Raymond Tallis’ Aping Mankind is a brief, written in witty, accessible style, against “Darwinitis and Neuromania”—the scientism that treats human consciousness as an emanation of the brain and its “electrical” circuits, analogous if not functionally identical to those of a binary computer. Of course our thoughts and understandings “correspond” in some way to the activities of the brain, but the idea, rightly ridiculed by Tallis, that because thoughts correspond to “brain activity” this activity, presently accessible only at a gross level, is somehow equivalent to the thoughts themselves, and that its study can provide an explanation of them, let alone an explanation of human consciousness in general, is not much of an improvement over Hippolyte Taine’s famous quip back in 1863 that vice and virtue are products like vitriol and sugar.

There is scarcely a sentence in Tallis’ book that I disagree with, but as the author himself is quite willing to point out, this rejection of scientism and reductionism does not offer an alternative theory of the origin of consciousness, let alone anything comparable to GA’s hypothesis of human origin.

Unlike Tallis, I have no claim to expertise, even to an amateur’s knowledge, in the field of neurology; at best, my ignorance makes it harder for me to take my eye off the ball. But if what interests us is the specificity of the human with respect to animals, we shouldn’t need to concern ourselves with the workings of the brain at the lowest level. If, as I think Tallis takes for granted (although I don’t think he ever says it explicitly), we have no trouble understanding, at least in principle, the mechanisms of animal consciousness, whether or not we can trace its correspondences to specific neuronal activity, then we need only focus on what is different about the human. And, given that according to the originary hypothesis, hominization was the product of an event, that is, of a transformation entirely social and not at all biological, the exploration of this difference need not involve us in an investigation of the nervous system. Of course modern human bodies and brains are adapted to speech and to all the other unique features of human consciousness, but the point of the originary hypothesis is that we can’t explain the emergence of language as the product of relevant biological adaptations (“descent of the larynx”); on the contrary, language must have developed first, after which the human body and brain adapted to its more efficient and varied production. This idea is extremely simple, but extremely difficult to promote, given that it is based on speculative a priori reasoning and not the outcome of past, and the potential source of future, multi-million-dollar research grants.

Let us then begin from a simple model of high-level ape consciousness. However this consciousness be mediated by the nervous system, there are necessarily internal (proprioceptive) and external (perceptive) inputs and motor (and internal) outputs. In between, some kind of “instinctual” processing takes place of the sort that Pavlov was able to manipulate in his experiments. In the Skinner-Chomsky debate, the latter had no difficulty demonstrating that language, and one might say, human consciousness in general, cannot be understood as composed of conditioned reflexes. Perhaps apes have some form of consciousness that transcends such reflexes, but they certainly cannot sustain it on anything like a human level, so it is more parsimonious to see the pre-human brain as limited to these, and the event of hominization as the unique source of their transcendence into the “realm of freedom” that is the correlate of the human use of representation.

In the hypothetical originary event, the participants, faced with an appetitively desirable object, are presumed to have become “too mimetic” to be bound by the inhibitions based in the pecking-order hierarchy that had previously obtained. These, as we know, were essentially one-on-one; the alpha animal was not the supreme leader of the group, merely the one that every other competitor accepted as superior to him. Assuming the breakdown of this system, there is no longer any perceivable obstacle to each participant’s attempt to appropriate the object, hence all reach for it. At this point, we hypothesize that an inhibition is triggered by a growing tension among the participants that recalls prior experiences of conflict. But this inhibition is nonetheless insufficient to turn the members away from the object, since no individual steps forward to claim his portion and initiate the object’s division. In this time of stasis, we hypothesize that beginning with one or more and spreading to the rest, the members become aware of their hesitant, “deferred” gesture of appropriation as a meaningful act, as a sign that “means” the object and its interdiction, that expresses the signer’s acknowledgement of its inviolate nature.

The first objection from the skeptic is that this “meaning” is vague indeed: does the sign “mean” the object, as our term “name-of-God” suggests, or does it “mean” my abortion of my attempt to appropriate it, that is, my (temporary) renunciation of the object, or does it “mean” my desire that my fellow creatures be aware that I am not appropriating the object but, on the contrary, am designating it as something that neither I nor they “should” appropriate?

Clearly the answer to these questions must be that, yes, it “means” all these things, but above all, that aside from the specificity of the central object, these meanings are those of language in general, that different signs designate different things, but that the scene of language is always the same and structured by the real or virtual peripheral symmetry of the “speaker” and “hearer” with respect to the scenic center, which is for the purposes of representation “inviolate,” no longer part of the “horizontal” world of action but accessible only through the “vertical” dimension of the sign. The difference between the originary “name-of-God” and “the cat is on the mat,” passing through “Fire!” and “scalpel!” as readers of my The Origin of Language (1981) will recall, is in the way in which the different syntactical forms situate the nominal object of the sign with respect to the hearer’s implicit reaction: symmetrical realization of the ostensive (yes, there it is, and I can see it too), asymmetrical response to the imperative (the object is not accessible to the speaker, but I have access to it and will get it for him), and cognitive response to the declarative—hypothesized as originally a response to a failed imperative turned interrogative (he can’t get me the cat, but he tells me where it is, on the mat). In every case, even that of the ostensive when “pointing at” or otherwise designating an object visible to both interlocutors, the speaker is not simply accidentally foregrounding an object as he would if he appropriated it, thereby exciting through an “indexical” sign the mimetic desire of the hearer, but he is thematizing it, intending it, putting it on scene, which is inseparable from indicating to his interlocutor that he is so doing. Tallis calls the material of human representational consciousness thatter to contrast it with the matter that the neuromaniacs think human consciousness can be reduced to.

I can’t offer much help with the neuroscientist’s question of where to situate this scenic awareness “in the brain.” But a more useful question for the non-specialist is: what elements of prehuman “instinctual” or “reflexive” awareness can be recruited for the construction of this scene, separated by a Sartrian néant from the humans who stand toward it in the role of spectators? Where does this space of freedom come from? The reflection on the gesture of signing itself as a form that, separate from the object it has renounced, nevertheless designates it, is what opens between sign and referent the néant or empty space that surrounds the scene.

Thinking neurologically, here the subject’s awareness of his gesture, of its object, and of the “space” between them, no longer consists merely, as in the animal world, in a calibration to reduce the “horizontal” distance to the object until it is finally secured. Now the subject is aware of the space between gesture and object as a semiotic, sacred, “vertical” space of “meaningfulness” in which the gesture attempts to show the object to the others in a non-instinctive, non-appropriable way. This suggests that the mental space newly occupied by the sign would be taken from the normal “map” of the world in the perceptive attention-scene of the creature, but that in this new case the inhibition that prevents appropriation would not result in turning away toward some new object, but maintain focus on it, and thereby reinforce the association of interdiction with the space of separation. The sign would be “intended” in a new way because of the need to insure that the signer does not intend in the old way to appropriate the object, and the “formal” attention to the sign would be reinforced by the attention it attracts from the others, who would “agree” that the object cannot be appropriated. Thus instead of objects that are good/bad to appropriate, or that are good to appropriate but interdicted by a stronger individual, this would be an object whose interdiction would lie in the group’s attribution of significance aka sacrality to it. The stasis thus obtained, unlike a simple “paradoxical” state a la Pavlov generated by alternating instinctive tropisms, would permit the “non-instinctual attention” by which Girard uniquely characterizes the human.

Of course there is no way to describe this process with sufficient rigor to wholly preclude the accusation of having imported at some point from my own universe of discourse what was to have been generated within the scene itself. But by breaking down the scene of language into its elements, I think this exposition would at least suggest, to those neurologists who are willing to abase themselves sufficiently to listen to an old French professor, avenues of research. It suggests above all that the prehuman awareness of space as the locus of a gradient of desirability can be recruited by a semiotic system in which the gradient is no longer the simple property of an object and perhaps a rival appetite, but contains a point of singularity that can only be maintained in equilibrium by the group’s own signifying/sacralizing efforts. It is not enough to see the others perform the sign; one must perform it oneself, and thereby reinforce the sense in which the sign defers its object.

To sum up: Consider the “triangular” relationship between a subject, an object (of desire or appetite), and a fellow subject. In the world of apes and other higher animals, this is exemplified by behavior in the context of the pecking-order hierarchy, a three-place relationship, yet not akin to human triangularity. I as an animal am appetitively attracted to the piece of meat. If I am the alpha animal, I will just take it. But if I am say number 5 in the hierarchy, I must wait my turn after the first four. My attempt to appropriate the meat is inhibited by my fear of physical punishment from those whose superior strength intimidates me. I may decide to challenge one of these, egged on by an enhanced sense of my ability to win the fight. Presumably this is not a “rational” calculation but a case of appetite overwhelming inhibition; such phenomena of course exist among humans as well, although never in the utter absence of the mediating institutions of culture.

At any given time, my attention is divided only between the desire-object and a given rival, whose superiority will keep me at bay, whereas conversely his inferiority will allow me to ignore his claim. There is never what we call shared joint attention between the rivals. Of course an attempt to grasp the object will elicit a response from a hierarchical superior, but this response is to an undesirable obstacle, not to a shared desire; replacing the inferior conspecific with a scavenger of another species would not change the mental configuration.

Now let us contrast this with the configuration resulting from signing in the originary hypothesis. The sign is directed not at any individual but at all. What it “expresses” is in the first place renunciation, the abortion of the appropriative gesture. But this obliges the signer to attend to his gesture as a means of communication, as the creation of a “form” that others can perceive, an intention that is reinforced by the need to insure their understanding so as to prevent an attack. At the same time as this “form” is being generated, the subject’s attention remains focused on the central object. What we call its sacrality is no more than its quality of referent for the sign that the subject performs as an act-in-itself because it is at the same time a “reference” to the object, a designation of it. The jointness of shared attention here reflects the fact that each individual sign is shared with everyone else as a reference to this object; the collective nature of the scene is such as to reinforce attention to the center and at the same time one’s auxiliary attention to one’s fellows on the periphery as both mimetically enhancing this central attention and maintaining the collective néant of interdiction that surrounds it. This configuration is, during the time of deferral that precedes the sparagmos, an active stasis, a moment where communication replaces action and defers it.

All the idiocy we hear about religion should not let us forget that signification is as “mysterious” as the sacred, and is indeed another term from a different cultural register for the same mechanism. A sign is not the “substitution” of one thing for another. The sign and by extension, the world it designates, is not part of the life-world but an intentional model of it. “Fetishizing” this quality of significance into divinity is only an error if it is projected back into the life-world as a presumed source of worldly knowledge. Conversely, the idea that the sacred/significant is a purely human product is a powerful, liberating idea only if it is accompanied by a hypothesis that explains its emergence from the non-human world. In the 18th century, such as Condillac and Herder were willing to attempt such hypotheses.

Intentionality, the unique mark of the human, is indeed “non-instinctual attention.” But Girard’s error is to consider that the only possible such attention is that given to the remains of the “scapegoat” after his destruction, that is, that absence of “instinct” is synonymous with absence of appetite, once the aggressive impulses of the group have been discharged. In this case, believing in the power of the remains to bring peace would indeed be a “religious” belief, but not one that is credibly the foundation of the human. No, the origin of non-instinctual attention must be attention given to an object that as a worldly object retains its appetitive value, but that cannot be appropriated because the mimetic tension of the group makes such action too dangerous. Here the participants are not motivated by the “instinctual” calculation of the ape who withdraws before a higher-ranked fellow. Instead, the individual is blocked by the entire group whose “will” is embodied in the central object, the origin of Durkheim’s conception of religion as embodying the collective “social” will of the group. This idea has its roots in Rousseau’s “general will,” except that Rousseau cannot explain the origin of, or indeed the need for, the sign by which this unanimous will expresses itself.

It is from this mimetic tension, “paradoxical” in Pavlov’s sense, but this time with a positive outcome in deferring violence through a new form of communication, that the human emerges. In neurological terms, the human scene acquires its additional dimension from the interweaving of the different scenic elements that are mutually reinforced. The energy that would have been devoted to possessing the object is not simply lost, but deferred, only partially invested in the act of signing, until such time as the members of the group no longer fear each other’s violence but can redirect it to the appetitive drive they have suspended. The very violence of the sparagmos, famously exemplified by Robertson Smith’s camel sacrifice, demonstrates its origin in deferral—thus vindicating, in a way he would never have imagined, the perversely brilliant conceptualizer of la différance.