If we would understand the sacred, we must first detach it from the institutional contexts within which it is usually embedded: on the one hand, from religion, which exists to preserve and reinforce the sacred, but which cannot have created it, and on the other, from psychology and phenomenology—related to each other more or less as phonetics is to phonology—which isolate the sacred in a single mind as a “variety of religious experience.” It is a fallacy to imagine that one reduces a cultural phenomenon to lowest terms by confining it to a single mind when it originates within the communal context and can subsist outside it only residually.
According to the originary hypothesis, the originary experience of the sacred is that of the aborting of the act of appropriation of the central object and the conversion of its gesture into a sign. The birth of the sacred is not analogous to the coup de pouce given by the watchmaker-God of Deism, after which no further divine intervention is necessary. Signification is not a mechanism; its functioning depends on the fact that each use of a “symbolic” sign reactivates, with vastly diminished affect, the originary sacred context. This context is, however little we are conscious of it, a collective one; the sign is a mode of communication whose reduction to a solipsistic recording of thought distorts its function beyond repair.
In the originary event, the movement of appropriative intent toward the object becomes a signifying gesture representing the object. The prehuman movement of appropriation has as its intention or final cause the possession of the object; it has no meaning in the sense of an intention to signify. In becoming a sign, the movement becomes a formal whole separate from its original worldly goal, closed on itself, repeatable, and existing independently of its object, notwithstanding the fact that as an ostensive sign it has as an appropriateness condition that its object be present. The first sign is the name-of-God that represents the central object as (already) sacred. The sacredness of the object is not an inherent but a situational quality, dependent on its position in the center of the circle. Conversely, this center must be filled by an object in order to be referred to by the sign. What we call in Saussure’s terminology the signified of the first sign/signifier is not simply its singular referent (say, a bison), or even simply its generic referent (bison in general), but includes the sacrality/centrality that motivates the sign in the first place. This motivation is never entirely absent from the signified of any sign. To refer to something is to reference not only the thing but its significance.
Yet the sacred cannot be reduced to the significant; if the two terms were synonymous, we would not need both. The sacred tends to inhere in stable religious institutions dedicated to reinforcing the solidarity (to use Durkheim’s term) of the community by reproducing the configuration of the originary event in a more or less formalized manner as ritual. “Religious experience” is in essence collective; one-person rites such as individual prayer are derivative of communal acts of devotion. Sacrificial ritual typically expends considerable energy in reproducing both the resentment discharged in the violence of the original sparagmos and the love expressed in the community’s mutual exchange of signs and (generally edible) goods. Language, in contrast, is typically a one-on-one phenomenon; as a self-contained gesture that has renounced any role in worldly action, the linguistic sign has no minimal energy requirement. Whereas ritual reproduces the center of the scene, the sign is generated on the profane periphery to represent this center on an imaginary scene of representation that each assumes is accessible to his interlocutor. We need not speculate on the stages by which the linguistic sign detached itself from the ritual ensemble; as its minimal, “symbolic” element, it is from the outset detachable from the scene as a whole and therefore from its reproduction. The linguistic community of the sign is a virtual one from the outset, any two members being presumed to understand the meaning of each other’s aborted gesture; the religious community, in contrast, comes into being in the unanimity of this gesture that is followed by the unanimity of the sparagmos.
The originary sign designates a thing-in-a-locus inaccessible to the appetite it provokes, which may then properly be called desire. Once the central object has been consumed, the central locus remains vacant and its status as a focus of desire is remembered rather than experienced. The shared meaning of the sign is reinfused with the sentiment of sacred interdiction when its reproduction is contextualized by ritual; as a “portable” linguistic sign independent of ritual reproduction, it tacitly implies the object’s sacrality rather than making its user reexperience it. Conversely, a linguistic sign wholly bound to the ritual reexperience of the sacred no longer functions linguistically; prayers recited by rote tend to become incantations rather than meaningful utterances. Signification is sacrality implied but only minimally reexperienced, known but only minimally felt. As we come into the world and learn language, we are taught what things are significant enough to name; the sole function of many of the names we learn in the early years is to exemplify this significance. Exotic animals that we may never see figure prominently in alphabet books beside the familiar objects whose names we need to know. When Helen Keller first discovered language on understanding the sign for “water,” she realized that “everything has a name” and began requesting and reproducing the signs for the other elements of her experience. But “everything” has a name precisely because it is an element of possible significant experience, the experience of thematization or reference within a context that minimally reproduces that of the originary event.
The sacred is experienced in the originary scene as a will that opposes the participants’ desire to possess the central object. When I abort my gesture because I feel the center to be inaccessible, the gesture-sign through which for the first time I express my own “willful” intention to represent the object is in response to my sense of a will that forbids me to possess it. The individual and collective intending of the sign stands in a relationship of mimetic rivalry to the will that we experience as interdiction. The central object, whose aura of inaccessibility the anthropologist “etically” explains as the resultant of the desires of all the members of the group, appears to interdict itself, and this repulsing will forms our gesture into the sign. The subject of this will is anthropomorphic in the near-tautological sense that the thematizing intentionality of representation is the distinguishing trait of humanity.
Religious or institutional representation attributes this will to a permanently subsisting being, analogous to the signified of the sign. The sacred is difficult to isolate and define independently of institutional religion because in the absence of an institutional guarantee, the experience of interdiction that distinguishes the sacred from the significant has no objective, “meaningful” existence. Dialogues de sourds about the existence of God and similar antinomies are not really factual disputes. Religious dogma may enjoin all sorts of apparently factual beliefs, but behind the specificity of dogma is the institution that guarantees it. Rational choice theory explains dogma’s credo quia absurdum as a means of protecting the religious community against freeloaders by making the requirements for participation more onerous; rival dogmas help define rival communities. But the core of any religion is the ritual reproduction of the originary event, and the sacred inheres, in the first place, in this sacrificial or sacred-making repetition itself. In some religions the law that imposes on the performers the details of this repetition suffices to incarnate the sacred will that Western religions attribute to an individualized God. Religion can do without gods, but it cannot do without a will whose subject stands outside the human community.
What the believer believes that the nonbeliever does not is the institutional supplement to the originary sign, the—oral or written—scripture that makes a particular totality of words and actions the expression of the divine will. The minimal scripture is the originary sign, the name-of-God whose status as the “word of God” derives from the force that turns the gesture back upon itself as a sign. From the institutional standpoint of ritual, this utterance is constrained by the event as a whole, but from the formal standpoint of language, it is in principle a free act whose meaning is constrained by its situation in the event, so that the freedom to utter the sign outside its originary context does not entail the freedom to alter what it signifies. The sacred inheres in the “profane” use of language in the constraint of meaning that binds the sign independently of any ritual context. This minimal sacred inherent in the laws of language is too weak to support a god or a law of ritual sacrifice; it can guarantee only the most parsimonious of anthropologies. The promise of generative anthropology is that its minimal hypothesis of the common origin of the sacred and the significant offers the most favorable basis for common understanding between those who believe that God created humanity and those who affirm that humanity created God.