We may say that the scene of consciousness, or scene of representation, is in itself paradoxical. For if consciousness is an individual phenomenon, such that its extension to groups is always metaphoric, the scene, on the other hand, is essentially collective, so that a scene in which there is only one subject is itself something of a metaphor.

What marks the foundations of human thought as always edged with paradox is the simple fact that the use of a sign, a medium of communication that can only be defined in a linguistic community, makes the idea of a single human engaging in thought paradoxical. I can sit alone and read and even talk to myself, but I cannot pretend that my use of signs is wholly dependent on myself. For even in the sense that animals are self-sufficient, humans are not; their means of communication, unlike the chemical signals of ants or even the vocalizations of higher animals, are wholly dependent on intercourse with fellow humans, a fact of which the sad cases of “wild children” raised without human parents suffice as proof. To think is to manipulate signs whose ultimate source is the human community in the broadest sense; the very notions of solitude, of solipsism, are situated on a mental scene whose presence depends on the deferral or différance that defined the originary instance of human in contrast with animal interaction.

The question of exactly where the “human community” must be inserted in accounts of individual consciousness is only formulable and answerable on the basis of Generative Anthropology/GA’s understanding of the origin of language as a phenomenon that can only have originated within a community, which it defines via the shared memory of its scene of origin. Needless to say, we cannot reconstitute the details of the originary emergence of such a community in the absence of concrete evidence, but we can attempt to construct a plausible minimal hypothesis of the terms of this emergence.

In particular, in reference to the object/referent of the originary sign, however the signing process may have begun, it could only reach a satisfactory solution if the entire group were to become able to share at least passively in the performance of the sign, and in the understanding that it designates its referent as, minimally, of (appetitive) interest to all members of the group and for that very reason interdicted to each single member, forbidding any individual attempt to appropriate it. Indeed, we may consider this sense of unanimity, insured by the unanimous enunciation/communication of the sign, as the first communal manifestation of the sacred. It is this model of the originary scene of language that also allows us to understand how humans formed the notion of the sacred without being obliged, or even able, to presuppose its source in a transcendental divinity. This originary scene provides the model for all the scenes of human culture.

Like the sign, the interdictory presence that defines the sacred always transcends our individual consciousness, even when it manifests itself in solitary experiences such as God’s self-revelation to Moses on Mount Horeb. Which is simply to say that the sacred can never be understood as an experience restricted to an individual human subject. Whatever visions or experiences it may encompass, these are by the very use of the term sacred conceived as belonging to the human community: minimally, the local group who shares the ritual feast and “speaks the same language,” and maximally, humanity in general. And this last, “monotheistic” idea itself could only emerge at a stage of human development where it had become possible to contrast a number of other communities with one’s own, in order that the understanding might emerge that the sacred phenomenon is everywhere one—conceived as the “One God”—regardless of local differences.

The reader of these Chronicles will already be aware of the details of GA’s originary hypothesis and its justification as motivated by necessity rather than chance, and by the constraints of social interaction within a group that has attained a level of mimetic intelligence that has made the inhibitory mechanisms that had functioned to avert conflict among our pre-human relatives inadequate. I need only recall the importance of the Derridean notion of différance, deferral, which can be interpreted to explain as an interdiction of appropriative action the néant that separates the Sartrean pour-soi or human consciousness from that of other creatures.

But neither Sartre nor Derrida explains why such deferral is not merely a chance occurrence but a necessity; it is Girard’s foregrounding of the danger of mimetic conflict that answers that question. And I have also explained in these Chronicles the quasi-synonymity of the sacred, the “will” that interdicts to us the attempt to appropriate an object of common desire, and the significant, which assigns to this object a sign by which to designate it in place of appropriation.

The question then arises: since I first presented the basic form of these ideas in The Origin of Language (TOOL) in 1981, which even received a certain degree of publicity, why is it that they have been simply ignored by the community of those who study the origin of language, not to speak of the sacred—a subject which I began to consider much later? To understand what I do not hesitate to call the taboo that surrounds this approach to the subject of what we may call originary anthropology, the genesis of GA must be placed in its intellectual context, the world of literary-humanistic social science that for a few decades bore the name (commonly heard in Comp Lit and English departments) of French Theory, that is, the intermarriage of the techniques of literary analysis with those of the social sciences that endured roughly from the 1960s through the 1990s.

The GA taboo

The principle that allows GA to claim to deal with the origin of human language and culture more objectively than the empirical analyses that have largely replaced the humanistic social science of the era of French Theory is that GA insists on defining a behavioral scenic origin for all the phenomena of human culture, that is, those which depend upon language and more broadly, on representation. (That this word has itself become taboo in the social sciences and humanities, as though it implied something like the sacks full of objects that Swift’s Academy of Lagado proposed we carry on our backs to avoid using words, is itself a derivative of the taboo on language origin.)

Thus rather than seeking the origin of language and the sacred in the individual psyche as presumably their most “objective” point of manifestation, GA takes the scene as the starting point for all such phenomena. Language did not originate in the individual mind in any useful sense; it is always at least implicitly a social or communal phenomenon, just as my knowledge of a language is necessarily mediated by my speech community. And this is yet more obvious in the case of the sacred, whose interdictions and commands are received by an individual in the context of his communal existence, even if such a command may require him to abandon his local community for another, at a minimum the desert solitude of the anchorite. The key aspect of both language and the sacred is that their primary and necessary function cannot have been simply to facilitate the practical activities of life, but to prevent/defer mimetic conflict. It is in understanding our origin and its perpetuation through “human nature” that we must never forget the key notion that necessity is the mother of invention.

To remind us of how far GA’s originary hypothesis is from today’s standard explanations of how human language came into existence, the following is a passage from a representative recent work, Mind Shift: How culture transformed the human brain by John Parrington, Associate Professor in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology at Oxford, published by Oxford in 2021:

If sustained tool use was the initial defining feature of humanity, how did this translate into a capacity for language and accelerated brain development? [my emphasis] Engels believed that increasing use and design of tools made possible by the bipedalism of our proto-human ancestors was a key step in the development of language. As he put it, communal tool use ‘helped to bring the members of society together by increasing the cases of mutual support and joint activity… Men-in-the-making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other.’ During this process, ‘the reaction of labour and speech on the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever renewed impulse to further development.’ (Chapter 2, “Tool and Symbol”; accessed online)

Parrington quotes Friedrich Engels, not to express solidarity with Marxism, but because he considers Engels to have been ahead of his time in articulating what his own text makes clear has remained the accepted theory of the origin of language. In this theory, the main drivers of the creation of language and culture are not the most fundamental human interactions, but rather the necessities of toolmaking. That is, the efficient cause of the “culture” that transformed the human brain and created its unique mode of consciousness was not defined by the need to avert the possibilities of conflict inherent in the social activities of the proto-human community by restraining the divisive forces of desire, but by activities centered on secondary objects, those whose function is instrumental rather than appetitive. Just as the steam engine may be said to have created the Industrial Revolution, so hand axe-making transformed us from apes to humans.

Citing in 2021 this explanation borrowed from Engels’ Dialectics of Nature implies that reflection on the question of human origin has not advanced beyond what used to be called “dialectical materialism,” for which labor defines the stages of human history. That such explanations are still taken for granted today, with no alternative proposals being worthy of mention, seems to me the clearest advertisement for generative anthropology.

As I have previously stated in these Chronicles, the idea of exploring the origin of language and of the human as something problematic, not explicable by a linear improvement in our dealings with the practical problems of the outside world, but dependent rather on the specifics of human appetite as it impinges on our interactions with our fellows, is never raised for consideration. If this is not evidence of a taboo, then what is?

GA has no pretensions of displacing the “hard,” empirical sciences. It is a humanistic discipline, closer to philosophy (and even theology) than to field-work-based anthropology. As a consequence, we can make a case for it as dealing with a “field” that is essentially empty.

As mentioned above, GA is an offshoot of the para-anthropological domain of French Theory—apropos of which we should not forget that, independently of his own writings, René Girard as the leading French scholar at Johns Hopkins had a major initiatory role by co-sponsoring the historic 1966 conference entitled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” that brought the major French theorists to the US. And now that French Theory, with its fashionable politics and yet more fashionable—and not altogether frivolous—obscurities, is no longer active, those who regret it will find its fundamental concerns perpetuated by GA, a more sober and potentially more productive endeavor.

As a new way of thinking, proposing a hypothetical minimal basis for anthropology, GA outlines a behavioral point of departure for the human sciences in general, particularly for those that deal with the cultural domain. Its fundamental elements are phenomena of the human scene: language and the sacred. It is surely no coincidence that at the moment when human language is beginning to be generated cybernetically, the sacred as a category consciously affirmed by human communities has known in the West a precipitous decline. Yet this decline, instead of resulting as Marx expected in a new “materialist” realism, has spawned a plethora of bastardized sacralities that have corrupted the intellectual life of our schools and universities, and that have in their favor only the important lesson they have taught us: that the expulsion from our culture of the higher religions leaves not a world of rational-scientific enlightenment, but one of resentment and immorality, as the recent pro-Hamas demonstrations on our campuses so ominously demonstrate.

In this regard, I take as a strong sign of GA’s potential influence that it is not unpopular but invisible. We should realize that this invisibility offers a genuine advantage to those of us who are willing to reject the standard anthropology illustrated by the passage above while disagreeing with the emphasis on human sacrifice in Girard’s own pioneering version of “mimetic theory” and to develop, free from the distractions of publicity and polemics, what I do not hesitate to call generative anthropology’s new way of thinking.

To be continued…