‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 3: Subjects and Mediation

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: IntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2:I, Chapter 2:IIChapter 4:IChapter 4:IIChapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7

Reality always comes to us in a mediated form, being constructed by the symbolic order.

This symbolic order designates the system of connections between the different elements and levels of a culture (economic, social, political, ideological – ethics, philosophy, religion…), a system forming a coherent whole that allows the social group and individual to orient themselves in space, find their place in time, and in general situate themselves in the world in a significant way – in short, to find their identity in a world that makes “sense”… (84)

It might be helpful to recall the earlier distinction that we drew between a ‘universe’ and a ‘world’: it is the symbolic order that renders the universe as a ‘world’ to us.

Chauvet draws a distinction between sensation and perception. Although we may share in common with the lower animals our sensations of pain, ‘the perceived object is always-already a constructed object’ (85). The world that we perceive is always a world that already bears our mark. Whatever I perceive is always placed within a web of signification and cultural value (perceiving is always a perceiving as), within which I determine what aspects are worthy of attention and notice, and what significance those aspects should be given.

Submersion into this symbolic order, this law, this world of meaning, is the means by which the human subject is formed (86). We form ourselves by building this symbolic world. However, the symbolic world is something inherited from others: we enter into a world that has already been spoken. Chauvet compares this symbolic world to a set of building blocks: they are the means by which we form ourselves, and the real into a ‘world’. He also compares it to contact lenses, which, although invisible to us while we are wearing them, filter all that we see.

Language (which doesn’t exhaust the symbolic world) participates in the characteristics of the symbolic order, within which it plays a crucial part. Language always precedes us. It is not an instrument, but mediates reality to us (87). It is constitutive of truly human experience: language is our primary means of perception. Even when we are silent, our language is always speaking in numerous ways, and we are its creations. If we were not possessed by language, our reality wouldn’t come-to-presence for us in the same way. Heidegger’s approach to language runs radically directly contrary to that of traditional metaphysics, in which things precede words. For Heidegger, language creates ‘things’. Language summons entities to come into presence (an activity that it is the task of the poet to manifest).

There is a natural misconception – a tenacious misconception that is profoundly difficult to shake – that language involves an ‘exteriorization’ and expression of something internal to us. Parallels between Wittgenstein and Heidegger are quite apparent at points such as this. ‘For there is no human reality, however interior or intimate, except through the mediation of language or quasi-language that gives it a body by expressing it’ (90). Our impressions and thoughts are given form and being by means of their expression. Without language, we couldn’t think the thoughts that we want to express in the manner that we do. Our concept of interiority develops out of the retrospective differentiation between the public expression and the private intention (91). However, the two are inseparable: without chosen expressions, our intentions would be inchoate and indecipherable. For instance, in the case of the love of a man for a woman, it is through his internal speech to himself, whether mentally verbalized or not (e.g. ‘I want to kiss her…’), and his external speech that his intention becomes what it is.

Some sort of language (in the broader sense of the term) is the mediator of every human reality. ‘Every human situation, every experience common to several people wherever they may be, is a reality that, in its constitution, its advent, its realization, implies language. … Every human reality has language for its catalyst’ (92).

Language and the Subject’s Coming to Being

Chauvet seeks to clarify the exact source of the power of language, by studying the ‘concrete process’ of the ‘invitation by Being’ manifested in language by means of psychoanalysis and linguistics. Through this he intends to explain the character of the communication between God and humankind that maintains the radical difference, and the manner in which all human life is, through initiation, entered into by a form of death.

Chauvet begins by reflecting upon the meaning of the word ‘I’ in the context of conversation. It does not refer to a concept, for no single concept could comprehend all ‘I’s. Nor, however, does it refer to a particular individual, as any individual can be designated by the term. Rather the linguistic ‘I’, as Lacan observes ‘designates the subject of the enunciation.… It does not signify it.’

The ‘I’ is both the subject of the enunciation or discourse (the speaking person) and also the subject of the verb (within that which is spoken). In fact, a reference to the speaking person, to a ‘subject of the enunciation’ is a precondition for the meaning of all discourse: discourse only has meaning as it concerns ‘humans conscious of their presence in the world as speaking and acting subjects’ (93).

The ‘I’ requires both a ‘YOU’ and an ‘IT’. It requires another party who can address, and be addressed, for whom the YOU-I relationship can be reversed. It also requires a third, an ‘IT’, whereby the reversibility of the YOU-I relationship is prevented from becoming one of mirror images, and the ‘YOU’ and ‘I’ are related to the non-person, opened up to the wider social and cosmic world. Without such an ‘IT’, the ‘I’ would be unable to posit itself.

An important observation arises out of this:

Now, if what is most different (I-YOU as opposite and radically other) is also what is most similar (YOU as the reversible of the I), then the anthropological difference should not be conceived as a distancing which attenuates or even cuts communication but rather as an otherness which makes it possible. Such is the distinctive trait of every human discourse that nothing is more similar to the I than the YOU in its very difference; that, as a subject, the “one” is possible only through the “other” recognized precisely as “my counterpart – the one similar to me.” (95)

Chauvet draws upon Jacques Lacan’s understanding of the development of the human subject. The infant child passes through a ‘mirror stage’, in which he identifies with himself in his reflection (and this ‘reflection’ need not be a mirror, it could be another child, for instance). In the mirror the infant finds a sense of self-unity (previously the infant perceived its body as ‘a collection of unrelated parts’. However, the child cannot easily distinguish itself from its image but is like its captive, over-identified with it.

This situation is resolved as the infant arrives at a sense of a symbolic unity, ‘of an order other than its reflected body’. The child comes to this understanding of itself as it is represented to itself in language – named – by others. However, this leads to an interesting situation: this mediation of the subject by language creates a ‘split’ or ‘division’ in the subject. Although the subject now has knowledge of itself, what it knows is not in fact itself, but only a linguistic representation. The ‘I’ that is the subject of the verb in the sentence (‘the enunciated subject’) is actually a symbolic substitution for the ‘I’ that is the speaker (‘the subject of the enunciation’). This split in the ‘I’ previously mentioned functions as a split within the subject, a split that places lack at the very heart of the subject’s identity. Consent to this lack is crucial to the development and growth of the subject.

The symbolic order is entered and remained in through a sort of death, a death to the immediacy of our reflection and its ‘primary narcissism, that is to say, our imaginary omnipotence and right-to-enjoy-everything (98)’. If we want to gain our lives (in becoming someone in the symbolic order), we must lose them (dying to the immediacy of our imaginary relationship with ourselves in the narcissism of infancy). This is the logic of initiation.

The subject is both formed and maintains itself through the breach between the self and the self as represented in language, between the ‘real’ (the unsymbolized realm of human existence) and the ‘symbolic’. It must continue to consent to the absence from which it is constituted. Lacan compares words to gravestones, marking the absence of, and standing over the things that they represent. The Truth occurs through the mourning process, as we consent to the absence of the Thing. The ‘umbilical’ cord of our immediate attachment to our selves and the world formed around them must be cut, and we must enter into the symbolic, the realm formed by a breach and a continual lack (99). We must consent never to leave mediation behind, and to live in a realm where we never finally arrive at the Thing itself, by exist only in a ‘permanent becoming’.

Symbolic Exchange

This ‘permanent becoming’ is ‘not an aimless wandering in a desert waste without landmarks,’ but occurs in the process of symbolic exchange, which contains the rule of the symbolic order. Most importantly, this process occurs ‘outside the order of value’, which is why it can provide us with a possible means by which to understand the ‘marvelous exchange’ between God and humanity that is grace (100).

Chauvet observes the sort of symbolic exchange that exists or existed in certain traditional and ancient societies, exchange that is not governed by the logic of value and the marketplace.

This system of “obligatory generosity” confers on the sack of grain or golden object that one exchanges a reality of an order other than that of utilitarian value. It is given “for nothing” – nothing from the viewpoint of this kind of value – but with the understanding that a third party will give you “for nothing” the produce of fishing, harvest, craftsmanship, or plunder. (101)

Every received gift obligates a return, often to a third party. However, one gives without accounting. Chauvet argues that the desire underlying this pattern of exchange is the ‘desire to be recognized as a subject, not to lose face, not to fall from one’s social rank, and consequently to compete for prestige’ (102).

Although we are forgetful of this logic, shrouded as it is by the dominance of business values in the West, its traces can still be found in our thinking and practice, perhaps especially in the case of the ‘gift’. Chauvet argues that this ‘obligatory exchange’ is in fact ‘what allows us to live as subjects and structures all our relations in what they contain of the authentically human’ (103).

The gift is the best illustration of symbolic exchange. Its meaning resides in the concrete relationship in which its exchange occurs, and cannot be accounted for by utility or commercial value. The gift is an object which ‘one lets go as if it were a part of oneself’. As such it is a signifier of both the absence and the presence of the one to the other. In the same manner, all symbolic exchanges have this fundamentally ambivalent character. While the sign-object refers ‘only to the absence of the relation’, the ‘symbol-object’ establishes this relation ‘in the absence’. In contrast to utilitarian value (e.g. the car as an efficient means of transportation), exchange value (e.g. equivalence in the marketplace), and sign value (e.g. the car as a sign of one’s social standing), the logic of symbolic exchange is one of non-value (104). Chauvet sees in the realm of the ‘value-sign’ of the marketplace, the full realization of the ‘metaphysics’ which Heidegger exposes (106).

Every society will have both the logic of the value-sign and the logic of non-value – of symbolic exchange – in some proportion or other. It is important that we recognize that these represent ‘two different levels of exchange’. While the logic of the marketplace is that of value and need, what is exchanged through physical objects in symbolic exchange is far more than the objects themselves are worth in terms of their utilitarian, exchange, or sign value. ‘The true objects being exchanged are the subjects themselves.’ The objects mediate the relationship between persons, and serve as means for their self-recognition and establishment of their identity and place. This symbolic exchange is a fundamental characteristic of language, as through speech to each other we recognize each other as subjects (perhaps most clearly revealed in ‘phatic’ speech – much as we English talk about the weather – in which the purpose is not that of conveying information, but of being present to each other in the act of conversation).

In symbolic exchange, the object serves as the means by which the subjects exchange themselves, through the presence-absence of gift. Even though it is less immediately obvious on the surface of our society, it is this symbolic exchange – this gift-reception-return-gift – that forms us and enables us to become human subjects (107). Every one of our significant human relationships is structured and characterized by such an exchange.

Symbolic exchange provides us with a very helpful way of understanding the grace, and most specifically the sacramental grace, of God. Grace is ‘beyond the useful and the useless’, being a matter of ‘super-abundance’, beyond all value and calculation (108). This graciousness, however, fails fully to express the fact of ‘gratuitousness’ – the precedence of God’s gift. Our own selves are received as a free gift.

[B]y the very structure of the exchange, the gratuitousness of the gift carries the obligation of the return-gift of a response. Therefore, theologically, grace requires not only this initial gratuitousness on which everything else depends but also the graciousness of the whole circuit, and especially of the return-gift. This graciousness qualifies the return-gift as beyond-price, without calculation – in short, as a response of love. Even the return-gift of our human response thus belongs to the theologically Christian concept of “grace.”’ (109)

An overemphasis upon gratuitousness – of the priority and overwhelming dominance of God’s free gift – which Chauvet sees in certain forms of Augustianism and certain understandings of infant baptism, can be problematic as deprives the person of the response in which the otherness of the person to whom the gift is given can be affirmed. While some see in God’s grace in baptism to the infant who is incapable of response the purest expression of the character of grace, Chauvet cautions against this understanding, stressing that the wholeness of grace is inseparable from the return-gift that responds to it. In speaking of grace: ‘Rather than being represented as an object-value that one would “refine” through analogy, the “treasure” is really not separable from the symbolic labor by which the subject itself bears fruit by becoming a believer.’

The key points of this chapter are as follows. First, the truth of the subject, and of the believing subject, comes about only through mediation (and the sacraments are the ‘major symbolic expression’ of this). Second, because the subject can never get behind or beyond mediation, our truth as believing subjects is something that is always underway and never a completed process. Most importantly, it reveals that this truth is ‘a symbolic work whose process is nothing other than that of symbolic exchange or of verbal communication between subjects.’ It is here that we are to find the symbolic efficacy of the sacraments.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in My Reading, Philosophy, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 3: Subjects and Mediation

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