Marina Ludwigs’ forthcoming Stockholm conference on “the event” provides a propitious occasion for reflection on what it means to talk about “the event,” not out of a mania for proliferating meta-topics like Chomsky’s potentially infinitely recursive sentences, but because it points to the essentially recursive, paradoxical nature of all such reflections—reflections on ideas, meaning words, using other words.
The first thing not to say about this is that, like anthologies of paradoxes, it suggests a pleasantly frivolous way of occupying ourselves while at the same time exemplifying in the simplest way the infinity of culture. Indeed, this is a risk run by even the most serious philosophical discussions, one that justifies to a point Derrida’s ironic deconstruction of metaphysical discourse. Talking about words just produces more words. Yet philosophy proper begins with Socrates’ discussions of words: courage, friendship, beauty, the good… Clearly the early philosophers understood that these words embodied something essential about the human universe that such discussions could capture.
Yet no classical philosopher would have thought of discussing the event, which unlike the character traits and cultural phenomena that make up the material of Socrates/Plato’s and future philosophical discussions, is at first glance simply a neutral category, a meta-word that provokes in us no intuitions about who we are. Nor is such a meta-choice merely perverse or fashionable. On the contrary, it reflects a new, more problematic human self-consciousness that recognizes that an apparently innocent term like event conceals implications about humanity that merit investigation.
The central aim of generative anthropology (GA) is to make explicit the conditions of the emergence of the human, and in particular, of the cultural self-consciousness through which it distinguishes itself from the world of nature. GA began with a focus on the origin of language, which has been very nearly ignored by the domain of metaphysics/philosophy, including even the “philosophy of language” and semiotics, all of which seek to understand language/sign systems as we know them, while bracketing the conditions of their emergence from the world of prehuman nature as irrelevant to their mature functioning, as though, like mathematics, they were eternally “out there” waiting for us to “discover” them.
GA seeks to understand why language and other cultural categories, notably those of religion and art, emerged from a life-world that did not have them—because it did not need them. Event is such a category because, unlike “natural kinds,” it cannot be understood in the absence of its conceptualization, and is consequently unavailable to our animal counterparts. We can of course use the term to refer to geological or cosmological “events,” but it goes without saying that these are understood as part of a nature-history that only humans are capable of conceiving.
In particular, when GA speaks of a hypothetical originary event, it refers to an idealized model of the sequence of (inter)actions through which language and culture came about. There is an important distinction to be made between such a model and the gradualist etiologies constructed by social scientists by extrapolation from specific elements of primate social life—signaling, physiology, social interactions, brain structure, etc.—to get to language by adding some amount to each parameter. No doubt such developments correlate with the passage from animal to human communication, but they provide no understanding of why and how this passage occurred. On the contrary, they are meant to de-evenementalize the origin of human language, as though adding the appropriate supplements to the various parameters would magically produce what Peirce called symbolic language where there had previously been only signals.
The event is the temporal counterpart of that fundamental behavioral category of GA, the scene. And to understand the hypothetical scene of language origin, we must indeed understand it as an event, that is, a series of individual acts experienced as a single action, as the working out of a plot, a story, a narration—none of which terms being altogether appropriate as descriptions of the first event, which occurred before any of them had found their place in human experience.
We are tempted to think of the hypothetical originary event as the generative model of all future events and scenes—an analytic approach which it is best to avoid following too strictly. What the originary hypothesis does suggest is a narrative model more Pollyannish than our sophisticated temperaments might have expected. In a word, the primordial event/narrative must have a happy ending. Tragedy is all very nice, but it can only be a model for a society successful enough to encounter the danger of hubris. This same criticism applies to Girard’s scapegoat scenario; if killing one of the members of the group were prerequisite to the emergence of our species, it would not have gotten off the ground, let alone acquired language and religion. It was rather to prevent such killing that we needed the deferral of violence that produced the sign.
Yet it is surely significant that of all Aristotle’s philosophical writings, it is his analysis of tragedy that is best remembered by non-specialists. And although the originary human scene must have been “comic,” it is universally recognized that in the realm of dramatic fiction, tragedy is a more powerful form than comedy. The “happy ending” is generally experienced by sophisticated readers/spectators as an easy solution dependent on the author’s godlike authority to arrange it, in contrast with the inextricable difficulties that end in tragedy. Yet it goes without saying that in order to maintain the human world, we must reliably achieve happy endings, at least to the extent of being able to perpetuate our species. Why then do we feel that tragic fictional events achieve a more effective catharsis than comic or tragi-comic ones?
We should not reject our intuition that tragedy is “more profound” than comedy. The difference between happy and sad endings is the simplest way of describing not only differences among Hollywood movies, but that between high and popular culture—and between archaic and axial religion. However absurd it may be to conceive the origin of the human as a development of emissary murder, the sense that the Crucifixion/Resurrection tells us something more profound about sacrifice than its function to provide the community with a good meal must not simply be rejected. The answer requires that we suspend our Hegelian sense of history as leading us to the ultimate dialectical synthesis and return to what I have been calling originary phenomenology.
Both Girard’s all-against-one emissary murder and the originary hypothesis address the same obstacle, defined as unique to our species: the danger of intraspecific violence resulting from our higher level of mimetic intelligence. Where GA emphasizes the “comic” realization of the essential goal that our mimetic tendencies had perturbed, that of distributing crucial nourishment, Girard focuses on the “tragic” minimization, but not the elimination, of the human temptation to mimetic self-destruction.
The apparently lower cultural standing of the happy-ending GA scenario reflects the simple fact that when you build a house, you construct the ground floor before the upper stories. Jesus’ admonition to his disciples that the bread and wine of the Last Supper “are” his flesh and blood is a more advanced spiritual truth than their existence as worldly nourishment, but they can function in this spiritual role only once the physical necessities of life have been assured. A starving man would have little use for a communion wafer, let alone for discharging his aggressive impulses by making one of his fellows an “emissary victim.” Nor would Abraham’s intended sacrifice of Isaac make any sense if he required the meat of the sacrifice to survive.
These spiritual discoveries can only be the consequences of an already-human social order. And this order is made possible by the resolution of what we must consider as humanity’s founding problem: how to maintain a community that can no longer be counted on to obey reflexive inhibitions, where each member sees himself as a potential rival to every other member, so that the previously successful distribution of food by serial ranking has broken down. Which is to say that the tragic event can only move us once we have become habituated to the “happy” event, the successful solution to humanity’s primary problem of averting intraspecific violence.
Why then does the tragic sacrifice that touches the human directly rather than nourishing it from without strike our intuition as more “profound,” more meaningful—in a word, more anthropologically significant? Why indeed does comic, the adjective that applies to dramas with a “happy ending,” bear a faintly pejorative cast, as though the story that ends happily is at least slightly ridiculous? Indeed, in reference to ceremonies that truly celebrate the values of a society, the word “comic” is inappropriate; we would speak of them as festive, joyful, even solemn, not as laughable.
Christianity is founded on the insight that, despite appearances, and despite chronological priority, the ontological priority revealed to us through Jesus’ coming to Earth is that the binding of Isaac does correspond to the fundamental truth; the ram really is a substitute for Isaac, as the communion wafer is a sign of the priority of the incarnate Son over the earthly nourishment that it provides. Man’s first sin, the eating of the fruit in Eden, is a variant of the same act: disobedience to God is violence, and the first object of human violence is humanity itself. This indeed corresponds to our definition of the human as the species that is a greater danger to itself than any external force.
Thus the happy ending of the feast is only a reprieve: we escaped our native sinfulness today, but tomorrow… The happy end is to be celebrated and repeated, but its representation is redundant: the real-world sacrifice ends with the reward of the “equal feast,” whereas its staged representation provides only a superficial satisfaction. In contrast, tragedy procures for us through vicarious experience a lesson that we cannot learn in life without real suffering, and leaves us with a reminder that our peaceful communal existence should be viewed, in pity and terror, as the catharsis, the purgation, effected by the fictional suffering we have just shared.
How, then, should we understand the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the climactic events of the Gospels, in relation to the originary hypothesis?
Whatever tendentiousness we might find in the Gospel story toward excusing the Romans and blaming the Jews for Jesus’ condemnation, I fully support Girard’s interpretation that all humanity is guilty of Jesus’ death; he is the universal “emissary victim” whose Resurrection demonstrates the power of the sacred to redeem our species’ inherent sinfulness. In this perspective, the sacred/significant ambivalence of the referent of the originary sign, which points to both an object of common desire and the sacred center of the scene that consecrates this object to the human community, is demystified as a focus of communal aggression, deferred individually but released collectively. No doubt the original “victim” was merely a dead animal, but the energy of the event remains one of aggression, of violence, happily directed at the animal rather than within the group, but originating not principally in hunger but in mimetic rivalry. The proof of which being that, so long as the dominant aggression had been directed toward the source of food, there had been no need for sacred deferral; reflexive inhibition sufficed to dispel intraspecific violence and permit its serial distribution.
With the death of Jesus, all of humanity is obliged to realize that it is not through mere human agency that the animal and the divine, the physical and the spiritual centers of the originary scene, are distinguished, and the “happy ending” of the feast consummated—that this distinction is itself a gift of the sacred, which human language and reason by themselves could not have achieved.
And after the three days of mourning, the Resurrection reassures us that the sacred indeed survives, that our originary aggression is in principle annulled, provided that we affirm its “absurd” reality as the renewed foundation of the faith in divine providence mediated by the Son. Whence the periodic reminder of this murderous aggression and its transubstantial resurrection in the act, real or symbolic, of communion. In this way, the triumph of the sacred over mimetic violence is reiterated through its miraculous negation of death, as a promise extended to all members of the self-perpetuating human community.
Or else… without lending faith to Christianity’s “absurd” confirmation of God’s promise in a miraculous event, we need only have confidence, like the Jews, in their role as the revealers of the universal oneness of the sacred, or like the Muslims, in their ultimate realization of a universal human community. Yet all must recognize the unique anthropological understanding realized by Christianity in its affirmation of the salience of the scenic event.