Desire and the Sign

In the previous Chronicle, I avoided speaking of desire in order to anchor the notion of paradox in the phenomenon of representation. Yet desire, as opposed to mere appetite, participates in the same paradoxical relationship as the sign between “horizontal” appetite and “vertical” deferral. In both cases, the object of what was an appetitive drive or gesture is interdicted and becomes thematized as an intentional object through its interdiction; this mediation is “recycled” into the original drive. The difference lies in how these phenomena relate to their cultural and natural environments.

In the case of the sign, the aborted gesture, a sign of non-action in the animal world, becomes a communication to others of one’s renouncement, and hence of the sacred/interdicted nature of the gesture’s original objective. The reciprocal exchange of the sign makes deferral into a common project whose members form the core of the first human community.

In contrast, desire “feeds on itself,” deferral making the object of appetite significant/sacred within the individual’s own scene of representation. The intentionality this gives rise to in the individual, unlike the expression of significance through the sign, makes him aware of his independence from the community. The circulation of psychic energy between the original appetitive drive and the “deferred” scene of representation  is the source of human creativity.

Whereas language, as an instrument of shared communication, cannot exist without communally shared norms, even when these are violated, desire and the experiences it inspires provides the “libido” that fuels not only the individual’s participation in cultural phenomena but his impetus to create “his own” cultural world.

It follows from this that whereas the mimetic element of the sign operates by effecting a common agreement as to its meaning, the mimetic element of desire contains a constant threat of conflict. Signs may be indefinitely multiplied, whereas objects of desire are “unique.” Their mimetically heightened value is the différend of all human violence—as well as the primary stimulus to employ human ingenuity in the service of further deferring this violence.

Presented less as an anthropological discovery than as one of those lessons that life teaches us, the paradoxical nature of desire is one of the great truths of “mature wisdom.” As Pascal put it, one desires the chase, not the prey; the fun is in what you do until you get the prize. Unlike appetite, desire does not simply satisfy a need; it depends on the joys and frustrations of the deferral of satisfaction. And this is all the more true when the desire in question circulates between two lovers. Suis ton ombre, elle te fuit ; fuis ton ombre, elle te suit [Follow your shadow, she flees you ; flee your shadow, she follows you] was an adage long before Girard theorized mimetic desire in Mensonge romantique.

Even in carrying out the biologically essential functions of eating and sex, we enjoy prolonging the act that leads to satisfaction rather than focusing exclusively on its fulfillment. I don’t believe there is any evidence that animals experience pleasure in this paradoxical manner, for this experience depends on the transcendental phenomenon of deferral.

The Paradox of Art

As readers of Chronicle 669 will recall, my first venture into paradoxical thinking, prior to any thought of “originary thinking,” was in the realm of the esthetic. Looking back after over 40 years on my writings on le paradoxe esthétique, it is perhaps not surprising that I am no longer altogether satisfied with these early formulations. But seen as a step toward originary thinking, the association of art with paradox contains an essential anthropological intuition that can be understood more clearly from the standpoint of the mature theory.

Some years after I conceived GA’s theory of the sign, I rethought the esthetic relation in terms of the tension in the mind of the perceiver between (artistic) sign and (imaginary) object. As opposed to the obvious examples of temporal art—narration, music, dance, theater—I chose as my primary example our interaction with plastic art, the experience of which precisely lacks a regulated temporality. When the artwork is present all at once, the spectator must be induced by his perceptual experience alone to prolong his examination of the work beyond merely ascertaining its “subject.”

It seemed to me that when contemplating a painting or sculpture, particularly those in the classical, representational mode, if we “keep looking” at the artwork it is because our attention is in effect oscillating between the art-object itself and the imaginary reality it conjures up on our imaginary scene of representation, and which the desire inspired by the work incites us to renew.

In the case of non-objective art, this “reality” is no less a mental construct for being without analogy in worldly forms. But it has always seemed to me that, with rare exceptions, our absorption in such a décor is uncompelling, and that what replaces the charm of real imagery is largely the snobbery of feeling more able than the “bourgeois” to appreciate the beauty of patterns and colors, or simply of identifying with the artist’s chutzpah in disdaining the iconic.

All of modern art is haunted by the fear that the “external” mimesis that circulates between the artwork and its evocation in our imagination is becoming less potent than our “internal” mimetic relationship with the artist and his real and potential public—a second-level paradox the classical manifestation of which was Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 display of a “ready-made” urinal (entitled “Fontaine”) in the catalog of the Arturo Schwarz Gallery.

Like all artifacts of culture, the work of art builds on the originary experience of appetite and deferral that produced the first sign. The analogy between the structure of art and that of desire itself brings together the most salient modes of paradoxical experience that define the human.

To the extent that the energy that circulates through the virtual presence of the group in the sign remains embodied in the originary central object, and in the memory of the object after its consumption, the appetitive interest of the object retains the element of deferral that defined it from the outset as an object of desire.

The scene is defined by its center, but its constitution qua scene—as opposed to an unstructured terrain of potential conflict—depends from the outset on the sign of deferred appropriation that in effect defines the center. The oscillating attention of the peripheral participants between the reciprocally exchanged sign and its sacred central referent already has the structure of an esthetic experience, one that reinforces the scene’s peace-bringing suspension of action.

Once it is realized that recreation of the scene begins with the sign, and that since recreating the sign is wholly within the power of any human individual, this provides an incentive both to the group and to its individual members to supplement the minimal sign with more elaborate representations of the scene in order to enhance the effect of its ritual repetition by serving as reminders of it.

It is thus easy to understand how the sign in its minimality would come to be supplemented, at first by prolongations and extensions of the sign-exchange itself in ritually coordinated dances and chants, and then, once a “sacred space” has been established within the community for the recreation of the scene, the creation of iconic images of the ritual center, leading to the remarkably sophisticated cave-paintings of Lascaux and elsewhere that illustrate the communal basis for the rite in the overcoming of the animal that will provide the substantive basis of the ritual.

Although the originary sign is not an “art-object,” it participates in the sacrality of the central object, which preexists it only virtually. What we imagine as the quasi-ecstatic repetition of the “aborted gesture,” no doubt accompanied by vocalizations similar to that preserved in “Yah,” the primitive name of the Hebrew god, is our first cultural act. It makes the sign a signifier not merely of the scenic center but of the scene as a whole.

Art and Sexual Desire

In contrast to the need for food, the sex drive, the other major source of human desire, is not suited to the public scene. If alimentary appetite must be deferred in the critical circumstance of collective feasts, in the sexual realm, one would speculate that by the dawn of language/culture, monogamy had already become the norm. The prehuman young, as a result of their larger brains and the narrowing of the birth canal resulting from erect posture, were becoming increasingly neotenic and consequently required more and longer maternal care. And we can easily enough imagine that sexual loyalty played an important role in undermining the Alpha-Beta pecking-order system. Terrence Deacon (see Chronicle 168 and passim) even speculated in The Symbolic Species that the first use of language may have been in a “marriage” ceremony for the purpose of insuring the hunters against their partners’ potential unfaithfulness during their absence.

But although we may assume that the originary crisis that produced language occurred in the domain of food distribution, it is significant that the world of art pays little attention to the alimentary domain, other than as providing occasions for communal solidarity (as in the “equal feasts” of Homer’s epics). Art, in all its manifestations, is the product of the freedom that deferral procures to the human individual, separated from the natural world by the néant of deferral, to conceive the world for himself. Art’s detachment from the world of ritual reflects the individuation of desire and of its human subjects that is a byproduct of the deferral mechanism and its privileging of the sexual domain. Esthetic experience, which capsulizes the self-reinforcing and self-enriching structure of desire in the oscillation of the perceiver’s attention between the work itself and his imaginary construction of it, parallels the self-reinforcing and self-deferring pattern of the love-relationships that art so frequently depicts.

On the one hand, contemporary social science is handicapped by its incapacity to appreciate either the originary necessity of language (as opposed to its apparent gratuity) or the degree to which the individual mind is dependent on its cultural community. Yet on the other hand, those who would apply the GA paradigm must not neglect to take into account the freedom that the possession of language provides the individual to engage, well before the existence of institutional “learning,” in what Lévi-Strauss called la pensée sauvage, a mode of thought without any institutional basis in established doctrine. Lévi-Strauss likened activity in this mode to that of the classic French tinkerer-hobbyist, or bricoleur. And throughout its entire history, no significant human activity remains as close to bricolage as does artistic creation.

The most distinctive feature of human as opposed to animal mimesis is the drive, always virtually present, of the imitator to differ from his models, whether in small or large ways. It is by no means accidental that this phenomenon has above all been noted and studied in the arts, where the overt search for originality marks the opening up of what Voegelin called “compact” archaic civilizations.

If we can define a moment at which the esthetic exceeds the domain of ritual, within which it certainly begins in any cultural sense, it is when its subject-matter is individualized to the point that the spectator becomes aware of its particularity rather than its conformity to an established ritual tradition. Regardless of the exact point of inflection, what we must note is the new possibility of individualized representation that adds a vast number of degrees of freedom to potential human creativity.

It is in the artwork that the significance/sacrality inspired by individual desire, whether centered on a sexual object or one of worldly significance, can be shared with others as individuals rather than simply, as in ritual, by re-forming the originary collectivity. The public spectacles of the recitation of the Homeric poems and later, the Athenian theater festivals illustrate both their source in originary rites and the separation from them that art entails. The community constituted by a theater or cinema audience is formed by the intersection of individual experiences, even when, as in the old TV studios, the spectators were given instructions on when to laugh for the benefit of home viewers.

The paradox of desire, which nourishes the world of art, is the foundation of the individual’s personal scene of representation in its deferred unification with the communal scene. This central mechanism of human intentionality realizes itself both in our private lives and in our ambitions to “leave our mark” on the world.