The characteristically human configuration of the scene, normally with a central focus of attention, but whose authority may be relaxed to the point of a decentralized “happening,” implicitly depends on the originary subordination of the periphery to sacred central firstness. Any analysis of scenic/cultural activities must take this configuration into account, all the more when the scene takes on an anarchistic form as if in an orgiastic revolt against the originary superego. Animals hold no black masses; unlike reflexive inhibition, ontological constraint provokes perversity.
It is difficult for us to register the fact that only humans experience scenes and signs, which depend on joint shared attention, that is, on the attribution to a designated object of a transcendental status which obliges us to abandon our previous activity to attend to it. Unlike Alpha-Beta seriality, this opposition between center and periphery is known only to humans. Thus our ape cousins do not point, in the sense of the Zen master’s “look at the moon and not at my finger.”
Even the most elaborate example of one-to-many animal communication, the bee dance first analyzed by Karl von Frisch, does not involve anything like a scene. The returning bee does not provide a central focus, but in dancing makes physical contact with the individuals to which it transmits the parameters (angle/direction and distance) of the pollen source it has discovered. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFDGPgXtK-U for a detailed discussion.)
If serial and transcendental/ontological firstness are easily confused, it is because, beyond quotidian activities such as lining up for different kinds of services, the institutional use of serial firstness in elections, examinations, rating applicants for positions, etc., grants to the winners of competitions access to a higher (“transcendent”) status than those who are not elected or hired. Similarly, we stage athletic and other competitions to reaffirm the logic of ontological firstness: the first is/are pronounced not merely relatively but significantly superior, and accordingly receive medals and prizes as signs of this distinction.
The historical passage from the serial firstness of the Alpha ape to the transcendental firstness of kingship began with the establishment of an egalitarian human society, defined by humans’ symmetrical participation in scenic activities, notably the division of food, under the aegis of the sacred. Only the Neolithic Revolution some ten thousand years ago, by introducing sedentary agriculture and its vast improvement in productivity, led to the replacement of this egalitarian system by social hierarchy, evolving from Marshall Sahlins’ big-man who eats less than the fellows he supplies with food into the emperor or pharaoh whose life is worth that of thousands of his countrymen.
In administering our various institutions, we understand the firstness of supervisors on various levels as an ontological distinction opposing them to their subordinates, with the most exalted positions of leadership, such as kingship, being explicitly modeled on the transcendent status of the sacred. In contrast, comparable centrality in animal societies, such as the place of the queen among social insects, is not interactively but biologically determined.
In anthropological matters, although it is constantly question of the sacred, defining what the sacred is is constantly deferred. Because the sacred is a dynamic phenomenon whose essence is relational and not a priori incarnate in any worldly or supernatural being, it is habitually apprehended in its cultural embodiments—gods, spirits, taboos—rather than grasped as an essence, a thing-in-itself.
The dramatically enhanced mastery of reality by the human scene in the West since the start of the Industrial Revolution has made the persistence of its original sacred consecration come to appear to the scientific world as a superstition, super-stitio, a holdover from what Auguste Comte would call its “metaphysical” past. The social sciences are products of this gradual expulsion of the sacred from modern culture.
In the absence of a genuinely anthropological conception of the sacred, two centuries of secularization have led to the near-universal refusal of the social sciences to recognize the sacred basis of the human scene, just as they do their best to ignore the ontological difference between human and animal signs. Linguists view human language as unique not in its very principle, but exclusively in its syntactical capacity to combine signs recursively. In general, the discontinuity that provides prima facie evidence of a qualitative, ontological difference between animal and human is treated as irrelevant, on the tacit assumption that it will ultimately be shown to be explicable by the cumulative effects of quantitative evolution.
The great religions are those whose embodiments of the sacred clarify its sense; they have historically accomplished this more effectively than any metaphysical exposition of ontological transcendence, including even Derrida’s pregnant notion of la différance. But I think it is time for science to bracket the question of religious belief and seek to understand the sacred as an anthropological category. After all, if science and religion share one trait, it is indeed their common humility before revelation, whether empirical or transcendental.
The ontological firstness of the sacred has the particularity that it can be defined only by its effects. Whence the strangeness of the nominal “the sacred,” which I find easier to conceive as the cognate of the French le sacré, as in Girard’s La violence et le sacré. This absence of a true noun is no accident. Nor does conceiving “the sacred” in the same way as “the green” or “the old,” that is, as the total membership of the category to which the adjective applies, tell us anything about what criterion allows us to identify it, given its lack of worldly/empirical reference.
Could its context be defined in advance, the conferral of a status analogous to that of the “first,” but detached from its normal serial meaning, would be no more mysterious than naming the trump suit in a card game. The difficulty is that this status cannot be defined a priori otherwise than by its difference (or différance)—whence the ambiguity that makes sacré the equivalent of “cursed” and sacrer of “to swear”—which originally referred in both languages to swearing a sacred oath. Rather than lament this situation, we should understand it as a demonstration of the sacred’s fundamental nature, less in a speculative ontology of “reality” or “the universe” than in defining human language and the human as such.
This understanding requires as its preliminary step that we accept to consider the terms sacred and significant as synonyms: what is sacred is what is worthy of being designated by a sign. Let us bracket for the moment the “aborted gesture of appropriation” that provides the sign with its hypothetical worldly source. Then we will say that the attribution of a sign to an object/activity, in positing it as sacred/significant to the human community, endows it with an authoritative firstness that demands the deferral of the community’s current activities in order to direct their attention to it on a higher level, that of the sacred scene ontologically transcendent to the world.
Although helpful in rendering our experience of it, calling the sacred a force or a will suggests its emanation from a transcendental being, a condition unacceptable to empirical realism. The force of the sacred can equally well be understood as the collective will of the human community within which it operates, but only by refusing to consider by what mechanism this will is “collected.” The fact that both Freud and Girard, in conceiving their scenarios of human origin, invoke a pervasive originary interdiction—in both cases as the result of a speculative “primal murder”—may be taken as evidence of the common source of their intuitions in the sacred mediation of the relations between the human individual and the community.
This “extraworldly” form of mediation is inaugurated by the exchange of the signs of human language in the context of the deferral of appropriative action. Language operates physically within individual nervous systems, but it functions as a system of communication grounded on a higher ontological level than any of its worldly manifestations, just as the “type” of a sign is independent of any or all of its tokens.
In the past, the term representation/Darstellung was commonly applied to language. Today the term strikes many as naïve, suggesting something like the inhabitants of Swift’s Lagado’s carrying sacks of “representative” items to display in lieu of words. But Swift’s joke demystifies not representation itself, but the naïve notion that words are just another variety of worldly things. Linguistic types, ideas, signifieds, do not exist in nature; they are inventions of the human mind. Their concrete manifestations, whether in books, recordings, or everyday speech, are never other than collections of tokens—tokens which, unlike the examples of living creatures or astronomical or geological formations, cannot be understood within an ontology lacking the layer that assigns a “meaning” to the sign. The sacred may then be minimally understood as the agency that permits the sharing of this transcendental relationship so that humans can use language to communicate with each other, beginning with the originary event in which the reciprocal exchange of the sign communicates the significance, the sacred interdiction, of the central object.
It sounds bizarre to claim that the reason that the notion of the sacred has been viewed as a bone of contention between believers and unbelievers rather than as a fundamental anthropological category is simply the result of a “misunderstanding.” Yet the history of revelation has always been that of simple evidence, simpler than Archimedes’ Eureka! because dependent, not on detecting a previously hidden connection, but on clearing away the fog to see what had always been there.
The simplest way to understand the sacred is simply to consider the role of the signs of language in everyday life. Whatever I am doing, an utterance of language has in principle the capacity to preempt my attention. Unlike animal calls and cries, which humans use on occasion as well, the use of language is a cultural act, one that in principle is presumed to take precedence over the ongoing state of affairs. If the linguistic irruption is considered inappropriate, we may say that it is comparable to the misuse of a sacred privilege.
The sacred can then be defined most simply as the authority behind such preemption, an authority that may be abused, but to which on first reaction we cannot help but accede. This form of preemption is not “instinctual” but cultural; the sign’s capacity to preempt attention, to transcend the current state of being into a higher ontological state, exemplifies human cultural life in its most banal as in its most exalted manifestations when solemn ceremonies interrupt the normal activities of the day. Understood in this fundamental sense, the sacred endows every cultural act with an ontological trump card.
The sacred’s power of ontological firstness, not coincidentally analogous to the criterion permitting Chomsky’s characterization of human language as recursive or self-containing, is in effect all that need be said of human uniqueness. As Hillel said about the golden rule, “the rest is commentary.”