The Theory of the Social Bond in Gauchet

Daniel Avatar

I finished a careful reading of Marcel Gauchet’s The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. He works with a method that is quite innovative, one part genealogy, one part philosophical anthropology. Gauchet is a working class liberal in terms of his politics. However he pulls from a rich set of post WW II French lines of thought in his work and his poetic form of writing is a rare treat in dense theoretical works such as this one.

Gauchet is interested in mapping out a history of collective being. He re-reads the history of religion away from the Marxist emphasis on class struggle and material social relations as the motor of history and periodization. He develops this philosophical anthropology by analyzing the way in which human collectives at different moments in history, sought to negotiate and form meaning. This consists of a dialectic between the visible and the invisible forces of the sacred. This dialectical unfurling of the sacred occurs at the level of the “superstructure” whereas the material relations and technology of society is the “infrastructural”. The superstructural is what moves history for Gauchet.

The question of power and of the dynamic movement of history is re-centered around the way that human collectives relate to the sacred and to their own collective being — both of which are managed by the social bond.

In Gauchet’s framework, religion comes about in history at a certain point in which the fusion of nature with the sacred completely broke down. Before the religious, primitive religion posed a total unity between the realm of nature with that of the sacred. With this in mind, he problematizes the periodization of the Axial Age, where religion was said to have been born and with it our conception of the individual, reason and monotheism. Gauchet insists that the periodization of history is centered less on the “infrastructural” revolutions of technology and material relations, as much as it is on the way in which collectives relate to and form meaning.

Religion emerges when the state arises in history. The state forms a new dialectic between the visible and the invisible, wherein the state seeks to maintain the transcendent operation of the social bond and to dictate the terms of the invisible sacred realm.

The social bond is a sort of dispotif, a capture where power forms over the collective organization that exceeds the individual will of the people involved (27). It is this point of excess that the religious bond seeks to master, a mastery that is ultimately conservative as it attempts to institutionalize humans against themselves. The social bond is the site where great potency is effectuated, where, “the logic is that of a reflexive social functioning which transcends and is unconscious of the individual it affects” (198). Gauchet’s theory of the social bond is thus anti-humanist in some regards in that the bond itself captures a certain potency that exceeds the very basis of the subjects agency.

The religious bond poses a confrontational posture towards things as they are [the visible order], making it structurally impossible for human beings to entrench themselves and settle down, all the while steadfastly condemning them to a transformative nonacceptance of things (22). Religion is the power of negation deployed to protest law, or what Gauchet calls “the principle of movement within inertia.”

The dialectic of the social bond thus becomes one of managing the visible/invisible dichotomy. It was Christianity that ultimately severs this dialectic through the advent of monasticism in the 11th century to the 13th century as it actively refused to render the visible as the site of a deeper illusion and developed a theory of salvation with the brute real of the realm of the visible. Unlike Buddhism that insists on a fundamental maya, or illusion behind the visible order, Christianity destroys the careful maintenance of the dialectic between the visible and the invisible precisely through the embrace of the visible as sacred. What allows this embrace is the advent of the incarnation; a concept cannot be dialectically managed. The incarnation de-dialectizes salvation and ends up creating the grounds for atheism in that the transcendent bond which was formerly managed by the state gradually became immanent and thus the transcendent disappears from the social bond.

With Christianity, Gauchet remarks, “love was the interior distance of individuals from the social bond, their inner release from the original communal obligation” (120). Jesus “created individuals who, judged from the code they followed and the ends they pursued, were internally removed from the law of inclusion ruling the world” (121). Each of the monotheistic religions originally formed as protest collectives to the sovereignty of the state, but it was Christianity that took the religious form of the social bond the farthest, no longer needing any reliance on the state to ensure meaning for the collective.

Where is the religious bond in our current structure of society? Gauchet only hints at some answers to this in the last section of the text, where he discusses the way in which the human figure has taken on the social bond. Here, Gauchet recognizes that what stands as the primary challenge to the social bond in a post-religious age such as ours is the way in which meaning is unable to be held in-common within the collective. Here is an illuminating passage to illustrate this point:

“Everything takes place between humans—and the state’s all-pervasiveness is there to substantiate the complete repossession of collective-being. But everything also occurs through it in such a way that the social actors cannot possibly appropriate the ultimate meaning of collective-being—whether in individual, dictatorial, collective, or self-managed form—because meaning would then no longer be among them, but in them. Both representative impersonality and the open exchange it calls for excludes this very appropriation” (199).

Whatever holds humans together becomes the state’s exclusive domain and what is left is the autonomous social domain, but this domain is left with a facing of the social bond that is fated to the same dynamic that Freud discusses in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego: every bond is a narcissistic bond, i.e. the only bond is with oneself. The religious, as Gauchet defines it, lives on in our thought processes, it dominates the organization of our imagination, and it orients the problems of the self, but it remains there, inert. As he remarks, “concepts for thinking about post-religious man do not yet exist” (172).

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