If Hillel’s (negative) version of “the golden rule” can be called “the whole Torah,” then the scenario of the originary hypothesis can equally well be considered “the whole of anthropology”: the core of the human from which all the rest is derived. Like any similar insight, it exerts an “alienation effect,” obliging us to view a familiar set of processes—language, ritual feasting, all kinds of “scenic” activity—as requiring a concrete etiology rather than taken for granted.
One might think that those who devote their careers to reflecting on such matters would be eager for an opportunity to view them in a new light. Yet the effort to conceive language and the sacred in worldly/phenomenological terms is felt as a kind of desecration, like what brings about Salammbô’s death in Flaubert’s Carthaginian epic pour avoir touché au voile de Tanith.
The sacred is a more subtle beast than our secular world is willing to contend with. I say this as a non-believer, not in the sacred as such, but in its various incarnations in world religions. This includes even the Jewish, although rightly understood, the theological core of Judaism is truly minimal, and the infinite details of orthodox practice are but ways of reminding us of this. We are to spend each day commemorating in a thousand ways our dependence on “the name” (Hashem) whose very unnameability and unfigurability make him paradoxically like a member of our family—to the point that even an unobservant Jew like myself would have had to make a deliberate effort to reject this familial connection through an act of conversion, whether to atheism or some other religion.
Antisemitism, as we know, is a denial of firstness—which category, as I have perhaps insufficiently emphasized, rather than merely designating a serial rank, opposes the sacred to the “profane.” Today, as we have seen, the preeminence of the culture of the Western “white race” is subject to a similar denial. The ultimate such denial is antihumanism, the root of the victimary now working itself out in wokism’s rejection of human biology. The eagerness of scientists of all kinds to question humanity’s uniqueness cannot be explained by simple empiricist skepticism. Do we need empirical proof of la différance? It is in every word we use, in the fact that we have words, as no other being does. It is, expressed in “philosophical,” that is, metaphysical terms, at the heart of existential philosophy, the néant that distinguishes Sartre’s pour-soi from the en-soi, not to speak of being at the heart of theological discussions of the human, such as Emil Brunner’s Man in Revolt.
I have referred several times in these Chronicles to the obsession of astronomers and their popularizers, despite a total lack of evidence, with finding life throughout the universe. Perhaps Mars and Europa are indeed crawling with microscopic creatures, if not the “intelligent life” which must be sought farther afield, but of whose existence most seem equally convinced. Yet one would think that if life were really the celestial norm, we would by now have come across any number of extra-terrestrial examples.
Even though we seem to have given up on trying to teach human language to chimpanzees, the scandalous idea that humans are “really different” is rejected as a tacit concession to creationism. Humans have quasi-unanimously conceived not merely a “sense of the sacred” but transcendental divinities in whom this sense inheres and who transmit their volitions to us. But to empirical scientists such thinking is superstition that bears no truth other than “psychological.”
No doubt research projects seeking extra-terrestrial life may be understood as seeking to demonstrate as much as to undermine our uniqueness: the search is the same, whether or not one expect it to succeed, even if the scientific libido is clearly on the side of the undermining. In contrast, with respect to the origin of language, it makes a real difference in one’s project whether one is seeking to define what is unique about humans’ ability to use language, or seeking to discover behavioral and physiological traits in other primates that might contribute to this ability. I have no hesitation in asserting that the Rubicon in this domain is the presence or absence of an originary hypothesis. I will even specify that it must be a scenic originary hypothesis, for the latter can only be the description of a collective scene, an event.
In this regard, perhaps the most destructive aspect of methodological atheism is its failure to appreciate that the mode of human communication, through language but in the first place through mimesis, cannot be detected by examining humans as individuals. Unlike the communication systems of insects, human communication is not dependent on the emission of pheromones and the like; what links us in a community that makes language possible is mimetic rather than material, and the particular intensity of this mimeticism, which, as Aristotle pointed out some time ago, is stronger in humans than in other creatures, is the source of our intuition of the sacred and of the other elements of the originary hypothesis.
As the space in which prehumans communicate becomes increasingly psychological, it is the emergence of the sign that creates the Rubicon between us and other species. This separation cannot be understood by examining the structure of language itself—whence the limitations of semiotic analyses that reduce language to “information.” Human language, unlike animal signals, takes place on a virtual scene of representation under the aegis of the sacred interdiction of its designated referents, and all significant human interactions likewise take place on such a scene—or increasingly often on a screen, in today’s screenic era.
The core of the sacred is a transcendent will, exercised in a communal context, which by deferring reflexive action creates a scene on which we desiringly contemplate the object of our appetite. At the same time, we mutually communicate our participation in this state of contemplation by means of a sign derived from the deferred/aborted act of appropriation.
The sacred will is transcendent with respect to human wills. We may theorize that its source lies in our intuition of the collective will of the human community, yet it is not experienced as synthetic, but as a single volition. The object of our experience is not in the first place a willing being, but simply the imperative itself, the most fundamental form of which is interdictive: Thou shalt not.
In the originary hypothesis, the locus of the object designated by the first sign is a place of deferral of action, and the interdiction that grounds this deferral is felt as a sacred force emanating from this center that maintains the “empty space” between the object and its peripheral desirers, the origin of the néant within the individual pour-soi.
The originary sign-gesture of pointing is assimilable to a gesture of worship, the simultaneous collective celebration of the sacred that the sign, and only the sign, permits. What the human community manifests, unlike any animal assemblage, is the mimetic tension that lends it the capacity of joint shared attention. Humans are habituated to share a common object of attention, whether a live speaker, dramatic scene, or musical performance, or the screenic representation of such a performance.
I have described the sacred so far as an interactive human phenomenon, a mutually transmitted sense of interdiction based on what we might call mimetic fear, a deferral of action transformed into a sign by which the interdicted object can be communally “shared” through its representation.
But if I explain the sacred in this way, how then do I explain why humanity has from the beginning conceived the sacred as incarnate in one or more beings who act-in-the-world, even if its/their ontology be understood as super-worldly? Why has a purely anthropological idea of the sacred as a “sense” or intuition not been sufficient to maintain human existence? And if the sacred is indeed an anthropological reality, why is it that today it is theologians, not anthropologists, who discuss its function? It is in answering this question that we can begin to understand how victimary entities have taken the place of incarnate deities in our secular postmodern world, which is having such difficulty in maintaining a successfully functioning social order.
This is not a question that need be discussed, like the originary event, in purely hypothetical terms. The study of primitive religions that inspired the early anthropologists reveals various degrees of abstraction in the relationship between the sacred per se and the center of the scene of representation on which it manifests itself. What is of interest here is not to rewrite these early anthropological accounts in the vocabulary of our originary phenomenology, but to bring out the historical dynamic that would lead from totemism and the like to the religions born in the “axial age” that offer the finest transcendental insights into the human scene.
What must be understood is the necessarily paradoxical instability of the incarnation of the sacred even in its most historically advanced forms. This is notably the case in Christianity, which gave rise to the modern world, and “dialectically” to the various versions of its dépassement based on the epistemology of resentment—none of which have succeeded in furthering the individual “pursuit of happiness” that remains available in liberal democracies even at their worst. GA will not pretend, as secular anthropologies have illusorily claimed, to provide a “solution” to this paradox, which is the basis of language and culture itself; it can only offer a hypothetical phenomenology of human paradox, one whose only possible “resolution” requires postulating supernatural realities which are, as Paul put it, “scandal to the Jews, folly to the pagans.” To which I would add that, where “pagan” secularists reject Christianity as folly (“superstition”), for Jews, Christianity’s scandalous quality, even in the debased form of current wokism, remains a sign of its irreducible paradoxicality, which Jewish wisdom accepts with silent irony.
Max Müller’s Sun-God
Let us return to the originary event and the reciprocally exchanged sign designating the center of the scene. Clearly the geometric center is not what the participants are pointing at: they are indicating the animal to be divided, which was after all the original target of their “aborted gesture.” Yet at the same time, the very reason for aborting their gesture was the animal’s communo-central position, which poses the problem of its division.
The 19th-century philologist Max Müller’s conviction (see Chronicle 192) was that the sun, since it is visible to all as a source of power, was among the first objects of worship, and the first linguistic referents:
One of the earliest objects that would strike and stir the mind of man and for which a sign or a name would soon be wanted is surely the Sun. It is very hard for us to realize the feelings with which the first dwellers on the earth [pace Darwin!] looked upon the sun . . .
Introduction to the Science of Religion (London, 1871)
Of course exchanging signs around the sun would accomplish nothing, whereas our ancestors could certainly modify to mutual advantage their interaction with a source of meat. But however dubious as an etiology of the sign, this idea’s apparent plausibility provides an important clue concerning the incarnation of the sacred’s interdictive will. For Müller’s sun is “interdicted” in the sense that it cannot be looked at directly. We are attracted to the sun and at the same time incapable of contemplating it; it is this duality, abstracting from the prosaic alimentary purpose that we assume to be that of the originary human collective, that is fundamental.
This being understood, we can well understand Müller’s choice of the sun as an originary embodiment of the sacred—the uniqueness of the sun in combining the object of desire with the source of its sacred interdiction makes it, so to speak, an incarnate paradox.
Our hypothetical dead bison, on the other hand, would have lacked the sun’s power of self-interdiction. The force I have called “the sacred” prevents us from individually appropriating the bison, but this force is not embodied in the dead animal itself. Cave-paintings always show the central animal as alive, being attacked by hunters but not already conquered. For these hunters, the sacred will is not experienced as emanating from the corpse of the animal, but from its life-force, which allows us to conceive the emergence of something like totemic worship.
We may take this as the first step in the separation of signification from sacralization, the sign and the sacred, and the first step toward the transcendental embodiment of the latter. The originary sign is an expression of both meaning and worship, but the principle of their divergence is already present in the contrast between the (animal) object of designation, which is in the end relieved of its interdiction, and the sacred will, which remains. Throughout human history, the paradox of sacred embodiment worked itself out in increasingly insightful ways, the most historically successful of which has also been the most openly paradoxical: the Christian Trinity. What generative anthropology proposes to do is not to replace the Trinity—or the Buddhist negation of the object of desire to the advantage of the empty scene itself—but to grasp the “purely” anthropological, non-inspirational/aspirational content of the human self-knowledge they embody.