In Originary Thinking, I distinguished the neo-classical esthetic, covering the period following the institution of Christianity (what Hegel called the “Romantic” era), from the classical esthetic by its scenicity, its awareness of the scene on which the action takes place, which becomes thereby a place either to enter or to avoid. The Greeks take the scene as a given; the arts from the Middle Ages on are aware of the difference between just being and being en scène. By placing the individual human being in the center of the scene of representation–the Cross is nothing else–Christianity constitutes the first total anthropology. The scene no longer operates beyond human control. If Jesus suffers the sacrificial punishment meted out to the occupant of the center, his mock coronation points to the ambivalence of this role, which is that of victim but also of king.
Roland’s argument with Olivier in the Chanson de Roland about blowing the horn is inconceivable in a classical epic. Roland sees himself as if on stage; to blow the horn would be to admit failure to play his role. Both Roland’s self-consciousness and the configuration in which he realizes his destiny reflect this scenic awareness: his death, surrounded by Saracens, takes on the structure of ritual murder. Similarly, Hamlet’s “play within a play” is more than a theatrical ploy; his famous hesitation to act thematizes the boundary between the profane and the sacred, the stage and the world outside it. The consciousness of the stage as a locus of sacrifice is a constant of European theater from Marlowe to Beckett, nowhere more intensely than in the theater of Racine.
Yet the difference wrought by the Christian revelation is still more spectacular in theoria than in theater. Esthetic forms have always been products of a scenic consciousness even when the anthropology of the scene remained obscure; the same is not true of the forms of thought, where the conscious use of scenicity, the “scenic imagination,” brings about an epistemological revolution.
The thematization of a higher level of scenic self-consciousness within the artwork becomes, in the theoretical domain, the direct exercise of this consciousness itself. The scenic imagination is not a mere form, but the mode whereby we become able to think the originary emergence of form–a process that the esthetic neither need nor can carry through, since esthetic form by its very nature reproduces the scene of its own emergence. Not only do all modes of post-classical thought reflect the scenic consciousness implicit in the Christian revelation, but, with the reemergence of secular, non-exegetic thought in the Renaissance, it becomes possible to make explicit use of the scene as a heuristic device.
A comparison of ancient and modern philosophical “scenes” makes clear this revolutionary effect of the scenic imagination. Here is the beginning of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” (Republic, Book VII):
(Socrates, Glaucon) And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open toward the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passersby spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Compare this excerpt from the first great Enlightenment text, Hobbes’ Leviathan (II, xvi):
The only way to erect such a common power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of foreigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort as that by their own industry and by the fruits of the earth they may nourish themselves and live contentedly, is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will: which is as much as to say, to appoint one man, or assembly of men, to bear their person; and every one to own and acknowledge himself to be author of whatsoever he that so beareth their person shall act, or cause to be acted, in those things which concern the common peace and safety; and therein to submit their wills, every one to his will, and their judgements to his judgement. This is more than consent, or concord; it is a real unity of them all in one and the same person, made by covenant of every man with every man, in such manner as if every man should say to every man: I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up, thy right to him, and authorise all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a COMMONWEALTH; in Latin, CIVITAS. This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence. For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him that, by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad. And in him consisteth the essence of the Commonwealth; which, to define it, is: one person, of whose acts a great multitude, by mutual covenants one with another, have made themselves every one the author, to the end he may use the strength and means of them all as he shall think expedient for their peace and common defence.
And he that carryeth this person is called sovereign, and said to have sovereign power; and every one besides, his subject.
In Plato, an undefined power, tantamount to a sacrificial divinity, controls the scene on which we, its prisoners, view the shadows of the Ideas. The men who carry the figures along the wall are agents of this power. The structure of Plato’s scene is an object lesson in the disdain of Greek philosophy for critical epistemology: the connection between the human prisoners within the scene and the human who describes it from without is beneath consideration. This reflects Athenian social relations: the dichotomy of jailer and prisoner being homologous with the institution of slavery, no concern need be shown for the passage from one state to the other because it is clear that humans are equally able to occupy either one.
The non-reciprocal nature of the Athenian anthropology precludes the radical imaginary return to a state in which reciprocity itself may be seen to generate the social order, including the forms of representation that preserve this order by deferring the revelation of its basis in reciprocity. Nothing in Plato’s world corresponds to Hobbes’ “covenant of every man with every man,” which requires a collective and reciprocal conversation. Hobbes models the genesis of political order, and of human order tout court, as an exclusively human scene. His reference to “that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence” is a nearly explicit secularization of the Christian revelation that the minimal constitution of God and man are the same. The scene of generalized reciprocal exchange has become a functional heuristic, a discovery procedure for the lines of force that guarantee communal order. The “authority, given him by every particular man in the Commonwealth” that enables the sovereign to “form the wills of them all” is the conservative, centralist, realist version of Rousseau’s radical, collectivist, utopian “general will,” which miraculously manifests itself on the periphery of a circle without a center.
Hobbes does not note, but it is implicit in his formulation, that the “wills of them all” described as “formed” by the sovereign were what established him as sovereign in the first place. More precisely, he cannot note this, because these individual wills are what is relinquished in order to establish the power of the center. As in an earlier passage (I, 3-4; see Chronicles 176 and 215) where Hobbes first analyzes “God” as a linguistic gesture toward infinite power rather than a name, then proceeds to affirm that God gave man language, Hobbes deals with both the before and after of the originary scene without yet perceiving their symmetry and therefore without being tempted, as Rousseau would be, to bring them together in a single scenic event. Nevertheless, the major revolution in thought has already been accomplished; the heuristic of the generative event is already pregnant with the revelation of this symmetry that is finally made fully explicit in the originary hypothesis of Generative Anthropology.