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The Rise of the Profane

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By:Thomas Molnar | August 03, 2017


From the December 1996 issue of Chronicles.

At some point in their development, civilizations cease believing in the sacred and plunge into a new set of absolutes. No community likes to speak of decadence and its usually harsh symptoms; no one may even grasp the meaning of such an upheaval. Yet new absolutes appear on the horizon which seem to be barbarous because they are denials of the earlier sacred. For the sacred, in the eyes of the people, appears to be an absolute; it affects their imagination and judgments—until a "thomaskuhnian" revolution (philosophical, scientific, moral, aesthetic) diverts their attention to something else.

So-called transitional periods experience a parallel mobilization of two currents: the old, stable center survives in name, with its symbols and rituals, while a new focus, as yet amorphous and without validity, emerges with its own discourse, its own art forms, and its own set of acts to be performed. For a while—it may be many decades—the two run on parallel tracks; we call the first "sacred," the second "profane," and justifiably belittle the latter, measuring it in the habitual terms of the former. At such times, we witness the transvaluation of the tradition toward the as-yet unknown, and remain perplexed while the new, the profane, occupies the center of loyalty. A new foundation is sacralized.

It is obvious that we now approach the end of the "Age of Faith," and that our "profane" is the surrounding milieu of industrial, infinitely multipliable, objects and technological procedures that point to a kind of infinity in space and time. The new profane, on the way to sacralization, appears as a world of surprises, even of miracles; it insinuates itself in our nervous system as a series of spectacular presentations for our industrially underlined comfort, from the Internet to biogenetics. New generations pay lip service to the old "values" (nobody knows what they are and what they mean), but accept technology and its mechanical procedures as a trusted new reality. Without necessarily knowing what they perform and achieve, the new generations organize their conceptual and practical life according to the rules of a changed liturgy. The profane has become the new sacred.

The consequence is the rise of "profane" ceremonies, manners, behavior. For example, marriage ceremonies of a secular nature in secular surroundings, performed by state officials, replaced the church's blessing at the French Revolution, and received a new consecration from the Bolsheviks and in Western secularized states. Abortion and euthanasia mechanize—literally industrialize—the acts of birth and death, and we may expect that at some time both will elaborate their own secular rituals, as now accompany some divorce proceedings. Same-sex marriage will also do away with the ecclesiastical remnants in ceremonies and seek legitimation through profane rites. The presence of female personnel, from seaman to admiral, from private to general on navy ships, in army units, will also modify the initiation ceremonies of manhood and womanhood, since the centrality of the male principle in public affairs and in sacred matters had hitherto been taken for granted. In sum, we witness deeper changes in functions and rituals than mankind ever did before, but for the moment we are merely shocked by them, without measuring their civilizational impact. We are carried away by them, and ascribe them to a variety of causes: conspiracies, the work of Satanic mills, loose morality. We hardly take them—as yet—seriously or investigate their roots. We are in a state of astonishment, as the last Greco-Roman pagans must have been when their temples were closed in favor of Christian churches, and the administration of provinces slipped out of the hands of imperial officials into the hands of a new authority—the bishops. ("Diocese" used to be a Roman administrative unit.)

And so it goes with most other transformations of "modern" acts of life, from the rules of childrearing by single parents to women in high political office and in business. Do I have to add the changes in language, grammar, and the redaction of administrative, literary, and religious texts? The new cultural worlds (manners, speech, taboos, ceremonies, gatherings with their novel liturgy) indicate a revolution of considerable magnitude. Changes in themselves are not new phenomena, except that they were brought about in the past by laws, reforms, shifts in social classes, conquests, national catastrophes. Ours is the first age when the laws of nature are themselves legislated, abolished, reinvented in a different way, first "desacralized" and then redirected, modified in their fundamentals.

Let us consider what happened in the 11th century. At the time, power belonged to the Church, including the power to enact reform on the level of society's structure and the ceremonies which went with it. The basic question was land property. The feudal lords' sons were conceived by official wives and concubines. The law of inheritance was not fixed, land ownership was up for grabs, either by the rightful or by the false heirs (bastards). Then papal decrees began to hold the powerful provincial rulers to the unilinear inheritance, to the exclusion of the illegitimate. In order to forestall troubles on the part of the latter, Rome created the institution of miles Christi, the order of the consecrated knights, members of which accepted the new discipline, sought adventure (and fortune) elsewhere, and left the feudal structure to its own evolution. Needless to say, the milites Christi worked out the ceremonials of knighthood with quasi-ecclesiastical resonances—echoes of which came down to us in the adventures of Don Quixote.

All vast social movements elaborated their own ceremonial system. The question is, will the same schema continue? The 19th and 20th centuries saw the liquidation of the nobility and the emplacement of the bourgeois order. There followed the classless society with its mass-values, mass-taste, production-mindedness—whether of the Marxist or the democratic kind. The novelty seems to be that in our day we do not witness mere rearrangements of social reality (from peasants to workers to managers, etc.), but a biologically aimed legislation, interference with what once had been regarded as the sacred features of life itself: equalization of the sexes, the use of sperm banks, intervention on the cellular and genetic level, attacks on the psychological integrity of the family, laboratory experimentation with human/animal combinations, and so on. In other words, ideology with its uncertainties has turned into technological precision-work.

As we saw, at each stage of social transformation new formalities (ceremonies, language, conduct, sacralization versus the profane) were introduced, most often through conflict with the previous formalities. It is problematic whether today's transformations, conducted without a sociological base and justification, but invented by curiosity and imposed by abstract technocrats, will have to fight for their modalities against the older shapes of tradition. In other words, is tradition able to preserve its cultural superstructure—the sacred—against a new "profane"?

We are witnesses to the conflict, the duplication of the tradition-sacralized forms (manners, code of conduct, rules of all sorts, prayer to a transcendent/personal God) by the technological formulae. The question is whether the latter are a mere novelty as so often in the past, to be later absorbed in the historical series of sacralized forms, or a break with this series, a time machine speeding toward the brave new world. Taken as the law of existence, thus hardly ever consciously mentioned, our life has been immemorially articulated into chapters—birth and its ceremonies, initiation into adulthood with its own diversified ritual, membership in the military with imposition of a code of behavior, work, marriage, old age—all raised to meaningfulness by an appropriate cultural "superstructure." Even philosophical thinking (Hegel's owl taking wings after dark, that is, after the events), is a reflective commentary on events and occurrences. But gnawing at our inside, we still ask: Will this rhythm not change with speed and immediacy, instant and mostly artificial reactions to events, the iconography of the television and computer screen? Simultaneous watching of what goes on in the world suppresses the distance and the interval, and leaves no room, no time for the old order of things that were dictated by wisdom, or, if you wish, by the nervous system and blood circulation. It is possible that the Kevorkians in our midst are working on a profane prayer to be offered to the medically induced Thanatos. But even if such a prayer is adopted (and Congress makes it a law), even if abortion mills organize ceremonies for hecatombs of fetuses, we witness a qualitative leap away from the laws of existence, toward the machine-directed automata.

As long as human beings and institutions were initiators of historical and social change, it was legitimate to expect transformations, for good or evil, in laws, manners, values, collective aspirations. Each was escorted to the stage of history by an ensemble of ritual legitimation that raised the mere acts of change to the level of spiritual, moral significance. The new factor in our modern times seems to be the mechanical character of change, its independence of human initiative, of human interest, of human comprehension. It is thus justifiable to ask: Does the new kind of change need a higher legitimation, the type which used to manifest itself in ceremonial accompaniments? Does a machine-made need (institution, cultural creation, civilizational value, a laboratory-produced organ or robot) call forth in our depth a consecrating ritual? Will our civilization require liturgy and ceremony? It is just possible—hence our "age of anxiety"—that this civilization closes the door on anything beyond itself and proclaims its functional self-sufficiency. That would be the true Dark Age.

When the individual sees himself as a citizen or other member of a limited group (nation, generation, profession, religion), he understands he must differ from other groups through a code, a ritual, morality, and behavior which identifies him. In ages of faith, such distinctions followed from the object of faith and the accompanying convictions and rites. In a technological world-society, the limitless framework and the cosmopolitan perspective discard the transcendental objects and the code they impose. They turn into immanent objects because technology adores only its own drive, its own accomplishments; it worships action with its visible products and suppresses the space and time for ritual. The profane alone remains.


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