“MQB,” the Quai Branly ethnological museum in Paris completed in 2006, embodies a simple idea of modernity: the visitor is modern, the objects of his attention are not. The implementation of this distinction has embroiled the museum in controversy. The West can never sufficiently atone for its “hegemonic” past, as though its superiority in economic power and ethical organization were fated through the inevitability of contact with its Other to provoke self-laceration.
There is no innocent way of dealing with the Other, but an originary perspective allows us to suspend the zero-sum critique of the museum-as-Subject, to accept its historical firstness as a given without which these objects would remain unknown to us, and to enjoy without arrière-pensée the facilities the museum offers us to see and appreciate them. Those Europeans who rail against themselves as former colonizers should heed Pascal Bruckner’s point in La tyrannie de la pénitence–see Chronicle 385–that self-flagellation in defense of the Other is just one more way of affirming the agency of the Self. If we are all really equal, then the power of the Other’s sacred will have its effect on us regardless of the details of its presentation.
The artifacts on exhibit at MQB are, with no obvious exceptions, imbued with sacrality; they were either designed specifically for use in sacred ritual or associated with it in an auxiliary capacity, such as utensils for the preparation of food or jewelry for adornment. Our attention is commanded by decorated chamber walls, towering ceremonial poles and musical instruments, full-body costumes, and eerie masks made from skulls.
But the modern world has its own sacred objects. I came to Paris with an early iPad, at the time of writing in May 2010, Apple’s latest supergadget, not yet available in France. A device like this, a new platform for manipulating icons, scrolling through texts, playing games, watching movies… has practical and entertainment value, but on top of that, its novel features confer on it a “supplement” of prestige, of mimetic desirability. Visiting the museum led me to reflect on the fact that, abstracting from the concrete practices the objects are used in, the sacrality of the iPad and that of these dresses, spears, sticks, masks, bark paintings, ornaments, and decorated skulls has as its core the same embodiment of universal desirability. The consumer gadgets that we like to decry as artifacts of a degraded sacrality should rather be appreciated as versatile and potentially liberating forms of the same sacred that emanates from the masks and skulls on display.
From sex to sports to storytelling around the fire, every form of human interaction is influenced by the sense of worth conferred by the possession of objects that embody the sacred. I imagine the members of all societies spend a good deal of their time either feeling the envy that attaches to such objects or rejoicing in their possession. Each culture expresses the nobility of its sacred objects through the distinctive effort and skill involved in obtaining and working their raw materials; the hardwood masks and poles are carefully polished and sculpted, the metal and glass iPad made smooth and cool to the touch. The basis of sacrality is a socially shared guarantee of desire, whether or not reinforced by explicit institutional interdictions.
The respective source of this guarantee, whether in the activities of ritual or those of the electronic world of consumption, distinguishes the modern from the premodern. But this difference has another element, one that gives museums such as MQB a means of embodying the modern/traditional dichotomy in the contrast of fundamentally similar behaviors. The most characteristic feature of the modern gadget is that it is a communication device. Unlike a fetish or mask, its primary function is not to be beautiful/sacred, but to transmit beautiful/sacred content to and from its possessor. This allows us to understand the modern/premodern dichotomy in terms more fundamental than permanent/ephemeral or sacred/secular. Premodern societies sacralize representations; we sacralize the scene of representation; the first find mana in figures; the second, in screens, electronic spaces on which we can stage, among other things, the sacred images of the past.
We should take as given that before the invasion of the modern world, the peoples of the Amazon and the Sepik River found the same sense of fulfillment in the possession of a fetish or mask as we moderns do in a new gadget. The only difference, historically significant but anthropologically secondary, is that we replace the satisfaction obtained by the contemplation of one’s new fetish by a satisfaction presumably more ephemeral (do we really know the duration of the thrill procured by a new fetish?) but double of (1) obtaining a new gadget and (2) filling it with the supplementary “content” whose infinite potentiality makes the screens of our iMacs and iPhones and iPads objects of desire and envy.
Given the limitations of their sacred objects, traditional societies cannot, and presumably have no desire to, memorialize their Other, let alone express the faith that they can understand the Other’s sacred through its artifacts. The modern sacred alone, mediated by the screen, has the potential to contain its Other. The modern screen can hold the traditional fetish, but not vice versa; for a tribal culture first confronting it, the screen itself is just a new kind of fetish. Once tempted by screens, traditional cultures have no other choice than to uncompromisingly reject them or to become modern—a process that can be hopeful as well as tragic.
An ethnographic museum’s chief task is to open the modern visitor to the sense of sacrality provoked by the objects on display. At the MQB, I found the dim lighting and background colors welcoming and conducive to quiet contemplation, an attitude, whether or not we imagine it to be that of a tribal initiate toward his mask or spear in anticipation of its ceremonial use, that we are familiar with as the need to limit external sensations when watching a screen, as in a darkened movie theater. The items are displayed mostly at eye level and above rather than in the traditional waist-high cases, and the frequent need to look up at them reproduces something of the awe whose provocation was clearly a major factor in their creation. Typically modern is the widespread use of sound and video transmission devices, with numerous screens distributed throughout the exhibit showing clips of tribal activities, ethnographic interviews, and lectures, or presenting series of photographs that display the objects of the collection in situ and in active use.
As its sacralization of the screen suggests, the modern has no permanently privileged content of its own to put there; the modern is the museum of the Other. When modernity attempts to house its own artifacts in Museums of Contemporary Art, its very openness to the Other risks assimilating sacrality to a mere posture of otherness, making the Artwork a product more of formal willpower than creative craft. In a world where the sacred is found on the screen, we can no longer retrieve what still remained in the modernist heyday of the tribal artist’s conviction that the object of his work, elaborate and skilled from the earliest times, is the incarnation of a god. The iPad is a worthier work of art than much of what hangs or crouches in our museums.
If to be modern is to create and inhabit the museum of the Other, using the screen-centered gadgets of modernity to contemplate the sacred objects of premodernity, then resistance to modernity is impossible from within either the world of the images or the world that watches them. The only way to resist the modern is as an iconoclast, refusing to play either role permitted by the screen, whether that of the image or of its contemplator. No human culture is conceivable without representation, but for the iconoclast, the only permitted form is the minimal one: formal representation, language, whose “arbitrary” non-resemblance to its referent situates all those who deal with it on the same plane. To limit our scene to the Bible—or the Koran—deprives us of a specifically modern position with respect to it; whether we can or cannot understand it, have never opened it or know it by heart, all we can show on our screens is the text itself. It is no accident that today the forces hostile to modernity gravitate to the most resolutely iconoclastic of religious doctrines, the religion of those who blow up ancient statues and put out death warrants on cartoonists.
Iconoclasm is the beginning of monotheism; the One God cannot be shown as an image. But he cannot be named either; the Hebrew God is beyond representation of any kind. The God who reveals himself to Moses gives his name as a sentence. In parallel with the Greek invention of propositional thought, this is already a first opening to modernity. The declarative sentence, an ontological step away from the sacrificial ostensives of religious practice, is already a screen on which we observe an Other. God’s self-being mediates the ostensive through the declarative, the immediacy of human presence through the self-withdrawal of transcendence. Like all religious innovation, Hebrew monotheism is not so much an invention as a discovery, a deepened understanding and articulation of the originary paradox of signification that defines the referent of the first sign as always already significant. The unique sacred Being that presides over this articulation is the potential guarantor of all possible propositions because his self-identity guarantees the scene on which they appear.
God appeared to Moses in the burning bush where nothing was consumed, but his worship required rites of real sacrifice. The objects of worldly desire remained suspect; violence had to be done to them to make them worthy of the transcendental. The Law, so to speak, imposes a grid on the screen.
Christianity humanizes the paradox of signification in the person of Jesus, in whom both the scene and its contents are traced back to the Word that first defined us as human by revealing and deferring mimetic violence. In Pauline Christianity the scenes of divinity and sacrifice become one. The West is the historical experiment that emerges from this combination, which liberates the potential of the screen/proposition to take on the entire span of worldly knowledge as incarnating the divine ontology of I am that I am. Christianity constructs the screen of modernity, metaphorically at first, but always tending toward its material realization as its ultimate goal, all but achieved at the end of the 19th century with Edison’s recording of sound and movement and the Lumieres’ screening of the latter. The screen, which allows us access not to any particular scene but the scene in general, is the modern desire-object par excellence, the goal of modernity that is also the “secular” fulfillment of Judeo-Christianity.
Although today we have become accustomed to witness ourselves on screen, some of us are old enough to remember how disquieting it once was to hear one’s own voice, to see one’s own moving image, as those a few generations earlier had been scandalized by photography. We have never altogether forgotten that the blank electronic scene of our gadgets, capable of transmitting the image of anything at all, renews in its abstraction the originary scene of our distant ancestors. Our continued fascination with the “elementary forms” of religion reflects our intuition that this abstraction is not primary but the product of the human institutions that from the first have made the scene the privileged locus of the deferral of human violence. We sense that the sacred of the Other, which not merely fills but uses the scene to generate and purge violent desire, holds the secret of our own origin. To contemplate it helps us to understand what humans found dangerously desirable enough to be worthy of representation in the days before the screen’s infinite promiscuity. Given the right atmosphere, as I find MQB generally creates, we open ourselves to these representations as both fetish-objects and enacted scenes of sacred ritual. The sacred object that concentrates our desire, the rite that affirms the common value of this object, even the “holy war” that stages a violent conflict with consecrated weaponry but ends abruptly on the death of the first victim (a video clip of such a war is on display at the museum), all fill our culture’s ultimate sacred object with images that only demonstrate that we modern habitués of the screen remain creatures of the scene.
Modernity is still learning to deal with its Other. It admires it as it awaits its seemingly inevitable absorption into modernity, which has taken much longer than expected, and may take forever, if the enemies of modernity can fulfill their destiny as its destroyers.
Before WWII, the West was convinced that its vastly superior economy reflected a general human or “moral” superiority that justified colonialism and for a long time even slavery. The postmodern era destroyed this sense of superiority without providing a model for handling the inevitably conflictive cultural differences between the modern and the premodern. Yet there is consolation in the fact that what defines the human from the beginning is not the elimination of conflict but its deferral. As Hobbes and Girard each understand in his way, driven by mimetic desire, humans need order, and order, however “just,” generates resentment. If only we could accept this simple truth with humility instead of extrapolating it into apocalyptic utopias.
Can we recover at last from WWII? The association of the Holocaust with Hiroshima’s opening the door to human self-annihilation has paralyzed our response to victimary resentment for going on seven decades. In this context, where solutions beyond the ad hoc are inconceivable, we should appreciate a museum that offers us a space conducive to meditation and reverie in which their objects and our screens can share a common goal, where we find it a bit easier to feel the fraternity of masks and iPhones, fetishes and flat-screen TVs. Thus we are brought a bit closer to turning that horrible buzzword, diversity, into an authentic experience, that of the appreciation and exchange of human difference on the giant screen of the world’s “social network,” where all are by turns and simultaneously actors and spectators. In the service of this goal, our duty is to resist the dark impulses of iconoclasm and to share our screens of liberation with the world.