This Chronicle originated as a talk delivered at the second GA Summer Conference at Chapman College in June 2008. Since the original text was not as rigorous as I would have liked, I asked Andrew Bartlett for his reactions. Andrew’s insightful comments have provoked numerous changes, hopefully improvements, in the original text.

If the ontological distinction between signs and things is what makes us human, then what status should we assign to art, whose “signs” or representations cannot be divorced from the imaginary beings they generate in us? To put it another way, what is there in the fundamental human institution of representation that makes the existence of art necessary?

Representation may be characterized as transcendent because its elements and constructions can be understood only within a universe that transcends the real world; this is true regardless of one’s position concerning the knowability of the latter. Signs, and representations generally, cannot be understood as material objects, or even as “structures” of material objects, which does not mean that the transcendent as thus defined need be dependent on supernatural agency. The meanings of words and other representations are not found in any individual speaker’s mind, nor in all of them added together; they exist for the community as a whole. Thus they fall under the Durkheimian concept of the sacred, although Durkheim never speaks of language in such terms.

For Kant, the first philosopher to deal with the categories of thought from the perspective of transcendence, the function of representation is unequivocally cognitive. Kant understands what we call the esthetic (he speaks rather of our “taste” for “the beautiful”) as a modification of the judgment, whose normal function is to assign phenomena to concepts (on seeing a horse, we assign it to the concept “horse”), in order to grasp an object in which we intuit unity and purpose “without a concept.” The esthetic object, which for Kant is not necessarily or even principally a cultural artifact, is one that shares with the members of “natural kinds” the wholeness that we associate with living species, yet unlike these, it cannot simply be named by a species concept. In experiencing the particular living unity of this horse I do more than judge it a good example of horseness; I intuit it as a purposeful individual being, existing for itself and not merely in order to exemplify its species.

Here Kant takes a step beyond classic philosophy’s affirmation that an object is “beautiful and good (kalon kagathon)” when it perfectly exemplifies its “idea” or “form.” No doubt the horse that best exemplifies horseness—or as a geneticist would put it, that possesses a maximal endowment of “reproductive fitness”—is the one that we are most likely to call beautiful, but Kant, unlike Plato, sees in this appellation not mere “perfection” or maximization of classification under a concept, but a supplementary act, one that exemplifies the human characteristic of freedom that allows us to recognize the purposefulness of the beautiful horse. For the ancients, freedom was defined only in an interactive, typically political context. In contrast, for Kant the disciple of Rousseau, freedom is a quality of the individual’s internal scene of representation that is prior to any determination of his public status.

That Kant’s discussion of beauty focuses on natural objects and says virtually nothing about artworks reflects the limitation of his notion of esthetic representation. Kant does not distinguish between the natural “purposefulness” we intuit in the horse and the intentionality of the artwork whose creation embodies human will. Nonetheless, by situating the “judgment of taste” in a cognitive context, Kant unequivocally maintains its transcendent status. Just because the typical objects of this judgment are natural should not mislead us into considering Kant’s judgment of taste itself, and the categories of “beautiful” and “sublime” that are its content, as falling within the natural realm. Even if we agree with a mare on the beauty of a given stallion, the mare is not formulating a judgment of taste in Kant’s sense of the term.

Throughout most of human history, the link posited by the originary hypothesis between the originary sign and the sacred—the first word as the “name of God”—was in every human society explicitly affirmed by a communal ritual culture; secular art, in which esthetic experience is explicitly divorced from ritual, played in all but a few cases a marginal role. But, as Andrew points out, in modern societies it is rather art that is found everywhere, while the purview of religion has shrunk. If we take this development not as a sinful aberration but as a genuine source of anthropological knowledge, it suggests that if we find the esthetic more complex than either institutional or formal representation, this is because it is more fundamental than either.

In The Origin of Language, I spoke of the emission of the sign in the originary event as the prototype of formal representation, or language, in contrast with the scene as a whole, including the initial exchange of signs, sparagmos, and concluding communal feast, which becomes the basis for ritual, or what I called institutional representation. In drawing this contrast, I used the term “formal” as a synonym of “arbitrary,” as in Saussure’s arbitrariness of the signifier (arbitraire du signifiant); the relationship between the sign and its meaning is “formal” in the sense that (unlike ritual acts) it is not motivated; in Peirce’s terms, the symbolic sign is neither an icon/image nor an index/trace of its designatum.

But this merely negative definition depends in fact on the substantive meaning of formal embodied in the sign. From an appropriative gesture focused wholly on its object, the “aborted gesture of appropriation” turns back upon itself to become a signifying act whose production, as a potential object of exchange among the members of the group, becomes an end in itself. That is, the gesture becomes a sign only when it becomes the object of a formal intention; the esthetic moment in which the sign’s perceivers (including its creator) react to its form is essential to its existence.

It is from the esthetic moment of the scene that the transcendent categories of the sacred and the significant-formal emerge. The originary consciousness of the sign understands it as representing (as the “name-of-God”) the sacred central object that performs the critical task of deferring appropriative conflict. This attribution requires awareness of the esthetic function of the sign, but this awareness is intrinsic to the experience of the sign, and is therefore in principle independent of the ritual reproduction of the originary event. We should assume that the earliest sign-users, like the humans of our day, experienced enjoyment in exchanging signs with their fellows or with themselves independently of any ritual context.

In the esthetic moment of our experience of a given representation, we return to the sign-as-form in order to reinforce or modify the imaginary object it has generated on our internal scene of representation. In Kantian terms, the sign as experienced in this moment cannot be subsumed under a concept of the understanding that would obviate this return to the representation itself. In the minimal esthetic moment contained in every experience of representation, the speaker/emitter, and subsequently, the interlocutor/receiver, attend to the formal qualities of the sign. In the instrumental use of language this esthetic element is minimized. Yet the dictum (often attributed to Vico) that poetry is the earliest form of language should be understood to apply within each use of language: in order for an utterance to become “prose,” the form of language that is, as Sartre put it, “transparent” to its object, it must first pass through a “poetic” moment in which it is apprehended in its formal identity, lacking which it would not be understood as a sign at all. It is in the esthetic moment of the experience of a representation that we perform the defining human act of generating transcendence from within worldly immanence on our internal scene of representation; in simpler terms, we transform what would otherwise be a worldly gesture or its trace into a signifier by filling it with meaning.

What we call art is the deliberate cultivation of this generative act. The artwork obliges us to experience over time an oscillation between perception of the representation and its meaningful interpretation that models the genesis of the originary sign. Our sense of experiencing the originary generation of meaning is the source of the frisson that accompanies our encounter with a successful artwork. Every artwork is a model of the originary event. But in contrast to institutional representation, art does not presuppose membership in a ritual community but generates its own internal significance in the individual spectator. This is true even when the significance thus generated is borrowed from the ritual culture in which the art was originally embedded.

This model of the artwork as an emergent alternative to the institutional reproduction of the originary event is essentially complex. The famous definition of the beautiful as “unity in diversity” has its source in the multiplicity of the moments of even the most strictly minimal account of the originary scene. The discovery/invention of transcendence in the passage from the deferral of violence to collective appetitive satisfaction through the mediation of the sign can be represented in many ways; the “diversity” of the separate moments is ever in tension with the “unity” of the experience of the birth of transcendence. We should recall in this regard that the minimal hypothesis itself, which postulates only the necessity of an originary event, is not dependent on any specific representation of this event.

In The End of Culture I suggested that a model of the emergence of art from ritual may be found in the Gilgamesh Epic, where the quasi-divine protagonist’s loss of the herb of immortality signals a transition from ritual-based narratives about the gods to ritual-independent stories of mortals. Immortality is a characteristic of representations that is shared by “supernatural” beings who may manifest themselves in our world but whose existence lies outside of time. In focusing on mortal protagonists, narration becomes divorced from ritual and worship; we imaginarily espouse the intentions of these characters not simply because they share our mortality, but because their own lives espouse the finite temporality of the artwork in which we find them. Unlike a god presumed to subsist in a permanent transcendental abode, the mortal protagonist, like the melody of a song, lives and dies wholly within the imaginary world we conjure for him through our esthetic experience. Like the originary central object, the human hero shares both the mortality of the ritual victim and the immortal significance of the divinity it represents.

Just as the sacred is not experienced simply as a quality of sacred objects but as the incarnation of a divine will, so in the experience of art we submit ourselves to the artist’s will as the source of the ensemble of representations that make up the artwork. That a performer may play a piece he has not composed in no way contradicts the unity of the esthetic will, nor does the knowledge that hundreds of individuals have participated in making a film contradict the viewer’s experience of submission to the single subject he may call its auteur. In contrast with the complications of the worldly implementation of the divine will, the artist’s authority holds sway over the sign-world alone. Taking art rather than language or religion as the experiential source of our model of transcendence reveals the functional identity of the human intentionality we attribute to the artist and the agency of the divinity that is the ultimate referent of the originary sign.

We intuitively distinguish the arts from other human endeavors because the experience they provoke is fundamentally similar: the oscillation between a representation and an imaginary world evoked by that representation. The distinctive feature of this experience (and it is curious that there does not appear to be a word in any language that expresses the general form of the spectator-auditor-reader role) is that in the course of it, we continually return to the representation, whether serially, as in temporal art, or at our own pace, as in plastic art, in order to confirm and reinforce this imaginary construction. Our submission to the will of the artist is embodied in this oscillatory imperative. We accept the artist’s complex of signs as at any given moment the source of a more perfect experience of the generation of transcendence than the reveries these signs provoke in us.

The imaginary universe of reference to which we refer the representations in the work may be a world peopled by intentional beings like ourselves, for a traditional painting or story, or for instrumental music or abstract art, a world of formal objects. It is a secondary matter whether, as in the former case, this imaginary world can subsequently be described and discussed in detail, or whether, as with music, it can only be described with any degree of precision in technical terms that convey nothing to the layman, whose own description can paint only a vaguely metaphoric picture. The latter case demonstrates merely that the source of our esthetic pleasure does not lie in our ability to describe and discuss the imaginary universe in question. The fundamental quality of representation is not that it provides us with models of reality but that it arouses in us an imaginary universe that mobilizes our desires in their potential for conflict. It is this mobilization that connects the esthetic experience of representation to the crisis of the originary event. Schopenhauer saw music as the purest of the arts precisely because it least stimulates the auditor to people the scene of his imagination with previously existing memories and fantasies.

Esthetic experience is not only for many the sole experience of the transcendental, it provides the clearest indication of how the transcendental realm is constructed. Whether believers or not, we cannot concretely experience God’s harmonious plan for the world, but we are able daily to experience worlds where all must be understood as falling under the authority of a single will. That esthetic experience allows us to approach most closely a self-contained experience of the birth of transcendence, the distinctive quality of the human, explains both the ease with which we become absorbed in it and the regret with which we leave it. In the absence of any revealed truth for which we are held socially responsible, we construct a universe of signs around the artist’s transcendent will, one that in the egocentric 19th century (from Hugo to Nietzsche) was often compared to that of God. Sartre’s critique of Kant’s “transcendental ego,” like all metaphysical critique, takes for granted the very functions of transcendence for which the ego was constructed. The prototype of the transcendental ego is not the worldly self, which is a “thing in itself” that Kant wisely avoided characterizing, but the transcendental subject of an artwork, be it a simple story or a mere joke, for whose unity in diversity it is perceived as responsible.

Whatever the organization of the circulation of economic goods, it is the circulation of signs and meanings that lies at the core of human society. Even the most ritually bound communities create the means for their members to play out the generation of significance on their internal scene of representation. Art deserves the attention we lavish on it; it remains our most powerful anthropological discovery procedure.