The Aesthetics of the Void: On Brad Evans’s “Ecce Humanitas”

October 30, 2021   •   By James R. Martel

Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity

Brad Evans

BRAD EVANS’S NEW BOOK, Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity, is written around a paradox. On the one hand, the concept of the sacred — and here, as I will soon explain, we are talking about the Western variant of this concept — is seen as necessary for any kind of value for human life. Our life is worthy, this idea goes, only and precisely because each of us partakes in or is part of the sacred. Yet (and here is the paradox) the sacred is also that element that allows for maximal and ultimate violence.

Evans, long a student of violence, participates in a philosophical tradition that goes back to thinkers like Georges Bataille and René Girard, wherein violence is intrinsically linked to, and expressive of, the notion of the sacred. Evans’s explanation for the endless horrors of the modern age is that the sacred, in the course of being secularized, has lost its own internal boundaries and built-in taboos, allowing for an untrammeled form of violence that is intrinsic to and pervasive in our time. The paradox, in brief, is that the very thing that makes human life worthwhile is also the thing that gets us to wantonly murder one another. The history of the West is, perhaps in particular, a history in which violence is not only excessive but also seems to have been actively and ardently sought after: hence, slavery, genocide, imperialism, colonialism, the ravages of global capitalism, the violence of global warming, all point not only to the possibility of killing and hurting others but also to a deep and ongoing desire to do so.

In the face of all of this, Evans asks the very simple question, why? Rather than assuming that violence is baked into human beings (the solution to which then becomes simply palliative, a way to lessen but not end our propensity for violence), he seeks to discover what has twisted us so that violence has become so endemic, so naturalized that the idea of being peaceful is held up as a long-sought but never-realized goal. One thing I really like about this book is that, whereas in so many works of political and social theory the vast bulk of the book is dedicated to a series of criticisms and it’s usually only in the last paragraph that the author proposes any kind of solutions, Evans has in effect taken that last paragraph and stretched it out to a book-length treatment.

In thinking about the source of violence and its relationship to the sacred, then, Evans digs deep in order to better think about what is to be done. At the heart of the concept of the sacred, he tells us, is an even more elementary concept, that of the void. The void is the terrifying unknown (perhaps corresponding to what Jacques Lacan calls “the Real”) that is the origin of the sacred itself. In the face of human vulnerability, of our mortality and ability to suffer, the void stands for the possibility that none of it matters, that we are here randomly and that our life has no true meaning. The sacred is developed in order to cover over this abyss, to insist that yes, life does have meaning and we do have a purpose. But here is where things get complicated, especially in the modern version of the sacred’s relationship to violence. Because the question of human purpose is so central and vital, the way that worth is articulated and distributed becomes in a sense the political question. The question of who even counts as a human being — who, to paraphrase Judith Butler, should be grieved and who should not — becomes an increasingly bloody and terrible form of calculation.

I think one of Evans’s most original insights is his understanding that the sacred was always a kind of regulative mechanism. In papering over the void, the sacred made rules, not only in terms of how humans are to be valued but even regarding the limits and taboos that structure human existence. There was of course violence in earlier instantiations of the sacred, but a kind of meta-level rulebook tended to limit the extent and kind of violence that was undertaken (one theme Evans covers in depth is sacrifice, a limited form of violence that staves off further violence and a mechanism that in modernity goes haywire: now, any and all of us could be sacrificed). With the secularization of the sacred, the sacred does not disappear but becomes unbounded. Our contemporary systems of power and authority assert who is valued and who is not, without any of the accompanying limitations, so that violence, the very purpose of which was to bind us into a sacred order, becomes boundless, a kind of universal demand.

One major inspiration for this book came from Evans’s relationship to his partner, Chantal Meza, a painter, who in her work has sought to render visible the meta-level abstraction that is the void. The courage of this artist to portray what cannot be portrayed inspires Evans to attempt to do something of the same thing in his own writerly way. Accordingly, Evans speaks of attempting an “affirmative flight into the void,” an attempt to, as it were, bypass the sacred as a framing mechanism and contend directly with the void itself. Rather than seeing the void as a foundational threat, Evans considers it as being itself a basis for human worth, an invitation for human beings to find their own value not despite but because of the presence of the unknown and unknowable at the center of all life. The solution that he learns from Meza, but also from a great many other artists that are studied in depth in this book, is to see that, in rendering the void into an aesthetic work, one is not so much papering it over as finding in it a space that maximizes human freedom of expression.

It is vital to note that, even in bypassing the sacred, Evans is not counseling us to abandon it altogether. For one thing, he makes it very clear that such an abandonment is basically impossible. The secularized modern world long ago “abandoned” the sacred even as it preserved its basic features as the foundation for secularism itself. Furthermore, Evans would not counsel that we give up on the sacred even if that were possible. The sacred is a specific set of responses to a basic dilemma of human life and, as such, contains a great deal of wisdom about how the “affirmative flight into the void” might best be undertaken. What has been reckless about the modern age, Evans suggests, is to assume that several millennia of dealing with the sacred should be jettisoned (at least formally), as if there were no wisdom or guidance to be salvaged from this history. In a real sense, Evans is telling us that art itself is a version of the sacred, a way to preserve the strictures and limitations (but also the boundless creativity) that mediates our encounter with the void.

Although all of this may seem quite abstract, Evans does an excellent job of keeping a real political and social agenda in view. The book is full of wonderful insights and examples culled from a wide range of thinkers, artists, and writers, from Dante (a major figure in the text) to Gaston Bachelard and from Rodin to Rothko and Basquiat. And there is a powerful political message at the core of the book. So long as the void remains feared and denied, held off by some secularized version of the sacred, it can only be a destructive and negative force. It serves as a kind of blank screen upon which any elite can project its own desires and “receive” them back as an unimpeachable truth claim. The void is shapeless and formless, but it is not “nothing”; it serves, for good or ill — although almost always for ill — as the basis of human politics. Part of Evans’s message is that when the bulk of humanity allows someone else to engage with the void on their behalf, they are not only surrendering their own chance to engage in politics and have a hand in shaping their own lives but are also literally putting their own lives at risk. To say that we ignore the void at our peril becomes a vast understatement. Evans’s work seeks to remove the void as a black box for authoritarian projection and turn it instead into a collective and democratic canvas, a site for mutual engagement and affirmation, as modeled by the artists that he studies.

One question I would pose involves the issue of whether we are in fact dealing with the sacred or sacred (and similarly, the void or void). The concepts that Evans is working with stem largely from the West, from the Jewish and Christian (and occasionally Islamic) basis for Western thought and practices. It is certainly true that, via imperialism and globalism, the West has cast its (ultraviolent) shadow over the whole of the earth, such that the Western version of the sacred may have some claim to be a planetary consideration today. But there are other traditions and other relationships, to the sacred and the void, and also to violence, too. I do not see it as a failure of Ecce Humanitas to largely focus on the West, but there are many other rich veins to explore in terms of the book’s positive mission.

Insofar as one of Evans’s key inspirations comes in the form of aesthetic renditions of the void, the sheer variety of sacred approaches to the fundamental mysteries of human experience points to a plethora of aesthetic responses as well. These alternative traditions suggest that the monopoly on sacred violence the West seems to have is an illusion, and also that resistance — or, to put it in Evans’s terms, affirmative flight — takes on numerous and myriad forms. Indeed, these forms themselves — the structures of the sacred, the sedimentation of practices and beliefs — constitute the positive mission Evans is advocating.

In other words, the sacred is not merely an instrument to get human beings to their long-sought good place. Instead, the sacred is the site of that goodness. For this reason, alongside Evans’s admonition that we not give up on the sacred (or sacreds, if we decenter the West in this equation), he also helps us to recognize the sacred as the place where decisions about life and death, about human worth and human worthlessness, are made. Far from being a place to be avoided and denied, the sacred emerges as the site of battle for human survival — and in that battle, Evans’s book is front and center.

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James R. Martel is a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.