For generative anthropology, the unique human capacity for transcendence, access to a domain of non-material beings (ideas, signs, gods), arises in the originary event as a means to defer mimetic violence. Language is no less transcendental than the sacred, and signification, as the most accessible mode of transcendence, provides a model for sacralization. One might think this obvious, given the clear analogy between linguistic signs and sacred beings. But the originary deferral of violence lets reflection on language and the sacred go their separate ways; the analogy between the sacred and the significant seems irrelevant to the linguist parsing a sentence, the philosopher analyzing the varieties of reference, or the theologian conducting the exegesis of a sacred text.
The first linguistic sign represents a common object of desire. The object is “meaningful” because it is desirable; we already attend to it. But the form of the originary signifying operation is paradoxical: although the more intense one’s attraction to an object, the more immediately one craves possession of it, here the intensity of desire is such as to make possession impossible. At the origin, this paradoxical relationship between desire and accessibility defines the sacred, but it also defines the significant; what is significant is that object the common desire for which renders it inaccessible. That which in isolation I imagine myself as possessing is in the communal context protected by its sacred status as the focus of all desires.
In contrast, the signified is not an object of desire, but an “idea” or internal image no longer attached to the object that originally inspired it; it is an independent categorical entity. When we think about the object that had been represented by the sign, our thought remains mediated by the sign; it no longer involves a perceptual trace of the (absent) object, but the atemporal idea of it. Yet the memory of the object-as-present retains a transcendental relationship to the sign that represents it, including the signified/idea that is indissoluble from the signifier/verbal-gestural sign. After the central object, which can be devoured in part but not possessed whole, is torn into “equal” portions in the sparagmos, the signified of the sign as idea recalls but cannot replace the referential object itself. The sacred is the supplément of this process, what in the object exceeds the sign but for that very reason cannot be possessed, the excess of what the sign designates as an ostensive utterance over what it represents as an element of the lexicon. What is shared through the sign’s reciprocal communication is the profane meaning of the object, not its sacred being.
The properties of the sacred are those of language, but as if they existed independently of language. The sign is “immortal” because it is a formal rather than a real object; the gods are immortal not as the ideational signifieds of the sign but as referents that embody the meaning of the sign as though there were no need for ideas. The sign refers to God even as it points to whatever specific object of collective desire first inspired it. The animal is eaten, the sign remains; what it represents is not merely this animal, nor even this species of animal, but the-being-that-can-only-be-referred-to-by-the-sign. If this is all we need to know of this Being, then it is one and unfigurable. The notion of the unfigurable One God reflects the understanding that the sacred has nothing in common with worldly objects, save referentiality itself.
When God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3, he gives his name as a declarative sentence, “ehyeh asher ehyeh,” “I am that/what I am.” A name is the occasion for a vocative calling upon a god to present himself in a given situation, whether by ritual or magic. The god who cannot be called upon, who presents himself in the context of a sacrificial ritual (the burning bush) in which the sacrifice is not consumed, reflects a more parsimonious conception of the originary scene than the sacrificial gods who preceded him. If the originary scene is one, then the multiple gods who derive from it constitute a pseudo-plurality lacking an ontological basis, like words in different languages with the same meaning. The single sacred configuration in all cultures implies a single god for all cultures. This intuition reflects the historical experience of cultural plurality, one available only after the consolidation of the archaic Near Eastern empires and attractive only to a people whose conquests in the name of their god have been few.
The simplest description of what separates God as the referent of the originary sign from its signified is his will. The central object’s inappropriability, its withdrawal from the world of human appetite is the core of this interdictive will by which the sacred center defers the potential conflict inherent in human desire. In the relationship between the originary sign and its interdicted referent, the freely chosen emission of the sign is an act of submission to this central will. The sign is the name-of-God; its emission obeys the will-of-God. The participants in the originary scene do not choose their god, but they choose to submit to him.
This center-periphery configuration is that of all cultural phenomena. Whether they be religious activities dictated by the will of God or those we attribute to the will of an artist, whether we participate in these phenomena actively or passively, participation requires that we submit ourselves to an alien will. The same applies to the informal and even the internal narratives of everyday life. Whether I tell a story to others or to myself, I take the part of the sacred will that interdicts appropriation and become “God in his universe,” just as nineteenth-century novelists claimed to do.
Postmodernism challenges the anthropological basis for these assertions. Affirmations of the necessity of a central authority are condemned as authoritarian myths by a deconstructive anthropology that defines the human as the passive locus of an impersonal circulation of signifiers independent of any will, human or divine. Such an anthropology can tolerate an ontogeny of language, such as Lacan’s metapsychology provides in its fashion, but not an evolutionary history and certainly not a scene of origin.
It has often been noted that this “rhizomatic” centerless circulation of signs is approximated by certain parts of the Internet. Yet, to the extent that this circulation constructs an authorless discourse, it is governed by the objective criteria of accuracy in conveying information and eloquence in conveying opinion rather than endless “play.” The various branches of the ever-expanding global Wikipedia provide a case in point; to collaborate in this enterprise, one must provide accurate information, that is, signifiers fully attached to their signifieds so that they may be verified against their purported referents. (If we can’t attribute a meaning to a proposition, we can’t verify it empirically.) The same is true of the “intertextual” blogosphere; in nearly all cases, blogs that attract readers provide either objective information, expert judgment, or political confirmation. Nor do the exceptions correspond to semiotic utopia; if a blog or any other writing that lacks informational or polemical value is to appeal to readers, it must offer them an esthetic experience, that is, one of submission to the will of the author.
Authorial discourses, including statements of postmodern ideology, continue to be produced and consumed. The theoretical reduction of culture to intertextual play cannot mask the undiminished functionality of submission to the subject of discourse. Such submission is neither servile nor passive; it requires that the reader identify with or grosso modo imitate the discursive Subject, at the same time as in a fictional or historical narrative work he establishes a secondary identification, dependent on the first, with the subjective intentions of the characters. This oscillating double identification defines the esthetic experience of narrative.
The postmodern revolt against authority rediscovers in confused form the originary anteriority of the peripheral subject to the constituted center. But it ignores the fact that the individual before the existence of the center is not yet a subject; his appetite, mimetically enhanced, is not yet desire. Humanity is born from the sign in relation to whose originary referent it is always second. What the gesture of representation represents is outside and ontologically prior to it, however tortuous the relationship between the real object at the center of the circle and the eventual idea of the unique God that expresses the quintessence (although not the totality) of this relationship.
Humanity has a beginning but no defined end. It is normal for us to seek ways of liberating ourselves from the originary circle of the scene of representation; the story of this liberation is history itself. And concomitant with attempts at revolt are realizations of the fundamental parameters of what is being revolted against. The destructive movement is best understood as a discovery procedure that obeys the model of resentment by attacking the very structure within and against which it defines itself. The result of this procedure is unthinkable within the old paradigm, but very unlikely to correspond to the expectations of the revolutionaries.
Whence my demurral at Barthes’ conception of textual jouissance and the utopia it is designed to underwrite. This notion is developed schematically in the essay “De l’oeuvre au texte” (Revue d’esthétique 24, 1971) and fragmentarily elaborated in the author’s first deliberately “textual” book, Le plaisir du texte (Seuil, 1973). What kind of satisfaction Barthes himself obtained from “texts” is not a matter for debate, but it is a fallacy, whether or not strategically planned, to found an ontology on an emotion so dubiously shareable. We legitimately invoke fear of violence as what incites the first humans to produce the sign because all higher mammals exhibit such fear, whose evolutionary value is obvious. In Barthes’ article there is slippage from the expression of an ideological preference for “texts” over “works” to the affirmation of a new variety of esthetic pleasure. Here one needs an argument, not an appeal to emotional or transemotional satisfaction. It is noteworthy that even in the book, Barthes mentions few works and cites almost no specific texts. Jouissance is presumably provoked by the capacity of a given text to participate in jeu or “play” with a virtual infinity of others. But we can read only particular texts. As soon as we specify a text, we turn it into a “work.” Conversely, a text is a work conceived as no longer subordinate to the will of its author–a will that we are nonetheless obliged to reconstruct for ourselves in order to understand it. It is this deliberate refusal of understanding–we might call it “overstanding”–rather than any specific qualities of the text itself that provides Barthes with jouissance. Indeed, Barthes’ exposition suggests that what really procures jouissance is less a real or even imagined intertextual experience than the idea of the unbounded potentiality of intertextual experience.
Like the sublime in relation to the beautiful, jouissance contrasts with plaisir as a cultural emotion that does away with human intersubjectivity. If we delight in such emotions, it is because they remind us that our intersubjective relations with a human other, including our submission to the subject of discourse, must pass through the mediation of the sacred. Humans did not become subjects through everyday interactions. But the sublime, as described by Kant, is more crushing than liberating, more painful than pleasurable. Similarly, the liberation from the will of the author that Barthes designates as jouissance is in effect submission to a greater power. The impersonal mechanism of circulating signifiers is a postmodern figure of the sacred, just as the notion of intertextuality is a reminder of the transcendental mediation that presides over all intersubjective relationships.
We need not believe in Barthes’ utopia to agree that this postmodern insight brings to narrative (in contrast to the mischief it has wrought in the domain of the plastic arts, where the marketplace makes it possible to enshrine postmodern resentment as itself the artwork) the benefit of a new level of self-consciousness. The narrative subject is obliged to distinguish himself from the naïve storyteller of popular culture as one aware, and aware that his reader is aware, that his authority derives from a greater power. Postmodern resentment of central authority ends up by demanding from this authority a new degree of self-knowledge to justify its role. Which is, in the last analysis, what the resentful subject always really demands from the central authority he claims he would abolish, but without which he knows despite himself that he could not exist.