The historical variety of esthetic forms is beyond the scope of a book, let alone an essay. The originary hypothesis is not a formula for reducing all cultural productions to a limited set of parameters, but rather for understanding the capacity of the human for the proliferation of degrees of freedom that constantly creates new parameters. This does not absolve us of the task of seeking the basic principles through which this historical liberation, as well as its not infrequent backsliding, manifests itself.

At the end of a ritual, there is a payoff. In the most common and fundamental rites, this is a communal meal, but we value other payoffs such as ceremonial honors, conferral of a new status, or even imposition of punishment, which satisfies the group that its laws must be obeyed. The end of an esthetic experience, in contrast, is just that; a cocktail reception after a play is not part of the play.

We must assume that the pleasure that artworks procure is ultimately the “same” cultural satisfaction as that of ritual: deferring the dangers of mimetic desire and reestablishing the human community. But as if in anticipation of the expulsion of sacrifice from religious ritual itself in the “higher religions,” the existence of “secular” art is an implicit recognition of our definition of the human as the species for whom internal conflict rather than the inhospitality of the natural world poses the greatest danger. We cannot live without eating, but what poses the primary obstacle to the satisfaction of our needs is our potential to do violence to ourselves, which must be regulated from without, even if from an anthropological perspective there is no transcendent order-imposing force other than that of the community itself.

Within the artwork, the single will of the artist has already guaranteed this order. It is up to the recipients of the work to judge whether they find it an effective organizing agent of what Georges Poulet called le temps humain, the human time that gives “meaning to life” in a sense not accessible to other species, that makes our lives “stories” that we seek to conceive as meaningful—and for which art provides models of meaningfulness. The closed human time of the artwork is a self-sufficient block, whether or not the work itself constrains the time of its consumption, as in the case of a film or work of music, or leaves it free as the time in which we examine a painting, or the hours or days during which we read a novel. In these cases, we construct the work in our imagination, and the time we spend constructing it is not the human time of the work.

As with religion, the revelations of art are not pre-formed in the experience of the originary scene, as homunculi were once thought to be in the germ-plasm, yet all artworks, like all religions, can be understood as interpretations of this scene. Which means, in the first place, that there are no a priori limits on the value to be assigned to an interpretation: some are clearly valueless, others acquire a value only après coup, and others are recognized as valuable immediately. But even the most established works of art remain of value only because new generations choose them to be so, as they choose anew their religious beliefs.

The origin of the linguistic sign coincides with the origin of human intentionality, and the freedom with which we choose to accept the “meaning” of the sign, a freedom that may equally well be called faith, as Derrida appears to have realized in one of his later writings (see Chronicle 340), is no different in nature from the freedom and faith by which we “believe in” God or accept the beauty of a work of art. But the faith of everyday language is closely bound to the practical world, where the truth-value of our assertions is not simply a matter of choice. We can choose to claim that 2+2=5, as in Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and even choose it as an alternative to what has lately been stigmatized as “white” mathematical objectivity, but we can’t send rockets to the moon or calculate our taxes if we fail to accept the conclusions implied by the definitions and axioms of arithmetic, or by the constraints of the natural world. In the world of art, as in that of religion, no such rules apply. Thus a history of art, beyond a factual listing of works and their reception, is itself a faith-based process. Just as each new anthropology redoes past history in its image, so it redoes art history, and just as faith, however free, is accompanied by a sense of unprovable but real necessity, so it is with our faith in the temporal progression or regression of artworks.

Just as with religious belief, faith in art is the acceptation of an imaginary scenic world. Although the difference is real, one cannot deny the similarity between “suspension of disbelief” in a fiction and belief in a religious assertion. In neither case is there a demonstrable real-world guarantee of the signs we take either as true in reality or as true within the scene of representation—and I would insist again on how similar these acts of faith really are. The originary hypothesis explains the phenomenon of institutional representation as our cultural reproduction of the virtual agreement of the human community to share the effect of the sign, and thereby to find in its sharing a basis for common desire, deferral of appetite, reciprocal communication, and eventual shared satisfaction. Although the first sign defers the appropriation of a concrete object, what remains of the sign after the originary event no longer has this object to point to, and yet its reproduction in the appropriate context recalls the communal unity of the originary deferral of violence. God, or “God,” is the subject of the force that presides over this deferral.

How then should we situate the esthetic in history? At least since the Renaissance, Western culture has been aware that art cannot be understood, in any of its genres, as essentially a series of attempts to accomplish the same goal, as we can understand the history of mathematics or astronomy. Even if all art has ultimately “the same” aim, as the evidence for human monogenesis (notably the unity of human languages) suggests, at the very least the pursuit of this global aim cannot be understood in terms of the kind of progressive improvements we find in the practical, technological, or scientific branches of culture. Whence the inevitability of “movements” in art, particularly with the development of mass communications in the 19th century. Just as the originary hypothesis throws a new light on behaviors without whose prior contribution to our history the hypothesis would never have been conceived, so we can understand the specificity of different esthetics, their “settings” of “parameters,” only retrospectively.

In the West, before the Greek city-states there was no “secular” civilization. Statuary was hieratic, and even non-mythical narratives could not escape the divine authority of the monarch, as illustrated by the Egyptian Story of Sinuhe, which ends with the protagonist, after an interregnum “time of troubles,” being admitted in an apotheosis to the favor of the Pharaoh. Societies with sacralized rulers could no doubt produce such things as work- or love-songs, but not major artworks separate from the world of ritual and yet deemed of sufficient significance, like the Homeric epics or Athenian theater, to warrant ritual-like public presentations.

In Originary Thinking (Stanford UP, 1993, henceforth OT), I proposed applying to esthetic history a single parameter that is relevant as well to the history of philosophy in the West. GA’s minimalism suggests that we take as the independent variable of esthetic history the place within the work of the esthetic/representational scene itself, conceived as the framework within which the work evolves. Just as all culture can be understood most economically as an interpretation of the event of its origin, so the only essential difference among modes of art concerns the way in which the scene is understood as itself an element of the work’s content. (We should note the analogy with the Russell-Whitehead derivation of the numbers in set theory: defining the empty set {} as “zero,” defining “one” as the set whose sole member is the empty set {{}}, “two” as containing the first two numbers {{},{{}}} and so on ad infinitum.)

In this perspective, the classical esthetic is the neutral point of departure of secular art. In this esthetic, the scene is not itself represented within the work. There are no “plays within plays” in classical theater, nor do any other classical forms “comment” on the aptness of their subject-matter for representation.

In OT, I called the art of the entire era that followed the classical era, neo-classical, taking the position that even medieval art, if not truly neo-classical in the literal sense of deliberately returning to and thus “quoting” classical modes, makes a meta-classical distinction between existence on and off the institutional scene, as opposed to the minimal formal scene shared by all. Christian civilization foregrounds the originally Hebraic notion of election, which it understands as interpellation, such as God’s to Moses in Exodus, not merely as passive anointment. Whence the iconic importance of the Annunciation, or the significance of Dante’s interpellation by Virgil at the start of the Divine Comedy. In the neo-classical drama of the Renaissance, the fatality of the tragic hero is directly associated with his or her going on stage in a metaphorical as well as a literal sense, whether in Hamlet’s final duel-murder scene or Phèdre’s return, believing herself a widow, from her suicidal depression to confess her love to Hippolyte, who unsuccessfully seeks throughout the play to flee the fatal world of the Racinian unité de lieu.

In the romantic esthetic, the self, so to speak aware of Hamlet’s predicament, chooses to see himself as fated to mount the stage of sacrality. What Girard called the mensonge romantique is the human subject’s notion that he is indeed motivated by such a “fatal” desire rather than by one imitated from the world around him. After 1848, the post-romantic esthetic expresses this disillusioned awareness, choosing in its “realist” mode precisely those who have no pretension of belonging on the sacred stage, although they may, like Emma Bovary, dream of nothing else.

Modernism seeks to reject these problematics and return to a naïve, neutral world where the fact of being “on stage” is no longer thematized nor privileged in any way. But in order to do this, the modernist must espouse a primitivism that denies the layers of cultural accretion that have brought modern humanity to the stage of post-romantic decadence. This esthetic of de-civilization has its political analogue in fascism. To take the stage simply because, like Nietzsche’s blond beast, one is there by right (for Nietzsche, only the man of ressentiment remembers the cultural past) is to incite a battle to the death for primacy, a return, in a world of deadly modern weaponry, to the enslave-or-kill politics of the archaic empires.

And so, following Auschwitz and Hiroshima, we finally reach the stage of the postmodern, which looks with skepticism at any attempt to relate the esthetic scene to the fundamental ethics of life. The postmodern sees art as a means to “express” whatever ethical position it advocates; it affects to understand all previous esthetics as having become available simply as styles that can be adopted without buying into the anthropology they once seemed to (and were often claimed by their adherents to) embody. Hence on the one hand, the creator is free from all esthetic constraints, but on the other, he is unable to know to what extent his choices are not dictated by previous esthetic experiences; the author is both master and slave of the artistic text.

Where we can or shall go from here, what further esthetics may be conceivable, is unclear. Is the postmodern truly a post-esthetic, the sign of the exhaustion of the esthetic “progress” that the modernists so strongly believed in? I will have some further speculations on this subject in a subsequent Chronicle.