The usefulness of periodization depends on the complementarity of the ethical and the esthetic. As a first approximation, let us say that art deals with the difficulties or paradoxes inherent in a given ethical system, that it acts as a means of dramatizing them, experimenting with them, etc. This kind of language is “functional” only in a superficial sense. Implicit in it is that ethics is “organization” and that any system of organization has flaws, cracks, contradictions. But ethical organization is by nature unstable, since its components are human beings whose resentful totalizations of the system are in tension with the system itself. It is impossible to conceive of a “perfect” organization that “no longer needs” art. On the contrary, the only functionally useful utopia is one in which the resentments generated by the social order can be reintegrated or recycled within that order by means of art–in conjunction with politics, for there is no art without politics. Where politics leads to a collective resolution of competing claims on the center, the scene of art, whatever conflicts take place upon it, is conceived by a single (possibly collective) imagination that guarantees and is guaranteed by the originary accord as to the meaning of the sign. The in principle non-conflictive source of the imaginary scene provides a minimal “definition” of art.
Because culture is scenic, its evolution is most parsimoniously modeled by changes in the structure of the scene of representation. Esthetic periods are really partially overlapping paradigms of the scenic imagination–paradigms analogous to, not to say the originary form of, the scientific paradigms whose “revolutions” Thomas Kuhn describes. It is the “digital” nature of these transformations that justifies cultural periodization. Yet despite its simplicity, the structure of the scene of representation cannot be used to draw up in advance a meta-paradigm of all possible esthetic periods; new models arise through revelations of possibilities previously undetected.
In the classical era, the characters are never self-conscious about being on stage; in other words, the drama never thematizes within itself the stage-nonstage analogy to the sacred-profane dichotomy, because the latter dichotomy, constitutive of the scene of representation, is still understood as absolute. It is Christianity that reveals the underlying equivalence of the sacred center of the circle with its periphery, in relation to which accession to the central role is thematized or “anthropologized.” As a consequence, in the neo-classical age that begins with the first medieval texts and extends through the early modern period, the stage-nonstage polarity is omnipresent. Whether it be the lover ensnared by the eyes of his beloved, Hamlet putting on plays but avoiding as long as possible the stage of action, or Roland who defers blowing his horn to protect his reputation (los), the neoclassical protagonist operates within a dichotomy of profane and sacred, private and public life; mounting on stage is both necessary and self-consciously sacrificial. The neo-classical, post-Christian artwork retains a sense of destiny, but this destiny is conscious and may be chosen or delayed. The ancient tragic hero is, so to speak, a demigod: a mortal whose sacrificial role inheres in his essence. Christianity teaches us that we all contain the scene within ourselves (in our “soul”); our essence is not dependent on the persistence of the public scene, to which we are called by “historical” circumstances.
If esthetic periods correspond to ethical intuitions, art is no mere emanation of ethical philosophy. Plato’s ethics is founded on the “good,” a category whose very existence presupposes the possibility of universal harmony transcending and including all particular “goods”–thus Plato denies that what is “good” for me can be in conflict with the good of all. The Platonic concept is a sacred object not all that different from the churinga described by Durkheim, which incarnates the common good or principle of solidarity of the group and whose contact invigorates the individual member. Athenian art realizes the emergence from the agon of this still ritual-based worldly order. The model of Christian morality, in contrast, is the Kingdom of God, the moral model of perfect reciprocity that is “not of this world.” In art after the Christian revelation, which Hegel called “romantic,” the sacred guarantee of the world created by the scenic imagination is transcendent; beyond the pragmatic ironies of the sort Oedipus’ career exemplifies, the modern protagonist’s very existence on stage, his “destiny,” is an ironic contingency.
The classical scene includes scenic representatives of the periphery, the chorus of Athenian drama. The impossibility of a chorus in Renaissance dramaturgy was pointed to by neo-classical thinkers who sought to distinguish classical from modern, naïve from sentimental literature. The simplest explanation of this absence is not, however, the “sentimentality” of modern drama, but the structural fact that its scene does not make an a priori internal distinction between periphery and center, but rather shows the sacrificial center as a role for which a “peripheral” protagonist is selected, in contrast with classical theater, where this selection occurs, in the general case, prior to the scene, but need not occur at all, as in Aeschylus’ Suppliants, where the chorus as a whole is the “protagonist.” The canonical neoclassical example is Hamlet’s eccentric position around Claudius’ table in his first appearance (I, ii), a scene (prior to Hamlet’s awareness of the Ghost) that makes Hamlet the prototype of the modern homme de ressentiment, a spectator at the scene on which his own desires are played out. Hamlet incarnates the essential peripherality of the neoclassical subject with respect to the center he will be forced to occupy. The particular modernity of his role lies in the fact that it can easily be deformed into the romantic model where this public center is itself imaginary.
To the series of esthetic paradigms correspond modes of economic exchange, which find their basis in the scene of representation but perform the centrifugal function of providing individuals with the means of existence. That the independence of economic activity from the ritual center of society increases over time led Marx to consider it history’s independent variable. The basis for economic exchange, however, is a system of ethical relations. The failure of the ancients to evolve a true market system, the subject of a great deal of historical speculation, corresponds to the absence of peripheral symmetry within the classical model. The tragic agon or fight for the center is symmetrical only in its violence; scenic exchange belongs to the comic world, which parodies the tragic one that supplies its protection. In contrast, the “civil society” that is the basis of the modern exchange system is homologous to the originary peripherality of the modern tragic hero. Hamlet ironizing on Claudius’ court, even Racine’s Phèdre dreaming of losing herself in the labyrinth, are prototypes of peripheral desires, “subjective” and therefore exchangeable rather than simply rivalrous.
The emergence of true “bourgeois society” in the era of the French Revolution brings with it the esthetic of romanticism, in which the erstwhile public center is populated exclusively by these peripheral or “private” desires. The romantic fondness for folklore and primitive cultures that condone the public manifestation of violent desires reflects nostalgia for “naïve” culture, but it is naïveté from the perspective of the subject whose desires are valorized by the community rather than of the pre-individualized performer of sacrificial ritual.
The discovery, after 1848, that the romantic system depends on an internal contradiction between the egocentric individual imagination and the fancied reciprocity of shared desire in the system as a whole leads to the irony of postromanticism. The romantic thinks, on the faith of his sacrificial exilic status, that he can both occupy the center in his imagination and communicate his imaginary centrality to others as their own. Postromanticism, by virtue of its ironic critique of the romantic model that it nonetheless recognizes as inevitable, is the first truly modern mode–a mode in which consciousness becomes aware not merely of its “belatedness” but of its dependency on traditional forms that are unable fully to express it. Modernism avoids the romantic paradox of “universal” subjectivity by doing away with the ego as subject of desire; the cruelty of the precultural desire that spites bourgeois society in the modernist artwork escapes the imagination to reveal itself in the apocalyptic violence of modernist politics, both fascist and–in reality, if not in theory–communist.
Modernism’s challenge to the bourgeois self is its rediscovery that the scene of representation is itself generated by sacrificial violence. Although its anti-bourgeois thrust is superficially similar to that of romanticism, rather than making the individual subject the repository of the scene’s authentic constitution, modernism traces this constitution through the interactions of a desire that is not localized in an ego and cannot therefore be recuperated, as was romanticism, by the bourgeois market. The radicalism of this movement is most evident in the plastic arts, where the so-called mimesis of the sacred object gives way to the creation of a sacred object for mimesis. The beauty of the artwork that the late romantics opposed to bourgeois “utility” is revealed to be just another “value”; the truly numinous object, in the absence of ritual’s historical reference, “sublimely” evokes the fear of death associated with the sacrificial sparagmos.
The utopia pointed to by modernism is deliberately unlivable within the constraints of bourgeois society. Epater le bourgeois expresses in lapidary form the desire to exceed the bourgeois exchange system; this desire is concomitant with modernism’s thematic interest in the sacrificial as a regulatory mechanism. Art as excess is anarchic only at its moment of appearance; its overall operation is designed to provoke a return to archaic, openly sacrificial modes that dissolve and restore the scene of representation. In this process, the central victim no longer solicits our identification as a fellow human being, as in the romantic era; his sacrifice is an apotheosis (that of Freud’s murdered father, of Apollinaire’s poet-as-burnt-offering, of the potlatch in Bataille’s économie générale) that purges us of our fear of death without itself appearing to us as a shared mode of human suffering. The late post-romantics or “decadents” toyed with doing away with the mimetic mechanisms of pity and terror that had characterized high culture since the beginning, but within their identificatory esthetic model, these were merely ironies. (Compare Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Contes cruels with Antonin Artaud’s théâtre de la cruauté.)
In the most general sense, all high culture from Homer to the post-romantics is “bourgeois” culture in its respect for the circulation of desire between spectator and protagonist. We freely identify with the latter’s sufferings and are rewarded with an equal share of his central significance. From Achilles to Mme Bovary, this exchange-relation remains essentially the same; art is an affirmation of interpersonal solidarity, a system of symbolic exchange, even when it begins to denounce the dominant relations of the society within which this exchange takes place. There is no “question of the victim” in pre-modern art.
Romanticism led to the farce of 1848, immortalized in Flaubert’s L’éducation sentimentale; modernism led to Auschwitz. It is here that postmodernism, victimary thinking, and, ultimately, originary anthropology were born.
In the conclusion to his admirably thoughtful examination of responses to the Holocaust, La concurrence des victimes, Jean-Michel Chaumont quotes with qualified approval Steven T. Katz’s authoritative work The Holocaust in Historical Context, “From an empirical viewpoint, the world seems to have been little transformed, morally or otherwise, by Auschwitz.” I believe this statement to be the exact opposite of the historical truth–although the very fact that I can only state my position in terms of belief reflects the fundamental ambivalence of the Holocaust’s place in history.
Katz and Chaumont are referring to the degree to which the explicit memory of the Holocaust has affected life in the postwar era; where Katz takes the absence of world reaction to the Holocaust as one more demonstration of its historical uniqueness, Chaumont sees it as an event with an unlimited potential for meaningfulness that must be continually and insistently brought before the public eye. Both these positions are blind to what seems to me the obvious fact that the Holocaust has transformed the world as perhaps no other event of secular history has done; it is the closest thing the modern age has known to a founding religious revelation. As I have often noted, the decades following WWII saw the end of Western colonialism, racial segregation in the US, discriminatory laws against women, apartheid in South Africa. Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was the model for the victimary paradigm that made all de jure discrimination increasingly intolerable. Not only were victims emboldened, but, yet more significantly, those not victimized were increasingly subject to the hitherto unknown sentiment of white guilt. This category and its importance in the modern world were presciently anticipated by Nietzsche in his diatribes against the inveiglement of classical heroes by Christian priests in The Genealogy of Morals. But, even for Nietzsche, the guilt of the “strong” before the “weak” rests on the supposed sinfulness that inheres in specific acts or desires, whereas to arouse guilt in the postwar era no sin of strength is necessary, merely the absence of marked weakness. As the payback for what Marx denounced as the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie’s appeal to general principles of justice, extended to the arrogance of 19th-century colonial Eurocentrism and the age-old rule of men over women, white guilt attaches to a whiteness not of skin but of semiotic status, to the neutral, general case, now marked defiantly by its Others.
Postmodernity has never to my knowledge been defined in terms of its ethical basis in victimary thought. For what might be called the standard philosophical treatment (that of Vattimo’s The End of Modernity, or, in a more science-oriented mode, Lyotard’s La condition postmoderne), the independent variable is technological progress, which supposedly makes the “newness” of modernity so predictable as to be no longer new. Because traditional metaphysics understands the human in terms of its cognitive relationship to “nature,” it tends to fetishize technology as its inassimilable Other and to dismiss out of hand the human value of its ever-improving knowledge of nature. (One might say that, just as there are no atheists in the foxholes, there are no technophobes on the operating table.) Postmodernism is not a simple reaction to modern technological evolution; the doubt about newness inherent in the notion of postmodernism is motivated by very specific developments in ethical relations dependent on very specific elements of technological progress. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were inconceivable without certain technological advances. Yet, although this applies to the second far more than the first, it is undoubtedly the first of these exempla of maximal violence that is the more determinant of what would come to be called the postmodern era.
Postmodernism, like postromanticism, is not so much a new mode as a chastened version of the previous one that reflects the failure of the politics it inspired. Where modernist politics is cruel, postmodern politics is victimary. Its scenic imagination, haunted by the image of victimization, conceives an ideal scene without a sacred center, where all is periphery. The result of the postmodern consciousness of “scapegoating” on which Girard’s mimetic theory and GA itself depend is a peculiar dichotomy between an activist politics and a nihilist esthetic. Postmodern politics has an infinity of tasks; it sees every form of human relation as at least potentially victimary. Where the postmodern esthetic shies from constructing a center, postmodern politics finds in every mode of human interaction a center to deconstruct, construed as the locus, not of sacrifice, but of power. This radical secularization of the scene is founded on the prying apart of the founding ambivalence of the sacred center: violence and peace, victim and god, object of worship and object of resentment. The old periphery, to which the center provided the benefits of deferral, disappears; one is either persecutor or victim. In the more interesting cases, these roles are played alternatively.
The postmodern esthetic has no vision of authentic centrality around which to constitute its scene. To empower the victim over the persecutor merely reproduces the old structure with the roles reversed, as in latter-day westerns where the Indians are good and the cowboys are bad. To go beyond this popular-art model to show the strength of the victim qua victim is already to engage in a kind of generative anthropology. Beckett provides the purest model of this in Waiting for Godot, where the merely time-consuming exchanges of the victimary duo of Didi and Gogo outlast the master-slave society of Pozzo and Lucky. Beckett’s is a world beyond desire; in contrast, Marguerite Duras shows the power of the victim within the triangle of desire as the failed mediator who determines the desires of the other two vertices by designating them to each other, thereby becoming the object of a “higher level” of desire. At the other extreme from the eroticisation of the victimary center is its sparagmos; postmodern art, particularly the visual and performing arts, is the site of a post-modernist insistence not merely on the violence of desire but on its violent effects–what my fellow anthropoetician Toby Siebers calls “trauma art.”
The postmodern, victimary era was characterized by the deconstruction of the esthetic center. The new “post-millennial” era has been characterized by Raoul Eshelman as “performatist”: the artist rediscovers the originary ostensive and creates his own sacred center. Implicit in this ostensibly (and ostensively) Nietzschean expression of the will to power is that everyone else can do the same thing. The personal sacred of the performatist provides a model we can all imitate in principle, since it privileges his creative act itself rather than its outcome in a given case, which is the affair of the creator. This stands in contrast to the personal sacred the romantic proposes to the world as exemplary of everyone else’s desire as well as his own (Victor Hugo’s insensé qui crois que je ne suis pas toi! [(You who are) out of your senses to think that I am not you!]). Performatist mimesis avoids triangularity through the non-exemplarity of its object; rather than choosing the object pointed to by the artist, one is encouraged to pursue one’s own.
Readers of Hegel’s Esthetics recall that each artistic epoch has a characteristic artistic genre: monumental architecture for archaic societies, sculpture for the Greeks, music for the romantics. And, one might say, poetry for postromanticism, painting for modernism, conceptual art for postmodernism. Along these lines, I would suggest that the typical post-millennial art form is body piercing. The pierced uses his or her own body as his canvas; the piercing act is initiatory but there is no well-defined society to be initiated into. The ritual production of sacred value devolves to the individual, with the confidence of receiving sufficient recognition from others. Each pierce is a monument to a sacrificial performance whose exemplarity, limited to one’s own body, can never block the parallel activity of its spectator. In its inclusion of art in life that forecloses no other life’s possibilities, in its abolition of the dichotomy, ideal and financial, between world and spectacle, body piercing strikes me as the exemplary performatist art.