By Adam Katz
Originary grammar is the name I give to my work within Eric Gans’ originary hypothesis of the origin of language. According to the originary hypothesis, the first sign emerges in the midst of a crisis in which the pre-human hominid group is threatened with self-destruction through everyone’s common convergence upon some desired object. Following Rene Girard’s account of mimetic desire, and attributing to the higher hominids the distinguishing feature of greater mimetic capacity, the originary hypothesis posits a mimetic crisis that leads to the breakdown of the animal pecking order within the group, requiring some new mode of restraint upon mimetic desire and rivalry.
The crisis is resolved through what Gans calls the “aborted gesture of appropriation”: mostly likely a mere moment of hesitation, which is in turn imitated by the rest of the group, situated them all before a central object that now “repels” their desire. The destructive consequences of mimesis are thereby arrested through the transcendence of and re-articulation of mimetic activity itself and the human emerges along with the sacred (the newly inaccessible, repellent object). The human appears as the species which poses a greater danger to itself than is presented to it by any external threat, and simultaneously as the being capable of deferring that danger through the signifying relation to sacred Being. Representation is the deferral of violence—not merely the kind of local violence of which we will probably never be rid, but the kind of contagious, immolating violence between which and ourselves we will never cease to interpose whatever signs we can cobble together when needed.
The originary hypothesis cannot be “proven,” of course: there will never be any archeological or biological evidence supporting it. Its confirmation lies in the power with which it enables us to make sense of human things, on the one hand, but also in the very plausibility of positing some origin to language. In other words, if language must have emerged as a whole, “as such,” with everything transformed from a condition of non-meaning to meaning; in a word, if language must have emerged in an event, then we can hypothesize more or less meaningfully regarding the constitution of such an event. And, indeed, the fact that we couldn’t consider the possibility of a “piece” of a sign—either there is a sign or there isn’t—speaks strongly in favor of some kind of leap from a world without signs to a signifying world. It further makes sense to assume that such an event could not have been a trivial one—the existence of the group and each of its members must have been strongly apprehended by all to have been at stake.
Our posited event must presuppose a situation which the existing means of resolving conflicts could not address. The resolution must then draw upon while transforming existing capacities of the species. Our hypothesis cannot presuppose capacities that only language could have bestowed upon us, nor can we introduce any elements into the originary event that wouldn’t be fully explicable in terms of what we can reasonably presuppose. The event in question must enable us to account for the sign’s transcendence: to put it simply, we must be able to account for what Saussure designated with the signifier/signified distinction: the fact that any sign remains in some sense the “same” sign, regardless of the different situations in which it is deployed, and that this sameness has nothing to do with its physical features.
The ostensive gesture put forth on the originary scene, upon which the object is “named” God (he-who-commands-us-to-renounce-immediate-appropriation; or something along those lines), in its iterability and the non-availability of its referent enables us to account for the immateriality of the sign. The ostensive gesture, that is, “means” only to the extent that all members of the group willingly participate in the event of its meaning by iterating the word of God.
To use the word “willingly” as I just have brings to light some of the more provocative questions generated by the hypothesis. On some level, everyone on the scene must “know” what they are doing: each must see the others iterating the gesture of aborted appropriation and each must “authenticate” the gesture.
But we could not posit some declarative, propositional intent to such a gesture, as in: I am pledging to you my intention to renounce possession of the object and any assault upon your person in the hope that you will do the same, along with everyone else… (We can’t have language before we have language…) To the extent that we try to convey the meaning of the gesture to the scene’s participants, we would have to do so in terms of a “feeling,” or what Charles Sanders Peirce called “firstness”: the experience of the thing as it is, without any reference to anything outside of it or outside of that experience of it.
On one side of the gesture is a sense of continuity, of sustenance, of life, of Being; on the other side is annihilation. As sign users, we are tacitly aware of this distinction, and this distinction is iterated every time something “makes sense” to us. We know much more than we can tell, as Michael Polanyi puts it, and we are beings of the event—indeed, for humans, there is nothing but events (overlapping events, events within events, events referencing other events, to be sure, but nothing but events). And we both create and are created by, act in and suffer the event. We cannot know in advance what might successfully defer the violence activated by the convergence upon some central object of desire in any specific case; indeed, what would be the “measuring stick” for determining the degree, much less quality, of desire and resentment implicated in some such convergence?—and yet we are able to “come up with” something that sometimes works. And, of course, sometimes doesn’t—there was nothing inevitable about the originary scene, nor is there about our indefinite continuance as a species.
There is a politics of the originary hypothesis: a politics of the center, one that can accommodate much of what we now designate “left” and “right” and hopefully much more as well. Human history is a continual struggle for liberation from the singular, irreplaceable object at the center of the originary scene, toward ever more substitutable, dispersed and exchangeable objects. At the same time the center must be attended to, even if that center is no more than the contingent moral and political guarantees of a set of loose, evolving and largely tacit rules regulating the status and accessibility of the evolving world of objects. Maximal freedom to produce, exchange and consume objects (with ever looser definitions of what counts as an “object”) is articulated in increasingly complex ways with networks of associations, constitutions, contracts, covenants, habits and laws needed to condition those exchanges and manage all of the desires and resentments produced by new degrees of freedom. And there is resentment generated by the “system” of exchange itself, a resentment which we might call “victimary,” which reads the inevitable inequalities and instability generated by the millions upon millions of daily exchanges as a disguise concealing the actual consolidation of power of some small, corrupt, insidious and ingenious elite.
This type of “totalizing” resentment gave us the Communist and Fascist insurgencies of the 20th century, as well as the current Islamic supremacist-led Global Intifada. There are less virulent versions as well: indeed, some level of victimary resentment seems to be the “enterprise cost” of the exchange system itself. We might call the politics of the originary hypothesis “liberal,” in the 19th century sense combining civil liberties and free market economics; at the same time it is a future oriented politics always on the alert for what the political theorist Frank Ankersmit has called the “creative compromises” that resolve seemingly intractable conflicts by producing new rules and that are especially characteristic of the type of social order we have come to call “liberal democracies.” (In subsequent posts I will distinguish my own politics and my own reading of contemporary events within the broad space I am constructing here within which dialogues over the meaning of the originary scene could gather around themselves various political meanings and consequences.)
As for the “grammar,” I will also return to this question in the more literal sense of the generation of sentences and other relations between words and signs and reality, but for now, consider that the originary sign on the scene as I have accounted for it has a doubled mode of operation: it initiates and seals the scene from within the scene; and, it represents the sacred object to those congregated on the scene, thereby simultaneously constituting the scene through its relation to some externality. We have, that is, an internal and emergent system of references that draws its power from and, indeed, roughly imitates, an unmolested and presumably invulnerable reified center.
In that case, the latter, representational operation of the sign names a limiting reality which demands acknowledgement, while the former, circulatory operation of the sign relies upon the sign’s iterability (its “imperfect” dissemination through the scene) and therefore its variability and generative power. We can expect to find these two operations in any act of making meaning, then, as the noun names the sub-stance and the verb completes the event by making the named object peripatetic: as Gertrude Stein asserted, what is interesting about verbs is that it is so easy to make mistakes with them, which opens up the possibility of generality by way of “error” (inappropriate rule application) and thus difference and novelty.
Adam Katz teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. He is the editor of The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry and an editor of Anthropoetics, the on-line journal of Generative Anthropology.