If we seek the one word that insists most sharply on the contrast between the human and the non-human, that word would be scenic. The human is the scenic animal; everything that uniquely distinguishes us takes place on a scene. Yet skene is the Greek word not for the stage but for the hut or tent or storeroom into which the actor retired to change his costume. Giving the name of this interior scene to the public scene reflects a profound intuition that the private imagination and the public scene are internal and external versions of the same locus: the empty space or néant in which representations appear, the “scene of representation.”
The minimal core of our minimalist anthropology is the hypothesis that language originates on a scene, defined by the fact that each participant understands himself to be participating in it along with the others. The forms of ritual, including the secular rituals of art, make scenicity explicit. All of what we call “culture” derives from the imagination that first manifests itself in the originary scene and presides over its repetition in ritual. The human imagination is not a “faculty” but a mode of interaction, a mise-en-scène before an implicit audience. As such, the form and content of what appears on the scene of representation has a history that may be epitomized in the history of the “scenic imagination”: the imagination of the scene itself.
The scene is, in the first place, the locus of the sacred, and it is of the essence of the sacred as an active force (as opposed to the concept of the sacred) that it cannot be conceived as a form independent of its content. Originary culture is sacred culture; the profane exists within it only as sacrilege. The appearance of secular literature, in the West, the invention of the Greeks, corresponds to an emergent awareness of the independence of the scene from its content. The scene generates atemporal sacred meaning from human mortality. Myths are centered on “immortals” who incarnate the atemporality of the sign. Literature begins with the return of meaning to mortality; its substance is the dangerous experience of being en scène. Although classical tragedy generally (but definitely not always) takes its material from myth, it views myth not from the point of view of the gods, but from that of mortals engaged in the tragic agon.
The classical mind understands the scene as a place of significance independently of its content, but never as constituted by the mortal protagonists who enter upon it. The scene is given to or imposed on us by the gods, as the locus of our limited contact with sacred meaning. Ancient philosophy never evolves a critical epistemology because it never conceives the scene on which it views reality as originally constituted by human reflection. The cogito is a strictly modern phenomenon.
The classical imagination is aware of the scene’s formal independence, but awareness of its anthropological constitution is unique, I believe, to the Christian modernity of the Renaissance. Of all religions, Christianity, for which the unique God is also a man, most radically understands that the human and the sacred have the same fundamental ontology. Throughout the Middle Ages, this understanding was used to explain the human on the basis of the divine; St. Augustine’s City of God exemplifies medieval reflection on social organization in an era that conceives the aim of human order as abolishing itself in divine order rather than attempting to emulate it. Yet the kernel of Christian anthropology is mutual love, reciprocal recognition among all human beings, founded on our common possession of an immortal essence. This vision presides over the collapse of the ancient economy based on slave labor, and slowly generates, in the margin of the Middle Ages, the means to reestablish a society of reciprocal exchange. Once this possibility becomes practically conceivable, the Kingdom of God, from a transcendental vision that turns us away from the world, becomes an ideal that defines action within it.
The Enlightenment is the moment of Western history when it first becomes possible to conceive of the human as self-generating. Some associate the beginning of the Enlightenment with the experimental rationalism of Francis Bacon, who theorizes a scene of objective empirical knowledge protected from the “idols” of collective mimesis, but I think the critical moment is Hobbes’ scenic conception of the “social contract.” For the first time in history, the genesis and function of human social organization is understood in purely anthropological terms–which is not to say that Hobbes’ anthropology can do entirely without the sacred.
The Enlightenment is born with the English revolution–and will die with the French. This first revolution to set as its goal something like what would later be called “liberal democracy” was the proximate cause of Hobbes’ revolutionary but quite illiberal heuristic. Before conceiving social order in general as generated by human beings in the “state of nature,” Hobbes had witnessed an abortive attempt to generate a new social order that seemed only to lead back to this state. At the same time, the Puritan revolution demonstrated for Hobbes the bankruptcy of medieval, transcendental justifications for central authority; his anthropological model would supply a justification that was wholly immanent.
Anthropology is an experimental science, but its experiments are found, and lived through, in history. Nor is it sufficient to say that thinkers only draw the lessons of history, as though human action and thought were separate realms. What Cromwell and his followers discovered was already thought, and what Hobbes thought was already enacted. To envision a parliamentary republic in a Christian context is to go beyond the conceptions of slave-based ancient democracy to conceive an all-inclusive community. But utopian thought sees in the past only an Eden to be reconstituted; it is rather its adversary who is driven to reflect critically on origins. Where the Puritans sought to establish a theocentric Calvinist republic, Hobbes reminds us that the human scene derives its order from the institution of an earthly center. The lesson that humans choose their own form of social organization is transformed into a demonstration that their choice is dictated by necessity; the only way to escape the nightmare of the “state of nature” is freely to alienate one’s sovereign freedom to the central Leviathan.
In reaction to the violence of civil war, Hobbes demonstrates that the self-generated center of the scene of human interaction is the only possible constraint on violence–which is, for Hobbes, an unambiguously human, “semiotic” phenomenon. But, by a paradox that should be familiar to us, once the center is presented as the necessary resultant of the interactions of the human periphery, the permanence and scope of its authority, having renounced its sacred guarantee, is no longer unconditionally legitimate. (Whence Hobbes’ difficulties with the royalists.) Despite Hobbes’ own arguments to the contrary, to relinquish one’s sovereignty is not to renounce the freedom that founds the capacity for sovereignty. Hobbes’ prejudices were conservative, but the scenic imagination is inherently liberal. If it is we who create the center, then we have the power, and the right, to replace or even abolish it.
The Enlightenment liberation of the scenic imagination runs aground on Edmund Burke’s reflections on the Revolution that was the Enlightenment’s ultimate fulfillment. Unlike Hobbes, Burke did not found his post-revolutionary conservatism on an originary anthropological model; rather than justifying parliamentary monarchy on originary grounds, Burke’s argument justified any social order whatever, provided it had evolved over time rather than being imposed all at once by a group of revolutionaries. Where Hobbes returns to the originary deferral of violence as the remedy for the chaos brought about by political revolt, Burke opposes to a revolution inspired by a radical version of Enlightenment anthropology–which, ironically, can trace its ancestry to Hobbes–yesterday’s presumably organically evolved political forms. The danger of the scenic imagination, whether progressive or reactionary, is that it claims to deduce such forms from an anthropological model; the remedy is to renew our respect for history–history, that is, up to but not including the French Revolution. Burke’s notion of the historical process denies the validity of Enlightenment anthropological speculation, yet it is within this process that the speculation was generated. The paradoxality of this position sets the tone for the post-Enlightenment reaction that seeks in history protection against the aberrations of history.