The Sacred and the Communal Will

That there is nothing more fundamental to the human than the sacred makes it not the easiest but the hardest thing to conceptualize. Forgetting all we know about religion and its doctrines, the question of why our sense of the sacred leads to the positing of a supernatural will whether incarnated in worldly beings or one or more divinities should be answered neither by claiming this as revealed truth nor by explaining it as reflecting the intellectual limits of our earliest human predecessors, but as a hypothesis in its own terms. And the fact of being able to formulate such a hypothesis makes it possible to deny it. Unlike animal inhibition, human interdiction is not reflexive but reflective, thematizable, and thus deniable, as Eve’s snaky friend well understood. Humans are too smart for their own good because were they any less smart they would not be here at all.

The simplest theoretical explanation of the sense of the sacred is that its “will” is that of the human community as a whole, as expressed in the equal division of the animal in the originary feast. But although the individuals’ abortion of their gestures of appropriation reflects their sense of sacred interdiction, the source of this interdiction is experienced internally; no external agent is forbidding the interdicted act. This sense of interdiction is in me, experienced as an imposition on my desire for the forbidden object. Attributing it to the community is a theoretical hypothesis, a construct within a model rather than a lived reaction.

We have been over this before, but we must continue to reflect on it, and indeed, this is the model for all anthropological reflection.

Were we to accept human language as a “natural” phenomenon to be assimilated to such things as the genetic code, animal signals, etc., we would miss the essential point of the underlying equivalence between the significant and the sacred. GA has from the beginning been an attempt to understand the emergence of the human as that of signification, the use of signs, a new category of behavior that extends the behaviors available to proto-human hominins through the mediation of what Jacques Derrida called la différance, the creation of a new, “cultural,” form of difference as a result of the deferral of appropriation imposed by an internal sense of sacred interdiction. This deferral of worldly action situates its object on a scene separated from the subject by what Sartre called a néant or nothingness that surrounds the object of human subjectivity, which he called after Hegel the for-itself or pour-soi.

The equation of significance with sacrality is originary, and regardless of exactly how “the” originary event played out over the period during which homo sapiens emerged as a separate species, the sacred emerges as a quality of the signified of the (first, unique) sign: the interdicted object that must be signified because it cannot be possessed, yet is in principle infinitely desirable. Desire as a human emotion is born as appetite mediated through this interdiction when the new behavior of designation takes the place of that of appropriation.

In this perspective, the sacred is a quality, in itself un-referenceable, that attaches to the object referred to by the sign in the context of the human scene. Once we keep this in mind, we realize that we must understand every phenomenon of human culture, embodied in the exchange of meaningful signs, as framed by the sacred.

We have suggested as a first approximation that the sacred, as a will that we experience in ourselves but not of ourselves, corresponds to our sense of the collective will of the group of which we are a part, and by extension the will of “the human community.” But our sense of the sacred is not directly mediated by other humans. That the attachment of this “sense” to the immanentist divinities that preceded the Axial Age was less true to the originary sacred than its later focus on a single transcendental divinity is not a mere matter of taste, or even of Ockham’s razor: the sacred is everywhere the same. Although we may call it God or the Lord, which are in fact categories rather than names, the sacred is not in essence a nameable being but the underlying reality of namability, that is, of language itself. The Orthodox Jewish custom of calling God HaShem, “the name,” is in its paradoxicality truer to the sacred than any other mode of designation.

What we call an act of faith is the affirmation that we can communicate not just with language but with the sacred itself. That whatever may be the effect of our communication, the sacred takes it into account; and that since the sacred is “immortal,” our communication is likewise. Hence that “in some sense” we participate in immortality, not simply as figures in a temporal history, but as coexisting with the sacred.

Remarks on Buddhism

In my reflections on Buddhism in Chronicles 515516, my point of comparison was the paradoxes of temporality in Nagarjuna and Zeno, by way of demonstrating the contrast between the West’s mathematical conceptualization of the infinitesimal and the East’s interpretation of it as a demonstration of our incapacity to represent the temporal, and by extension, to grasp reality in language. This is what David Goldman (see Chronicle 774) meant by the West’s “finitization of the infinite.” In effect, the same paradoxicality applies to all representation, to the extent that the representation itself cannot be included in the universe it represents. The incarnation of the sacred will in a Being however defined “resolves” this paradox, in the sense that this Being constitutes an “Archimedian point,” separate from the universe, although not outside it—and can therefore resolve Nagarjuna’s Mahayana paradox by allowing us to situate our representations outside the real world.

But the more fundamental characteristic difference of the Buddhist sacred is its refusal of incarnation, not merely in a worldly figure such as Christ but even in a transcendent One God. Where the Judeo-Christian West views the sacred/significant from the standpoint of the human subject of language and his representation of reality, the Buddhist East focuses on the virtuality of the scene of representation independently of its potential object(s). Whence the well-known meditation exercises that trivialize the referent in order to make the subject aware of the scene of representation itself: forcing one’s attention on a trivial object long enough so that we come to focus on the conditions of attention itself, on the scenic structure of its intentionality rather than on the intended object. Here significance is shown to be a product of the scene, such that its attachment to a specific object is of secondary importance. The communal significance of a given object is no doubt recognized in everyday life, but the underlying mechanism of the scene, unlike in the West, is detached from the originary appetitive significance of the central object. Hence the desire that attaches us to the scenic center is treated not, as in the West, as a possible source of sin, but rather as an illusion. The Buddhist “paradise” of Nirvana is the paradoxical achievement of centerless scenicity.

The Miraculous and the Transcendental

I often think that the most important lesson we can learn from GA is that the sense of the transcendental that strikes us in “unforgettable” experiences of all kinds, from falling in love to the act of faith, is no more than an experiential intensification of everyday human experience. When I speak of the scenic, it strikes no one as exceptional—nor does even the screenic, a neologism that seems appropriate to our current culture, the ubiquitous cell-phone screen being the heir of the Lumières’ original canvas sheet, now under the control of each individual. We take it for granted that the proliferation of screens and screenic materials should exercise on us a strong attraction without noticing how this confirms GA’s fundamental notion of the scenicity of human culture.

For the scene is, like all cultural phenomena, a banalized subcategory of the sacred: a locus of revelation. This is not just one more case, but the general case, of revealing the marvelous, miraculous, transcendental aspect of the fundamental distinctive feature of human existence—as with pointing, the instigator of common joint—in other words, scenic—attention that only humans practice.

It may appear silly to talk about the “miraculous” or “marvelous” nature of pointing, or talking, or sharing a communal meal, but by speaking of experiences as transcendental we are singling out as foundational those that depend on the framework we invented for ourselves long ago, and that continues to preside over the totality of our conscious, and a good part of our unconscious, experience. Thus I insist that the sacred differs from the significant only in the relative banality of the affect attached to the latter; in either case, the significant object inspires the deferral of action in favor of contemplation and representation. The qualification of sacrality thematizes this deferral as a sense of awe, fear and trembling, etc., which in effect, however we may deny it, reminds us of the originary experience of the fundamental human configuration of différance: the sacred, the scene, and the sign, which are part of every conscious human experience.