In the Beginning Was the Symbol

Lecture et discussion de l’ouvrage de notre ami Camille Tarot, De Durkheim à Mauss, l’invention du symbolique. Sociologie et sciences des religions. Preface by Alain Caillé. Coll. “Recherches” (Paris : La Decouverte/ M.A.U.S.S., 1999), 710 pp ; Reprinted in Coll. “Bibliothèque du Mauss” (Paris : Le Bord De L’eau, 2015).
Par Nicoletta Pireddu (Comparative Literature Program, Department of Italian, Georgetown University, 37th and O Streets, Washington, DC 20057, USA).

Since antiquity, the notion of the symbol has been central to a variety of disciplines. As suggested by the Greek sumbolon, designating two halves of an object which can be put back together and act as a sign of recognition, the initial practical purpose of the symbol-was transformed in modern times into a representative function that is as relevant to philosophy and theology as to aesthetics, linguistics, mathematics and psychoanalysis. Whether as a means for apprehending an infinite divine unity and of realizing the organic unity of the work of art, or as a multilayered sign irreducible to the formal rules of logic and a catalyst for the development of individual consciousness, the symbol can be said to embody and express what is properly human. Precisely for its ubiquity, the symbol has also fostered all-encompassing reflections, like those of Ernst Cassirer on the ability of the human mind to unify and attribute meaning to sensible phenomena through symbolic functions. [1] Thus culture, the distinctive product of mankind, is founded on a symbolic activity that transforms natural data, mediating between individuals and the world. It is not surprising therefore that anthropology, the science of mankind in all its manifestations, has been and continues to be particularly concerned with the symbol and the symbolic.

Although written over a decade ago, Camille Tarot’s De Durkheim à Mauss, l’invention du symbolique remains an unrivalled study of the emerging awareness of the symbolic process in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe at the crossroads of religion, biology, philology, mythology, and sociology. This volume, now available in a new 2014 edition, deserves particular attention for its detailed reconstruction of a wide cultural milieu—from Charles De Brosses’s earlier treatment of fetishism to Edward Burnett Tylor’s animism and Friedrich Max-Müller’s comparative method, James Frazer’s study of ritual and folklore, and Victor Loret’s Egyptology, to name a few—through which Tarot contextualizes the early preparatory work and the subtle transition leading, in particular, from Emile Durkheim’s analysis of collective representations to Marcel Mauss’s conceptualization of the symbolic. The rich history of the development of this anthropological dimension hence complements the dehistoricizing approach with which critical theory, from Pierre Bourdieu to Jacques Derrida, has adopted and adapted the Maussian concept of the symbolic.

Refusing to take Mauss as Durkheim’s epigone, Tarot locates a fundamental difference between the two thinkers’ conceptions of social systems. Whereas Durkheim adopts a naturalistic model describing societies as organic processes governed by laws, Mauss seeks to treat social phenomena as interpretable structures to be examined for their coherence yet without establishing necessary relationships between social activities. Tarot defines Mauss’s approach as the “anthropology of the symbolic” (36), which culminates with the Essai sur le don. [2] Central to Tarot’s argument is the shift from Durkheim’s doctrine of the social fact to Mauss’s notion of the total social fact and of its symbolic value, of which the gift is the exemplary case. According to Tarot, Durkheim’s concern with totality was not sophisticated enough to overcome the determinism of the natural sciences and to accept the arbitrariness of signs and symbols. Totality, in other words, corresponds for Durkheim to the appeal of universal formulas concealed under “allegorical” social phenomena (54–55). On the one hand, as Tarot acknowledges, Durkheim’s sociological method is sensitive to the complexity of religions as epitomes of concrete social facts and manifestations of mankind’s inner complexity. Durkheim, he suggests, seems to have grasped the inadequacy of any abstract and universal religious ideal to account for the diversity of social particularities. On the other hand, however, convinced that nothing exists without a cause or reason, Durkheim ultimately attempted to go back to the forces that symbols supposedly embody. Indeed, as emerges from his Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, [3] religion offers both a cognitive and an expressive representation of social reality. The multiple relationships involved in these representations are already articulated in terms of symbolization. Yet Durkheim does not seem to accept this indirect nexus at face value. Rather, he wants to investigate the allegedly pre-existing feelings and forces at the roots of religious ideas, treating their subsequent representations as superficial wrappings.

Durkheim, Tarot observes, acknowledges the inevitable presence of signs and symbols in the formulation of mankind’s fundamental needs. He concedes that, prior to the agency of self-reflection, society takes shape through an unconscious form of symbolization that does not reproduce the external world but rather expresses the links of individuals to their world and among themselves. Yet Durkheim does not elaborate the notion of a symbolic system and how it functions. If already in Le Suicide Durkheim assimilates religion to a system of symbols through which society becomes conscious of itself, he nevertheless confines the symbol to the representation of a reality that remains separate from it. [4] For its part, the phenomenon of totemism in Les Formes élémentaires seems to successfully link religion and society more thoroughly thanks to the action of the symbolic. The collective consciousness of the effervescent group projects itself onto objects, hence turning them into symbols that act, in their turn, upon the affective state of individuals. Thus the totem does not have the utilitarian function of a simple expression of a need for communication or for a reference point. It also makes visible, and shapes, the clan’s collective feeling. These are the implications of Durkheim’s claim that social life in all its aspects and historical moments is enabled by a vast symbolism. Durkheim thus sees totemism as a myth of origins, not only of religion but of society at large, precisely because members of a clan who are gathered together in a ceremony acquire a consciousness of themselves as a group, and, even after the feast, the identity of the group is preserved through the totemic objects. The totem allows the passage from a state of nature to human society precisely by acting as a symbol, a support of collective consciousness and of its memory, which infuses the social dimension into the individual from outside.

Tarot observes, however, that Durkheim does not extend his understanding of the symbolic function of the totem to all social facts. After identifying the symbol as an original, generative element in a particular context, he cannot explain its more general scope beyond the sphere of religion and of the sacred. This, Tarot explains, happens because Durkheim overlaps his conception of society as a system of representations with his idea of society as a system of symbols, hence he fails to distinguish between a representation and a symbol. Durkheim, in other words, does not recognize the role of language as a mediation or an interference between subject and object, which problematizes representation as a simple, direct, individual process linking a subject to its ideas.

Durkheim’s explanation of the symbol as a collective representation resulting from the group’s ritual and effervescence is incomplete because it does not emphasize that this representation is also a sign that generates other signs. This point is not systematically pursued in Les Formes élémentaires, despite a few passages where Durkheim seems to imply that symbols are not only vehicles for expressing social feelings but also promote the creation, definition and transmission of collective social forms. Durkheim does not produce a general theory of symbolism because he cannot abandon a hermeneutic pursuit of the alleged “real,” “proper,” or “univocal” meaning of social facts underneath the figurative and ambiguous level of representation. Thus, although Durkheim initiates the study of social phenomena as things and succeeds in underscoring the necessary yet arbitrary nature of the symbol and the social, he cannot go beyond the arbitrariness of signs and symbols. He stops short of recognizing the double nature of the symbol as word and thing, as an ideational and material entity.

The theory of the symbolic that Mauss inaugurates reformulates Durkheim’s theory of social facts by conceiving human communication as the result of permanent signs that precede and make individual mental states possible. As emerges from Rapports réels et pratiques de la psychologie et de la sociologie, which Tarot sees as the official birth of the anthropology of the symbolic, the reality of the social fact is determined by its symbolic aspect, triggering a practice that the individual mind perceives as real although it is in fact an arbitrary representation. The role played by the symbol in the construction of the social dimension is also responsible for the latter’s “totality.” The shift from Durkheim’s sociology to Mauss’s anthropology thus reconfigures the symbolic as an expressive collective dimension that pertains to all human practices. Through his interdisciplinary and holistic notion of anthropology, Mauss intends to enrich sociology with disciplines such as philology, psychology, linguistics, and aesthetics, opening up the classicist notion of “man” to forgotten or still unknown manifestations of human nature. In Tarot’s view, Mauss’s approach is thus a romanticization of Durkheim’s rationalistic and idealist humanism (306).

For Mauss the social bond is paradoxically both natural and cultural, given and constructed, and therefore multiple and always entangled in a plurality of total social facts. Indeed, by rejecting Durkheim’s distinction between scientific and non-scientific discourse, Mauss tries to overcome the difference between definitive knowledge and interpretation through his notion of the total social fact as an originary, intrinsic complexity. This notion of complexity goes hand in hand with the concept of the symbol as an inexhaustible network of signification that no longer needs to demonstrate adequation or faithfulness to an essence. The Maussian symbolic, Tarot concludes, is a chain of symbols, which as such decrees the death of the isolated symbol (350). Participation in a network of signs generates a totality, a system in which each representation, each symbol, is connected to other symbols.

It is this vision of the symbolic as a universal and defining component of the social fact as such that allows Mauss to displace the object of ethnology, which no longer grants access to the sacred, as in Durkheim. Furthermore, sensitive to the differences between civilizations and to the diversity of facts, Mauss no longer pursues a search for the origins of civilization or for the distinction between human and nonhuman. Going beyond the evolutionist perspective that dominated the social sciences in turn-of-the-century Europe, he conceives of complexity as a feature of advanced and primitive social organizations alike, and intends to develop a method to account for it. If, as Tarot shows, the redefinition of the “savage” as “primitive” normalized a free and spontaneous “natural” being by placing him on the lowest rank in a hierarchy of human development, Mauss goes a step further by seeing symbolic systems as the expression of human complexity at all times and in all forms of culture, and thus puts an end to the age of the “primitive”.

However, since Mauss erases Durkheim’s sacred-profane dichotomy, how does he integrate religion within a wider anthropology of the symbolic ? For Tarot it is Mauss’s structural approach and his attention to the mechanism of social forms rather than their evolution that enables this methodological and conceptual transition. Thus, for example, Mauss does not investigate the origin of totemism, nor does he address whether the totem is the result of a god that has become a sign or vice versa. What matters for him is to understand the totem as a synthetic unit of both components independently of their logical or historical anteriority. Similarly, as indicated by the title of Mauss’s Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice, his emphasis on “nature” and “function” rebuts the objectives of the evolutionary approach —such as Robertson Smith’s, with its focus on “genesis” and “history,”—and rather aims at a general theory of rituals, sensitive to their original complexity and shared components. [5]

According to Tarot, while in Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie Mauss’s structural approach manifests itself in the organization of elements that are common to religious and magical phenomena, in his writings of 1924–30, and in particular in Essai sur Ie don, Mauss strives to achieve, through the symbolic, a science of total man and of a concrete, living culture (595). [6] Tarot gives due attention to Bronisław Malinowski’s seminal study Argonauts of the Western Pacific, which, before Mauss’s essay on the gift, examined the circulation of goods in the tribal kula as a social space. Tarot again emphasizes Mauss’s ability to abstract from a singular social phenomenon when he describes the Trobriand blend of religious, juridical, economic, aesthetic and social functions as a form of syncretism that can be extended to all social facts. The gift justifies this generalization, since it exemplifies the mechanism of the “total prestation,” [7] comprising the three interdependent obligations to give, to accept, and to return the gift, which for Mauss are not isolated gestures of individual spontaneity but a prototype of a system, a structure, a whole. The gift, then, is a fundamental social fact or institution.

Attentive to the nuances of Mauss’s thought and temperament, Tarot underscores how, paradoxically, his aspiration to completeness was so powerful as to even influence Mauss’s methodology. Mauss indeed combines a structural, synchronic analysis of gift-exchange with a diachronic reconstruction of its evolution across various periods and societies. As Tarot suggests, Mauss may have intended not only to celebrate the gift as a universal substratum of human social nature—a sort of elementary form of sociability—, but also to express his concern about the changes wrought by modern society to such communitarian practices. While liberating the individual from the constraints of total solidarity, modernity was also leading to the atomization of social relations. Thus the death of the gift in the modern utilitarian world would ultimately entail the death of the social, and hence of the symbolic as its collective expression par excellence.

Mauss’s intellectual legacy has followed diverse paths. In Tarot’s study, Lévi-Strauss appears as perhaps the most obvious heir of the anthropology of the symbolic. Yet Tarot’s main concern in the forceful concluding sections is to argue why Mauss is not a mere precursor of structuralism. What we are invited to retain from his study is that Mauss’s concept of the total man reveals a living, pulsating, irrational individual. This affective, imaginary dimension—this all-encompassing art of living that Lévi-Strauss excludes from his rationalizing system—requires a science that is open to variations, a science of concreteness that avoids the disciplinary fragmentation of the complex whole that Mauss, for his part, wanted to keep intact. Tarot highlights how Mauss’s interdisciplinarity can be likened to the work of translation—a reciprocal reading of disciplines which, by revealing the symbolic nature of the social, also underscores its own imperfect, blurry and inexhaustible nature. Once again, however, the emphasis on Mauss’s eclectic and artistic temperament must not obscure his commitment to the construction, not only collection, of social facts. If the true is the whole, if the symbolic is crucial to understanding real, concrete individuals, the aspiration to totalization posits the need to recompose what has been torn apart by the analytical process and, at the same time, the need to remain open to a plurality of perspectives, defined by Tarot as “micro-” or “poly-holisme” (681).

Tarot’s valuable study of European turn-of-the-century history of ideas would have benefited from more textual evidence from the numerous primary sources to which it refers, to better substantiate the intriguing connections it builds around Durkheim and Mauss’s thought. Yet Tarot’s analysis of the emergence of the symbol and of symbolism remains paramount to the humanities and social sciences. One of the many interdisciplinary research paths that may grow out of this study could be an exploration of the role of modern aesthetics, and particularly of decadent aesthetics, with its strenuous defense of culture over nature, of representation over reality, and of the all-encompassing function of art, in Mauss’s theory of the symbolic and in his anthropological notion of the total social fact.

As we can see, there is much more at stake in the transition from Durkheim to Mauss than the problematic utopian nature of gift-exchange that critics often highlight. Tarot’s book deserves praise for its enlightening alternative perspective on the author of Essai sur le don, which allows us to understand the many compelling reasons why Mauss’s Modernist, “poetic”, utopian anthropological economics continues to inspire critical theory. [8]


// Article publié le 1er mai 2015 Pour citer cet article : Nicoletta Pireddu, « In the Beginning Was the Symbol », Revue du MAUSS permanente, 1er mai 2015 [en ligne].

[1Ernst Cassirer, Philosophie der Symbolischen Formen (Berlin : B. Cassirer, 1923–29) ; The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim, intro. Charles W. Hendel (New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, 1953–96).

[2Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, in Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris : P.U.F., 1995) ; The Gift : Forms and Functions of Exchanges in Archaic Societies, trans. Ian Cunnison, intro. E. E. Evans-Pritchard (New York : Norton & Co., 1967).

[3Emile Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse : Le système totémique en Australie (Paris, 1912) ; The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain (New York : Free Press, 1915, 1965).

[4Emile Durkheim, Le Suicide (Paris, 1897) ; Suicide : A Study in Sociology, trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson, ed. George Simpson (New York : Free Press, 1951, 1966).

[5Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Essai sur la nature et la fonction du sacrifice (1899) ; Sacrifice : Its Nature and Function, trans. W. D. Halls (Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[6Marcel Mauss, “Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie,” in Sociologie et anthropologie ; A General Theory of Magic, trans. Robert Brain (New York : Norton, 1975).

[7Marcel Mauss, Essai sur le don, 154 ; The Gift, 6.

[8Mauss’s anti-utilitarian approach has inspired the Parisian intellectual movement M.A.U.S.S., an acronym for Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, launched in 1981, to which Tarot himself has contributed. Other recent works that elaborate on the Maussian gift as a symbolic process with aesthetic and ethical implications are Lewis Hyde, The Gift (New York : Vintage, 1983) ; Jacques Derrida, Donner Ie temps (Paris : Galilée, 1991) ; Given Time : I. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, IL : University of Chicago Press, 1992) ; Vincent Pecora, Households of the Soul (Baltimore MD : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) ; Nicoletta Pireddu, Antropologi alla corte della bellezza. Decadenza ed economia simbolica nell’Europa fin de siècle (Verona : Fiorini, 2002), and the forthcoming volume Il dono dell’arte : soggetti di benessere, ed. by Ugo Olivieri and Marco Castagna (Diogene, 2015), synthesizing the results of the international research group “A piene mani. Dono, benessere e beni comuni”, based at the Università “Federico II” in Naples, Italy.

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