The subject of transcendence must be dealt with very carefully, for the transcendent is, leaving supernatural beings out of consideration, coextensive with the human.

There is no way to describe a sign in terms of the material world. We talk loosely of DNA as possessing a “code,” but “decoding” a strand of RNA to produce certain proteins is a worldly activity, whereas decoding a sentence is a transcendental activity. A similar point can be made about the “languages” of animals, such as the oft-cited signals of vervet monkeys. There is nothing transcendental about a vervet signal. Such signals are, in Peirce’s terminology, indices, reactions to a stimulus, rather than symbols, voluntarily produced instances of an abstract form.

The transcendental is a mystery only in that it is not amenable to the categories we apply to the natural world, not because it can be understood only as grounded in the “supernatural.” Yet without an originary hypothesis that situates the origin of the transcendental in a worldly event, the transcendental would remain unexplained except by the supernatural. That standard anthropological discourse reduces the transcendental to an artifact of cultural psychology does not make it any less central to the human.

Rather than polemicize with those who deny the meaningfulness of the notion of transcendence, it is more fruitful to dialogue with those who claim extra-anthropological assurance for its conceptual validity. It is only because signs have a different ontology from things that we can conceive of a “supernatural” realm in which real, potentially perceptible beings possess sign-like properties. This is true whether or not we attribute to such beings an non-imaginary existence.

With these considerations in mind, let us proceed to an originary analysis of the phenomenon of transcendence.

In order for the “aborted gesture of appropriation” to become a sign, it must become the object of a formal intention, in which the producer of the gesture is guided not by a finality beyond the gesture but by the project of producing a certain form of the gesture itself. (This is true even if the gesture in question is one of simple pointing—a “simple” act that even the highest animals do not perform.) For the first time, the producers of a voluntary act take its successful completion, rather than an ulterior appetitive aim, as its “final cause.” Their success is read in the eyes of their fellows, whose understanding of the sign’s meaning stimulates their own production of the sign and the consequent deferral of violence.

The producer’s formal intention is directed at creating a representation, not simply as an indication to his fellows that he has renounced appropriation of the central object but crucially, as affirming the significance of that object. Again in Peirce’s terminology, the project embodied in the sign transforms it from an index of individual renunciation into a symbol, what Saussure would call a signifier, motivated by the desirable-but-for-that-very-reason-interdicted nature of its object, of the community’s unanimous conferral on that object of sacrality, or simply, significance. The “beauty” of the sign, its closure as a formal entity, reflects the renunciation of its original appetitive goal of attaining the object, which it re-presents. Thus the closure of the sign confers on its referent what Girard called a “new, non-instinctual attention.” Through the reciprocal emission of this sign, each individual’s renunciation of his original aim is transformed into a communal affirmation of the sacred being of what is renounced. This is the origin of transcendence.

Durkheim founded his ontology of the human on the distinction between the values of the members of a group taken singly and those of their community as a whole—about whose originary constitution he did not wish to speculate. He describes this distinction as that between the sacred and the profane, recognizing in sacred discourse a category of apodictic assertion that enforces the interests of the community as a whole as against those of its individual members. These categories cannot be reduced to their empirical extension in groups of objects. Durkheim claimed in such works as De quelques formes primitives de classification (1901) that the primordial distinction between sacred and profane was the source of all the categories of human thought. This relation is not symmetrical: the profane has no quality of its own other than the absence of sacrality. This binary distinction, and by extension, all binary distinctions, can only have originated from granting unique attention to a unique sacred/significant object as against the “profane,” or simply, insignificant character of the rest of the universe. Once this distinction has emerged on the originary scene, it is a simple step either to extend it to the whole universe in its originary form—the singular sacred object is expanded to a family of such objects—or to construct analogous distinctions both in and outside the ritual sphere.

Durkheim’s notion of sacred ritual as functioning to reinforce “solidarity” was sharpened by Girard, who rightly emphasized that the need for constant reinforcement reflects the constant threat of internal violence. Although we can understand the sacred as a means of deferring human violence without assimilating the two concepts in Girard’s “la violence, ou le sacré,” the important point is that the deferral of violence provides the critical motivation for the emergence of the sacred. Without this new means to protect ourselves from the potential violence of which increased mimetic intelligence made us capable, our species would not have survived.

What is “transcended” in the hypothetical originary event is the individual appetite for the object. The collective pressure to refrain from appropriating the central object motivates the originary experience of transcendence. When the appetitive drive of a given individual is opposed by the communal potential for violence, the difference between the singular and the collective is not a simple matter of degree. The experience of absolute or transcendent force is embodied for each participant in the danger and fear of death. This collective enforcement is of an entirely different sort from the alpha animal’s assertion of its right to the first piece of meat; the alpha holds its authority not from the group as a whole but merely from its ability to withstand potential challenges from other individuals. Nor, conversely, is the transcendent simply arrayed against the members of the group, like the overwhelmingly powerful individuals or alien groups we meet in the horror genre. It is experienced as governing a community to which each belongs, and to which each expresses his allegiance through emission of the sign. In biblical terms, the transcendent stands in a covenantal relationship with the community.

How can this ethical force that imposes the will of the community over the appetites of its members generate, among other things, the ensemble of norms that regulate the structures of Saussure’s langue? The two common features of the originary sacred and the rules of language are their absolute nature and the fact that they affect the individual subject as a participant. The speaker of a language is a member of a linguistic community whose common application of the rules is necessary to the existence of the langue, just as unanimous participation was a necessity of the originary event. The laws of language are not adopted voluntarily, but neither are they simply imposed from without like the rules of an artificial code. The authority that resides in the norms codified in dictionaries or grammar books governs only limited registers of language and can at best slow its evolution. We tend to find slightly comical governmental institutions such as the French Academy that are charged with setting rules for a language, because we know that these rules are ultimately determined by the community in whose name no intermediary body can truly speak with authority. I do not care for the use of “fortuitous” to mean “fortunate,” and the dictionaries still agree with me, but American users of English appear to be in the process of choosing this new definition.

The difference between human language and a superficially similar entity such as the genetic code lies in the purely virtual existence of the signs that compose the former. We may express the genetic code as a set of patterns that we can name by symbols, but we do not need to postulate a cosmic mind in which these symbols or their equivalents originated. Words, on the other hand, exist for their users as forms or in Platonic terms, Ideas, that utterances only instantiate. The materialist may reply that the virtual forms of language exist only in the synaptic connections of the members of the language community and in the physical outputs—sounds or letters—generated by these connections. But what keeps these synapses coordinated is a shared notion of linguistic form that allows the community of speakers to understand various non-identical sound patterns as utterances of the same word or phoneme. Although these judgments are normally automatic, unlike such things as monkey signals they can always become the object of conscious deliberation because we react to them as products of intention rather than as mere stimuli. As Chomsky demonstrated against Skinner many years ago, we cannot understand the mechanisms of language production by analogy with conditioned reflexes. But it is tautological to explain language by the evolutionary formation of a “language module.” The conscious coordination of language within a community can be understood only when we have understood the originary constitution of this community by language.

The intensity of religious or esthetic ecstasy derives its force from reexperiencing the birth of transcendence as the mode of existence of the first communal order that transcends individual appetite and the appetite-based means (“instinct”) by which it had previously been controlled. In contrast to these moments, the everyday use of language is not fraught with emotion because it does not, as do esthetic and ritual representations, reproduce the conditions of the genesis of representation. It is for this very reason that language provides an unambiguous formal model of transcendence in the opposition between signifiant and signifié. The error of structuralism was to take this model as a sufficient basis for an anthropology rather than a functional model of quasi-stable systems of representation, whose “structures” are ultimately the traces of an originary event. Indeed, the reader of Lévi-Strauss soon discovers that the founder of anthropological structuralism is constantly preoccupied with explaining what prevents cultural systems from remaining faithful to the presumably timeless structural model.

In the linguistic domain, only the relatively marginal school of sociolinguistics has concerned itself with the motivation behind the historical process of language change. For example, William Labov’s classic study (Sociolinguistic Patterns, U of Pennsylvania, 1973) explains the dropping of final “r” sounds in the popular dialect of New York City as the residue of an affectation of elegance maintained after its abandonment by the socially influential. Similarly, André Martinet (“Remarques sur l’usage oral du ‘passé simple’ français.” [Remarks on the oral usage of the French simple past] La Linguistique 35.86-95, 1999) explains the loss of the French passé simple or preterit as a conversational tense by the fact that in the Middle Ages people tended to confuse the first-conjugation forms (il tomba) with those of the other conjugations (il dormit, il voulut, il descendit). In peasant dialect, as exemplified by the folksong “Compère Guilleri,” the third-conjugation it form was generalized (il tombit), but this conflation could not be admitted in urban society. As a result, those unsure of what form to use avoided the tense altogether (il a dormi, il est tombé). (This was not the case in Spanish or Italian, which had retained enough phonetic material at the end of words to facilitate the choice of ending.) This change can stand as a model for all the simplifications linguistic morphology has undergone since Indo-European and beyond; neither children nor adults enjoy being caught in an error.

In both these cases, one positive (adding an affected pronunciation—albeit one defined by subtraction), the other negative (dropping a tense because it lends itself to errors of usage), the marked behavior is meant to enhance one’s communal standing; one either adds a bit of firstness or reduces the danger of lastness. Thus alongside the laws of la langue, analogous to Durkheim’s myths and moral codes that express the values of the community, we find linguistic innovation in la parole, which corresponds to the historical evolution of practices designed to “reinforce solidarity.” Linguistic evolution reminds us that the originary function of language is to affirm one’s membership in the community, even at the expense of preestablished norms. Among the published writers who misuse fortuitous, most are aware of the word’s historic meaning, yet choose the new one deliberately, in solidarity with the masses whom they hope to influence. Even if fixed structure is 99.9% of language, the participatory fraction that remains and that drives linguistic evolution refutes structuralism’s claim to be a fundamental anthropology. Derrida’s poststructuralist denial of the ultimate coherence of structures is in fact rooted in an intuition of originary anthropology, although the metaphysical language in which it is couched makes understanding concepts such as “supplement” and “deferral” in anthropological terms more difficult than it should be.

What the notion of transcendence most commonly evokes are the sacred beings that embody the transcendent universe on our scene of representation. Whatever the reality of these embodiments, the transcendence congealed in the structures of Saussure’s langue provides insight into the “transcendental” qualities we intuitively attribute to divinities.

Thus the notion of immortality, normally conceived as the extension of a mortal existence “for eternity,” is more parsimoniously understood as a quality of the transcendent entities of representation, “immortal” because they are not part of the material world. The elements of language are not mortal in the sense in which we are mortal. We may say that a language “dies” when its speaking community dies out, but the language can be recorded and even revived; its “death” is a historical contingency that does not affect its essence as a system of signs. If all sign-users were to disappear, there would be no one to understand the “immortality” of the signs whose material traces might remain. But no other ontological distinctions would survive either; nature in itself has no ontology. The difference between representations and things is itself a representation. (In contrast, individual works of representation, as befits the intermediate status of art between language and ritual, embody a variety of mixtures of the material and the transcendent, the mortal and the immortal, from the ephemerality of a performance—which can, however, be recorded “for eternity”—to the unlimited reproducibility of a work of literature—whose text may never be definitively established.)

We may similarly understand the representational source of the divine quality of ubiquity. Signs are not material objects that can be fixed in a locus; they are just as much “everywhere” in space as they are “eternal” in time.

The quality of omnipotence, in contrast, adds to divine being a content that does not inhere in representations themselves but recalls the circumstance of their emergence. “And God said let there be light; and there was light” has at least the anthropological sense that the human is created through the sign and the sacralizing/interdicting will it is experienced as embodying. The omnipotence we experience in the sign is not our own but that of the transcendent, sacralizing force in which we participate. This participation is a free yet constrained act of submission to a will whose transcendence of our own begins with, but is not exhausted by, the participants’ fear of death in the originary event. The transcendent power experienced by each reflects his sense of “absolute” powerlessness in the face of the potential unanimity of the others, but this omnipotence becomes fixed in the sign and in the central sacred object that it designates because the configuration of the event confronts the individual with the group only through the mediation of that object that called forth the sign. Subsequent to the communal division of the object in the sparagmos, the persistence of the being in which transcendent omnipotence inheres inspires the ideas of a supernatural realm.

The transcendent was born in the exchange of representations that created the first human community. As the essence of the human, it subsists beyond the singular or collective grasp of human beings; in Kantian terms, we cannot reduce it to a concept of the understanding. Whether or not a prior being must exist as the embodiment of transcendence, we can find no surer criterion of the human than this reality beyond the material world.