Sacrifice, speech, writing and art
February 24, 2010 5:28 AM   Subscribe

Sacrifice, speech, writing and art: I am interested in the different ways in which a sacrifice, a sacrament, a spoken word and a written word act as signifiers. The notion for instance that the sacrament, at the point of its acceptance, is understood as becoming the signified. What can you tell me / what has been written about the notions of sacrifice and their relationship to speech, art and the technologies of writing?

I am at the very early stages of writing on these themes (so forgive any gross generalisations I make here).

I have a sort of vague notion that speech in a pre-literate society acts in a similar way to the sacrament, i.e. that the spoken word somehow becomes what it signifies (the mimesis of pre-literate speech is imminent). Writing on the other hand acts at a distance, and the notions of referral seem to be quite different when a meaning is ascribed to an iconographic or phonetic indicator carved in stone or written on paper. I am also interested in how art and the sacrifice have functioned through the ages.

I guess I would like your thoughts. AskMefi has never let me down in the past!

- Has anything specific been written on the move from sacrificial mimesis to written mimesis?

- Any interesting writings on sacrifice as it relates to art, language and literature?

Thanks in advance
posted by 0bvious to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you're going to want to read a lot of Owen Barfield at this point. Consider Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. The quote from that article is a decent summary of his main idea:
"[A] representation, which is collectively mistaken for an ultimate - ought not to be called a representation. It is an idol. Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented."
"Representation," "phenomena," and "unrepresented" are all defined terms, so that won't entirely make sense without reading the book. Barfield works a lot with the idea that what you call "pre-literate" and what anthropologists and sociologists have traditionally called "primitive" societies do not have the same sorts of distinctions between subject and object that modern cultures do. This sounds like the general sort of thing you're talking about, even if your focus is more angular. So Barfield can use this to talk about things like sacraments, but he can also use it to talk about science, literature, etc.

I am not sure, however, that he is all that concerned with the significance of writing as such. Still, it's a place to start.
posted by valkyryn at 6:09 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: You might want to check out the work of J.L. Austin, specifically his idea of performative utterances. Not exactly what you are looking for but it might help you down the path.
posted by milarepa at 6:16 AM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: valkyryn said: "what anthropologists and sociologists have traditionally called "primitive" societies do not have the same sorts of distinctions between subject and object that modern cultures do"

This is exactly the kind of thing I am looking for, so thank you. Is Barfield still received well?

My interests are anthropological at base, but I do intend to eventually link these concerns with those of post-structuralism, deconstructionism. It's all about subject/object relations really.

I suppose Bataille might be a good person to go to also. Any ideas?
posted by 0bvious at 6:59 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: You might be interested in (the dear departed anthropologist) Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo's "The Things We Do With Words", which takes Austin et al. as one point of departure.
posted by drlith at 7:49 AM on February 24, 2010

I suppose Bataille might be a good person to go to also. Any ideas?

You might want to check out the first parts at least of Bataille's Theory of Religion for a quick intro to his ideas of the relation of subjects to objects and then to sacrifice.
posted by dougmoon at 11:09 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: I'm not going to claim that he makes sense, but you might want to get at this through Baudrillard, e.g. Symbolic Exchange and Death. It's not a clear essay; if you're not up on Saussure or on Marx's notions of exchange, try Baudrillard's For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, which is a relatively lucid attempt to combine the two.

The general idea would be to make an analogy between language and exchange, and then to analyse sacrifice in terms of exchange. Not sure how you'd want to do this. Here's someone's handy Amazon listing on sacrifice and gift exchange if you want to go this route.

Veena Das has an ethnographic piece from 1983 on the "Language of Sacrifice"; a quick Google search (with Hubert and Mauss as my starting point) indicates that there is other work on Vedic and Sanskrit religious texts that combines linguistic work with analysis of sacrifice.

Sacrifice seems to be a peripheral theme for him, but Webb Keane is an anthropologist of religion with a keen interest in linguistics: searching for him and "sacrifice" through up a couple of references that might be of interest.

I'm no specialist in the anthropology of religion, but I've never heard of Barfield, and most British anthropological writings from the 1950s are now taken with heapings of salt as primary sources. If you do want to pursue the Barfield but want to look good to anthropologists, check in JStor to see whether he gets citations in anthropological work.
posted by col_pogo at 4:29 PM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: You will likely find Mary Douglas helpful, particularly Leviticus as Literature.
posted by generalist at 4:44 PM on February 24, 2010

Barfield ran in the same group, the "Inklings," with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, so he's far from a lightweight, but I couldn't tell you much about his reception in the academic world. He never achieved the fame that Lewis or Tolkein did, but I'd attribute that to his not having bothered to write fiction.

col_pogo, I'd say the reason you haven't heard of Barfield is because he's not an anthropologist of religion. He was a philosopher and an attorney, and Saving the Appearances is a work mostly of metaphysics and epistemology. The discussion of religion is kind of tangental, which is why I was not entirely sure it's what the OP is looking for. Still, it's in the same ballpark.

If nothing else, it's a place to start, and he engages pretty thoroughly with the academic discussions of the early twentieth century. Still, a lot as happened since then. I'd agree that a JStor search looking for citations to Barfield could be illuminating.
posted by valkyryn at 12:02 PM on February 26, 2010

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