‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:I: The Symbol and the Sign

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: IntroductionChapter 1Chapter 2:I, Chapter 2:IIChapter 3Chapter 4:IIChapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7

Chauvet has now established the methodological foundation for an understanding of the sacraments as mediations, rather than instruments, ‘as expressive media in which the identification and thus the coming-to-be of subjects as believers take place’ (110). Within this chapter, Chauvet seeks to present a case for understanding the sacraments ‘as acts of symbolization putting into effect the illocutionary dimension of language acts, according to which they effect … a relation of places between the subjects and thus an identification of these subjects with regard to others within this particular “world” we call the Church’ (if the meaning of this sentence isn’t immediately apparent, I trust that it will become clear over the course of this post). It is within the context of such an understanding that Chauvet wants to articulate his understanding of symbolic efficacy. This study of the symbol leads us directly to the realm of the body, as the ‘primordial and arch-symbolic form of mediation, as well as the basis for all subjective identification’ (111).

The Symbol

Chauvet reminds us of his earlier distinction between the logic of the marketplace and value and the logic of symbolic exchange (discussed at the end of the previous post). These logics function on two different levels, yet are ‘subjected to the dialectical tension between two poles’. In the world, sign and symbol are ‘always mixed together’. Chauvet’s purpose is not to purify away all signifying elements, to leave us with the ‘essence’ of the symbol, but to maintain that the symbol should not be thought of as if it were just a more complex or intense version of the sign.

The ancient symbolon was ‘an object cut in two, one part of which is retained by each partner in a contract’ (112). The parts were valueless by themselves: their symbolic power arose from their connection with the other half. As such the symbol is the ‘expression of a social pact based on mutual recognition and, hence, is a mediator of identity.’ The meaning of the word ‘has been extended to every element (object, word, gesture, person…) that, exchanged within a group, somewhat like a pass-word, permits the group as a whole or individuals therein to recognize one another and identify themselves.’

The symbol is something that transports us into the world to which it belongs. In this key respect it differs from the sign. The sign refers to something of a different order to itself, implying ‘a difference between two orders of relations: the relations of sensible signifiers, and the relations of intelligible signified meanings’ (113). However, the symbol introduces us into a symbolic order, which is different from that of ‘immediately experienced reality’.

‘The symbol begins with the initial rupture of the immediately given.’ The most basic form of the symbol is the phoneme. The single phoneme does not ‘signify’ anything. However, its utterance ‘introduces us into the world of meaning’ of the human conversation that presupposes. Lost in the deep jungle, a single phoneme can be the means by which we are enabled ‘to recognize a human presence, to renew our alliance with humanity.’ That single phoneme reconnects us with a whole ‘world’ of human life and meaning (perhaps it might be helpful to recall the distinction made in earlier posts between ‘world’ and ‘universe’ here).

The symbol depends for its existence upon the differences and relations that it has with the other parts of the system (‘b’ is only a phoneme as it is distinguished from ‘p’, ‘g’, ‘k’, etc.). In isolation from all of these, it could mean anything. The value of the symbol arises from the place that it occupies in the whole. Chauvet compares this to a shard of porcelain that we find on the street, through which we can recognize a vase.

It seems then that an element becomes a symbol only to the extent that it represents the whole (the vase), from which it is inseparable. That is also why every symbolic element brings with itself the entire socio-cultural system to which it belongs. (115)

This holds for all sorts of symbols, religious, political, poetic, etc. It is only as it is correlative to other elements that something can function as a symbol and, in functioning as such, it evokes the ‘entire symbolic order to which it belongs’. The symbol is thus a means by which subjects recognize each other, and by which we identify with our world. In fact, so intimate and immediate is this bond that the symbol ‘ceases to function, here and now, as a symbol the moment one steps back and adopts a critical attitude towards it’ (116). The symbol is the ‘third term’ that mediates between subjects and subjects and subjects and their world and saves the subject from being lost in its imaginary double.

Chauvet illustrates his point with reference to Heidegger’s analysis of Van Gogh’s painting of the peasant woman’s shoes. The painting of the shoes does not have a utilitarian value, or ‘communicate knowledge’ in the form of information, nor is it even to be understood by reference to some aesthetic order. Rather the painting symbolically gathers together the whole world of the peasant woman in her shoes – the ‘fatigue of the steps of labor,’ the world of earth and soil, and the anxieties of her life. The work of art, like the symbol more generally, is a ‘making come-into-being’ or an ‘advent’ (117).

Value and Non-Value

A word is treated as a sign insofar as we are concerned with measuring and establishing the value of statements, of approaching language ‘under the aspect of information’ (118). The ideal form of signifying language, possessing much of the greater exactitude and precision towards which it aspires, is scientific language. By contrast, viewing language under the aspect of the symbol, ‘the first function of language is not to designate an object or to transmit information – which all language also does – but first to assign a place to the subject in its relation to others’ (119).

This is akin to the experience that one might have when, walking down the streets of distant foreign country as a tourist, you hear a familiar word from your own language and country. Your first thought is not of the signifying meaning of the word spoken, but with the recognition of the world that you share in common with the speaker (‘another Englishman!’). The single word can evoke the entire world that you share, much as the shard of porcelain can evoke the entire vase in your mind. This is the ‘symbolic’ function of all language, something which precedes its signifying function.

In all these cases the symbol maintains us in the order of recognition and not of cognition, of summons or challenge and not of simple information; it is the mediator of our identities as subjects within this cultural world it brings with itself, whose unconscious “precipitate” it is. (120)

Unlike the sign, the function of the symbol is not to refer to ‘something else’, but ‘to join the persons who produce or receive it with their cultural world (social, religious, economic…) and so to identify them as subjects in their relations with other subjects’ (121). The symbol is bound up with the ‘primordial function of language’, not one of given us information about the real in an instrumental fashion, but in transforming the real into a meaningful ‘world’, a place of coming-to-presence, by making the real speak (and enabling human beings to speak). The difference between sign and symbol should be regarded as homologous to that between the principle of market-value, and the principle of symbolic exchange.

Symbol and Reality

Against much of the Western tradition, Chauvet holds that symbol cannot be regarded as derivative of or as a more complex or intense form of the sign. Symbolization is not merely ornamental, nor is it a degeneration of language into subjectivism. Rather, symbol ‘unfolds the primary dimension of language’ (123). In contrast to the sign, which entails a transposition from the order of the real to the order of information and cognition, the symbol ‘touches the most real aspect of ourselves and our world.’ For instance, water is never more ‘real’ and ‘so close to its “truth”’ as when it becomes the means of baptism. In the symbol there is not a mere exterior connection between two realities (such as that established by the word ‘like’ in the simile), but the evoking of a deeper union. Symbol is not, therefore, opposed to reality as many might think.

The symbol is perhaps most potently illustrated at times of bereavement, when words prove powerless or seem insufficient or inappropriate. At such times it is the grace of the symbolic gesture that can convey the truth of mutual presence and restore the alliance of human beings in the face of radical loss and otherness (nothing separates us so much from each other as suffering).

The Two Poles of Language

As we have seen, language has two different levels to it: the recognition of the symbol, and the cognition of the sign. The typical example of the symbol is the myth, which is the foundational language that allows a group to recognize and identify itself and its members to recognize themselves and each other in the myth. The most typical example of the sign is scientific discourse.

Nevertheless, these things don’t exist in pure form. Even in scientific discourse the symbolic aspect of language is operative. Words must be ‘recognized as relevant to science,’ as belonging to that world. Scientific discourse is also concerned with the ‘symbolic capital’ of being recognized (as an ‘authority’, for instance) by a group or institution. Everyday language is also ‘constantly caught between sign and symbol’ (126). Perhaps the symbolic character of everyday language is most visible in the case of phatic speech (for instance, talking about the weather), where the conveying of information is not the point, but communication on a more basic level occurs, as people recognize the presence of other persons. Symbolic exchange can also be seen in such things as handshakes, or even in inanimate objects such as shoes, which can become symbols of suffering and toil. It is symbol that binds us to each other and other world.

The ‘pure symbol’ doesn’t exist (save perhaps in the form of something like the phoneme). Indeed, for symbol to function it often requires a measure of knowledge and cognition, a degree of sign value. This applies to Van Gogh’s shoes, for instance. Knowing what shoes are, what they are used for, the character of peasant life, the biography of the artist, his historical context in the development of art, etc. all helps to enable the work to have its symbolic effects upon the viewer. Such knowledge can be crucial for the painting to become visible as art. Symbol is not, therefore, ‘sufficient unto itself’ (128). ‘A symbol about which one could say nothing would dissolve into pure imagination.’

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, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:I: The Symbol and the Sign

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