5 September 2011


"From a starting point in Christmas folklore, with its central figure of Father Christmas, in just a few unforgettable pages Levi-Strauss reconstructed the meaning of initiation rites; behind the adult-child opposition, he discerned a more basic opposition between living and dead. In fact, as we have seen, children correspond less to the dead than to ghosts. Within the perspective of signifying function, adults and dead belong to the same order, that of stable signifiers and the continuity between diachrony and synchrony. (From this point of view, there is little difference between cold societies, which represent this continuity as a circle in which the living become dead and these in turn become living, and hot societies like ours, which develop this continuity in a rectilinear process. In either case what matters is the continuity of the system.) But children and ghosts, as unstable signifiers, represent the discontinuity and difference between the two worlds. The dead person is not the ancestor: this is the meaning of the ghost. The ancestor is not the living man: this is the meaning of the child. For if the dead immediately became ancestors and ancestors immediately became living men, then the whole present would in an instant be transformed into past, and the whole past into present, and this would diminish that differential margin between synchrony and diachrony on which is based the potential for signifying relations, and with it the potential for human society and history. Thus, since ritual allows the persistence in the churinga of an irreducible diachronic residue, and play allows a synchronic residue in the toy, so the passage between the world of the living and the world of the dead allows the persistence of two points of discontinuity which are necessary to maintain the operation of a signifying function. So the passage between synchrony and diachrony, between world of the living and world of the dead, occurs in a kind of 'quantum leap', in which the unstable signifiers are the cipher:

Within this perspective, ghosts and children, belonging neither to the signifiers of diachrony nor to those of synchrony, appear as the signifiers of the same signifying opposition between the two worlds which constitutes the potential for a social system. They are, therefore, the signifiers of the signifying function, without which there would he neither human time nor history. Playland and the land of ghosts set out a utopian topology of historyland, which has no site except in a signifying difference between diachrony and synchrony, between aion and chronos, between living and dead, between nature and culture.
So the social system can be pictured as a complex mechanism in which (unstable) signifiers of signification are counterposed to stable signifiers, but where in reality an exchange takes place between them to guarantee the functioning of the system. Thus adults submit to becoming ghosts so that the ghosts can become dead, and the dead become children so that the children can become men and women. The object of funeral rites and initiation rites, therefore, is the transmission of the signifying function, which must resist and endure beyond birth and death. Thus no society, whether the hottest and most progressive or the coldest and most conservative, can altogether do without unstable signifiers and, in so far as they represent an element of disturbance and threat, must take care that the signifying exchange is not interrupted, so that phantoms can become dead and babies living men."
—Girorgio Agamben, "In Playland" in Infancy and History, 1978.


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