THE NEW BOOK BY BRAD EVANS, Ecce Humanitas: Contemplating the Pain of Humanity, is written around a paradox. On the one hand, the concept of the sacred – and here, as I will explain shortly, we are talking about the western variant of this concept – is considered necessary for any sort of value for human life. Our life is worthy, goes this idea, only and precisely because each of us participates or is part of the sacred. Yet (and this is the paradox) the sacred is also this element which allows maximum and ultimate violence.
Evans, long a student of violence, participates in a philosophical tradition that dates back to thinkers like Georges Bataille and René Girard, where violence is intrinsically linked and expressive to the notion of the sacred. Evans’ explanation for the endless horrors of the modern era is that the sacred, during its secularization, lost its own internal boundaries and built-in taboos, allowing for a form of uncontrolled violence that is intrinsic and pervasive in our era. . The paradox, in short, is that what makes human life worthwhile is also what causes us to murder each other. The history of the West is, perhaps in particular, one in which violence is not only excessive but also seems to have been actively and ardently sought: hence slavery, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, the ravages of global capitalism, the violence of global warming, all point to not only the possibility of killing and injuring others, but also a deep and continuing desire do this.
Faced with all this, Evans asks the very simple question, Why? Rather than assuming that violence is ingrained in human beings (the solution of which then becomes simply a palliative, a way to decrease but not end our propensity for violence), he seeks to uncover what has twisted us to that violence has become so endemic, therefore naturalized, that the idea of being peaceful is considered a goal long sought but never achieved. One thing I really like about this book is that while in so many works of political and social theory, much of the book is devoted to a series of critiques and it is usually only in the last paragraph that the author offers solutions. Evans has indeed taken that last paragraph and extended it to a book-length treatment.
Reflecting on the source of the violence and its relationship to the sacred, Evans then digs in to better think about what to do. At the heart of the notion of the sacred, he tells us, is an even more elementary notion, that of emptiness. The void is the terrifying unknown (corresponding perhaps to what Jacques Lacan calls “the Real”) which is at the origin of the sacred itself. In the face of human vulnerability, our mortality, and our ability to suffer, the void represents the possibility that none of it matters, that we are here at random and our life has no real meaning. . The sacred is developed to cover this abyss, to insist that yes, life has meaning and we have a purpose. But this is where things get complicated, especially in the modern version of the relationship between the sacred and violence. Because the question of human purpose is so central and vital, the way this value is articulated and distributed becomes in a sense the political question. The question of who counts as a human being – who, to paraphrase Judith Butler, should be grieved and who shouldn’t – is becoming an increasingly bloody and terrible form of calculation.
I think one of Evans’ more original ideas is his understanding that the sacred has always been some sort of regulatory mechanism. By covering the void, the sacred has created rules, not only in terms of valuing humans, but even with regard to the limits and taboos that structure human existence. There was, of course, violence in the early instantiations of the sacred, but some sort of meta-level rulebook tended to limit the extent and type of violence that was undertaken (a theme Evans covers in depth is the sacrifice, a limited form of violence that keeps more violence away and a mechanism that, in modernity, breaks down: henceforth, each of us could be sacrificed). With the secularization of the sacred, the sacred does not disappear but becomes unlimited. Our contemporary systems of power and authority assert who is valued and who is not, without any of the limitations that accompany it, so that violence, the very purpose of which was to bind us in a sacred order, becomes unlimited, a sort of universal requirement.
A major inspiration for this book came from Evans’ relationship with his partner, Chantal Meza, a painter, who in her work sought to make visible the abstraction at the meta-level that is the void. This artist’s courage to represent what cannot be represented inspires Evans to attempt to do something the same in his own way as a writer. As a result, Evans speaks of an attempt at “affirmative flight into a void,” an attempt to, so to speak, bypass the sacred as a framing mechanism and directly struggle against the void itself. Rather than seeing emptiness as a fundamental threat, Evans sees it as a basis of human worth himself, an invitation for human beings to find their own worth not in spite of but because of the presence of the unknown. and the unknowable at the center of all life. . The solution he learns from Meza, but also from many other artists who are studied in depth in this book, is to see that by making the void an aesthetic work, we are not so much to wallpaper it as to be found in it is a space that maximizes human freedom of expression.
It is essential to note that, even bypassing the sacred, Evans does not advise us to abandon it altogether. On the one hand, he says very clearly that such abandonment is fundamentally impossible. The modern secularized world has long since “abandoned” the sacred while preserving its fundamental characteristics as the foundation of secularism itself. Moreover, Evans would not advise that we renounce the sacred even if it was possible. The sacred is a specific set of answers to a fundamental dilemma of human life and, as such, contains a great deal of wisdom on how best to undertake the ‘affirmative flight into the void’. What has been reckless about the modern era, Evans suggests, is to assume that several millennia of dealing with the sacred should be abandoned (at least formally), as if there was no wisdom or guidance to be found. save from this story. In a real sense, Evans tells us that art itself is a version of the sacred, a way of preserving the restrictions and limits (but also the limitless creativity) that mediates our encounter with the void.
While all of this might sound pretty abstract, Evans does a great job keeping a real political and social agenda in mind. The book is full of wonderful ideas and examples drawn from a wide range of thinkers, artists and writers, from Dante (a major figure in the text) to Gaston Bachelard and from Rodin to Rothko and Basquiat. And there is a powerful political message at the heart of the book. As long as the void remains feared and denied, held back by a secularized version of the sacred, it can only be a destructive and negative force. It serves as a kind of white screen on which any elite can project their own desires and “receive” them in return as a claim for blameless truth. The void is formless and formless, but it is not “nothing”; it serves, for good or for bad – although almost always for bad – as the basis of human politics. Part of Evans’ message is that when most of humanity allows someone else to step into the void on their behalf, not only do they give up their own chance to get into politics. and helps shape his own life, but he also literally puts his own life in danger. To say that we ignore the void at our peril becomes a gross understatement. Evans’ work seeks to remove the void as a black box of authoritarian projection and turn it into a collective and democratic canvas, a place of engagement and mutual affirmation, just like the artists he studies.
One question I would ask concerns whether we are in fact dealing with the sacred or a sacred (and likewise, the null or a to cancel). The concepts Evans works with derive largely from the West, from the Jewish and Christian (and sometimes Islamic) basis of Western thought and practice. It is certainly true that, through imperialism and globalism, the West has cast its (ultraviolent) shadow over the whole of the earth, so that the Western version of the sacred can claim to be a planetary consideration today. But there are other traditions and other relationships, to the sacred and to the void, and also to violence. I don’t see it as a failure of Ecce Humanitas to focus largely on the West, but there are many other rich veins to explore in terms of the book’s positive mission.
As one of Evans’ main inspirations comes in the form of aesthetic interpretations of the void, the wide variety of sacred approaches to the fundamental mysteries of human experience also indicates a plethora of aesthetic responses. These alternate traditions suggest that the monopoly on sacred violence that the West seems to have is an illusion, and also that resistance – or, to use Evans’ words, affirmative flight – takes many and myriad forms. Indeed, these forms themselves – the structures of the sacred, the sedimentation of practices and beliefs – constitute the positive mission defended by Evans.
In other words, the sacred is not simply an instrument to bring human beings to the right place so much sought after. Instead, the sacred is the site of this goodness. For this reason, alongside Evans’ exhortation not to abandon the sacred (or the sacred, if we de-center the West in this equation), he also helps us recognize the sacred as the place where decisions about life and death, human worth and human uselessness, are made. Far from being a place to be avoided and denied, the sacred emerges as the site of the battle for human survival – and in this battle, Evans’ book comes to the fore.
James R. Martel is professor of political science at San Francisco State University.