“The Rubicon” inevitably comes up when one thinks about the origin of human language. However many similarities we can find between our language and those of other species, it cannot be doubted that human language belongs to a different category. Human semantic communication is of a crucially different nature from animal signaling, even if a combination of such signals may be said to have a “syntax.”

The significant difference between human language and the “languages” of animals is that human language alone is conscious of the difference between a sign and its referent. I have explained this consciousness as derived from the différance by which a gesture of appropriation, which is not a signal in any sense, is converted into a sign by the fact of being aborted, that is, of not reaching its goal. Whereas we can affirm without fear of contradiction that no case of animal signaling can be similarly interpreted as an “aborted gesture” originally intended to acquire rather than refer to its referent. It is this insertion of conscious différance into an originally appetitive gesture that constitutes it as a sign of human language in distinction from all actions of non-human animals. Humans too make signaling gestures, but as Terrence Deacon pointed out in The Symbolic Species, these gestures are handled by an entirely different area of the brain than those of human language.

The refusal of linguists and anthropologists to consider these points reflects what I have called the taboo on a hypothesis such as that of GA that purports to advance beyond the speculations of Condillac et al. about language origin and consequently the origin of the human. For this subject remains in an important sense sacred, and the reluctance either to consider it at all (e.g., “human language is just a more elaborate form of animal language”) or as explicable (“human language is indeed ‘different,’ but attempts to explain it are always inadequate”) is a demonstration of the refusal to disturb its sacred status.

So then the question becomes: in an era that no longer takes seriously the sacred taboos of the past, why is this one so resistant? It cannot be attributed to a desire to preserve the undefinable ontological distinction between man and all other beings, including the animals, since that is precisely what both the rejectors of GA and the creators of the more modest gradualist hypotheses of language origin would like to deny. Why then is a hypothesis that purports to offer a behavioral definition of the Rubicon, that is, one that avoids any reference to supernatural forces, somehow more dangerous than that of Genesis?

But the answer is obvious; Genesis simply translates human agency into that of God, whereas GA gives power to a protohuman agency that allows man to create himself. Rather than seeing this as a victory for “secular” thought, the scientific world realizes that the danger of the minimal hypothesis is that it in effect gives “secular” legitimacy to the notion of the sacred. Girard is acceptable, because while explaining human behavior in terms of mimesis he never faces up to the most significant consequence of this mimesis, which is language. Not because imitating others of one’s species necessarily leads to language, but because the desire that is the product of the enhancement of appetite by mimesis can ultimately only be prevented from undoing a social order whose restraints on appetite are limited to those of “conditioned reflexes” by supplementing these reflexes with the conscious deferral of appetite, leading to a sense of sacred interdiction and thence to language.

Are there other possibilities? Perhaps, but the Sartrean pour-soi that separates the appetitive/desiring self from its object by the néant of scenic freedom, which is to say, by human consciousness as conceiving its object through contemplation rather than instinctively as a source of appetite, and intuiting via this contemplation that the desire inspired by the object is a “sacred” or interdicted impulse, can have no simpler explanation.

In his desire to defend his theory that the Rubicon was crossed not by the invention of language but by “emissary murder” as the inspiration for a language-less deferral, Girard dismissed the originary hypothesis as just another “social contract” scenario, as if the originary function of representation as a substitute for appropriation was decided upon as a result of… a prior exchange of representations. (See Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture; Continuum International, 2007:122ff.) Girard’s genius was that of one wisely suspicious of the empty abstractions of metaphysics, but he failed to understand that the originary hypothesis is precisely a theory that explains both the origin and the necessity of representations/signs in order to accomplish the deferral that he hypothesized was obtained only through the exhaustion of communal violence—so to speak on the anachronistic example of the centurion converted to Christianity by the example of Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

Where the proto-centurions would have found the sign to represent the object of their worship or why they would have needed a sign at all is left to the discretion of the reader. What would define the arbitrary victim as the necessary and unique victim in the absence of an “aborted gesture of representation” is a question never asked or answered. Why we have this culture of representations if peace could (only) be obtained through violence is another unanswered question. That only the historical Jesus could inspire Girard’s hypothesis of emissary murder implies rather that, beyond the originary breakdown of animal means of controlling appetite through inhibition, all the millennia of human history whose later years were dominated by highly differentiated hierarchies were indeed necessary to reveal the truth embodied in Jesus’ singular incarnation of self-sacrificing divinity.

GA’s minimal hypothesis of the origin of human language cannot be reduced any farther; it turns on a single bit of information, the “conversion” of the aborted gesture of appropriation into the designation of its renounced object. Nor need we consider this renunciation as spontaneously unanimous among the group of proto-humans in which it originated. It suffices that the hesitation of one inspire that of the others, that the attempts at immediate possession be withdrawn, and that as a result Sartre’s néant, the space between the subject and the object of his contemplation, be established only for so long as to inspire in the other members of the group the realization that such a renunciation of possession resolves the tension that pursuing conflicting attempts at possession would occasion. The resulting configuration already has the form of a ritual focused on a center; this is the first instance of the human scene, the origin of the scenicity within which humans have evolved ever since, as they normally communicate, and distribute collective goods, through the mediation of signs.

I need not reproduce here the alternative hypotheses found in books dealing with this question, none of which make any detailed attempt at explaining, e.g., how the language originated that reached the point of (1) permitting a marriage ceremony (Terrence Deacon); (2) allowing for a coalition to be formed to eliminate particularly aggressive members of the group (Richard Wrangham); (3) preventing the breakdown of the social group threatened by the use of deadly weapons . . . All that is necessary is that the animal reflex of the possessive gesture be negated, not by an inhibitory reflex, but by a conscious renunciation of the appropriative act as an act of conscience. The two guests reaching for the last canapé provide a minimal model that cannot be further simplified.

I submit that this minimal hypothesis provides a definitive model of the Rubicon that separates human from animal language, and what Sartre called the human pour-soi from the minds of other creatures. It is as a result of this hypothetical deferral that the human acquires a scene of interaction in which our shared desires can be controlled—even if sometimes this control fails—and that means will be found to prolong the scenic stasis so as to permit the expansion of the creativity of our species over the centuries, albeit always with the danger that the inventions the scene makes possible may one day lead to our species’ destruction.

One final word: animals do not have scenes; neither do they practice shared joint attention, as in pointing.