The esthetic is the most mysterious of anthropological categories. Indeed, given that language itself produces esthetic effects, there is no aspect of representation that does not touch on the esthetic—which makes it all the more difficult to understand. It is most simply seen as a quality that inheres in certain objects (“the beautiful”), whether natural or created. Yet it is experienced as an effect on the perceiver rather than as the realization of an objective quality in the thing perceived (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). And we freely apply “beautiful” and similar terms not just to representations, but to attractive human beings, particularly those of the opposite sex, as well as to actions, landscapes, flowers, sunsets…

The esthetic cannot be understood without postulating an internal scene of representation on which the recipient of a sign, formal or institutional, or a worldly perception experienced as significant, “imagines” the referent of the sign. Although we cannot reject the analogy between our sense of beauty and the preference animals show for attractive features, notably in possible mates, as evidenced by the evolution of “esthetic” elements like the peacock’s tail that have no practical function, like all prehuman sign-systems, animal “esthetics” lacks the mediating element of the scene of representation. When we find beauty in a natural object, or in another person, we are not simply reacting to a stimulus, nor can beauty be equated with sexual attractiveness. On the contrary, the esthetic effect participates in the deferral of the appetitive, to the point where the reverence inspired by beauty inhibits desire—indeed, enhances it by inhibiting it, making it “transgressive.”

In the use of language to convey information, we do not dwell on the signs themselves, but use them as instruments to construct the thoughts they represent. We can leave it to the neuroscientists to discover how these thoughts are implemented in the brain, and in what sense it is useful to speak of a mentalese into which signs are “translated.” From my layman’s perspective, although one may usefully speak of a common signified represented in different ways in different languages (dog, Hund, chien…), and even à la rigueur of the Platonic “idea” of Dog, the idea of an internal Ursprache of the brain strikes me as an invitation to infinite regress.

The iconic representations of the plastic arts, the sounds of music that belong to what we can broadly call a representational universe although they don’t “represent” anything, have superficially little in common with the signs of language. What is constant in the esthetic effect across all these different arts is the persistence of the sign, or the natural object experienced as a sign—recalling that experiencing the central object as the signified of a sign rather than an object of appetite was in our hypothesis the originary human experience—in connection with the imaginary universe it evokes.

Music and language have little else in common, but in both cases, the attention of the recipient of an esthetic performance, incapable of the formal “transparency” possible with language, oscillates between the sign and the imaginary construction it evokes. In the case of a plastic artwork with no temporal component, the spectator constructs from the signs of the work an imaginary world. In classical “realistic” art, this world was modeled on the life-world; in non-objective art, analogously to music, the patterns evoked by the work are only partly or not at all mimetic of worldly experience, but in either case, the spectator must constantly return to the work to guarantee and verify his imaginary construction. In works that take place over time, this construction is constantly modified by continuous attention to the work itself in its temporal unfolding.

In either case, the sign-universe of the artwork or the natural object that we react to “esthetically” provides us with “entertainment” by immersing us in an imaginary world that we must rely on our experience of the work to provide. We are thereby “diverted” from the uncertainties of the life-world to the witnessing of one that, like the originary event, is or appears to be presided over by a single subject. The esthetic effect, that is, requires the recipient’s submission to the authorial will that presides over the work. Although we recognize the will of the artist as that of another human being, this mode of submission is nothing like the queue-structured submissive behavior of non-human animals; it is modeled on our relationship to the sacred subject that presided over the originary scene. A Pascal might ask how it is possible to remain an atheist and yet enjoy works of art; can we find it acceptable for our fellow humans to adopt a transcendental role to entertain us, yet reject the reality of the role itself in our life-world? Yet we can just as well take the opposite view, that a world ruled by God’s will is conceivable only as a fiction.

The oscillation of our attention between the details of the work and the imaginary construction it evokes in us is experienced as what I called in the previous Chronicle the closure of the artwork. In contrast, in the domain of religious ritual, the sacred presides over the rite but at no point do we imaginarily construct it. As opposed to fictional personages or such “objects” as musical sequences, the sacred remains beyond the signs by which we evoke it. Even in primitive religions, the “idol-worship” suggested by the condemnation of “graven images” is never more than a temptation for the worshipers themselves, taking the esthetic effect of the idol as proof that the sacred inheres in it rather than presides over it.

If we seek the origin of the esthetic effect in the originary event, it occurs at the moment at which the sign, which began as simply an appropriative movement toward a desirable object, becomes a means of designating it that re-presents it to the other participants of the scene. If it be asked, how can we know how such a moment would have been experienced, our answer can only be: by analogy with later esthetic experiences. But in the same way that worship inheres in the relationship of these first humans to the center inhabited by an object they cannot for the moment possess, the esthetic is inherent in the birth of the sign, in its becoming a Gestalt to be achieved as a representation of its referent. However formalized signs may become, they must be formed, and as such are in principle objects of care whose transparency to their object—the use of language that Sartre famously associated with prose—can be “opacified” with respect to any of their components. In works of art, literary as well as iconic, this opacification is the very point, since we rely on the details of the work to continually rebuild the static or changing objects of our imagination.

The problem with “understanding” art, like religion, is that institutional representation is not designed to “convey ideas” and cannot therefore be reduced to a schematic or algorithmic sequence. Whether the representations are passively received, like the elements of an artwork, or participated in, as in a religious ceremony, they cannot be understood as instruments for arriving at a conclusion that could be defined independently of them, as do in principle the elements of an expository discourse, most rigorously in the “hard sciences.” The interest of the “digital humanities” is that the practitioners of Big Data, by investigating the construction and reception of institutional representations without regard to the “emic” discourses by which we describe and discuss them, become able to discover parameters implicit in the composition of these representations of which their creators and/or consumers may never have been aware. On this basis, these researchers can entertain the project of one day constructing algorithms capable of creating artworks, and perhaps even religious systems, that rival those now in existence.

But it is best to suspend this discussion until any such algorithms have shown themselves able to do more than fool a few people into giving them a passing score on the “Turing test.” I think we can also postpone until then our decision as to whether we should just forget about originary anthropology and concentrate on “posthumanism.” Although to judge by the relative interest these subjects arouse, one gets the impression that we have already made this decision in advance. Perhaps, like certain cultures, human self-consciousness will reach senility without ever having passed through maturity.

To put the thrust of this analysis in the simplest terms: the esthetic and the religious are elusive because they are not meant to be understood in the same way that we can understand scientific discourse or, with all its paradoxes, that of philosophy. Religion is easier to understand than art because it bears its transcendental character on its face. The point of worship is to reinforce, or to put it more strongly, to regenerate, the numinous quality that in our hypothesis originally derives from the fear of violent disorder with the collapse of the primate pecking order. (Although this seems obvious enough, I have never once seen this point made by “professional” anthropologists, even those who are experts in primate behavior.)

But if the sacred is “just” the fear of disorder, how can we square this with our reverence for the divine? This is in a sense “the ultimate question” whose answer is “the meaning of (human) life.” But the originary hypothesis allows us, if not to determine this “meaning,” to define the limits of the human understanding of it.

The interval between fearing to grab for the meat and deferring one’s grabbing so that it becomes understood by the others as a sign is the birth moment of humanity. This is surely the most significant evolutionary development since the origin of life. But just as faith in uniformitarianism makes today’s scientists feverishly anxious to find life duplicated all over the universe, although no shred of evidence for extraterrestrial living creatures has ever been found (see Chronicle 513), it should be no surprise that we are even more invested in trivializing the human, reducing the emergence of language to just one step among others in primate evolution (see Chronicle 567 for a recent example). This Enlightenment skepticism is just the expression of the fear of the sacred by other means.

We worship God because by showing the proper respect for human origins, we maximize our chances of avoiding self-destruction. That doesn’t mean that religion is superstition, that “God is not good,” and other such nonsense. If we are truly humanists and want to do without God, we must find a way to show this same reverence to “man,” or “humankind”—but then there is no object of worship before us, since “man” is a concept that, unlike other species-concepts, cannot be understood by examining a single example.

This is not because humans are like ants that act only collectively, so that the anthill, not the individual ant, is the “real” living organism. On the contrary, humans alone are individuals. But their individuality exists only as part of a sign-sharing community. The inability to speak attendant on being brought up among animals like the “wild child” is a permanent exile from humanity. In order to show the proper reverence for what maintains the human community, we conceive of transcendental beings necessarily beyond any images we may construct of them.

When the Greeks made statues of the Gods and the Hebrews forbade them, their sacred transcendence was the same, although the latter’s iconoclasm reflected a clearer understanding of it. No Greek thought that the statue “resembled” Zeus or Poseidon; these were imaginings designed to provoke the effect of numinosity that arouses worship, and ultimately that reminds us that the human community is the product of a deferral of our “instincts” in the face of a force that, however anthropology may try to explain it, is knowable only in its effects, not in its “being.” Once one begins to understand this, the “unknowability” of religion and art are no longer mysterious. In both cases, it is their effect that is essential, and this effect is irreducible to a series of declarative sentences.

In the next Chronicle in this series, I will turn to the relationship between institutional representation and history.