For a year or so I have been contemplating an updated edition of The Origin of Language: A Formal Theory of Representation (TOOL), published by the University of California Press in 1981. This is the only one of my books that had an advertising budget and was expected to make an impact on the world. But the book had its problems. It was written in a prolix “philosophical” language largely influenced by the French I had been writing and the German I had been reading, and it focused on the evolution of the forms of “elementary language” rather than on the scenic nature of language in general.
But its major flaw was that it did not expound a fully mature version of GA’s originary hypothesis. Written in the wake of my 1978 visiting professorship at Johns Hopkins, it remained too close to Girard’s “emissary victim” scenario of human origin (itself always ambiguous as to its specificity as an event). I had not yet thought through the idea that the most plausible scenario for the originary human event was not a lynching following a crise sacrificielle but simply a crisis in the system of food-distribution, reflecting the breakdown of the pecking-order hierarchy of ape society under the pressure of increased proto-human mimetic/intellectual capacity. Ape societies have no central organization; distribution follows a queue structure in which the (male) animals are ranked in serial order; any challenge to this order involves only pairwise (or clique-wise) battles for supremacy between, say, the Alpha male and a Gamma or Delta challenger. This change of perspective takes into account the central alimentary function of sacrificial feasts, an aspect that Girard neglects but that is amply illustrated by the animals—not persons—in cave paintings, and simply by common sense: we can live without killing each other, but not without distributing food, particularly if we eat the carcasses of large animals.
There is no need to rehash all this here. The most important thing, after all, is that even in its still somewhat inchoate state, the “formal theory of representation” expounded in TOOL was qualitatively superior to all other theories of language origin, not only to those that had come before, but even more so to those which have appeared since. As some recent Chronicles (e.g., 444, 490, 519) have made clear, the world of the intellect, however great the progress we are making in such areas as medicine and computer science, has if anything gone backwards in the domain of fundamental anthropology. The simple fact that a major authority in cognitive science feels comfortable with dismissing the contribution of religion to human morality in the following sophomoric sentence, which I have already quoted twice in these Chronicles, is very simply an indictment of the entire world of the “social” or “human” sciences.
One way that leaders throughout human history have sought to legitimate themselves and their laws from a moral point of view is to claim that they have somehow been anointed by a deity or in some other supernatural way.
Michael Tomasello, A Natural History of Human Morality (Harvard, 2016): 131
To help explain this sad state of affairs, let me recall the put-down I received the last time I attended an event sponsored by the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion, an organization that I helped found, and whose inaugural speaker I introduced, who happened to be René Girard: “Religion is not a subject, it is a field.” Meaning that an amateur like me daring to show myself among these learned scholars was the equivalent of a humanities professor attending a conference of nuclear physicists, to be seen but not heard. But then, since Michael Tomasello is not a member of the religion “field,” how could he be expected to write knowledgeably about religion? QED.
How then to get started on the new edition of TOOL? On the one hand, going back over and revising the chapters of the original edition, as I did recently for Science and Faith—which required only correcting a couple of typos and adding a sentence or two and a preface (as well as a fine introduction by Adam Katz)—did not strike me as feasible. Although the core of the theory is unchanged, it would have to be wholly reformulated, a task too complex to make textual revision an option.
But, on the other hand, I couldn’t see myself just sitting down to write a second book on the origin of language. I’m too old, or too cynical, and above all, too habituated to the Chronicle mode of composition to write such a book from scratch. I did this for the little online 2012 memoir The Girardian Origins of GA, which Imitatio decided not to issue in a print version, and above all for my book on Carole Landis, A Most Beautiful Girl (Mississippi, 2008), but the first was not a major effort, and the second was a labor of love.
So after much reflection, I have decided that the best solution would be to write a series of Chronicles with a view of combining them into a book. I did this for my chapters in the antisemitism book I wrote with Adam Katz (The First Shall Be The Last: Rethinking Antisemitism, Leiden: Brill, 2015), and had done so earlier for A New Way of Thinking (2011) and The Scenic Imagination (2007). The difference this time will be that I will compose these Chronicles explicitly in view of putting them together rather than, as in the previous cases, bringing the Chronicles together only after I had written several on a common theme.
Here then, without further ado, is an introductory statement that should help to situate my hypothesis a bit more clearly in its intellectual context.
Why I understand language and the professionals don’t
I shall make my point a bit differently, and I think more sharply, than in my previous 1001 expositions of GA’s originary hypothesis. Let us forget for a moment about the originary event to concentrate on the “Sartrian” nature of the scene of representation itself. Sadly, no one reads Sartre any more; the inheritance of phenomenology that still informs modern “continental” philosophizing has been stripped of its conceptual rigor and reduced to a faith in “intuition” that at its best produces the kind of brilliant insights one finds in Deleuze; Derrida, for all his excesses, was the last true French philosopher of his generation.
Sartre, in contrast to Heidegger, was concerned with the internal structure of the scene of representation. His idea that the pour-soi differs from all other modes of being is not, like Heidegger’s fetishization of Being, a portentous carry-over of an essentially religious concept into philosophy—a dramatic but ultimately sterile anticipation of the unification of philosophy with anthropology that GA proposes. Sartre’s pour-soi contains, without his supplying a reason, since he treats it as a primitive, a néant that separates the human subject from the object of his intention. This is faithful to the essentially scenic framework of Husserl’s original phenomenological project in a way that Heidegger’s concept of Dasein is not. Because Heidegger’s subject confronts “Being” and not simply objects of consciousness, he cannot be said to have a scene of consciousness of his own. The sacred aura that surrounds Being in Heidegger in effect supplies its own néant of fearsome otherness to its interaction with Dasein. But what then explains the néant that inhabits the scene of Sartre’s human pour-soi but not, presumably, that of animal consciousness? Sartre, as I have pointed out (see Chronicle 378), never thinks to speak of language in this context; he accepts uncritically the great metaphysical tradition in which language is simply taken for granted as the voice of “reason,” the term logos being quite convenient for this purpose.
GA, for the first time in the history of thought, draws the proper association between language and the human pour-soi. Even independently of the originary hypothesis that proposes a plausible scenario for the emergence of this new phenomenon, even if we go so far off the deep end as to stipulate that the human pour-soi is the result of a new genetic mutation (perhaps the same one that permits for the first time “double-scope blending” [see Chronicle 528]), the core of the difference between my theory of language and all the others is simply this: on the scene of representation on which the sign intends its referent, there exists, between the human gesture that produces the sign and the referent it intends, a néant, a dead space of sacred interdiction within which action is deferred. The sign is and remains an aborted gesture of appropriation; it “intends” the object but is not intended to procure it directly. All the theories of language origin currently in vogue ignore this essential factor, which means that they fail to explain or indeed to recognize the essential difference between human language and animal indexical signals.
I wouldn’t waste my time explaining this to a linguist or to any social scientist, because this kind of “philosophical” discussion, in the absence of laboratory experiments to ascertain which neurons are or are not the agents of the deferral, would be characterized, as a Linguistics colleague recently put it to me, as unprovable. On the other side of the spectrum, the interest of philosophers in language, even of those who pick up on Austin’s admirable awareness that language does things rather than simply making constative statements, does not extend to speculating on how, and above all, why we ever began doing things with words.
I note parenthetically that Girard was often described in his later years as an anthropologist, although he was no more of an anthropologist than I am; we were both from one end to the other of our university careers nothing but French, or to give René a little more credit, Comparative Literature professors. French professors are supposed to know a bit more than “literature”; indeed, we teach about writers like Descartes, Pascal, and Rousseau who are more philosophers than “writers” in the standard sense. René as a member of the Académie Française was no doubt entitled to call himself an anthropologist if he liked. But my point is not that he was underqualified, but on the contrary, that by not having been trained in the social sciences, he understood what had been bled out of the minds of social scientists, which is precisely the difference between human signs and the culture built upon them and the cybernetic mechanisms that we have elaborated to facilitate their manipulation.
This doesn’t mean that machines can’t learn to “think” better than we can. They can already beat us at chess and even Go, and who am I to say that they can’t come to compose better poetry—they already generate better stuff than 99% of what are called poems nowadays. But whatever they can learn to do, they only learned it because humans first learned to use language, and unless we want to postulate some kind of nerd-God to update the watchmaker-God of the Enlightenment, we have to try to understand how we ordinary humans managed to create language all by ourselves—or if you prefer, receive God’s revelation of it.
I often wonder how many of the not-so-lucky few who take the trouble to read these Chronicles I have persuaded that this is the real point of GA, that the scenario of the originary hypothesis is only a way of imagining how a group of highly mimetic primates might find themselves faced with and forced to resolve the defining human situation of becoming the animal that is more of a danger to itself than the rest of the environment. The solution is not “cognitive,” but communicative, indeed, communal. Animals have families and societies, but humans alone have communities within which all participants share a common language and a common sense of the sacred, a common center whose uniqueness is regularly reaffirmed by what we call “religious” practices.
As Terrence Deacon made clear in The Symbolic Species, human language is indeed, as Monty Python might have put it, something completely different.
To be continued…