Humanities professors have so long considered artworks as objects for academic study that we tend to forget the naturalness of interpretation. Tear a couple of us away from our word processors and send us to the movies, and chances are we’ll begin discussing the film as soon as we exit the theater, and may prolong our conversation for hours thereafter. One of the superiorities of film and theater–long considered the highest literary art–over the novel is that they are experienced collectively. Nineteenth-century novels were often read aloud en famille; today’s electronic media have taken the place of these readings not because we are less “literate” than our grandparents, but because they allow us to share far more information with a potentially far greater set of Others. The tawdriest piece of news allows us to participate in an implicit dialogue with millions of interlocutors. There is no way to separate off my intrinsic interest in, say, the latest O.J. verdict from my knowledge that everyone else is interested in the same information. Culture defers violence through representation only when the latter is–explicitly or implicitly–shared.

But we do not interpret all narratives in the same manner. The difference between the O.J. story and the film is that the latter has a well-defined text and a subject to whom we can attribute responsibility for it. The conversation begins in either case with the binary question of whether we “liked” the verdict or the movie, but the second offers a clear referent for our like or dislike, however collective film authorship may be. (Film buffs attribute the film to the director-auteur, but the general public in its wisdom just attributes the film to an unnamed intention.) In both real and fictional events, our judgment bears not on the fictional but the real, which means, in the latter case, the creator rather than his creations. Hence our esthetic judgment of the film is independent of our moral judgment of its characters; it bears rather on how satisfactorily we feel the outcome realizes this judgment. In the simplest cases, this means defeat for the bad guy and success for the good guy. Professional academic criticism has not traditionally dealt with such works, which generate less talk about poetic justice than about special effects. We acknowledge their fulfillment of culture’s fundamental purpose in the simplest way possible, as the deferral of violence through the representation… of violence.

The good guy-bad guy film lacks high-cultural value because it is sacrificial–it makes binary distinctions between good and evil beings in order to expel the latter. In these works, crisis turns our complex world into an atavistically ritualistic one; the only freedom is in the technique–how the hero will defeat his enemies. It is no accident that the social order depicted in popular fantasy and science fiction, whether set in the future or the past, almost inevitably lacks democratic institutions. The sacrificial model of human behavior is a more primitive ethic than our own; only after Christianity unmasks the arbitrary mechanism of sacrifice does the West evolve the open-ended structure of the modern exchange system. The sacrificial betrays itself by its failure to accept the reversibility of the roles of victim and victimizer. In a good guy-bad guy flick, the bad guys are presumably the victimizers. But in the esthetic economy of the story, it is they who are sacrificed so that the world may be once again fit to live in.

What we call high art is the product of a civilization in the process of transcending the sacrificial–the civilization that has endured, roughly speaking, from Homer‘s time to our own. Sacrifice is not eliminated, but the designation of the victim becomes problematic. Instead of taking the side of the good guy-sacrificer against the bad guy-victim, we are made to identify with the victim-protagonist himself, to share his hamartia or “tragic flaw.” Our interpretive conversation centers on the justification this “flaw” provides for his unhappy end. Was Oedipus downfall caused by his secret desire for his mother? his violent temper? his intellectual hubris in thinking he could solve all riddles as he had that of the Sphinx? his pride in affirming that he alone could save the city from plague? Or was it the fault of his parents who had left him for dead? or of a society in crisis seeking a scapegoat? Our answers are as much theories of human culture–anthropologies–as readings of Sophocles’ play. They can never be definitive; form can never be justified by content. This is the paradox of representation. Form emerges from content in crisis; its truth cannot be formulated in the peaceful propositions of metaphysics.

And thus high culture, however self-consciously ironic and paradoxical, remains bound by sacrificial structure. Aristotle’s common-sense division of dramatic works into beginningmiddle and end masks the point that the end is also the end of the characters themselves. The content-world of the esthetic work is confined, as the performance of a rite is confined, within physical and/or temporal limits. These limits stand in contrast to the sacred immortality, or eternal significance, that the rite is meant to commemorate; in the strictest sense, as iconoclastic religions like Judaism and Islam recognize, there is no such thing as religious art.

This suggests that art is a secular substitute for ritual, a form of entertainment. The fictional character, be he Hamlet or an extra blown away in an Arnold epic, is just an imaginary version of the sacrificial victim. The ritual defers our resentment for a while; so does the esthetic work. In the old days, it also deferred our hunger–the victim was eaten; but hunger, more inevitably even than resentment, cannot be expelled, only deferred. Church services are held weekly; we see a new movie every weekend.

But the historical experiment in high culture intended the artwork as more than expendable entertainment. Its characters and its world were to possess “eternal” esthetic value, to take the place of the sacred Being itself, not merely its sacrificial representatives. The esthetic effect on the individual spectator became, at first implicitly, then overtly, a guarantee of the artwork’s transhistorical value; its beauty was not imposed on us by the community, but experienced freely. Like most cults, the apogee of the cult of the esthetic occurred shortly before its end, in the late nineteenth-century movement of l’art pour l’art. Our professorial role as interpreters of texts is founded on that era’s belief that art is the source of the most profound anthropological intuitions. In contrast to religious hermeneutic, esthetic interpretation is founded not on doctrinal tradition but on our own experience of the texts. It is, in other words, a direct extension of the “natural” interpretative activity I referred to above.


What has gone wrong with this process? What has made us flee the futility of interpretation for the security of the historical and the documentary? And why have we lost all embarrassment before the sacrificial so long as its victimary inversion appeals to our vaguely defined post-colonial guilt? Why in the world of contemporary humanism is Mongo Beti suddenly more marketable than BalzacChinua Achebe than Dickens?

Deconstruction was the last great, or not-so-great, movement of textual interpretation. It is a critique of textual violence, of the text’s binary decisiveness (as Girard reminds us, decidere, to decide, originally meant to cut off, sc. the victim’s head). The deconstruction of the literary text exposes the arbitrary expulsion on which its formal closure is based. This is the theoretical undoing of high culture that corresponds to its ethical bankruptcy. High culture is based on the idea that although sacrifice must be maintained, sharing in it and talking about it defers its violence indefinitely. The unending dialogue over the impossible justification for Oedipus’ or Hamlet’s fate renders the victim/hero “immortal” and so compensates for the sacrifice he has endured. But the silence of the Holocaust undoes, deconstructs the Heideggerian bavardage (Geplapper) of the literary-academic world.

So today we reject Western high culture’s subtleties for the frank resentment of the peuple toward the classes possédantes, or that of the ex-colonial toward his erstwhile master. Behind the posturing of PC is a healthy recognition that all culture is sacrificial. But once we recognize this, we can no longer expect the esthetic to guarantee our anthropological intuitions. Art can no longer furnish the basis of its own interpretation; the humanist’s analysis of the text as well-wrought urn gives way to one grounded in human science. Yet it is not without consequence whether this science be founded on the myths of anti-Western resentment or on a minimal hypothesis of our common origin.