In the previous Chronicle 575, I attempted to show in what way GA simplifies and unifies the various discourses humanity has elaborated in order to explain its existence. Theology, philosophy, and anthropology have as their explicit function to explain what can broadly be called the human world, in the first case, by describing what appear to be the transcendental forces that presided over its creation, in the second, by seeking the foundations of the mental processes of humans as “thinking” beings, and in the third, by seeking to extrapolate from the most primitive known forms of humanity to the origin of the human species as it evolved from our primate relatives.
Whether or not the reader is persuaded by our arguments, at the very least it is impossible to contest their applicability. In the first two cases at least, the unique specificity of the human is presupposed. Whatever divine beings are postulated, clearly only humans are able to speak of or to them, even if mythical discourse may include animals and inanimate objects among its actors. And philosophy may speak of “Being,” but only the human is aware of it; as Heidegger put it in his Wagnerian prose, man is the “shepherd” (Hirt) of Being—a relationship that GA expresses rather more precisely. As for anthropology, the very fact that of all species we alone can conceive of studying ourselves along with the natural world makes our uniqueness impossible to ignore, although many have done their best to do so.
To speak of discourse, religious, philosophical, or scientific, in terms of its content is to consider it as formal representation, that is, as language “transparent” to its meaning, signifiers designating their signified. But whereas the operations of formal representation can be addressed by examining the components of “natural” languages, all of which greatly resemble each other, and can in principle be translated into one another with only minor difficulties, the institutional realm, that of ritual and art, cannot be defined by such simple aims as “thinking” or “conveying information,” nor can its “grammar” be summed up in a compendious set of rules. Reproducing or repeating the originary event is very different from using a system of signs to communicate about the world, even about the human as part of the world.
Let us recapitulate what is formal and what is institutional in the originary sign. Its “formality” is its transparency to its “meaning.” The gesture that was to be part of an act of appropriation is separated from its original goal and comes to designate the appropriable object. The formal relation is not one of desire, but of communication, of the exchange of “information,” which in this minimal case is the information that this object belongs to a new category, which we may call indifferently the significant or the sacred. The object of the first sign stands in an entirely new relationship to its designators. What guarantees the experience as historic, for the first time establishing it as an event in collective memory, is that it defers the potential of mimetic conflict, inaugurating a mode of communal appropriation that takes the place of the queue structure of the animal pecking-order.
The chief problem of secular anthropological thought since the beginning has been its reluctance to see the emergence of the human “deferral of violence through representation” as something absolutely new in history. Religions grasp this uniqueness, but explain it as a manifestation of the divine rather than as an act of human self-creation. And no doubt it cannot be thought as such until humanity has become able to demystify or simply “bracket” its attributions of sacrality/significance and face up to the necessity of a purely humanistic description of the process. Which is not at all the same thing as the “Enlightenment” view that there is really nothing to explain, that religious faith is superstition, and that human intelligence is just an extension of animal intelligence. Atheism only becomes a respectable intellectual position when we can explain in human terms all the phenomena that depend on the sacred, including human language. The marginality up to now of “atheistic” GA shows how far we are from this goal.
If in formal systems, natural language and its derivatives, the sign is so to speak transparent to its meaning, efficiency being of the essence, conversely, the temporality of institutional representation recalls that of the originary event in order to reproduce/reinforce its peace-making effect. Thus the duration of a rite, as opposed to the communication of a piece of information, must be sufficient to absorb the energies of the group and refocus them on the sacred center, not merely as an intended object of perception, but as an object of worship. This is familiar to us from our own religious ceremonies in the Judeo-Christian and other traditions, supplemented within the everyday world by briefer ceremonial acts such as greetings, blessings, ritual gestures, and the like.
In pre-civilized societies, there is no real distinction between the narratives, music, and images that belong to ritual and those that comprise what will later be called “art.” But along with more complex forms of social organization, variants of ritual forms appear that are no longer linked to religious practice and that constitute an increasingly important independent cultural sector.
Starting with Aristotle’s Poetics, there have been countless attempts to explain what can broadly be called “the esthetic.” Whereas the aim of the humanistic disciplines is to formalize humanity’s self-knowledge, or to put it in less “atheistic” terms, our knowledge of (our) ultimate reality, the aim of art, whatever knowledge it may convey, is above all to entertain us, or as Pascal put it, to divert us from this ultimate reality. This is true whether or not art may be said to teach us about the world or ourselves, or to provide spiritual therapy by “the catharsis of pity and terror” or as “music soothes the savage breast.” And whereas expository discourse, however elaborate, obeys the ideal of minimality expressed by Ockham’s razor, the arts thrive on multiplicity. A work of art, of whatever nature, requires a certain time to assimilate, and cannot be “reduced to lowest terms.”
We may be said to have both a broad and a narrow conception of the esthetic. On the one hand, it characterizes an aspect of the effect on the spectator/participant of all institutional representation, whether or not explicitly in the religious realm; on the other, it refers specifically to the effect sought in the independent domain of “the arts.” And within this latter domain, we note that what were originally intended as religious artifacts and ceremonies may be experienced in “secular” terms, as artworks not contributing explicitly to a communal end.
Pascal’s term divertissement expresses a disapproval of “diversion” (which for Pascal includes far more than the arts) from the perspective of one who sees the essential task of human beings as contemplating their sinfulness and their consequent need for divine grace. For Pascal, the aim of human thought is to realize its inadequacy to explain itself without invoking a transcendental agency, rather than to “divert” itself with self-contained human activities such as art, games, and appetitive acts.
But in taking note of the curious similarity between “diversion”/divertissement and “deferral”/différance, we realize that the religious attitude that Pascal expresses is precisely the inverse of the “natural” attitude from which the sacred itself, and the sign that manifests it, seeks to “divert” us, which is to say, an appropriative drive not subordinated to the maintenance of the community. We have called the originary sign an aborted gesture of appropriation, but we might equally well have called it a diverted gesture, since it is in our hypothesis turned back upon itself from its original aim to become a means of communication with one’s fellows, a symbolic sign as opposed to a merely occasional or indexical one demonstrating its worldly purpose.
In other words, the originary sign was a “diversion” from the appetitive drive toward the object of desire whose pursuit had proved too dangerous. This cultural deviation from the world of appetitive drives—for animal inhibition deviates from the appetitive for what remain appetitive/instinctive reasons—was by that very fact enshrined as the originary act of the human. Much later, the revelation of the priority of human peace over the satisfaction of appetite was made explicit by the Christian substitution of a “miraculous” transubstantiation for the nourishing sacrificial feast, with parallel developments in other religions. Once there is no more direct alimentary benefit to religious practice, it reveals its essence as a celebration of the deferral of the appetitive, something that humans alone can achieve.
What then is the esthetic effect common to religious and secular institutional representations? In the first place, we note that religious representations always involve at least a modicum of participation, whereas making the spectator “participate” in art is possible only as a transgression of his normal role. Indeed, we can’t help be aware that there is no term really appropriate for the recipient of an artwork; spectator hardly applies to concert-goers, let alone readers. But in all cases, save for the marginal exception noted, the role is a passive one. One can attend a ballet and watch the dancers, but if one goes to a “dance,” one is no longer enjoying an artistic performance. Conversely, we would not use a word like “spectator” to describe one who attends a church service, even if all the actions are performed by persons in a priestly role. The performance of a classical mass or oratorio is on the margin of what can be considered a religious rite; listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor is not analogous to attending mass, although listening to Verdi’s Requiem may be.
How can we separate the strictly ritual element of religious activities from their esthetic element? The esthetic effect of a religious service is meant to be experienced as a sign of reverence for the sacred and not to be dwelt on for its own sake; it is an ornament, not an essential component of devotion. This suggests that, on the contrary, secular art may be defined by its self-sufficiency, its closure. It is the danger of esthetic closure that provokes among the religious the suspicion of idolatry, and that motivates iconoclastic movements in which religious rites are purged of the esthetic temptations occasioned by “graven images” and the like.
In a simple sacrificial rite, the appetitive conclusion is dependent on the transcendental function of the sacred that inheres in the scene of representation and its extra-human source, just as the deferral of the appropriative gesture is both a sacrifice of one’s appetite to a “higher power” and the guarantee of a superior appetitive outcome. But with the replacement of this conclusion by a purely spiritual one, the spiritual itself paradoxically risks becoming a source of “esthetic pleasure” no longer connected to sacred transcendence.
Whereas religious rites are focused clearly enough on reinforcing communal reciprocity and redirecting resentment toward cooperative ends, neither the social function of artworks nor the source of the pleasure they give us is similarly obvious. Yet they are an important part of most lives, increasingly so as humanity liberates itself from activities of survival. In particular, the proliferation of “screenic” culture in the modern era: first cinema, then television, computers, and now cell phones, has led to the saturation of everyday life by the esthetic as never before. It seems clear that when people are given “leisure time,” they fill great portions of it by “consuming” works of art, whether or not they take advantage of the facilities accorded by contemporary media to create artworks of their own.
Thus it remains to us to explore the nature of the esthetic effect and the pleasure it brings.
To be continued…