The other day Adam Katz, who has kindly read over my draft of the new edition of The Origin of Language (TOOL2), questioned my use of the term “aborted gesture,” since the gesture that becomes the sign is not itself aborted, but only its appropriative element. Thus he suggested I call it a “gesture of aborted appropriation.” This recalled to me that many years ago, Andrew McKenna had made a similar point, although I can’t recall exactly what emendation he proposed.

Given that Andrew and Adam constitute perhaps 20% of my readership, I can’t afford to neglect their comments. Yet whichever way you put it, there is really no totally coherent way of describing the originary sign. It starts out as a gesture of appropriation, and I insist on the appropriateness of the word gesture, since had the Alpha been able to maintain his precedence, his gesture of appropriation, that is, the indexical sign of his action, would have served as a signal to the others to wait their turn in the pecking order. Such a signal is not at all the same as a sign in the human, that is, symbolic sense (to use Peirce’s still-helpful terminology), but it is a kind of sign nonetheless.

But the question is really what the gesture is “trying to do,” and in the case of the originary sign, it functions very differently at its conclusion than at its beginning. Once it becomes truly a “gesture of aborted appropriation,” that is, a sign that one repeats not to appropriate but to demonstrate that one is not appropriating, then it is no longer just an indexical sign incidental to the accomplishment of an act, but a new intentional mode of communication (however many repetitions may have been necessary at the outset to make this clear to first at least one, and finally all the participants).

This gesture is easily imaginable in its physical configuration but unexpectedly complex in its functionality. For one thing, although we must call it the first true or “symbolic” sign, the ancestor of all the signs of language, it is hardly “symbolic” in its nature. The ostensive, even a verbal one, seeks to direct the hearer’s attention; it is in itself a pointing, and as such is deliberately indexical, suggesting its meaning through metonymic proximity. Indeed, it is not coincidentally the very archetype of the indexical, with the index finger as its natural instrument, whereas the original gesture of appropriation would not have thus involved a single finger. If we wish to imagine the passage from appropriative gesture to sign, we might well picture the transformation of the grasping hand into a pointing one with only the index finger extended, although such imaginations go beyond the minimal necessity of the hypothesis. But the important point is that the enunciator of a sign as opposed to the producer of an index must intend the sign and not merely produce it on the way to achieving a result. The sign has its own Gestalt, its own esthetic.

All use of language bears the trace of this transformation from index to symbol, this moment of deferral that cuts off the gesture from its original object to make it turn back on itself as a pure sign. Without this transformative deferral, we have only the equivalent of a code, the conversion of one sign into another, as in the translation of machine code into assembler and thence to higher computer languages, a configuration where there is no “original,” for the referents of words and indeed their “meaning” are not part of the algorithmic process.

I have no desire to speculate on how this transformation is implemented in the nervous system, although that would seem to me a most appropriate topic of research for neuroscience, if it can rid itself of its mindless tendency to understand language as a “cognitive” operation whose communicative essence is so to speak an afterthought. What I call the “internal scene of representation,” Sartre’s phenomenological version of Hegel’s für-sich, the pour-soi, in which a néant intervenes between the consciousness and its object, is a reasonably clear intuition, but that says nothing about how it “looks” inside the brain.

As I explained in TOOL1 over 35 years ago, despite René Girard’s indifference to language, I believe he was correct in his unique intuition concerning the specific difference that led to the emergence of humans from prehuman apes: the tendency of increasingly powerful mimesis to lead to violence. If the cognitivists have a point, it is that the development of our cognitive faculties increases our propensity to mimesis and our ability to carry it out in detail; that is what learning mostly is. Girard supplements this Aristotelian wisdom with the observation, gleaned from his previous study of the novel, that the intensification of mimesis leads to a greater lability of desire, to “mimetic rivalry,” and thence to an increased potential for violence.

Girard exemplifies this by a scene of emissary murder, where a social crisis provokes the contagion that turns some local hostility into a collective lynching focused on one or a few scapegoats whose murder calms the violence of the group. But two things are lacking in this scenario, which in itself is perfectly plausible.

The more important element is precisely the human element of deferral that permits the separation from the instinctive relationship with external reality that had heretofore defined the worldly capacities of animals. As Derrida intuited, although deliberately denying any possibility of finding an anthropological correlate, it is the deferral of decision, the standing back from one’s appetitive drives, not merely through inhibition, which is nothing but a contrary drive of its own, but as a result of a new, conscious relation to one’s object, that defines the human.

The second missing component is a model of social behavior that explains how this new behavior emerged from the breakdown of the old. Collective murder and subsequent calm do not create social structure. Girard never mentions the pecking-order social organization of the higher apes, but it would seem that one must give both a plausible explanation for its breakdown (for which my own explanation is unproblematically “Girardian”) and a plausible path to a new system of organization, that is, to the egalitarian pattern of hunter-gatherer societies even to this day, which is the inverse of the Alpha-Beta configuration of their ape forebears.

Girard would situate the moment of peaceful inaction that corresponds in his model to deferral at the end of the emissary murder, when the group’s aggressive impulses have been exhausted, at which point the murder victim would appear to the group as the “divine” source of their newfound peace. But as I have reiterated, this image is in fact that of the Crucifixion, and is not suitable as a model for an originary scene in which a sign executable by the participants, not merely the shared (?) remains of the victim, must emerge as a functional rather than merely commemorative means of communication among the group. Lacking this, the scene could not be recalled save by the individual memory traces of the participants. The murder, unlike human sacrifice, must also provide nourishment; and it is by no means irrelevant to point out the persistence of the pattern of the “sacrificial” feast in our own secular age every time a family sits down to dinner, and particularly at festive moments such as Passover, Thanksgiving, or Christmas.

Whence the originary hypothesis, which begins with the aborted gesture of appropriation that defers appetitive action and inaugurates a uniquely free human consciousness that contemplates its object in an internalized version of the collective scene. The participants defer their appropriation of the central object for fear of the collective hostility that might be aroused by any individual’s completion of his gesture to secure it for himself, until such time as they can share it through the collective sparagmos or tearing-apart.

The salience of the referent in ostensive and imperative utterances, whether designated or demanded, obliges the hearer to modify his attitude toward his environment in order either to react to the object of the ostensive or to seek to procure that of the imperative. It is essential to understand that the declarative sentence is not the originary form of language, that it can only be understood as itself derivative of these elementary forms, in which language is used to single out some element of the environment that the interlocutor is required to act on.

That is, the deferral that is at the origin of the linguistic or signifying relationship to a worldly referent is not simply a suspension of action, but the passage to a universe of deferred action, what we call the scene of representation. This scene, even for an isolated individual, is not simply an internal state; it is a locus of communication, which is what is missed by Sartre’s phenomenological analysis of the individual pour-soi. This is in principle in preparation for a newly conceived non-instinctual, deliberate action, in a word, a praxis, derivative of the originary sparagmos. The onset of linguistic communication is thus the inverse of the passage from the gesture of appropriation to its abortion; to hear or read a communication is to put oneself in a mode of reception that defers but is ultimately directed to worldly action.

Metaphysics as exemplified by Western philosophy situates communication with the Other too late in the process, as though the self, even if “thrown” into the world as the Existentialists would have it, is nonetheless self-sufficient from the outset. But the “self-sufficient” creature that preceded human consciousness communicated with others only through his “instinctive” reactions; he had no will, defined in human terms as the instrument of freedom, that is, once more, as an agency dependent on the deferral of reflex action. On the contrary, human self-sufficiency, which demands this space of deferral, does not owe its existence to the self alone. It can only come into being in a communal situation where the sign, and the scene of representation on which the sign is used for communication, is the product not of individual “genius” but of the urgent need to communicate that one has renounced the pursuit of instinctual satisfaction. The metaphysician’s defective anthropological understanding corresponds to the metaphysical presupposition of the eternal existence of the declarative proposition, whose preexistence to philosophy itself is never questioned.

The main focus of collective attention in the originary event is of course on the animal remains at the center—the now-sacred, inviolate object of the appetitive interest that led to the original breakdown of the pecking order. Between the original uncoordinated appropriative gestures which must be aborted and the effective, at least minimally coordinated gestures of the sparagmos, we may assume that, now that the old hierarchy is no longer able to maintain order, the designative sign, which as we have observed acquires its own form, acts as an intermediary, organizing and no doubt rhythming the eventual acts of appropriation so that they are in harmony rather than a free-for-all.

Once the gesture that is no longer appropriative acquires an esthetic and becomes an object of intention in its own right, we can say that language has emerged. Not because our brains are full of ideas that we somehow feel the need to communicate, but because the peaceful communication of language, anticipating a peaceful feast, is a nourishing respite from conflict, and a transition from the animal state to that of humanity.