This is the text of a lecture delivered at the Thinking the Human conference, sponsored by the new Girardian association Imitatio, held at Stanford on November 15-16, 2010. My aim was to explain the originary hypothesis not so much to “Girardians” as to social scientists at least nominally intrigued by Girard’s mimetic theory.

Although Generative Anthropology (GA) and its originary hypothesis are described on the Anthropoetics website and in various other publications, many people familiar with Girard’s work are unfamiliar with this material. This conference seems like a good opportunity to situate GA in relation to Girard’s thought and to clear up some misconceptions common among Girardians.

Generative anthropology is sometimes accused of being a form of “social contract” theory rather than an authentic originary anthropology. Well, it depends what you mean by “social contract.” If we’re talking about Rousseau’s or Hobbes’ constructions, where such things as language and the normal attributes of humanity are taken for granted, then, no, GA is not a social contract theory. But I think the dismissive nature of this critique has a deeper root. Ultimately, GA’s difference from MT (to use a convenient abbreviation) is that the originary scene it conceives involves the deferral of violence rather than its maximal actualization, and the consecration of this deferral in a sign that preserves the knowledge acquired in the originary event. To the extent that language and all elements of culture are, in effect, little contracts between the members of the group to grant certain meanings to certain signs and parts of an overall contract that binds the society together in a common culture, then GA is indeed a “social contract” theory—but I would ask how it is possible to define culture itself as anything else than a “contract” of this sort, not one signed by a group of articulate gentlemen to avoid the “war of all men against all men,” but a set of agreements forged over a long series of events to accept certain social practices, notably including those of language and religious ritual, as meaningful. An originary hypothesis that seeks to provide a plausible beginning for human culture must indeed create a plausible scenario for the origination of such a “contract.”

The key definition of the human that GA’s hypothesis attempts to actualize is Girardian in inspiration. Because of their greater capacity for mimesis and consequently for mimetic conflict, human beings, in distinction from all other creatures, present a greater danger to themselves than does the outside world. It is to defer this danger that we have invented/discovered the transcendent world of representation and created the representational institutions of language, religion, art, economic exchange, and all the others that make up human culture. My conception of human origin differs from that of Girard in its insistence on the radical transformation effected by the emergence of representation, which must occur as an event. This does not mean that language emerges fully articulated like Athena from the brow of Zeus, but that the first sign of language would not be a sign of language if its emission were not a memorable event, to be followed by countless others. In this perspective, the event of the human is an innovation comparable to the emergence of life. But the difference between the emergence of life and that of the human is that whereas DNA and its precursors “encode” the means of self-reproduction, humans remember and thematize occurrences of emergence, and are consequently the only beings for whom events may be said to exist.

The originary hypothesis, in its minimal form, is simply this: the human has a punctual origin in an originary event or scene, whose absolute uniqueness—the most parsimonious supposition—is less important than the absolute distinction the event effects. If it happened twice or ten times to different protohuman groups, so be it, but the important point is that the participants in the event were minimally but really, significantly, conscious of it—conscious simply by the fact of having represented it, which is inherent in the origin of representation itself.

If I conceive the originary event as a scene this is because all human cultural activities, from great rituals to one-on-one conversations to solitary meditations, are fundamentally scenic, and conversely, only humans have scenes, essentially circular configurations with a periphery and a center. The unique human phenomenon of shared attention of which so much has been written lately is scenic; two or more humans communicate to each other the importance of a central object to which they all attend. The originary event is the originary scene, the first example of scenic attention addressed to a common center.

Since higher animals are already subject to pre-human modes of mimetic rivalry in which, even in the absence of language and other forms of representation, appetites are enhanced by the awareness of similar appetites in others, they employ mechanisms to avoid conflict that are likewise precursors of those of human culture. Chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, use a “pecking order” control system that we can hypothesize to have been in place at the time of the emergence of the human. But the very fact of this emergence implies that at some point this animal order became inadequate. In a Girardian spirit, the cause for the breakdown should be sought in an “increase of mimesis”: the alpha-beta system, where supremacy is exercised essentially in one-on-one (or small coalition on small coalition) facedowns and occasional battles, becomes inadequate when an increase of mimetic tension leads to a challenge to the authority of the alpha animal not by an individual or coalition but by the entire group. It is at this point that the hypothetical originary event takes place.

We imagine a group of protohumans, say a hunting party, confronted by a highly desirable object, such as a large edible carcass either found or killed in the hunt. In such circumstances, the alpha’s priority involves the appropriation of the entire object, from which he takes the portion he wishes and then leaves the whole of what remains for the beta, and so on. Although the alpha may not take (much) more than the others, in the pecking order system he appropriates the whole, as does every succeeding participant.

But we have assumed that these creatures have reached the level of mimetic tension at which the alpha animal is no longer able to exercise his priority. And if the alpha cannot appropriate the whole of the central object, neither can any of the other members of the group. If the alpha reaches for the object, so do all the others, but if he cannot be successful, neither can they. The potential for a generalized mimetic conflict is clear, and the group in question may be assumed to have previously experienced such conflicts. It is at this point that the originary hypothesis postulates a new, human solution to this impasse. Some member(s) of the group realize(s) that their and consequently others’ futile gestures of appropriation toward the object should be understood not as thwarted attempts to appropriate it but as ostensive signs designating the object as something that cannot be appropriated. This is the beginning of “shared attention”: the reciprocal exchange of the sign becomes the means of communicating and reinforcing the newly sacred or interdicted status of the object, whose very desirability is the source of its inaccessibility. This first phase of the originary event ends with the participants symmetrically arrayed on the periphery of the newly sacralized object, whose appropriation they must for the moment defer. Thus the alpha-beta pecking order is superseded by a new social order of reciprocal equality, that found to this day in hunter-gatherer societies. I will deal with the second phase of the event, the sparagmos, in a moment.

In order to create a sign one requires a moment of hesitation, of deferral, to translate Derrida’s pregnant term différance. Girard recognizes this in his own way by describing the moment after the lynching of the emissary victim as the first moment of non-instinctive attention. Except that there is really nothing to attend to except the victim’s scattered and fragmentary remains, and that the natural outcome of a sparagmos of this kind is dispersal.

The Girardian scene can nonetheless be easily transformed into that of the originary hypothesis if we take the sparagmos not as the key moment of the process but as its concluding phase, its consequence and reinforcing result, since it provides the group with appetitive satisfaction. Tearing apart the central animal not only discharges the energy of what I call originary resentment against the forbidden center but provides nourishment, and indeed, inaugurates a new mode of distribution. Instead of the alpha, then the beta, then the gamma animal appropriating the whole of the object, taking what they want, and leaving the rest, now the whole group, along the lines of Robertson Smith’s famous camel sacrifice—which I first heard about as a student from René himself—appropriates the object, each participant taking a roughly equal portion, as in all ritual feasts in non-hierarchical conditions, including most meals at family gatherings. Yet the sign remains to commemorate the successful outcome of the new order. And since the sign designates not simply the animal itself but the entire configuration of the scene arrayed around the central object, signaling to one’s fellows that one is renouncing or deferring the appropriation of the object, thus designating it as interdicted, inaccessible, in a word, sacred, I call the first sign or “word” the name-of-God. It is the sign that creates/discovers the presence of God at the center of the protohuman group and at that moment makes them human.

The most important consequence of the originary hypothesis beyond language itself is the grounding of human morality. C. S. Lewis, in his ever-popular Mere Christianity (McMillan, 1952), takes as his primary demonstration of God’s existence the fact that we all share the same fundamental moral intuition, which he calls the “Law of Right and Wrong” or just “the Law of Nature” (18). The originary hypothesis grounds this intuition in the reciprocal exchange of the sign designating the central object as sacred/forbidden to all. The sign of deferral, which must be understood as a hesitation rather than a permanent renunciation, is what defines us as human, and any violation of this reciprocity, however justified by the needs of the social order, arouses our resentment. Durkheim’s notion that the sacred embodies the values of the community as against those of the individual members of society is ambiguous in that the values consecrated in hierarchical societies, however reinforced by sacred ritual and doctrine, nevertheless contradict the underlying intuition that derives from the originary exchange of the sign, which I call the moral model. The nature of language is fundamentally symmetrical and reciprocal, whatever social asymmetries may be expressed in it; even if you call me tu and I call you vous, we both know both forms; our asymmetry is social rather than intrinsically linguistic.

I have called Generative Anthropology, the approach to the human based on the originary hypothesis, a new way of thinking because it is neither philosophy nor social science nor religion, but an attempt to think the human from a minimalistic standpoint that avoids the far more consequent aprioris of these other “ways of thinking.”

I emphasize the term minimal because Ockham’s razor is a feature more central to this way of thinking than to the others, notably that defined by “scientific method.” In natural science, it’s important to postulate the fewest possible parameters, but the difference is relative and not absolutely decisive, the really important thing being to find paradigms that work. We needn’t espouse Kuhn’s “structuralist” notion of the equivalent validity of, say, Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomy to recognize that the two systems are in principle functionally equivalent, and that for some purposes, such as describing what an inhabitant of a given planet would see in the sky at a given moment, all those epicycles might even come in handy.

In natural science, however few or many parameters are present in the equation, one is dealing with the relation between measurable quantities of some kind. In the case of the human, on the contrary, we are concerned with the simplest set of fundamental qualities that define what is human. This forces us to realize that our very definition of “the human” is not an objective scientific matter. What might be called the problem of the human resides in the decision whether or not to postulate that somewhere between the first life forms and modern humanity a new category of being emerged.

No doubt biologists and others are free to reject this ontological postulate and to consider only the continuity of human beings with other life forms. In this perspective, the specific attributes of human culture: language, religion, art, and so on, are merely secondary artifacts that do not suffice to define something radically new. Although this position is an a priori rather than a conclusion derived from evidence, its plausibility would be enhanced to the extent that it could be shown that animals possess such apparently specific human attributes as the capacity for language. Thus a generation ago, some limited successes in teaching language to chimpanzees were widely alleged as proof that there was no solution de continuité between human and ape. The modesty of these achievements, in conjunction with such writings as neuroscientist Terrence Deacon’s 1997 book The Symbolic Species, which emphasized the categorical difference between human and animal communication systems, took the edge off this tactic. But the idea that the origin of language can be understood in “biological” terms is still with us.

Traditional thought, be it that of philosophy or the social sciences, tacitly takes for granted that the human is a separate category of being, one to which the phenomenon of representation is central. But the metaphysical tradition has no way of grounding this intuition outside itself. Hence I define metaphysics as the mode of thought founded on the implicit (and unexamined) presupposition that “natural” or “mature” language, language that allows declarative sentences or propositions, is available for the philosopher’s use in describing the world. This presupposition was so strong not only in the era of classical philosophy but in that of its second flowering in the age of German idealism that nowhere in Kant or Hegel is there an attempt to explain the origin of the language in which the “ideas” or “concepts” of the understanding and reason are expressed. It is simply taken for granted that propositional language exists. The depth of this intuition confirms my definition of metaphysics—one that also applies to almost all the so-called post-metaphysical thinking that has attempted in various ways to “deconstruct” metaphysics.

Whatever GA’s differences from MT, Girard deserves recognition as the first thinker—a humanistic thinker, not a scientist—with sufficient chutzpah to advance a minimalist theory of the human. Indeed, if there is one thing I learned from René and for which I thank him every day, it’s chutzpah. Girard’s minimalism marks a clear contrast with Freud’s attempt at an originary scene in Totem and Taboo. La violence et le sacré begins somewhat in the manner of Totem and Taboo by setting the stage for the generative scene through the use of ethological (rather than ethnological) parallels. But where Freud uses this scenario as a speculative means to ground his famous Oedipus complex in an “anthropological” configuration whose chief elements are so to speak retrofitted from the ethnographic literature, Girard’s aim is just the opposite: rather than seeking an originary ground for a preestablished pattern of modern human behavior, he would explain human origin on the basis of the minimal quality of mimesis alone.

What allows Girard’s minimalism to mark a major step beyond Freud’s originary scene on the one hand and Durkheim’s functional explanation of the sacred on the other is the religious basis of his inspiration. Rather than explain religion through anthropology, Girard had the brilliant idea that religion holds the source of the ideas required to found anthropology, and that the great religions are sources of historical revelations whose essential burden is not (only) theological but (also) anthropological; in teaching us about God, they teach us about the human.

But here I come to the points on which we differ. Taken as an originary anthropology, Girard’s hypothesis suffers from its apparent dependency on the originary model implicit in Christianity. Let me briefly explore three problematic aspects of this dependency. I note from the outset that it is not the Christian source that is the problem, but the disinclination, for whatever reason, to understand it fully as an originary hypothesis.

(1) The first and least serious problem is the insistence on a human victim. The transition between a pecking-order hierarchy and moral symmetry may indeed result in everyone ganging up on the alpha, but it is more parsimonious to assume that the conflict takes place over an object of appetite, since the latter, once the conflict is concluded, will provide positive reinforcement in the form of food rather than the mere discharge of aggressive energy. No doubt one could eat the alpha himself, but cannibalism requires multiple victims and an Aztec level of organization to become a regular alimentary source. (That this problem is not a major obstacle to the central point of the originary hypothesis, the origin of language, is demonstrated by the fact that in 1981 in The Origin of Language I did not modify this feature of Girard’s hypothesis.) The Christian provenance of this element of Girard’s theory need not be proved, but the scapegoat/victim clearly prefigures Jesus in his persecution and (relative) innocence. The moral implications of the scapegoat scenario are admirable, but from a minimalist perspective the “moral model” of human reciprocity does not require participation in the immolation of a human victim. It suffices that the source of the group’s power be located outside its individual members, in the sacred center.

(2) The most serious problem in Girard’s hypothesis, one that in a narrow interpretation would allow us to deny its status as an originary hypothesis altogether, is its lack of a theory of the sign. The Christian source of this insouciance is displayed as the epigraph of Des choses cachées..: In arché en ho logos. If Christ is indeed the Word, then one doesn’t need a theory of language. But the passage from the flesh to the word is not something we can take on faith; we need an originary scenario in which language emerges from non-language.

In order to found an anthropology on a minimal basis, our originary scenario must meet the two interdependent criteria of (1) being a unique event rather than a mechanism whose repetitions cannot allow us to distinguish between their human and prehuman manifestations, and (2) generating a sign that commemorates this event, so that its repetitions will be its historical heirs, different from the originary event because the sign will already exist. Without a mode of representation, the originary event/mechanism has no means to record itself. Without an originary sign, there can be no originary event.

(3) The third element derives from the second; whatever mystification the originary sacred may be said to involve, it is not in essence founded on méconnaissance. The sign as name-of-God is, to be sure, imperfect knowledge, but it is knowledge nonetheless, not a step backward into blaming a relatively innocent member of the group for both its mimetic crisis and its final reconciliation. Whether or not we attribute this third non-minimal element to the influence of the Christian story, it is above all dependent on the emergence of hierarchical society, the concentration of ritual power in the hands of the big-man, the stage at which we find, for example, the Tikopia myth that Girard analyzes in Des choses cachées… It is at this stage, when humans have usurped the divinity’s central function, that human sacrifice, sacrificial kingships, and the like appear, not in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies where the sacred is mediated through food-sharing and “totem” feasts rather than the sacrifice of human or human-like figures. As its name tells us, the scapegoat was a goat before it became a man, not the other way around.

This point is important because it helps explain the extraordinary power of MT. Since we are not hunter-gatherers, and above all since we live after the Christian revelation that identifies the human soul, what I would call the “internal scene of representation,” with the community as a whole and its God, it is possible to accomplish a great deal in cultural analysis in the absence of a theory of the sign. As Bruno Latour has remarked, Girard “has contempt for objects,” which are the things whose differences signs take into account, but this contempt reflects an ethical urgency for which human relations take precedence, where objects of desire are as nothing in comparison with the potential violence of the desire itself. We can argue about the relevance of this vision to contemporary market society, but its very radicalism allows Girard to open new perspectives on modern literature, from Shakespeare to Dostoevsky.

In conclusion, let us put these disputes aside. The defining trait of an originary anthropology is that it attempts to understand the human from the standpoint of its origin, using a minimal number of presuppositions. Although I do not think an originary hypothesis can do without the origin of representation and the linguistic sign, the idea of such a formulation is more important than its exact content. René Girard is indeed the author of the first originary hypothesis and the chief inspiration for generative anthropology.