Where are the Women in the Originary Scene?

The mimetic theory, both in its classic Girardian formulation and in Gans’s revised origin-of-language model, invites, if somewhat ambiguously, feminist criticism. After all, a model founded on the assumption that internal violence is what most characteristically threatens our species seems to beg for a more “nurturing” vision of human interaction. This desire is natural enough. For why indeed should violence be seen as the decisive factor? What about love? What about the mother’s nurturing instinct for her child?

But in fact this polarization of violence and love–the instinct for death and the instinct for life–is a false portrayal of the mimetic scene of origin. What characterizes the scene of origin is, not the supremacy of (male) violence over (female) love, but precisely the inclusion of both elements.

What then lies behind the feminist objection that the scene of mimetic crisis is an ideological imposition of male violence that ignores the counter-thesis of the mother’s love and care? For an answer we must look to the romantic conception of society that recognizes only two actors in its anthropology: the self and the other. Here society is conceived as an eternal battle between contrary opposites. In Hegel‘s dialectic between master and slave, or in Marx‘s owner and worker, the social order originates in hierarchy. The narrative of history thus becomes the constant struggle between two dialectical forces. We can choose between the conservative Hegel or the radical Marx as to which party we want to back–the status quo of those in power or the underprivileged masses–but either way our vision of the human remains fundamentally binary.

How does this relate to the feminist critique of mimetology? To undermine the Girardian and Gansian theories, the feminist position must point to an imbalance conceived in terms of gender: male versus female. The stress on violence is clearly all too male. What is lacking is the feminine element, the qualities of love and care and life. But we must take care here. The desire to counter or balance a perceived imbalance by asserting its opposite does not render the opposition neutral. On the contrary, it is an endorsement for its continuation. If the founding principle of the human community is hierarchical and oppositional, a struggle between opposing individuals, classes, or peoples, how are we expected to free ourselves from bondage without reinforcing precisely the opposition we are trying to usurp?

This is not mere intellectual sophistry; it points to the paradox at the heart of human consciousness. A hypothesis that presents humanity as already culturally divided–be it along racial, gender, or simply political lines–is necessarily incomplete. For before humans could represent themselves as culturally distinct from one another, they would have to learn how to represent at all.

It is this latter problem that generative anthropology takes as its focus. The originary hypothesis is a theory of how and why difference is generated–namely, to defer the ultimate threat of intraspecific violence. This hypothesis is not structural, but generative, originary. It stands at the origin of all structural differentiation, including the differentiation between gendered man and woman.

The first thing to realize about the Girardian and Gansian models is that they are not, in fact, binary but triangular. The triangular model shows us why the binary-hierarchical model is inadequate, why it can (and should) be deconstructed. But problems emerge when the same criticism is levelled at the originary hypothesis. In the spirit of deconstruction, feminist criticism generally interprets the triangular hypothesis in binary terms. But the triangular, or more generally scenic, configuration of the originary scene reveals that originary resentment, though experienced individually, is directed, not ultimately toward a dominating human other, but collectively toward an empty, nonhuman center. It is because all eyes are focused on the center that we can imagine the center to be so desirable. Originary difference is not between individuals, but between the collectivity of individuals and a non-attainable center.

This difference is anterior to binary hierarchy. Before culture can engage in socially constructed differentiation, it must have a model of differentiation to go by. The originary hypothesis proposes that this difference is provided by nothing less than the formal structure of representation. And because the formal capacity to represent is a universal characteristic of our species, the proposed model for the origin of representation must be conceived of as opposing the entire human community to something absolutely other, utterly beyond the realm of the human. This other cannot be another human, a victim, since victimhood already assumes the presence of cultural awareness–which is to say, it already assumes the presence of representation. The ultimate difference that precedes all other (human) differences is the difference between humanity and God, between the secular peripheral designators and the sacred, unapproachable center of infinite desire.

Admittedly, Girard’s formulation, when seen in purely oppositional terms between victim and victimizer, does lend itself to deconstruction, notably feminist deconstruction. This oppositional formulation benefits from a more rigorous conception of the originary scene based on an original act of language. Accordingly, the opposition of victimizer versus victim becomes a supplementary cultural reproduction of the foundational difference that opposed, not a victim against a collectivity of victimizers, but the universal community of language-users against an unapproachable object of infinite desire. In the latter, more specifically generative model, it is precisely because each individual renounces his or her appetitive instinct that the entire community can participate in the common communication of the absolute difference of the forbidden and sacred center. This model of origin does have a space for love–the collective presence of linguistic consciousness. Love, not violence, is what sustains a community. But this is only to admit the threat of violence that must be continually deferred.

A while ago, there was some discussion on the GAlist about the form-content dichotomy and how it relates to the originary scene. As Tobin Siebers indicated, the originary hypothesis is a formal hypothesis. It does not and cannot serve as an example of what content we would like to see placed on our own scenes of representation. This formal assumption may be completely erroneous. Perhaps all we have are our own idiosyncratic scenes, and the notion of a universal origin for these individual ones is simply mistaken. But this argument itself makes a demand that requires us to step beyond our own individual scenes and share in a minimal hypothesis of universal relevance–namely, that we do not in fact share such a universal scene.

The originary hypothesis likewise asks us to share a minimal object for mutual dialogue. If the object is found wanting, the spectator (cf. theorizer, the one who sees) is free to propose an alternative formulation. But he or she must accept the consequences of his or her hypothesis. If the human community is conceived as originating in difference and hierarchy, then this difference becomes the ultimate measure of the human community, an invitation to dogmatists and hierarchists of every stripe and colour. The lesson of the originary hypothesis, on the other hand, is that this (ossified) difference is the cultural by-product of an anterior generative difference, one that opposes the total human community to a transcendental and vacant center. The trick is, not to abolish difference in the hope of establishing the true utopian community, but to keep moving, to stay one step ahead of what lies at the other end of the same utopian vision, the war of all against all, the undifferentiated crisis which originary difference–representation–arose to defer.

Where, then, are the women in the originary scene? The answer is nowhere. But neither are the men. We are all nevertheless inheritors of the self-same scene. The claim to possess its center is as illusory today as it was at the origin.