Although René Girard never actually spoke of an originary event, he clearly thought of his scapegoat model as the equivalent. He saw the advent of “emissary murder,” the collective killing of a marginal member of the social group, as the true origin of humanity, although he did not conceive it as an event in the sense of remaining as a common memory to which the group could refer and which it could repeat as ritual, but rather as a pattern of behavior to which all the elements of human culture could eventually be traced. The focusing of all aggression on a single individual chosen for his marginality would purge the group of its mimetic tension, so that the murder, originally spontaneous, would presumably become a repeated, premeditated action.

Girard did not think it necessary to propose how these murders would be ritualized, leaving the reader with the sense that they remained spontaneous for an indefinite length of time. It is easy to see that the source of the emissary model is the Crucifixion, with its anticipation in the Akedah or binding of Isaac by Abraham, but the far from obvious passage from a marginal, anonymous victim to one central and unique is taken for granted rather than explained, and in particular not brought into relation with the transition from egalitarian to hierarchical society begun some 10,000 years ago.

It should suffice to recall that all known cave art focuses insistently on collective animal-hunting scenes and displays not a single “emissary murder.” And from an alimentary perspective, killing a member of the group, even if he were to be eaten, would hardly resolve the problem of finding a substitute for the primate Alpha-Beta… distribution model, which we must assume had become infeasible as proto-human mimetic rivalries became stronger.

Nevertheless, the simple idea of a scene centered on an object of desire, even a scapegoat, was sufficient to allow me to formulate the first version of the originary hypothesis, in which the central victim as the focus of the action became, whether before or after its death, the common referent of an ostensive gesture shared by all members of the group, which could be understood as the first (linguistic) sign. Given that language, unlike the opposable thumb, is not an individual trait but a collective phenomenon, its emergence could not have been the result of a genetic modification (the “language gene”) granting individual beneficiaries access to language, but of the presumably evolving intelligence of protohumans which, while benefiting them in obvious ways, also posed an increasing problem of mimetic rivalry. Readers of these Chronicles will be familiar with my argument, which sees in deferral, Derrida’s différance, the fundamental difference between animal signaling and human semiotic communication.

I therefore described this originary ostensive gesture as a movement toward appropriating the object that had been aborted for fear of conflict. To maintain the peace, the members of the group needed to share a sacralizing/interdictive focus on the central victim that prevented them from aggressing it, and the deferring sign was their means. That the origin of language must have occurred in a collective scene rather than through haphazard interactions within the community was the first principle of this new way of thinking about the human and its language.

Indeed, the scene is as fundamental and unique to the human as the sign and the deferring interdiction of the central object that took place on it. Just as pointing in the human joint-shared-attention model is not practiced even by apes, so the center-focused scene is a purely human phenomenon. For example, Frisch’s bee-dance instructing other bees where to fly for a new supply of pollen is not a scene but a demonstration communicated by the explorer bee to others through individual physical contact. In contrast, all human interactions are potentially scenic, implying a tentative agreement to put all other activities aside in order to focus on a common object, whether a conversation between two people or a sports event with 50,000 spectators.

As I showed in The Scenic Imagination (2007), in the pre-Darwinian era, in the absence of a notion of biological evolution, if one wanted to replace the Genesis account with a rationalistic description of the origin of language, the necessity of imagining humans like ourselves, yet not yet able to use language, made it impossible to conceive a likely context for the necessary emergence of language. Rousseau concisely expressed this paradox in his Discours sur origine de l’inégalité: la parole paraît avoir été fort nécessaire, pour établir l’usage de la parole: speech appears to have been most necessary, in order to establish the use of speech.

And the paradox is precisely the point: the necessity of language and its absence can coexist only for the duration of an instant, or in anthropological terms, an event. Indeed, Rousseau’s few paragraphs on the subject demonstrate more insight into the question of language origin than any of the academic writings of our era, most notably in his insistence that on ne conçoit ni la nécessité de cette invention, ni sa possibilité, si elle ne fut pas indispensable: we cannot conceive either the necessity or the possibility of this invention if it was not indispensable. In a word, necessity was the mother of the invention of language, a point that no accredited student of the question has taken seriously.

I can recall the moment at which I conceived the germ of the originary hypothesis. It was at Hopkins toward the end of my stay. I had been reflecting on the origin of the declarative sentence from the standpoint of a subject to which was then added a predicate, and later published an article on the subject: “L’origine des structures linguistiques élémentaires” (Archives et documents de la société d’histoire et d’épistémologie des sciences du langage 4, [1984], 1-21). It seemed to me that we intuitively understand the subject as the “origin” of the sentence, which the predicate then tells us something about, as the topic-comment structure of, e.g., Japanese makes explicit. This conception led me to posit the ostensive as the most primitive utterance-form, where the subject sufficed to constitute a complete utterance. With this in mind, I was standing just inside the entrance to the university library when I had the idea of combining this notion of the ostensive with Girard’s scapegoating scene, the victim, either before or after his immolation, being pointed at by the participants. I cannot recall exactly how far this intuition went at the time, but it was definitely a turning point.

Afterward I spoke to Girard and he arranged for me to give a talk to the department about this new idea. The talk was attended by a few students and perhaps one or two colleagues. When I had finished, Girard said to me that sometimes great ideas are first articulated in such modest circumstances. I much appreciated this encouragement over the months I spent composing The Origin of Language.

The introduction to the book, written in 1980, makes the point that “scenes of origin” had fallen under a taboo in the human sciences. That taboo, which historians often exemplify by the ban on theories of language origin (along with proposals for a universal language) announced by the Société Linguistique de Paris in 1866, has endured ever since. Indeed, whether or not our civilization will one day recognize the necessity of an evenemential origin for what is in effect the origin of evenementiality itself, it is remarkable that this taboo should have endured nearly two centuries without being seriously challenged, and that my own challenge to it has been met, not by condemnation or ridicule, but by silence.

That this taboo remains in full force was demonstrated to me last year, when at a conference on “the event” organized in Stockholm by Marina Ludwigs, a younger co-panelist explained his skepticism about the originary hypothesis as simply reflecting a difference of generations. I refrained from pointing out to him that even my birth was quite a bit posterior to 1866.

More generally, the idea that there is not just a gradual evolution but a break between humans and animals has fallen under a taboo all the stronger in that it is experienced in the human sciences as just the opposite: as a liberation from the “unscientific” biblical notion that humans are qualitatively different from other species rather than simply quantitatively more intellectually gifted. Science is by nature uniformitarian, and ontological uniqueness is a scandal. For example, it is impossible to read an account of astronomical research in our cosmic vicinity without the insistent mention of the suitability of exoplanets, as well as of the planets and moons of our own solar system, for life, despite the utter absence of evidence found so far.

As I have said many times, the persistence of this taboo only increases my conviction that GA’s willingness to breach it is a sign of its rightness. The idea that language began in an event—which does not imply that it was the equivalent of a revelation from on high or that this event was a unique occurrence in no way anticipated by previous ones—is indeed a truism. There is no intelligent way of understanding how a community can evolve a language that does not involve a collective scene in which the sign or signs are exchanged; as Rousseau already saw, how otherwise would everyone know what the sign was supposed to mean? And the fact that even our fellow apes don’t communicate by pointing only adds substance to this argument.

The sacred

Understanding this taboo tells us a great deal about the sacred. Although the originary hypothesis makes no supernatural claims, it provokes much the same reaction as an appeal to a supernatural being as the source of language. This makes clear that the human uniqueness of the scenic and the eventfulness associated with it, which provoke the same rejection in those who want to eliminate questions of the sacred from anthropology, demonstrate on the contrary that:

    1. The phenomenon of the sacred can be understood in human behavior without the necessity of evoking the supernatural, and
    2. The human cannot be understood without this phenomenon.

The sacred is an essential human trait that need not be associated with belief in a divinity. Roy Rappaport’s essential point about the human coevality of the sacred and language is independent of transcendental beliefs. Indeed, as reflection on the Axial age makes clear, the immanentist beliefs that “sacralize” worldly objects, which modern civilization has largely rejected, come much closer than modern religions to instancing a common-sense notion of the sacred as a fundamental element of the human universe.

Why indeed is the sacrificial victim in a feast interdicted to the participants until the moment of its division and distribution? No divinity is necessary to explain this interdiction, nor the “fear and trembling” that surrounds it. It suffices to recall our hesitation to take the last canapé on a serving tray. The transcendentalist religions, whose emergence marked the liberation of humanity from the “compact” societies of earlier times, like the metaphysical speculations begun in Greece, attempted to understand these fundamental human phenomena in what we may call proto-anthropological terms, independently of the worldly objects that the immanentist religions had invested with sacred powers. What the Axial age discovered was that these powers, rather than being inherent in worldly objects (e.g., that canapé), were the effect of the human desires invested in these objects, and that these desires with their dangerous mimetic potential were the real sign of sacrality.

This reflection permits us to separate the sacred from religion proper without the necessity of subscribing to the humanist sacralization of “Humanity” in the place of God. We need only claim that the function of the sacred in human life is to protect us from self-destruction through our tendency to mimetic conflict. The sacred interdictions that inhabit our soul or conscience are not reflexive inhibitions like those of Pavlov’s dogs; they contain a conscious realization that certain acts are forbidden because they are potentially incompatible with the survival of humanity itself. The well-known duplicity of sacred terms, beginning with the French sacrer meaning “to curse,” is demystified by the simple realization that sacrality and interdiction focus on the same phenomenon. Save that sacrality goes farther than interdiction, in that we are providentially allowed access to the sacred object of common desire under conditions that affirm rather than contest the order of the community: in the sacred feast.

That these fundamental truths have become accessible to us for the first time at this historical moment can be explained as a paradoxical effect of the widespread decline of fideistic morality and of such practices as churchgoing among the faithful of the Judeo-Christian religions. The widespread sense that the religious element in our society must be preserved cannot be fulfilled simply by turning back the clock. Nor is the new understanding that I am proposing a new “belief system” or substitute for religion. But this understanding should indeed increase our respect for the anthropological intelligence implicit in religious scriptures and practices—the source of Girard’s greatest intuitions—and consequently encourage us, whether or not to engage in these practices, in any case to honor the great religions as indispensable sources of human self-knowledge.