The term firstness suggests unproblematic seriality: the first is followed by the second and the third, presumably of the same qualities as the first, only a bit less exemplary. Yet seriality as a mathematical relationship has only an indirect relationship to higher animal behavior. Given the significance of mimesis as a factor in such behavior, as animals acquire higher levels of what we may call mimetic intelligence—ability to see themselves in the place of the other they imitate—firstness in relationships tends increasingly to take on the binary connotation of marked in opposition to all other rankings as unmarked. The First whom I imitate makes me second, but in comparison with him, so are all the others.
This development, which ultimately dooms the serial Alpha-Beta hierarchy of ape society, is the key stimulus to the emergence of the defining trait of humanity: “symbolic”/representational language under the aegis of the sacred.
Generative anthropology began over forty years ago as a hypothesis of the origin of language. It is only recently that, guided by the intuition of Roy Rappaport in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge, 1999) that language and religion are coeval, I have sought to understand the sacred in anthropological terms, bracketing to the extent possible the element of faith in third-person or scriptural revelation that is essential to organized religion.
In a full anthropological analysis of the sacred, this element must of course be analyzed in detail. But we must first understand the originary experience of the sacred, the aspect of human psychology that explains how, throughout the near-totality of our history, the members of human communities have shared the experience of an interdictive “will” or Superego, in such a manner that members of all cultures have until recently agreed near-unanimously to conceive the origin of this force in a sacred being or God.
The term firstness first entered GA when Adam Katz used it to refer to the necessity that in the scene of the originary hypothesis, the interpretation of the “aborted gesture of appropriation” as a sign could not have occurred spontaneously to the entire group, but must first have been conceived by one or a few members, whose repetition of the gesture would subsequently transmit to the others the conception of it as a sign, as opposed to an unconscious indexical behavior, or an instinctive signal of the kind found in the celebrated repertory of the vervet monkey.
It is only with respect to the sacred that the apparent awkwardness of the term firstness is fully justified. It expresses the anomaly of the sacred as neither a simple concept of thought nor of experience, yet as one which, regardless of one’s attitude toward religious faith, cannot be omitted from a hypothesis of human origin, hence of the human in general.
The tolerance of higher animals for serial firstness as an organizing principle is illustrated at its highest level by the hierarchy of distribution practiced by the higher apes: the Alpha ape takes the first turn, whether in choosing the first morsel of a prey animal or a first female to impregnate, following which the Beta and the succeeding apes do the same. The scenario of the originary hypothesis leading to human language and culture becomes necessary only as a result of the breakdown of this serial hierarchy, which can be attributed to the increased mimetic tension resulting from the growing intelligence of these protohumans. It is at this point that the notion of firstness acquires the problematic, paradoxical quality of the sacred.
The sacred can be most simply understood as the solution to the problem that mimesis poses to firstness, a means to restore order that no can longer depend on serial rivalry, which upon reaching a certain degree of mimetic tension becomes unstable. The “will” that interdicts the prey animal and situates it at the center of a scene can be understood as transferring firstness, which had previously regulated the order of distribution, but has now become the equivalent of marked as opposed to unmarked, to a higher ontological level, the sacred/interdicted central animal becoming accessible only subsequently, through its mediation.
Thus we conceive the course of the scene as beginning with the abortion of the appropriative gestures attempted by the participants toward the object. Under the influence of its sacred interdiction, these gestures come to be perceived as not indices of incipient appropriation but signs of the object’s inaccessibility/desirability. The reciprocal exchange of these signs by the participants, which assure that the group acts in harmony, allow it to then approach the object and divide it up “equally” under the aegis of the interdicting sacred will whose firstness is not relative but absolute, ontological, leading to the scene’s successful resolution.
Human Origin: Three Hypotheses
In this light, we may examine generative anthropology’s originary hypothesis in relation to its two chief predecessors, the scenes of human origin of Sigmund Freud in Totem and Taboo (1913) and René Girard in La violence et le sacré (1972).
Freud’s father-murder in Totem and Taboo, described as the collective reaction of the sons to the sexual deprivation resulting from the father’s monopolization of the family’s women, can be understood in less classically Freudian terms as a revolt against the firstness of the Alpha animal by the “unmarked” others, who had come to experience its status in non-serial terms.
We hypothesize that the egalitarianism of the first humans originates in the expulsion of firstness beyond the worldly sphere, with humans sharing in equal parts the gift of the sacred will. Although Freud, given his sexual preoccupation, focused exclusively on the unequal distribution of the women, the primary distributive focus of public ceremonies has always been on food, which unlike sexual partners is both a constant necessity for all and of an easily divisible nature. In Freud, the sons, after killing the father, divide up and eat his body. This then becomes the source of the totem feast in which an animal sacred to the tribe is similarly divided among the participants—thereby translating their previous sexual frustration into alimentary terms.
Leaving aside the distinction between sexual and alimentary appetites, the fundamental pattern of humanization in Freud’s scenario consists in the transfer of firstness from internal human relations to a new ontological level, that of the Superego, which imposes its will on the descendants of the sons implicated in the founding murder. This conception of the sacred/transcendent as the product of guilt rather than renunciation is implicitly retained in Girard’s hypothesis.
In Girard’s “emissary murder” configuration we are struck by the insistence, in stark contrast to Freud’s father-murder, on the absence of prior motivation. Girard might have based his scenario on the Alpha-Beta configuration and conceived a resentful community ganging up on the Alpha ape, who at the point of taking first possession of the product of the hunt indeed stands in an analogous position to Freud’s father excluding the sons from his harem of females.
But Girard refuses to define the firstness of the emissary victim by his serial status, preferring to turn his back on the rejected serial system and posit the near-arbitrariness of its selection, initially provoked by some arbitrary stigma (such as Oedipus’ sore feet) that allows the members of the group to cumulatively define themselves as united in excluding him and choosing him as their victim in the discharge of their mimetic tension.
Thus, given a “mimetic crisis” in which the prior order of prehuman society had broken down as the result of a plague or other communal disaster, its members, needing to discharge their violent impulses, would settle on an arbitrarily chosen scapegoat, whose dismemberment would bring about peace, thereby leading to the divinization of the scapegoat-victim as responsible for this peace. The question of appetitive satisfaction, whether sexual or alimentary, is absent from this scenario, focused entirely on violence. In this way, Girard is able to conceive the equally unfestive Crucifixion of the innocent Jesus as the exemplary model of the origin of humanity.
The fact that the collective camel sacrifice famously described in Robertson Smith’s Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (1889) involved a sacred feast rather than a lynching, or that the surviving pre-agricultural human societies are called “hunter-gatherer” because they obtain their protein from hunting animals, is ignored. Girard tacitly views the Gospel equivalence of Jesus’ blood and flesh with bread and wine, or for that matter, that between Isaac and the sacrificial ram, not simply as signs of deepening spiritual understanding, but as suggesting a historical progression from eating fellow humans to eating animals. Whence the attempts by Girard’s followers to find archaeological evidence of early human sacrifice, in obvious contrast with the dozens of cave paintings in which tiny, perfunctorily-drawn human hunters are depicted as attacking a meticulously portrayed bull or other large animal, clearly the sacral as well as the alimentary focus of the scene.
Analogously, the collective murder of the Alpha animal, although it may well have taken place on occasion, shows no plausible evidence of having become the originary model of a communal scene ending in a festive communal meal like the “equal feast” of the Homeric warriors. Aside from the aberrant examples of the Maya and the Aztecs, which have been explained by the coincidence between the rise of empires in the Americas and the absence of large food animals, cannibalism has always been symbolic rather than alimentary. As witness the recent examples of jihadists ripping out and consuming selected organs of their beheaded victims.
The key to understanding Girard’s originary scenario is its prefiguration of the Christian equivalence between the human and the sacred victim, taken literally rather than symbolically. As the ground-breaking theoretician of human mimesis and its place in culture, Girard was first to construct a theory of human origin that deserves to be called a generative anthropology. But his insistence on the realization of mimetic rivalry in murder over its deferral through sacred interdiction—as though Jesus’ claim to have existed “before Adam” must be literally implemented in protohuman history—is in my view unsustainable. No doubt for Christians the Crucifixion offers the definitive theological revelation of human origin, but precisely as such it could not have occurred at the beginning of the history in which Jesus participated—as the location of his “coming” in the New Testament in the “middle” rather than the beginning of history makes clear.
Girard’s great intuition that humans’ uniqueness begins with their having become a greater danger to themselves than is the outside world does not entail that the resolution of the originary mimetic crisis required human sacrifice. The real point of his discovery is that the “excess” of human mimesis, a product of our growing intelligence, could be resolved only by going beyond the limits of animal communication to the creation of a meta-world of representation, the domain of deferral and sacrality.
The sacrificial role of human firstness lies in its translation from the object of universal envy and resentment to the transcendental status of the sacred, as figured by the Resurrection following the Crucifixion. Like Jesus’ appearance to Saul/Paul on the road to Damascus, his reappearance to his disciples after death reflects the transcendental status of firstness that accompanies our accession to a fully human state.
I have described the sacred as the source in the originary event of the interdiction of the central animal, preventing any individual attempts at appropriating it from leading to violence, and making the reciprocal exchange of the “aborted gesture” into the sign of sacralization/significance as well as of renunciation. We need not speculate on the specific path from fear of conflict to sacred interdiction, save to note that the communal accord as to this interdiction (“sacralization”) provides a practical solution to the problem posed by firstness when no longer confined to its serial meaning. The success of this development in the peaceful fulfillment of the alimentary goal that had motivated the original hunting expedition would have cemented this procedure in the human repertory—where it remains to this day, when we celebrate Christmas, like all festive ceremonies, by sharing a meal in common.
In this perspective, the originary sign, the first utterance of human language, is the means whereby the nascent human community becomes able to share the common recognition of sacred firstness, the deferring force that creates the primary human institution of the scene.
Without its sacred basis of cohesion, the scenic configuration characteristic of all cultural activity, whether language or art or ceremony, is inconceivable. The suspension of all other activity to focus on a central scene, whether passively, as at the start of the originary event, or actively, as in the concluding act of dividing the body of the central animal, depends for its cohesion on the transcendental control of the sacred. That today our ceremonies have often come to lack explicit transcendental guarantees makes the phenomenon of sacred firstness no less responsible for their inception, nor for their continued existence.