‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:II: Language and the Body

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

The Act of Symbolization

To illustrate the act of symbolization, Chauvet gives the example of two secret agents who are given two irregular halves of a five-dollar bill. A few elements go into this act. The symbol only exists in the act of joining. It is a matter of action, not of ideas. The pieces of paper are ‘necessarily distinct’ (something that is significant for understanding the sacraments’ symbolizing of Christ and the Church). The value of each half is only in relation to the other. The utilitarian value of the symbolic object is of no importance. The act of symbolization is ‘simultaneously a revealer and an agent’ (130). Through it the agents are revealed to each other as partners. As an agent, it binds the agents together in a common ‘we’. ‘The symbol is an agent of alliance through being a revealer of identity.’

The efficacy of the symbol here ‘touches reality itself’. However, it is crucial that we recognize that this ‘reality’ is not some ‘ontological “substance”’, but a cultural processed, spoken, reality. This is, in fact, the most ‘real’ reality of all. The act of symbolization thus ‘carries out the essential vocation of language: to bring about an alliance where subjects may come into being and recognize themselves as such within their world.’

The Performance Dimension of the Act of Symbolization

Every language act (to employ J.L. Austin’s terminology) ‘is a process’ which ‘sets the system … to work.’ One can distinguish between the historical narrative, which occurs in the past tense and is governed by the third person and the discourse, which occurs in the present tense and is ‘governed by the first person in relation to the second person.’ The discourse, in contrast to the narrative, is unique every time, and is concerned less with the ‘text of the enunciation’ as with the act of the enunciation.

Declaration and performance ‘activate two different functions of language’ (131). Neither exists in a pure state. For instance, in saying ‘I order you to close the door’, something is being declared (the existence of an open door that I desire to be closed), yet the accent is on the performance – I am ordering you and placing you in a position of subordination to me.

Austin maintains that every language act have three dimensions, which vary in importance from act to act. The locutionary act is the act of saying something. The illocutionary act is the ‘act effected in saying something’ (132). For instance, in saying ‘I give you my word’, I am performing the illocutionary act of promising. The perlocutionary act is the consequence of the language act, ‘the act effected by saying something’. For instance, the perlecutionary dimension of my language act might be that of persuading the person with whom I am speaking.

There are a few things that we need to recognize when employing these distinctions. First, we should distinguish between the intra-linguistic illocutionary effect and the extra-linguistic perlocutionary effect. Second, the illocutionary is ‘not concerned with the true or the false, but with the happy and the unhappy, that is to say, in the last analysis with the legitimate or the illegimate’ (133). I may not, for instance, have the authority to perform a particular act (e.g. proclaiming a couple man and wife). Third, the illocutionary function depends upon convention, upon such things as the following of proper procedure. The perlocutionary act does not.

Fourth, the illocutionary-performative dimension of language is most visible in the language acts of ritual. The power of the illocutionary act does not derive from some magical character of language itself, but from a ‘relation between the properties of the discourse, the properties of the one who pronounces it, and the properties of the institution that authorizes one to pronounce it’ (134).

Fifth, there are different degrees of ritual. The precise ritual form of something like baptism is not present in the informal ‘I bet you’ uttered in a conversation between friends: ‘the reference to the absent Third (the social Other under whose jurisdiction alone a bet can be made) is now only implicit’. In this level of ritual and the illocutionary, the ‘duality between saying and doing’ is broken, and ‘a transformation in the relations between the subjects, under the authority of the social Third (the law)’ is symbolically effected.

The Symbolic Efficacy of Rites

Chauvet gives ethnographical examples of healing rituals which are designed to act ‘on the real by acting on the representations of the real’ (138). The healing rituals of shamans, ngangas, and other traditional healers provide a sort of ‘language’ whereby the sufferer can ‘assimilate an actual experience of pain, otherwise anarchic and inexpressible, into an ordered and intelligible form’ (136). By this means, physiological processes may even be released and healing may occur (and even if it doesn’t, the sufferer’s relationship to their condition or disease is altered).

In indigenous societies ‘sickness is seen as more than a simple biological event; it is a cultural disorder, the effect of a violence done by some malevolent spirit, an ancestor, or relative who is persecuting a member of the group’ (138). The traditional healer has learnt to see the violence that exists between people and master it, providing a script by which the ‘incongruent element’ of the disease can be restored to the symbolic order, and the sick person’s relationship with his world and community re-established.

This symbolic efficacy cannot be understood by means of cause and effect, or according to some sort of physical law (such as a sort of psychosomatic effect). Rather, the symbolic efficacy is a function ‘of the consensus created around the representations, on the one hand, and of the symbolic connection between the representations and what is at issue, on the other’ (139). It should also be recognize that this symbolic efficacy, even though it may occasionally have dramatic physical effects, may not always aim directly at the healing of the body.

Within the rituals of Christian faith we seek ‘effects other than the purely corporeal’, effects that we commonly speak of as ‘grace’. This grace should be understood according to the symbolic order of language. ‘It is precisely a new relation of places between subjects, a relationship of filial and brotherly and sisterly alliance, that the sacramental “expression” aims at instituting or restoring in faith’ (140).

It is not Chauvet’s intention, however – and this is a point of crucial importance – to reduce theology to a form of anthropology, by reducing divine grace to the ‘socio-linguistic process’.

We must say, then, that “sacramental grace” is an extra-linguistic reality, but with this distinction, in its Christian form it is comprehensible only on the (intra-linguistic) model of the filial and brotherly and sisterly alliance established, outside of us (extra nos), in Christ. Despite grammar, which should never be taken at face value, “grace” designates not an object we receive, but rather a symbolic work of receiving oneself: a work of “perlaboration” in the Spirit by which subjects receive themselves from God in Christ as sons and daughters, brothers and sisters.

The Symbol and the Body

In relating human beings to the realm of language we are constantly reminded of the primacy of the body within this realm. The body is of fundamental importance for a theology of the sacraments: ‘The sacraments … teach us that the truest things in our faith occur in no other way than through the concreteness of the “body”’ (141).

Language as ‘Writing’

Language creates ‘significant matter’ by creating significant phonetic material, by means of distinguishing between noises in order to form phonemes – ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘k’, ‘o’, etc. These distinctions precede us as persons, and provide a given or ‘law’ for us. Language is not merely one institution among others, but is that which forms the space out of which all other institutions arise – it is that which institutes.

Language resists our desire to escape mediation and gain full self-possession (recall the discussion of the formation of the subject in chapter 3). This mediating character of language is well-expressed in the recognition of all language as ‘writing’. Obviously, we are not referring to literal writing here. Rather, ‘writing’ refers to the fact that all language exists in our absence, much as writing endures in the absence of the writer. As instituted, language is a law that precedes us and exists in our absence.

The metaphysical tradition tended to favour the voice over the written word. While the written letter is material and mute, the voice is far closer to our own souls and our own presence. The written letter suggests the ‘exteriority of meaning’ (144). The written letter, associated with the body, is repressed and the voice, which possesses a more immediate and internal connection to our personal presence is valued over it.

The ‘letter’ is the (subtle) body of language. Language ‘must be approached “literally,” that is to say, in its significant materiality and density’ (145). Against traditional metaphysics, which sought to escape the bodily mediation entailed by the written-ness of language, we must assert that the ‘exteriority’ of the written word mediates the ‘interiority’ of the subject: there can be no opposition between the two. As a subject I come to be, not through some private internal language, but through the ‘writing’ of the symbolic law that pre-exists me and is ‘outside’ me.

To speak of language as ‘writing’ is just another way in which we stress the point that we must consent to mediation, rather than seeking immediate pure presence. It closes off one of the ways in which we seek to escape this mediation, while acknowledging the ‘concrete resistance’ entailed by the materiality of language (146). It enables us to grasp the truth of the statement that ‘the most “spiritual” happens through the most “corporeal.”’ It is through the mediation of the (written) symbolic order that persons are formed and transformed.

The Body and Language

We often think of language as a means of expressing something that exists anterior to it. However, language is ‘the subject’s taking up a position within the world of its meanings.’ These meanings are at our disposal, because they result from earlier acts of expression. ‘Like language, the body is matter, matter significant from the first, that is, culturally instituted as speech.’ Abstracted from culture and language, the body would be rendered a mere instrument. ‘Humans do not ex-sist except as corporality whose concrete place is always their own bodies.’

It is the body that speaks. My body is ‘made of the same flesh as the world’ and is ‘the primordial place of every symbolic joining of the “inside” and the “outside”’ (147). The body overcomes the dichotomy between subject and object by providing the middle space that binds my humanity and the world, self and other, internal and external, identity and difference, together under authority of the law of the symbolic order.

In order to arrive at selfhood, we must break with ‘sameness’. The schemes of the body – ‘the vertical scheme of above and below, the horizontal schemes of left and right (in space), of before and behind (in time as well as in space) – provide us with fundamental means of identification and differentiation. The primordial vertical symbolism of height and depth almost invariably attends religious experience, as God is spoken of as ‘exalted’, or some ‘depth’ of being or life is revealed. The left-right differentiation powerfully shapes ethical discriminations in some manner or other. The in front/behind, before/after scheme shapes all historical sense. The language of posture, feeding, cleanliness and dirtiness, warmth and coldness pervades our thought and understanding, even at its highest levels, but is firmly rooted in the ‘existential topography which is constitutive of the internal structure of the human being’ (149).

‘Body am I, entirely and completely, and nothing besides.’ This statement of Nietzsche captures the profundity of the connection. The body isn’t merely an attribute of the ‘I’: rather, the ‘body – in the third person – assumes the function of subject of a verb in the first person’ in a manner that undermines all attempts to establish some sort of intervening space between the two.

The Body: Speaking and Spoken

The ‘I-body’ is ‘my own body, irreducible to any other, and yet, in the midst of its difference, recognizing itself to be similar to every other I-body.’ My body is the site of ‘living words’, the place where my unique story, meaning, and personhood is articulated: it is the site of my speaking. However, my body is only the site of my speaking as it is itself ‘spoken’. My body is connected to other bodies, structured by its culture, identified, and granted models of identification by others. It is tightly bonded to a world and culture, being ‘structured by the system of values or symbolic network’ of the group to which I belong, and is engaged in an anthropomorphizing of the universe, through relating the universe to my being, and a ‘cosmorphizing’ of itself, as it relates itself to the universe (150).

The I-body exists only as woven, inhabited, spoken by this triple body of culture, tradition, and nature. This is what is implied by the concept of corporality: one’s own physical body certainly, but as the place where the triple body – social, ancestral, and cosmic – which makes up the subject is symbolically joined, in an original manner for each one of us according to the different forms of our desires.

‘The subject is not in the body as the stone is in the peach; it is body as the onion is in its layers’ (151).

The body is the ‘arch-symbol of the whole symbolic order.’ It is the body that connects me with –– or is my having always-already been written into – the entire world of culture, nature, society, and language. It is impossible to express some transparent and pure internal presence apart from the body’s mediation. Through the body every word is subjected to a ‘writing’ external to the subject. For this reason, in order ‘to find the Spirit, one must first grasp the Letter’ (152). If this perspective is correct, we are led to the conclusion that the sacramental is the ‘arch-symbolic space’ for the theological economy. It is in the sacraments that the body is written into the world of the faith, and can become a subject that speaks from this world.

The Sacramentality of the Faith

These observations provide the foundation for ‘a theological understanding of the sacraments as expressions of the “corporality” of the faith.’

In effect, in the sacramental celebrations, the faith is at work within a ritual staging in which each person’s body is the place of the symbolic convergence – through gestures, postures, words (spoken or sung), and silences – of the triple body which makes us into believers.

In the celebration of the sacraments we receive a body that has been written into the social body of the Church, into the traditional body of the Church, and into the cosmic body of the universe, as the sacraments employ symbolic material elements, which mediate God’s grace.

The materiality of the sacraments presents a huge and unavoidable stumbling block to our desire to have an unmediated, direct, and interior contact or relationship with God. The sacraments teach us that ‘faith has a body’ and that ‘to become a believer is to learn to consent, without resentment, to the corporality of the faith’ (153). While the materiality of the Word as ‘writings’ and the ‘letter’ can be difficult to accept sometimes, it is in the sacraments that the materiality, exteriority, bodily and institutional character of the faith hit us most powerfully.

The struggle to reconcile ourselves with the materiality of the sacraments can be seen in those descriptions of them as concessions to our fleshly need for something sensible. In an ideal world, supposedly, we would have no need for sacraments. The reason why we stumble on the materiality of the sacrament, body, institution, and letter is because we are wedded to the nostalgia for the immediate imaginary presence of the ‘mirror stage’, or to the metaphysics of the tradition.

Language (understood as ‘writing’ – the symbolic order that exists in our absence) is the place where the human subject comes into being. The sacraments are the greatest empirical expression of the ‘language’ of faith, of ‘the place where the believing subject comes into being’ (154).

This … is a transcendental condition for Christian existence. It indicates that there is no faith unless somewhere inscribed, inscribed in a body – a body from a specific culture, a body with a concrete history, a body of desire.

The sacraments render our bodies the site of God’s writing, as through baptism we are ‘plunged into the body of signifiers – material, institutional, cultural, and traditional – of the Church’ (155). ‘One becomes a Christian only by entering an institution and in letting this institution stamp its “trademark,” its “character,” on one’s body.’ It is thus impossible to think of the faith outside of the body, as our Christian existence is ‘always-already inscribed in the order of the sacramental.’

Taking seriously the sacramentality of the faith, therefore, we must consent to corporality. This consent must be so complete ‘that it tries to think about God according to corporality.’ The stumbling block of language, materiality, and the body is ultimately seen to be inseparable from the great Stumbling Block of the cross.

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.
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11 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 4:II: Language and the Body

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