Sunday, January 03, 2010

Object and Occasion

Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained, Basic Books (New York: 2001), p. 86:

In many places Christians also treat some artifacts as endowed with special powers. People for instance go to a distant place to pray to a particualr Madonna, which means standing in front of an artifact and talking to it. (You may find this description rather crude, and retort that no one is really talking to a man-made object; peple are considering a "symbol" of the Virgin, a "sign" or "representation" of her presence and power. But that is not the case. First, people are really representing the Madonna as an artifact. If I tell them who made it, using what kind of wood and paint, they will find all that information perfectly sensible, as it would be indeed of any other man-made object. Second, it really is the artifact they are addressing. If I proposed to chop the Madonna to pieces because I needed firewood, and suggested that I could replace it with a photograph of the statue or with a sign reading "pray to the Virgin here," they would find that shocking.)

I think the conclusion Boyer is ultimately angling toward here is actually quite right: focusing on the question of representation and setting aside the question of belief (which are independent questions, the latter being rather more complicated, and having a very complicated and rarely straightforward relationship with the former) such cases are clearly cases of representing artifacts as having special powers. But this is a singularly bad argument for this conclusion. If we took Boyer's first point seriously as relevant to the conclusion, this would be as much as to say that there are no signs, symbols, or representations -- pretty much all signs, symbols, or representations are artifacts, so it is irrelevant to whether we are treating something as a sign, symbol, or representation that we represent it as having artifactual features. If I paint a squiggle on a sign to represent water, there is no question that this is an artifact; it is also a sign.

But it's the second point I just find funny. Obviously if you suggest cutting up a Madonna for firewood people will find that shocking, but this in itself tells us nothing. If the local veterans put up a wooden copy of the Marine Corps War Memorial and you suggested cutting it up for firewood, people would be shocked at that, too; but there's nothing to guarantee that people typically represent war memorials as artifacts with cognitive powers, or, indeed, any powers. People are shocked by mistreatment of symbols precisely because they are functioning as symbols. Whether they are shocked by mistreatment does not seem to have any relevance to whether they treat the artifact as an artifact simply or as possessing other-than-artifactual characteristics; but it would have to if it were to function as a sign that the artifact is an object of address rather than merely an occasion of it.

In practice the difference between object and occasion is made in a rather different way. Suppose you and I are interacting via avatars in Second Life or some similar virtual reality program. When I respond to something you say I am addressing your avatar: it is an object of address. It is also an artifact (and, indeed, a sign, symbol, or representation), and in representing the object of my address I am treating it as an artifact with cognitive characteristics -- the cognitive characteristics it displays, which are, of course, yours. I actually address the avatar; it is not merely functioning as an indicator of presence (in the way that, for instance, an instant messaging indicator that you are online). Likewise, it is clear that an icon of Mary is not functioning as a mere indicator that Mary is available or a reminder that she may be addressed, although it may do that as well; this is inconsistent with actual behavior toward the icon. It's the actual behavior involved in the address that is crucial, not the sort of emotional attachment that is the reason for being shocked at the destruction or replacement of the icon; the emotional attachment could be due to the fact that the icon is an object of address, but it could be due to any number of other things as well.

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