Meditations on the Originary Scene


Recently, I attended a center studies reading and discussion group in NYC hosted by Zack Baker. The format of the session was a brief lecture on the originary scene followed by a Socratic discussion. During the discussion, one question stood out to me in particular:

"If the aborted gesture of appropriation creates a standoff, how does the carcass come to be divided?"

In this post, I'll offer some reflections on this question, and briefly relate it to the emerging field of semiotic physics.

The Originary Scene

The originary scene posits that language emerged when several hominids found themselves around an object of mutual desire, which we call the carcass. One or many of the hominids reached for the carcass in an attempt to appropriate it, but aborted their gesture of appropriation in an attempt to avoid violence. These simultaneous gestures of aborted appropriation constitute the originary sign, which communicated to all members of the group a mutual hesitance to engage in violence.

How is the Carcass Divided?

Without the originary sign, the division of the carcass would be decided through physical violence; the strongest hominid would incapacitate or deter the others and consume their desired share of the carcass. However, the attritional damage incurred by the dominant hominid may not justify the full appropriation of the carcass. With the transmission of the originary sign, the hominid group is able to begin devising a way to split the carcass without resorting to a war of attrition. This is beneficial for everyone involved; the dominant hominid does not incur attritional damage, and the subdominant hominids earn a share of the carcass.

Presumably, the dominant hominid can still demand an outsized share of the carcass. After all, the dominant hominid has the least to lose if the scene devolves back into a war of attrition. But without actually engaging in the war of attrition, how are the hominids to know which among them is dominant?

The Originary Negotiation

At this point, the hominids begin to "beat their chests" in order to communicate to the rest of the group that they are in fact the dominant hominid, and thus, should receive an outsized share of the carcass. It is with this chest beating that the originary scene evolves into the originary negotiation. The hominids are now harnessing signs to do more than deter violence. They are harnessing rhetoric to negotiate their share of the carcass.

"Language is a simulation of violence."

It is this process of negotiation that puts the "generative" in "generative anthropology." I posit that all language generated since the originary scene functions as a negotiation, where each speaker is rhetorically competing for their share of the carcass by asserting their rank in the group.

"The fundamental unit of language is the order word."

The Originary Negotiation is Advantageous for Group Selection

The originary negotiation has the interesting property that it allows members of the constituent group to compete rhetorically while simultaneously bounding intragroup violence. This is incredibly advantageous from a group selection standpoint:

  1. A group that minimizes intragroup violence will be at an advantage against a group that incurs the cost of intragroup violence.
  2. A group that maintains intragroup competition will have more rapid technological development than a group without it, again giving it an advantage.

In other words, groups that experience the originary scene and its evolution into the originary negotiation are at an evolutionary advantage compared to groups that don't.

Relation to Semiotic Physics: The Good Machine

In common parlance, we use the word "good" to designate a thing or a cause that is deserving of resources. For example, we call a product or service "good" if it is worth the money we pay for it, and we call a cause "good" if it is worth contributing to. In this way, the collection of things that are designated as "good" seem to be demanding an outsized share of our resources. In some sense, this collection is winning the originary negotiation.

Deleuze & Guattari call a collection of interrelated elements that work together to produce an effect or function a machinic assemblage. One of the central entities of interest in semiotic physics is the machinic assemblage that exerts control over the word good, which we call the "good machine." In the language of center studies, we can now conceive of the good machine as the machinic assemblage that is dominating the originary negotiation at any given time.

With this link in mind, we can identify the line of flight taken by the good machine as precisely the generative process kicked off by the originary scene. Critically, this enables generative anthropologists to look for evidence of the originary scene by tracing the empirical dynamics of the good machine. For this reason, I believe that the center studies community should be interested in solutions to the first open problem of semiotic physics, which would enable the study of said dynamics.