The Sacred and the Profane: Between a Rock and an Edel

On Friday evening, serendipitously, I ended up having dinner with the daughter of an old colleague from York University, Arnold Rockman, who passed away several decades ago. He was a sociologist who, along with Donald Theall, specialized in communications theory at Atkinson College. Arnold had studied with the anthropologist, Edmund Carpenter, (as had I) who had been an early partner of Marshall McLuhan in the publication of the journal Explorations. Arnold was called a McLuhanite, which did not mean that he was an acolyte of Marshall’s, but only that he, like Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis, believed, prophetically, that communications provided a key to understanding the modern economic, political, cultural and artistic world.

Until Friday evening, I had completely forgotten about Arnold. Yet I had been writing about secular and sacred spaces, both positive and negative. I believed I recalled Arnold speaking and writing on the same subject. I looked him up. I was wrong. He had written of sacred and profane spaces, more accurately, the placement of objects in sacred and profane places.

Arnold had written an introduction to an exhibition he had organized in the late sixties at UBC (University of British Columbia) of randomly selected artifacts in the movement in poetry and visual arts then known as “found art.” It was part of the development of conceptual art, what Lucy Lippard had called the dematerialization of the art object. The show was called, “Random Samples.”

At about the same time, I was involved with the architect, Arthur Erickson, in developing a student housing plan for Simon Fraser University. For some reason, I associate Arnold with the composer, Murray Schafer at Simon Fraser University, with whom I believe he sometimes collaborated. Or perhaps he did not. The association may have been because Murray, at about the same time as Arnold, was launching his first Soundscape, a musical composition in which the musicians were placed on the side of mountains around a valley as Murray conducted his “symphony.”

Murray had introduced the whole concept of a soundscape. Sounds he deemed very appropriate to a specific locale were located in the positions where he placed the musicians. As Murray wrote in his introduction to his notion of schizophonia, “We have split the sound from the maker of the sound. Sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence. Vocal sound, for instance, is no longer tied to a hole in the head but is free to issue from anywhere in the landscape.” He called his process of composition a recombination of these sounds, schismogenesis.

Murray borrowed the term from the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, who, like Arnold, had been very influenced by the philosopher Émile Durkheim. To give you a sense of the term, last evening when we sat down to dinner with friends, two different groups of young male performance artists put on a show of breakdancing, an athletic and acrobatic form of street dancing. The performances could be described as an example of competitive schismogenesis between the two groups and complementary schismogenesis within each Mexican youth group, parallel to what Bateson had observed among the men in New Guinea whom he had studied.

Bateson had defined schismogenesis as “a process of differentiation in the norms of individual behaviour resulting from cumulative interaction between individuals.” In competitive schismogenesis, among individuals rather than between groups, each male performed in turn, edged on by the others shouting and clapping, to encourage the next male to exceed in the exhibition of his acrobatic skills. Last evening, we observed and heard each team perform a form of complementary schismogenesis. Between the two teams that performed last night, we observed an example of sequential competitive schismogenesis.

Arnold Rockman in his exhibition, Random Samples, juxtaposed objects torn from their normal context and arranged them together in a plastic rather than performance art exhibition. It was his version of schismogenesis in which objects complemented and competed with one another. Thus, it was not the landscape music of Murray Schafer that induced me to associate the two, whether or not they were actually friends, but the comparative enterprises in which each was engaged in different forms of artistic expression.

In his introduction to that exhibition called Random Sample, Arnold had written: “The cultural historian Johann Huizinga and the sociologist Emile Durkheim both felt that the distinction between the sacred and the profane is crucial to our understanding of such phenomena as the arts and religious ritual. As soon as a particular space is set aside for an activity that is regarded as different from the ordinary profane activities of ordinary life, then that special space, and the activities performed in it, acquire a sacred character….

“If we think about the simplest set of combinations of sacred and profane spaces, we can clearly discern four main types of aesthetic performance or exhibition: a) sacred things displayed in sacred spaces (the traditional aesthetics of performance and display); b) profane things displayed in sacred spaces (exhibitions and performances such as Random Sample and Piles); c) profane things displayed in profane spaces (ordinary events and activities that take place in distinctly different spaces in the city streets without any conscious aesthetic intention); d) sacred things displayed in profane spaces (sculpture in the street; a Mardi Gras parade; early Soviet agit-prop theatre; medieval mystery plays in the market place)…

“The performance called Random Sample, N-42 is intended to illustrate two sentences which are significant in the history of equalitarianism and democracy in the arts. The first sentence is by John Constable, the English landscape painter and precursor of French impressionists: ‘My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up.’ The second sentence is by Georg Simmel, the German aesthetician and sociologist: ‘To treat not only every person but every thing as if it were its own end, this would be a cosmic ethic.’”

A sacred space is an extra-ordinary space, a set-aside space, a special space. A profane space is ordinary; that is its defining characteristic. Arnold lifted the quotations of both Constable and Simmel out of their contexts. Simmel views the highest ideal as making all things, not just Golden Calves, sacred. Constable wanted to see the extraordinary in the ordinary without setting aside anything, but by using art to enable others to see everything, to really see it, in its ordinary setting. But neither exemplify what Rockman tried to do with the sacred and the secular.

Rockman claimed that sacred space was particular. In my scheme, that is only necessarily true of secular space. In the Torah, the mishkan belongs everywhere and nowhere. The mishkan is portable. Space is enclosed but not closed off. The space has guardians but no guards. The space is not walled in nor walled off, even though access is restricted by a curtain.

It is true that the sacred and the secular are distinctively different spaces, but a beautiful (and exclusive) beach club is set aside as much as a sacred space for the pursuit of what is advertised and considered an extraordinary experience. It specifically makes a statement that it is not part of ordinary life. On the other hand, it does not, no more than sacred space, put down ordinary spaces as “profane.” Further, no one makes a claim that it is a sacred space.

Profane space is certainly secular. But most secular spaces are not profane and do not destroy a beautiful landscape by the erection of ugly structures. The profane is irreverent; the secular is, in general, agnostic and shows no contempt for the sacred. Even the French in drawing a radical line between the sacred and the secular did not profess any contempt for the sacred. The non-religious is not the irreligious.

Thus, even if an activity is set aside from everyday ordinary pursuits, that does not make it sacred. A special space is not a sacred space. La Patrona Beach Club in San Pancho is a very special place. It is not a sacred place or space. Further, a difference has to be made between places, such as mountain tops, considered to be sacred, and space that has no place considered to be sacred. This is what happens when the techniques of Daoism are divorced from an identification with their physical roots. Daoism (its equivalent to the Torah is the Daodejing) is not just an ancient religion to be utilized by New Agers as if Daoism were only a set of technical exercises and practices to facilitate self-cultivation, enlightenment and a life of rectitude in the latest expression of psycho-therapy called mindfulness.

Without attending to the sacred spaces and places, such as Mt. Hua, Daoist practices lack both a grounding and a heavenly thrust. There are shrines and geographic features that the pursuit of perfect subjectivity of New Agers, who deify the experience of one’s own body, ignore and, thereby, profane it. In effect, in copying Daoist practices while ignoring the foundations of Daoism, they profane that religion. For New Agers secularize Daoism through such practices as Yoga and ignore the ethical imperatives of the religion. For them, Daoism – and possibly any religion – is but a supermarket offering to enable one to buy individual selections deemed healthy for one’s own body and spirit. It is religion as consumerism. It is post-religious eclecticism.

This is as true of the Yoga derived from Hinduism. When I was nineteen attending university, I practiced Hatha Yoga for an hour per day for over a year. It is one version of Rãja yoga. I focussed on breathing exercises rather than various postures (asanas) and physical exercises of what I used to call the “Life of Canada” yoga, for the latter was called, “Vivekananda.” Yoga, however, is more than a set of physical and breathing exercises, more than learning the technique of meditation. It is a branch of Hinduism with its own philosophy, epistemology and metaphysics. I made the claim at the time that I did not dissociate the techniques from its philosophical roots, but, in retrospect, I suspect I was a fraud. In any case, I never identified those roots with any imperative to visit its sacred shrines and mountains.

Enough of my petty griping about a form of religious schizophonia in which techniques and practices are divorced from both their intellectual and physical groundings. Rockman was concerned with a spatial expression of schizophonia, with things in space divorced from their original context. I am concerned with space itself and what makes it sacred or secular, and, in either realm, its aestheticism. I am not concerned primarily with the profane, though I can cite dozens of sites that profane the environment. Similarly, I can cite celebrated architecture that profanes secular space, such as the new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto that opts for sensationalism and betrays the fact that a museum exists to preserve memory and, through memory, allows history to be constructed that is both honest and comprehensive.

Instead of erecting a new museum, the extension to the ROM was intended to expand an existing building to better accommodate more history within its walls. It certainly expanded the space, but most of it is unusable for displaying artifacts of history. Instead, architecture is turned into a projectile into space and the new addition was turned into a façade. It was a clear example of beauty used to profane a secular space in the name of the sensational. Open forms and expressive architecture can be used as constructions to help clear away the mythical accretions, the inherited narratives of the past, that prevent understanding and liberation. Daniel Libeskind, instead, constructed an edifice as an expression of his own personal vanity.

A space is not made sacred by being set aside from the ordinary. In Judaism, it is because it is the space where God can live in this world amidst His people and not on a mountain top. It is a portable space. Like Rockman, I distinguished four quadrants, positive sacred and secular space, negative sacred (worship of the Golden Calf) and negative secular space (the crisis of despair as in romanticism). Whereas Rockman in his secular bias, instead of glorifying the aestheticism in both the sacred and secular realms, defines religious ritual simply as a form of aesthetic performance or exhibition, just as New Agers use Daoism as a set of techniques for self-improvement.

Rockman                                                Adelman

An Aesthetic Lens                   A Phenomenological/Theological Lens

    Sacred    Profane   Sacred    Secular
Sacred things in sacred space Profane things in sacred space Space as sacred Space as secular
Sacred things displayed in profane spaces Profane things displayed in profane spaces Profaned sacred space (the Golden Calf|) Secular space profaned – the hollow within

If I use our respective names as metonyms, as stand-ins for a set of concepts and attitudes extant at a certain time and place – namely the sixties and seventies in Toronto and Vancouver – then, on the one hand, a rock is a solid found in nature made up of an aggregate of minerals, OR, it is a genre of music current at the time. On the other hand, “edel” in German means noble, with a hint of spiritual nobility that was totally out of place in both Toronto and Vancouver at the time and, certainly, is never simply of its time. There is no suggestion that I was noble or, for that matter, that Arnold was solid or an expression of a type of music. My memory is too feeble to know with any certainty. But as stand-ins, they might provide some further insight.

Rock was brash and brassy. Edel suggests refinement – that is why you know for certain that it was not me. Not just refinement, but an attitude to life that suggests a languid rather than an energetic approach. Edel also suggests a developed and delicate sensitivity – further proof it could not be me. Rock, on the other hand, sticks out, projects outward. It is hard rather than tender. Rock has a 4/4 time signature alternating verse and chorus.

Music associated with “edel” – not the sentimentality of edelweiss – suspends tonal harmonies so they float freely in the air rather than being music which thrusts its beat in your face. Rock, though loud, is solid and stable and plays on the familiar rather than the strange. Whatever it is, it is neither complex or lush. But it is always irreverent, seeming to idolize that which is not rooted in traditional trust and an emphasis on reliability, such as folk music. Rock is anti-institutional. Hence its association with the antithesis to the rule of law and convention. The responsibilities of ordinary life were considered distracting annoyances. Combining passion and energy rather than sensitivity and delicacy, ideas became exciting and sexy. And both conviction and convincing became the two sides of its rhetorical thrust as the lightness of being and attention to detailed exposition were both ignored.

Rock is dense, thick and somewhat barbaric, until the Beatles lent it an ethereal edge. However, it is never sweet or sparkling, but explosive and full of fireworks. Edel, on the other hand, is spacious and allows the lyrics to be heard. It has clarity rather than clamour. Most of all, rock is hypnotic. It inhabits a space rather than allowing the song to emerge from a space. Most of all, rock is exciting but never transformative. The listener is always in the moment rather than travelling from here to there. Rock, instead of offering openings seems to be full of lacunae.

That is what it really means to put the profane in a separate space called sacred.


With the help of Alex Zisman



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s