is false sense of the term is inconceivable. But generative anthropology, alone among the “sciences,” does not take the existence of the declarative proposition for granted in the human object-world that it describes.
When I composed that French sentence, in the days before GA, it expressed the still inchoate intuition that a pre-logical, pragmatic form of paradox must have preexisted the possibility of its formulation in “logical” language—that paradox is more fundamental, and more fundamentally human, than the proposition—let alone than the literary forms that, as the New Criticism insisted, constantly embody it.
As far as I know, before the publication of The Origin of Language in 1981, no theory of language origin had taken into account the familiar adage that necessity is the mother of invention—nor has, to my knowledge, any theory since. All other accounts, from divine creation to the gradualist just-so stories that the present generation finds unfalsifiably “scientific,” simply take for granted that language is a “good thing,” which, given God’s grace and/or our superior brain power, the species would one day come up with. And once we had it, of course, we would easily see how useful it might be. One imagines a time-traveling tour group of hominins, on witnessing the unparalleled success of our species, kicking themselves for not having thought of language first.
How many otherwise serious social scientists have put forth the idea that language began when our brains began to generate “ideas” that they then wanted to “express” to others (see, e.g. Chronicle 553). The absurdity of such theorizing does not require knowledge of set theory. Just as we did not acquire legs because of a build-up of energy that made us want to go running, neither did we acquire speech because of a build-up of “ideas” that we wanted to “express.”
But once we recognize that language was invented/discovered because, at some specific moment of our species’ history, it became necessary, then we should be willing to understand the fundamental meaning of “paradox” as embodying a new form of tension between alternative courses of action—alternatives for the group and not merely an individual—which could be resolved without self-destructive violence only by the introduction of a wholly new form of communication.
What specifically was paradoxical in the situation of originary crisis as our hypothesis describes it?
The crisis arises as the result of the breakdown of the Alpha-Beta pecking-order hierarchy that had regulated the division of food and sex among the males of what we can call the protohuman group. The key difference between such a prehuman hierarchy and those established by humans is that the animal community has no center. The Alpha animal is not the “leader” of the group, even if, as the dominant animal, he tends to “decide” in what direction it will move, for example. The animals being mutually mimetic, the dominant one will be imitated in preference to the others, but animals do not form a community in the human sense, capable of investing a leader with central authority.
In our hypothetical example, the division of the spoils of the hunt, the Alpha takes the first portion and leaves the rest for the others; then the Beta does likewise, down to the lower-ranking members. In contrast with the elaborate procedures of human hunter-gatherer societies, there is no prior agreement on this division.
It then suffices to assume that, as the lability of mimesis and its inherent facilitation of rivalry increases with intelligence, the Alpha’s position, which depends on the absence of group consciousness, becomes unstable. As students of ape behavior have observed, coalitions form that endanger such hierarchies, but without replacing them by more stable ones.
The tension surrounding the central object increasingly becomes a source of group-wide contradictory impulses: on the one hand, each member of the group desires to appropriate it, on the other, each fears that by doing so, it is opening itself to the violence of the others. In what we may call its proto-communal state, where the group’s increasing symmetry is as yet unthematized in a community, the increasing likelihood of violence poses a problem that demands a solution.
Under such circumstances, the object to be divided is an object of danger as well as of appetite. To take one’s share out of turn, or to gang up against one of higher rank, invites challenges and provokes internal conflict that distracts the group from the peaceful division of the spoils and, more generally, diminishes its overall “fitness” to maintain itself and its dependents over time.
What we have called the “aborted gesture of appropriation” is precisely the result of this increased tension. We experience something of this when several hands reach out for the same piece of cake, or simply when deciding whether to take the last piece (anticipating the future disappointment of rival cake-lovers).
The solution that becomes language, the recycling of the aborted gesture as a sign, cannot be understood as a simple mimetic effect within the group—I see another hesitate, and this makes me more likely to do so as well—although this effect is essential to its functionality. What is essential is the realization of each member, beginning, as Adam Katz pointed out a decade ago, with the “first” to become aware of it, that this abortion can be understood, not merely as the negation of an act, but as its voluntary renouncement, and that this renouncement is not just an individual decision but a communally significant act that is ipso facto a sign communicated to the group as a whole. That is, the aborted gesture already “communicates” its abortive nature, but the nature of the gesture, which is one of pointing, comes to be understood as a consciously formed sign designating the central object as sacred and not to be appropriated, deferring this appropriation until such time as it can be done peacefully by the newly formed human community.
The abortive gesture as sign can then be reciprocally communicated by all the members of the group, establishing the deferral of any appropriation of the object until such time as intra-group tension has been lowered to the point where the newly established community can perform this appropriation in unison. This is classically exemplified within a tribal society by the camel sacrifice described by Robertson Smith in his 1889 Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, cited by Freud in Totem and Taboo; similar ceremonies are common among non-hierarchical societies.
In this way, the paradoxical tension between desire and renouncement, moving both toward and away from the object, is transformed from a state of confusion into becoming itself, through its embodiment in the sign, the solution to the dilemma. The first sign is the first truly human act.
The sign, and with it, “the human” in all its potential richness, resolves the paradox of contradictory impulses, not by reconciling them, but, to use Hegel’s term, by “lifting them up” (aufheben) to another level.
From the standpoint of metaphysics, which is to say, of philosophy as first formalized by Parmenides and Socrates/Plato, propositional language is a tool for reasoning about “Ideas,” one more complex and arbitrary than mathematics, but of a similarly extra-anthropological constitution, and which the human brain had only to “download,” or “discover.” Metaphysical thinking recognizes the uniqueness of humankind as characterized by “reason,” but reason itself, that is, the use of declarative propositions possessing a truth-value, is not understood as a specifically human creation, just as most mathematicians find offensive the idea that numbers exist only as human artifacts.
The process of language-generation (or more properly, syntax-generation) is most concretely represented by Chomsky’s LAD (Language Acquisition Device), which can be imagined as a neurological machine with a number of switches representing alternatives such as SOV vs OVS, subject-object vs topic-comment, etc.
This is not simply naïve; it is a category error. Language is no more an “essence” of which the world’s languages are examples than Plato’s Ideas are “real.” What I call the metaphysical prejudice of human science makes here its fundamental misstep. To fail to acknowledge the anthropological nature of language is simply to misunderstand the significance of the human and of its emergence.
The fact that people in all societies speak about God, or gods, or some other embodiment of the sacred suggests the undeniable reality, in human terms, of a transcendental domain, whether real or fictional, to which alone we as language users have access.
The proto-evolutionary explanation (found, e.g., in Max Müller’s 1861 lectures at the British Royal Institution, published in 1864 as Lectures on the Science of Language), that primitive man was “awed” by nature and began to worship fearsome forces such as the sun and storms, is terminally naïve. Why didn’t our ape or hominin ancestors “worship” such things—or anything? How did “man” evolve from lower animals in such a way that he suddenly found familiar elements of his environment “awesome”?
And yet the answer is obvious. Once more, necessity is the mother of invention. No other animals needed, certainly not “awe” of nature but a sense of the sacred, which Girard well understood as the embodiment of the danger of desire, to keep them alive.
In the originary event, the signified object, which is understood by the participants to be inaccessible to human appropriation, is seen as separating itself by Sartre’s néant from the rest of the world at the center of a scene of representation with its human participants on the periphery. We are fascinated by it, but we cannot approach to appropriate it as a result of the mimetic danger implicit in this collective fascination. Thus we perceive it in a new, uniquely human fashion, one combining appetite with interdiction.
The sacred is the quality that the first sign attributes to its referent—the first significant being, the world’s sole object of perception whose presence must be addressed, yet can only be addressed, and demonstrated by the human community that it is being addressed, by a sign. At the origin, sacred and significant are synonymous. Signification, which as language-users we take for granted, is in its origin the transcendental quality of sacrality. At this first moment, nothing else in the universe, whatever its appetitive/affective value, is meaningful—for nothing else is the potential cause of our self-destruction.
The extension of significance to the entire universe of our experience—involving the attribution of signifiers to potentially all signifiable elements—can now be understood as an extension of this originary experience, which is conducive to the notion of the universe as itself merely an extension of the originary central object. Thus, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the world is understood as “God’s creation.”
Where is paradox in all this? Recall the paradoxical state of Pavlov’s dogs, as illustrated by the medieval topos of Buridan’s ass, who starves to death when placed at an equal distance between two bales of hay.
The solution operated by the sign is the conversion of the original, aborted gesture of appropriation into (1) a gesture that expresses desire for the object, that is, appetite mediated by a uniquely human form of mimetic desire that both encompasses the entire group, and of which all the members of the group are aware, as shown by (2) the sign’s constitution as reproducing (through “pointing”) the abortion of the gesture’s original aim to possess the object. The enunciation of the sign embodies the deferral of the original desire. The two halves of the contradiction, or what had been “paradox” in the animal world, are now placed on different levels: the expression of desire is thematized by (1) the enunciation of the sign expressing desire whose formal precondition is (2) the desire’s deferral.
The idea of a logical paradox, the confusion of two levels of reference, as in “this sentence is false,” is possible only at the stage of the declarative proposition, once language has evolved to the point of supplying “information” about the world. But for the purpose of the present discussion, it is more important to note that the “self-inclusion” that is the standard sign of paradox in the world of logic (sets that are members of themselves, sentences that refer to themselves…) is already a feature of the originary ostensive.
For, as we have seen, to “express” desire through the sign is to have already renounced acting on this desire, in which case its semiotic “expression” would be unnecessary. No doubt, in lives that have been like ours saturated with signs, the possibility of both expressing desire and acting on it poses no problem. But we must conceive the birth of language as an addition to a world hitherto lacking in signs of deferral, in which an animal chooses either between a positive act of appropriation or a pre-aborted act marking an inhibition, such as a play-bite between puppies.
In sum, the sign permits the sharing of the unsharable. The sacred, significant central object is unique, but the sign that acknowledges its presence is inexhaustibly repeatable.
The structure of the sign embodies the fundamental human paradox, the minimal definition of the human in its specific difference from the world of “nature.” This originary paradox may be understood as an unpacking of the meaning of representation in the generative-anthropological “definition” of the human that I provided in “Differences” (MLN 96; French, Spring 1981: 792-808), as the deferral of violence through representation.
In short, the paradoxes that we find in logical self-inclusion, or, like Zeno of Elea, in phenomena such as infinite series, which cannot be “thought” in their entirety but only summed up, have their origin in our most fundamental human trait of language. As I hope to have made clear, language, even in its most elemental, ostensive state, is from the beginning paradoxical, duplicitous. It is inextricably both an objective mapping of the world that leaves it intact, and an instrument whose function is to modify it.