Presentation at the 48th Annual Conference of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP) at the University of New South Wales, Sydney

“Reexamining Ritual Sacrifice in Late-Capitalism”

Presentation at the 48th Annual Conference of the Society of Australasian Social Psychologists (SASP) at the University of New South Wales, Sydney

 

Building on my doctoral dissertation, I have been exploring the rhetorical inventions of “sacrifice” in the construction and ordering of societal institutions.  The rhetoric of sacrifice, and its public rituals, form a core practice of all social orders.  Though the practices have become substantially more subtle and even more deeply embedded in everyday social practices and expectations, this research project explores the underlying local and trans-cultural reflexes inherent in the performance of social, political and economic sacrifices, and their connections to the organization of public institutions. Indeed, the fundamental presumption of sacrifice – the bargaining between unequal powers for the purchase of objectives by the offering of items precious to the giver – has often become so embedded to tacit social norms as to become effectively invisible. Though this project focuses on its connection to the organization of what is termed “late capitalism,” it insinuation in all social orderings is hard to ignore. “Civilized” societies and economic relations ordered through the rituals of sacrifice – propitiation for whatever totems and taboos are set above the governance orders around which collectives coalesce.

 

The abstract and PPTs of the presentation, entitled Reexamining Ritual Sacrifice in Late-Capitalism, follows below. The book from which these ideas were drawn will be published soon under the title Legal and Rhetorical Foundations of Economic Globalization: An Atlas of Ritual Sacrifice in Late-Capitalism, 1st Edition by Routledge’s.

Reexamining Ritual Sacrifice in Late-Capitalism
Keren Wang, The Pennsylvania State University

kuw148[AT]psu.edu

Abstract: This work focuses on one understudied rhetorical dynamic of late-capitalist governmentality – its deployment of ritual and sacrificial discourses. Ritual takings of things of human value, including ritual human sacrifice, has been continuously practiced for as long as human civilization itself has existed. Ample historical records suggest ritual sacrifices were performed as crisis management devices. Large scale human sacrifices in Shang dynasty China were organized as responses to severe food shortages. Ancient Greece devised the specialized sacrificial forms of total oblation and scapegoating as apotropaic responses to ward off catastrophes. The Aztec Empire introduced a highly institutionalized form of ritual warfare, known as the “Flower War,” for the purpose of calendrical population control during periods of famine. Sacrificial rituals of the past should not be considered fundamentally divorced from the governmentality of twenty-first-century. The source distribution structure of late-capitalism, too, reproduce itself via the ritual inculcation of its core values and normative practices. Specifically, this project seeks to examine the subtle ways in which rhetorics of sacrifice are re-appropriated into the workings marketization politics, and are deployed in rendering dehumanizing measures of the prevailing political-economic system that make them appear palpable and inescapable.

Presentation at 2018 PSU Social Thought Conference – “Three studies of ritual sacrifice in late-capitalism”

This presentation highlights a few key excerpts from my doctoral dissertation research:

“The ritual taking of things that are of human value, including the ritual killing of humans, has been continuously practiced for as long as human civilization itself has existed. Sacrifices in the form of state-organized rituals have been observed in many societies throughout history. Existing scholarship also observed an interdependent relationship between ritual sacrifice and the maintenance of political power in a broad set of historical cases, ranging from Shang dynasty China in 10th century BCE to the witch-hunts in early modern Europe. Sacrificial rituals of the past should not be considered fundamentally divorced from our modern world: whereas the formal elements of sacrifice of the past may no longer be recognizable, their substantive political functions do remain, with rhetorical overtones that carry into the politics of the present time. The goal for this project is to give due consideration to the politics of sacrificial rites across a broad set of political-theological traditions, hopefully paving the way to a new unifying understanding of sacrificial rhetorics. This research goal revolves around two primary research tasks that are intimately connected. The first is to provide a working interpretative framework for understanding the politics of ritual sacrifice – one that not only accommodates multidisciplinary, intersectional knowledge of ritual practices, but that can also be usefully employed in the integrated analysis of sacrificial rituals as political rhetoric under divergent historical and societal contexts.  The second conducts a series of case studies that cuts across the wide variability of ritual public takings in late-capitalism.”

“It is important to note that ritual sacrifices were far more than simply acts of religious devotion.  Historical evidence suggests ritual sacrifices were performed as crisis management devices. Large scale human sacrifices in Shang dynasty China and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica would only take place during periods of severe food shortage, usually caused by war or crop failure. In the mid-sixteenth century, King Ixtlilxochitl of the Aztec Empire (also known as the Triple Alliance) introduced a highly institutionalized form of ritual warfare, known as the ‘Flower War’ (Nahuatl: xōchiyāōyōtl), for the purpose of calendrical population control during periods of famine.”

 

“Ancient Greece devised the specialized sacrificial forms of Holokaustos  (total oblation) and Pharmakos (scapegoat) as “appropriate responses” to major catastrophes.”

 

“Although people in modern society seldom consider ritual sacrifice (especially those that involve the slaughter of humans for ritual purposes) as an ongoing practice, it nonetheless remains an organizing element of contemporary institutions of governance. Capital punishment, for instance, is one of the oldest forms of human ritual sacrifice that is continuously practiced to the present day.”

 

“The causal relationship between desire and violence has been widely discussed in early Enlightenment political philosophy – most notably by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, where he famously attributed the “King’s violence” to the fundamental and insatiable human desire for power and riches. With the rise of social psychology throughout the twentieth century, theories of human sacrifice began to expand beyond the evolutionary framework. The most influential theoretical contribution on the social psychology of sacrifice can be attributed to Sigmund Freud’s writings in Totem and Taboo, where he grounded ritualistic killings of other human beings as a manifestation of the intrinsic destructive impulse of the human ego. For Freud, human sacrifice, though it may seem like an exceptionally savage type of practice, is in fact a form of collective manifestation of basic human neuroses and insecurities. American social psychologist Erich Fromm observed that not only does the religious phenomenon of sacrifice still exists in modern society, but modernity has in many ways amplified the scope, intensity and destructiveness of ritual human sacrifice.  As modern forms of the ritual of sacrifice are disguised behind a thin veil of contemporary mythic justification frameworks, often spelled out in the language of economic, legal, and scientific rationalities, it is helpful to first examine scholarship on historical forms of ritual human sacrifice, so that we may distill an intersectional body of analytical vocabularies for our readings into of present movements. René Girard also considered the subject of human sacrifice along similar psychological lines, arguing that all sacred rituals are externalizations of violent human tendencies. In this regard, Girard points to our mimetic desire – desiring of what others have that we lack – as the source of human violence.”

“Works by Giorgio Agamben constituted the most significant twenty-first-century revival in the study of ritual sacrifice as political discourse. In his Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (1999), Agamben defined the concept of the homo sacer (sacred or accursed man) not as a historical particularity or person, as a metaphor for the rhetorical moment which the sovereign declares its power over ‘bare life’ (or life always ready to be disposed).  It is a moment where the ‘experience of history’ appropriates the ‘experience of language,’ as Agamben suggested, where the collective past is “saved” by “being transformed into something that never was.” The messianic logic also assumes radically different temporality than historical revisionist narratives –   it does not merely seek to reshape historical experience of the audience, but to claim the end of their history. The concept of kleto became a major subject of research in Agamben’s 2005 book The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans. In The Time that Remains, Agamben identified the messianic rhetoric in the letters of Apostle Paul served to construct a political theology that asserts itself as the end-of-history (and therefore end of political potentialities), by dividing the population along the binary of eternal salvation vs. damnation. Agamben contended that the political implication of Apostle Paul’s messianic rhetoric is not trivial – it was deployed as a discursive device for both the perpetual segregation and disenfranchisement of a population.”

 

“The ‘political geography’ form of rhetorical analysis provides an important methodological context for this dissertation project. Partially drawing from what Deleuze and Guattari calls ‘nomadic thought’ as the main critical approach for this ‘geographical’ intervention. However, the mapping attempt outlined in this dissertation differs from Deleuze’s neo-Kantian framework. The ‘nomadic’ position outlined in the works of Deleuze demand an epistemologically indifferent gaze that is radically detached from the ‘striated territories’ of political discourse on the ground. The ‘nomadic thought as outlined in their works assumes an undifferentiated plane of analysis that is extra-political and extra-territorial, thereby allowing the nomadic critic to ‘smoothly’ navigate among networks of knowledge-spaces. Deleuze’s nomad playfully assumes a detached neutrality and comfortable indifference towards territorial statehood and political spaces. In contrast, the critical position for this project would better be compared to that of a ‘fugitive.’ More specifically, a fugitive remains in a state constant exile – always stateless yet remain apprehensively watchful for subtle traces of political power.”

“No cartographer can hope to obtain the ‘God’s eye view’ removed from the limits of language and symbolic representations, and perfectly transcribes topographical and topological features ‘the way they are.’  In addition to identifying relevant features pertinent to the specific theme of the integrative rhetorical analysis, the interpretation and translation of these features are also fundamental challenges for mapping. The unique research topic tasked for this atlas project also adds an additional layer of challenge. The emergence of global capitalism accompanies the proliferation of its totalizing epistemic ‘fog-of-war’ – one that shrouds multitudes of political and historical vicissitudes of everyday life without completely clearing them.  Disparities in political variations and economic conditions remain visible at the local level, but these locally embedded tensions would have reduced visibility when examined from afar.  When political expressions are ‘taken hostage’ by the all-encompassing economic logic of neoliberalism, it is increasingly difficult locate a stable vantage point to render nuanced understanding of neoliberal discourse.”

“Extending from recent rhetorical works in areas of political geography and ideological assemblage, this project would suggest employing a ‘rhetorical atlas’ approach for its critical analysis. The thematic focus of this mapping effort rests on the discrete and simultaneous tracing of the discursive contours of sacrifice different local settings. Its aim is to collectively offer a small cross-section glimpse into the multiformity of mythical-ritual practices in the maintenance of neoliberalism governance. The atlas provides a good middle ground that allows for balanced display of both scope and detail, collectively presenting separately mapped localities of a larger region.”

“A total of three well-documented bodies of text have been selected as the main objects-of-analysis for this section.

  1. Kelo v. New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) – S. Supreme Court landmark decision permitting the use of eminent domain by local governments to seize residential properties for private redevelopment. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the court’s majority opinion. [i]
  2. “Complaint to the UK National Contact Point under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises,” filed by British NGO Survival International on December 2008, in response to the Niyamgiri indigenous land mining project controversy.
  3. Collection of speeches made by Dr. H. F. Verwoerd (1901 – 1966) – Professor of Sociology and Social Work at University of Stellenbosch, 6th Prime Minister of South Africa, and perhaps most famously remembered as the “Architect of Apartheid.”

Given that neoliberalism ‘speaks’ at both global and local levels, this project needs to look for ways to examine the rhetoric of sacrifice in diverse global settings without excessive sacrifices on attentions to local details. Thus, a total of five case studies present a realistic middle ground allowing a degree of diversity of examples without sacrificing attention to each individual text.  Second, all three textual objects are formally-organized bodies of speech and/or text produced for public context. For each object of analysis, its operation is confined within the prescribed political and legal parameters, and its textual production revolves around a prescribed set of ritual performances and sequential procedures. Third, the selected texts collectively offer a small but diverse and representative slice of those formal expressions commonly produced by key state and non-state actors in the contemporary global system. Lastly, each of the selected textual objects reveals a subtle yet representative aspect of the multifaceted ways neoliberal politics appropriate and deploy the rhetoric of sacrifice for its productive ends.”

“After surveying the surface topography of the case, the rhetorical analysis proceeds into the ritual and ideological “substrate” of the given rhetorical moment. This substrate analysis involves focused yet historically deep excavation of tacitly embedded belief structures that maintain and legitimize ritual sacrifice.  The third stage goes beyond surface text and their immediate contexts, and moves toward tracing those tacit political and economic fault lines that run beneath the rhetoric of sacrifice. This involves locating their divergent boundaries, fractures and potential points of rupture. At this stage the cartographer can no longer solely rely on her bare eyes and senses from a fixed vantage point. To further survey the sub-textual structures which lay underneath the written and spoken text, the cartographer is tasked with moving freely across the terrain, thus bringing a wide range of instruments and references to trace previously unmapped details. The textual and contextual layers of the text-object will be re-interrogated with the help of divergent vocabularies from past practices of ritual sacrifice.  The final stage concludes the textual analysis by bringing the multi-layered mapping from the previous three stages back into the thematic discussion of global neoliberal discourse.”

“The concept of human violence can be extremely broad, context driven, and self-contradictory. It is nonetheless sufficient to say that violent acts, when deployed as organized symbolic practices, necessarily involve transaction between actors, or groups of actors. Violent transactions not only often entail the use of force and/or power, both threatened and actual, between social actors, but also involve the transfer of wealth and resources among human groups. Ritual cannibalism, which was prevalent in prehistoric societies, not only involved consumption of human flesh for nutritional gains, but also the taking of resources which the cannibalized victim possessed.The defining element for ritual sacrifice is not the act of taking per se, but the legitimation process of violent takings through ritual suspension of nomos (pre-existing formal and customary social protections). The rhetoric of ritual functions as an audience-adaptation framework, via symbolic processes of consubstantiality and liminality. The ritual framing of human sacrifice thereby effectively conceals the violent and transgressive nature of the act, and transforms the violent transaction into a necessity and/or public good.”

“Collective ideas, even in the form of ‘religious superstitions,’ do not simply emerge from thin air ad libitum; rather, they both inflect upon and reflect a given society’s political and economic conditions. In theology, ecclesia (ἐκκλησία, ministry) is used to describe local ministries as well as in broader sense all members of a faith organized under a common religious institution. Here I would like to borrow the theological term ecclesia precisely because a full-fledged constitutional society functions similarly to religious institutions – both require the interdependent presence of formal doctrines and practicing believers. Indeed, organized religious communities and secular rule-of-law societies are organized around similar operating principles. Their proper functioning is dependent on two conditions: The first is the good faith of the commons – that personal ego and habits are restrained under a self-referencing set of collective core values and beliefs. The second condition is the ritual repetition – that those shared core values are maintained via enforcement of laws that reflect the material condition and pressing needs of the community. The authority of both the ecclesiastical body and the constitutional state are bound by their laws precisely because the laws themselves reflect the set of basic principles that the authority organizes itself upon. This interconnectedness between collective belief, collectively observed rituals, and collective legal consciousness in fact has been succinctly echoed in Rousseau’s writings in defense of classical republicanism, where Rousseau used the metaphor of ‘general will’ in describing the sovereignty as an belief community.”

 

“Ritual sacrifice, both ancient and contemporary, encompasses a complex set of social phenomena involving the mythic justification and ritualization of collective act of taking.  While the ritual acts of taking are organized differently to respond to a broad range of exigences, audience and constraints that might arise, the substantive nature of the act remains the same. It invariably involves some collective acts of seizure, transfer and/or destruction of things of both symbolic and real human significance, including the capture, confinement, mutilation and slaughter of human body. By defining ritual as a ‘collective’ social action, it does not imply that the actual performance of taking must be carried out by multiple agents. Rather, it refers to the collective identification of the act as a ‘reenactment of a prior event. …Ritual takings in the post-WWII political worldview share a number overlapping justification frames. This dissertation has so far identified five common frames, or doctrines, of ritual sacrifice that are broadly observed in its case studies. These common frames may be explicitly stated or tacitly assumed, but they tend to broadly reflect the hegemonic market-driven governmentality. These five doctrines together form the rhetorical foundation for public ritual sacrifice in late-capitalism. They define the ‘appropriate and proper’ occasions for suspending pre-existing rule of law and rights protections, to allow otherwise transgressive social transactions that are previous prohibited.”

 

“The first common doctrine is the total depravity of an economically accursed condition. This common doctrine involves a two-fold anathema, formally delivered by the acting authority against the accursed party to be sacrificed. First is the identification of a certain pre-existing condition that is always-already-depraved.  That is, certain general conditions (i.e. blighted inner-city neighborhoods) already bound by totalizing presumptions that these conditions would always, and without exception, totally deprave the collective economic outlook of the community. The second anathema is the explicit naming of the party the accursed condition is being inflicted upon (i.e. condemning the blighted city neighborhoods for regulatory seizure). In the case where the economically accursed condition is declared as ‘totally depraved’ by institutions of authority, such declaration often triggers the mandatory seizure of valuable resources as necessary means to deliver the commons from economic doom… …Ritual sacrifice is deployed as the automatic and ‘appropriate’ response a certain pre-existing condition that is considered to be accursed by institutions of authority. Interestingly, it is observed that under the governmentality of late-liberalism, the accursed is often a certain pre-existing condition rather than the offering itself. This kind of ‘pre-existing condition’ is assumed to be a totally abomination; that is, a taboo that mandates ritual sacrifice to protect a certain totemic good that must be preserved.  An accursed condition may exist in the literal form of the ‘pre-existing condition clause’ in many for-profit health insurance contracts, for example. The rhetorical assumption is that it is not the patient him or herself that is the accursed. Rather, the curse is directed at certain conditions that are defined by the insurance company. It is assumed, typically without any material evidence, that the self-generated list of  ‘pre-existing medical conditions’ are taboos for the industry, as they total abominations the economic profitability of corporate stakeholders. Furthermore, the ‘economic profitability’ is assumed to be so sacred that it does not seem proper to wait for material evidence to emerge in order to drop insurance coverage. Rather, the discovery of pre-existing conditions automatically triggers instant and negotiable denial from coverage.”

“The second common doctrine, unconditional election of modified offerings, frames the parameters of the offering being elected for ritual sacrifice. It also provides the modus operandi of their election. In all three case studies, the sacrificial victims were elected via entirely impersonal grounds (unconditional election). Furthermore, human sacrifices in these cases did not directly involve the total oblation (killing) of the victim. Instead, they demanded modified offerings in the form of economic resources and access to these resources.  In the case of Apartheid South Africa, the unconditional permanent surrender of resources and access was generally applied via no reason other than one’s assigned genetic category. This seemingly arbitrary election of the sacrificial victim rhetorically conceals the human agent behind the violent transaction.”

“…[T]he psychological conditions driving 20th century warfare were comparable to that of ancient child sacrifice as practiced in Canaan at the time of Carthage. The main conceptual difference between ancient and modern child sacrifices (war) merely in the name of the sacrificial cult, and the election process for sacrificial offerings. In short, same destructiveness, different idolatries.  Rhetorical theology, in this case, is more appropriate frame to examine many of the regularized, tacit articulations of the politics of sacrifice. Rituals are known for their liminal role in regulating and normalizing traumatic human experiences via symbolically concealing the violence. Even after WWII, the potential destructiveness of the nation-state idolatry did not subside, but further intensified.  Elaborate and all-encompassing rites and infrastructure of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction emerged in the Cold War era, transforming the human civilization itself as the always-ready offering for automated total annihilation. The global nuclear deterrence regime persisted even after the end of Cold War. The possession of nuclear weapon systems, and the ability to kills hundreds-of-millions of people within hours, are still recognized as ultimate signs of national prestige.”

“Under the sacrificial regime of Cold War era nuclear deterrence, the election for its sacrificial offering is unconditional, total (as applied to the general population), and oblative (killing humans is the ritual’s core objective), and final (as it cannot be repeated in the foreseeable future, either due to human extinction or long-term radioactive fallout). This doctrine of unconditional mutual homicide, paradoxically, has been peculiarly comforting to those who believe it. It is not difficult to find reasonably sober and knowledgeable people professing full faith in the necessity of mutual homicide to protect peace and national security. However, there is an intrinsic contradiction within the ‘economy’ of the oblative sacrificial rite of the nuclear state… While the state-centric orthodoxy maintains its institutional presence globally, it is been gradually displaced by an emergent market-centric governmentality.  The rise of neoliberalism can be understood as a post-WWII reformation movement within the political theology of modernity. The rite of the late-capitalist transnational governmentality displaces the state with economic growth as the new telos of the political. Human lives were no longer simply assumed as means to preserve the integrity of the idolized Westphalian state. Rather, both the state apparatus and its population have become means to serve the ends of economic growth…. Within this emergent ‘grow-or-die’ economic worldview, a person is simply more ‘profitable’ living than dead. As growth in late-capitalism is largely driven by overconsumption and structural debt, the distinction between economically productive and unproductive members of society is blurred. Under this kind of economic regime, value is generated not only from labor-productivity, but also from consumption and direct extraction (from commodified bodies). A chronically ill and disabled patient may have limited labor value potential, but can be extremely ‘profitable’ for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries. Within an increasingly privatized prison-industrial complex, even deviance and criminality can function as factors of value-extraction.”

“At surface, given the high economic cost of oblative human sacrifice, ritual sacrifice in late-capitalism may tend to appear less deadly than those ‘patriotic’ ritual killings of two world wars.  However, it is important to remember that this seemingly ‘life-affirming’ consequence of neoliberalism is merely incidental to the working its value-creation mechanism.  It is nonetheless concerning to witness an emergent system in which a chronically ill or incarcerated individual could generate more corporate revenue than a healthy, productive individual could.  As observed in the previous three case studies, rather than total oblation, modified offerings were elected to be sacrificed for the promise of economic growth. Negative power (or power of taking) was exercised not onto human life itself, but onto one’s economic capacity and access to economic resources. Not only an individual is seen as a factor of labor production, but his everyday transactions and biometric data are all potential sources for revenue. Economic resources, personal transactions, biometrics, right-of-access and other socio, political and economic rights protections are the new modified human offerings always-ready-to-be-taken… A notable exception to the aforementioned ‘more profitable alive than dead’ rule is the military-industrial complex. War and conflict remains a multi-billion dollar industry in the 21st century. Conservative estimates of the global arms trade in 2015 fell around $100 billion USD. Yet the ‘war economy’ is constrained by the fact that conflict destabilizes economic growth.”

 

“The third common doctrine, limited realization of predestined growth, serves to bridge the apparent gap between the promised blessing of neoliberal sacrifices and their actual fulfillment. In all three case studies, the “goodness” of the involved policy measures became an unfalsifiable doctrine of faith rather a materially justified fact. The universal benefit of economic growth was reframed by institutions of power as a matter of predestination, and are not subject to “second-guessing.” The doctrine of limited realization of the ideal thus became the rhetorical response by public authorities in the case studies to address constraints that arise from the unfulfilled promises of neoliberalism.”

“Empirical observations shown above suggest a simple fact – that formal economic growth is increasingly outpacing real income on the ground. Did economic growth fail to materialize into tangible wealth? Yes and no. In practice, the sweeping material promises of growth-driven sacrifices do not fully realize except for a very limited class of financial asset owners, or the so-called ‘Top 1%.’ Only those very few who own the means of financial speculation are structurally ‘predestined’ to receive the blessings of the global economic system. Since the 1980s, this trend has been widely observed across in both developing and developed economies around the world. Other non-econometric human development has also remained stagnant or even worsened over the third-wave marketization period. The incarceration rate in the United States increased more than 400% from 1978 to 2010. Globally, both the number and relative intensity of armed conflicts have increased sharply since 2010. The amount of forcibly displaced populations worldwide also rose six-fold from 2000 to 2014.”

“…[A] fundamental rhetorical constraint for authorities in all three case studies is the disparity between the make-believe and lived reality in terms redeeming the material blessings of neoliberal sacrifice. Mythos legitimizes and reifies arguments that cannot be verified via lived experience. For metaphysical God-concepts that transcend human empirical domain, mythos may be the only device available in human language to narrativize the immaterial.[iv] When material justifications are wanting, mythical narratives may be employed to fill the gap of public imaginary. The mythical narrative in this case does not provide an alternative justification to the material knowledge-gap. Rather, it functions as means of evasion – ‘that is, avoidance of an unacceptable truth’ as deemed by the dominant power structure. Thus, in all three case studies examined so far, the public authority rhetorically transformed the empirically-grounded notion of economic growth into a self-justifying God-concept. This rhetorical transformation would not be possible without pre-existing, socially embedded idolization of ‘economic growth.’ Under the transnationally proliferated myth that economic growth is the predestined and singular route of the salvation for all political communities, the rhetoric of ‘limited realizations’ of those promised blessings is sufficient to function as the singular legitimation basis a wide range of ritual sacrifices.”

 

“The Fourth common doctrine can be summarized as irresistible takings by institutions of public authority. This common doctrine seeks to establish the irresistibility of ritual takings. This doctrine responds to the constraint of rhetorical contestation. That is, to manage and constrain the capacity of those discontents of the sacrifice ‘to criticize or uphold an argument, to defend themselves or to accuse.’  It defines the rhetorical boundaries contestability throughout the ritual taking process, and declares the infallibility of the acting authority to exercise its power of takings. In all three case studies, the irresistible takings doctrine is deployed via certain prescribed judicial, administrative and/or legislative processes.”

“…Ritual takings are presented as automatically triggered via the formal invocation of pubic authority. In the case of public taking, the formal innovation (i.e. property condemnation notice) functions as a signifier of the “publicness” of the act-of-taking. The instant audience recognition of the invocation is possible because the governing authority and its subjects are bound in a state of constitutional consubstantiality. The constitutional framework organizes the subjects under a unified political ecclesia (community sharing a common-faith), in which the totemic field of habitus (or consubstantiality) is provided, which automatically implies certain role expectations and power-relations.  Upon audience identification of the formal invocation, an otherwise violent act-of-taking is instantly transformed into a regulated public ritual… Subsidiary petition rituals are often put in place to make the “bitter pill” of public takings appear more equitable or even palatable. …[E]ven in a full-fledged liberal, constitutional society, the judiciary apparatus cannot entirely eliminate resistance against its rulings. In situation where ritual sacrifice is both materially damaging and normatively transgressive, it tends to invite a higher degree of public resentment.  Often, subsidiary petition structures only allow the negotiation of compensation, but do not permit public takings themselves to be contested. These subsidiary rituals function as pressure-release valves to counterbalance the oppressive nature of the irresistible takings doctrine. Apartheid legislations created separate (and much stricter) judicial process for reviewing petitions against forceful relocation of non-whites. Petition rituals thus often function within the rhetorical field constitutional consubstantiality, to allow a more ‘sustainable’ expansion of the laws of sacrifice. This in turn leads to the fifth common doctrine – the perseverance of the ritual.”

“The fifth common doctrine is the perseverance of the sacrificial ritual.  The rhetorical inventive process by the acting authorities in all three case studies share the motivation of rendering exceptional sacrifices permanent. Ritual is, by definition, symbolic act of preservation. Ritual preserves common values and norms of behavior via repetition and consubstantiality. Even destructive rituals, such as war and capital punishment, are formally conducted under the justification framework of preserving collective ideals. The normative structures of neoliberalism, too, reproduce its economic worldview via ritual inculcation of its core values and normative principles. Thus the post-WWII transnationally established norms of governance tend to gravitate towards a preference for the protection of private property, and free movements of goods, services, technology and financial assets. The transnational proliferation of neoliberal constitutionalism only accelerated since the end of the Cold War.”

“…Neoliberalism, however, should not be understood as simply a particular set of ideas and teachings. Neoliberalism is also a historical moment. It is the historical unfolding of the qualitative and quantitative changes, fractures and fissures of capitalist global economy in the late twentieth and twenty-first-century. Even the most foundational liberal ideals, such as the individual’s right to the quiet enjoyment of one’s own property, are readily disposable for the sake of its economic articulations. In all three rhetorical studies, the acting authorities employed the economic logos of neoliberalism to justify the sacrifice of the ideals are considered sacred under the neoliberal normative framework.”

“…[T]he judicial, administrative and legislative organs involved in the case studies not only served as agents of sacrifice, but also legislation of new laws of sacrifice that can be applied in future cases. The rhetoric of the ritual projects its power not only over present disputes, but also over future possibilities. These cases were all considered as exceptional ritual sacrifices in the sense that they significantly departed the pre-existing constitutional nomos. Furthermore, acting authorities in all three cases did not resort to the ‘state of emergency’ argument. The state of exception itself was formally permitted only momentary suspension of pre-existing legal protections. Yet the ritual sacrifices in the case studies were motivated not only by the act-of-taking present-at-hand, but also the perseverance of new sacrificial rituals to facilitate future takings. Ritual sacrifice in all three case studies not only preserved its ritual for future use, but also preserved their territorial separations, as well as the inequitable distribution of economic resources among their populations.”

(c) 2018 Keren Wang

 

 

(All art illustrations in presentation slides are available on public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The History and Challenges of Theorizing Human Sacrifice

Floor mosaic in Beit Alfa Synagogue (c.5th century AD, Israel) depicting the Binding of Issac

Fig. 1: Floor mosaic in Beit Alfa Synagogue (c.5th century CE, Israel) depicting the Binding of Issac (public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Human sacrifice refers to the practice of ritual killing of human beings as offerings to divine patrons, ancestors, or other superhuman forces. Early comparative studies on human sacrifice were heavily influenced by theories of historical relativism and social evolutionism. [1] Such theory approach is exemplified by the works of nineteenth century cultural-anthropologists Edward Tylor and Marcel Mauss, both of whom framed practices of human sacrifice as specific iteration of a general social feature, developed relative to various stages of human historical development. [2]

With the rise of social psychology throughout the twentieth century, theories of human sacrifice began to expand beyond the evolutionary framework. The most influential theoretical contribution on the social psychology of sacrifice can be attributed to Sigmund Freud’s writings in Totem and Taboo, where he grounded ritualistic killings of other human beings as a manifestation of the intrinsic destructive impulse of the human ego:

[quote]”…the killing of a person compels the observation of a series of rules which are associated with taboo customs. These rules are easily brought under four groups; they demand 1. reconciliation with the slain enemy, 2. restrictions, 3. acts of expiation, and purifications of the manslayer, and 4. certain ceremonial rites.”[3][/quote]

"...the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father." Freud, from Totem and Taboo

[Fig. 2.]  “…the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father.” Freud, Totem and Taboo

For Freud, human sacrifice, though may seem like an exceptionally savage type of practice, is in fact a form of collective manifestations of our basic personal neuroses:

[quote]”…taboo has become the general form of law giving and has helped to promote social tendencies which are certainly younger; than taboo itself, as for instance, the taboos imposed by chiefs and priests to insure their property and privileges. But there still remains a large group of laws which we may undertake to investigate. Among these I lay stress on those taboos which are attached (a) to enemies, (b) to chiefs, and (c) to the dead” [4][/quote]

Therefore, drawing from his own theories on the fundamental structure of human psyche, Freud claims that the underlying impulses of sacrificial killing are always present, though societies may find ways to redirect its compulsive neurosis towards less violent rituals that substitute the functions of human sacrifice:

[quote]”The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice, for the solemn killing of the father, and when the father substitute regained its human form, the animal substitute could also be retransformed into a human sacrifice.” [5][/quote]

 

Contemporary cultural theorist René Girard also considered the subject human sacrifice along similar psychological lines, arguing that all sacred rituals are externalizations of violent human tendencies. In this regard, Girard points to our mimetic desire – desiring of what others have that we lack – as the source of human violence:

[quote]”Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the “true” object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire…” [6][/quote]

Interestingly, Girard frames such desire in existential instead of economic terms, arguing that mimetic desire intensifies presley when the basic human needs are satisfied:

[quote] “…Once his basic needs are satisfied (indeed, sometimes even before), man is subject to intense desires, though he may not know precisely for what. The reason is that he desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, the object must surely be able of conferring an even greater plenitude of being. It is not through words, therefore, but by the example of his own desire that the model conveys to the subject the supreme desirability of the object” [7][/quote]

While being functionally a “common feature” shared by many past societies, human sacrifice conceptualized in its most general sense is overly broad and abstracted for substantive understanding. One problem with existing evolutionary and psychological paradigms in conceptualizing human sacrifice is their tendency to abstract symbolic performances away from their specific political and economic context, and re-signify those particularized discursive practices with the singular logos of macroscopic “laws” (i.e. social evolution) or metaphysical concepts (i.e. the nature of being).

Human sacrificial rituals are differentiated relative to the tensions and constraints specific to the historical, temporal and spatial milieu of the corresponding discursive jurisdiction. Understanding differentiated sacrificial practices solely through theoretical abstraction runs the danger of washing away the intensely rhetorical character of these performances. Human sacrifices performed by Shang and Mayan rulers not simply “neutral” representations of developmental stages or human psychological conditions – they are rhetorical in the sense that are carefully staged political spectacles, stylized in the form of sacred violence for the purpose of shaping and maintaining societal norms.

American theorist Kenneth Burke also addressed the limitations of evolutionary mode of investigation by suggesting a new dramaturgic approach of analyzing symbolic actions. [8] In his Permanence and Change, Burke proposed that “[r]ather than thinking of magic, religion, and science as three distinctively successive stages in the world’s history, the author would now use a mode of analysis that dealt with all three as aspects of motivation.” [9] It is important to note that Burke’s emphasis on “motivation” does not suggest a strictly “psychological” orientation; rather, the term “motivation” could be better understood as a shorthand for relativized symbolic performances – actions that are “locally” embedded within the framework of a larger Weltanschauung. [10]

In light of understanding the problematic rhetorical contingencies underpinning certain specifically “staged” sacrificial dramas, it might be helpful to consider Burke’s comment on rendering judgment on those highly political representations – “We need not here decided whether it is, in any given case, correct or incorrect. We need simply note that where it has occurred, one thenceforth has purposes which have been ‘revealed’ to him.  And regardless of how they may have come about, he may even be expected in time to reconstruct from them, out of his memories as revised, some appropriate setting that corresponds in function to the ‘heuristic’ ascent of some ‘magic mountain’ on which engraved tablets were discovered…” [11]

Expanding from Burke’s dramaturgical approach, this essay would suggest a “topological” approach in mapping out the discursive contours of human sacrifice as a form of localized mythical speech. As Roland Barthe pointed out in his Mythologies, critics ought to go beyond the “details of the linguistic schema” in order to give adequate comparative account of differentiated mythical speeches:

[quote]”We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language.” [12][/quote]

Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, from  Sophocles' "Electra" ("The Sacrifice of Iphigenia", 17th century painting by François Perrier, public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Fig.3: mythos of sacrifice — Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis, from Sophocles’ Electra (“The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”, 17th century painting by François Perrier, public domain art available via Wikimedia Commons)

Forms of mythical speeches such as human sacrifice that cuts across multiple lifeworlds would inevitably take the form of a differentiated manifold – with much of its substantive symbolicity obscured under numerous relativized “folds” of orientations depending on the point of observation.  As the manifold metaphor suggests that the understanding of mythical speeches (and more generally all symbolic actions) is constrained by multiple layers of relativized dimensions, and that specific rhetorical implications of those actions cannot meaningfully analyzed under a singular abstracted frame of observation.

To obtain a comprehensive comparative understanding of differentiated symbolic landscapes of human sacrifice, one must find way overcome the problem of inanalyzability of the rhetorical manifold without oversimplification or over-abstraction.  Here I would propose a way to conduct topological mapping of rhetorical manifold by taking advantage of the differentiated aspect of the rhetorical manifold, specifically by focusing on the topology of local rhetorical landscapes – examining specific examples of “staged performances” and the particular political and economic conditions underpinning that performance. Any manifolded symbolic practices can be described by a collection of topological charts, similar to the ones found in an atlas, rather than by a abstracted “law”.   One may then examine relations between various topological elements (e.g. relations between symbolic performances, mythos, and material conditions) within the orientation of that specific locality. At the same time, each localized topological “map” lies within an orientable subset of the manifold (given the specific structural similarity between Mayan and Shang rituals) to which the rules of finite frames of observations that are relevant to the selected case study can be applied. If the selected topological projections from different localities of the manifold share many specific features that are translatable into the each other locality’s frame of observation, then meaningful comparative analysis may be rendered between these differentiable cases from the same rhetorical manifold, and possibly reconstruct the abstracted form of human action into a compilation of topological rhetorical mappings. [13]  These intensive localized interpretations are at the same time considered in relation with the larger manifold rather than being treated discretely, which allows the comparative investigation of structurally similar symbolic performances such as human sacrifice from disparate material and discursive localities.

 


 

Notes:

[1]  Max Weber, On the Methodology of the Social Sciences, trans. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (Illinois: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1949), 52: “With the awakening of the historical sense, a combination of ethical evolutionism and historical relativism became the predominant attitude in our science. This attitude sought to deprive ethical norms of their formal character and through the incorporation of the totality of cultural values into the “ethical” (Sittlichen) sphere tried to give a substantive content to ethical norms.”

 See also, Richard E. DeMaris, “Sacrifice, an Ancient Mediterranean Ritual,” Biblical Theology Bulletin vol. 43 no.2 (2013): 60-73.

 

[2] Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. 4th ed. (London, UK: 1903).

See also, Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, trans. W. D. Halls, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[3] Sigmund Freud. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, translated by A. A. Brill (New York, NY: Random House, 1961), Ch.II-3: “Inclined as we may have been to ascribe to savage and semi-savage races uninhibited and remorseless cruelty towards their enemies, it is of great interest to us to learn that with them, too, the killing of a person compels the observation of a series of rules which are associated with taboo customs. These rules are easily brought under four groups; they demand 1. reconciliation with the slain enemy, 2. restrictions, 3. acts of expiation, and purifications of the manslayer, and 4. certain ceremonial rites. The incomplete reports do not allow us to decide with certainty how general or how isolated such taboo customs may be among these races, but this is a matter of indifference as far as our interest in these occurrences is concerned. Still, it may be assumed that we are dealing with widespread customs and not with isolated peculiarities.”

 

[4] Freud, Ibid., Ch.II-3: “Through the analytical study of the symptoms, especially the compulsive actions, the defence reactions and the obsessive commands. These mechanisms gave every indication of having been derived from ambivalent impulses or tendencies, they either represented simultaneously the wish and counter-wish or they served preponderantly one of the two contrary tendencies. If we should now succeed in showing that ambivalence, i.e., the sway of contrary tendencies, exists also in the case of taboo regulations or if we should find among taboo mechanisms some which like neurotic obsessions give simultaneous expression to both currents, we would have established what is practically the most important point in the psychological correspondence between taboo and compulsion neurosis. …We have already mentioned that the two fundamental taboo prohibitions are inaccessible to our analysis because they belong to totemism; another part of the taboo rules is of secondary origin and cannot be used for our purpose. For among these races taboo has become the general form of law giving and has helped to promote social tendencies which are certainly younger; than taboo itself, as for instance, the taboos imposed by chiefs and priests to insure their property and privileges. But there still remains a large group of laws which we may undertake to investigate. Among these I lay stress on those taboos which are attached (a) to enemies, (b) to chiefs, and (c) to the dead;

 

[5]  Sigmund Freud, ibid. at Ch.IV-6: “ The theanthropic god sacrifice into which unfortunately I cannot enter with the same thoroughness with which the animal sacrifice has been treated throws the clearest light upon the meaning of the older forms of sacrifice. It acknowledges with unsurpassable candour that the object of the sacrificial action has always been the same, being identical with what is now revered as a god, namely with the father. The question as to the relation of animal to human sacrifice can now be easily solved. The original animal sacrifice was already a substitute for a human sacrifice, for the solemn killing of the father, and when the father substitute regained its human form, the animal substitute could also be retransformed into a human sacrifice.”

 

[6] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 156-157:

“Far from being restricted to a limited number of pathological cases, as American theoreticians suggest, the double bind—a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives—is an extremely common phenomenon. In fact, it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.

Bateson is undoubtedly correct in believing that the effects of the double bind on the child are particularly devastating. All the grown-up voices around him, beginning with those of the father and mother (voices which, in our society at least, speak for the culture with the force of established authority) exclaim in a variety of accents, “Imitate us!” “Imitate me!” “I bear the secret of life, of true being!” The more attentive the child is to these seductive words, and the more earnestly he responds to the suggestions emanating from all sides, the more devastating will be the eventual conflicts. The child possesses no perspective that will allow him to see things as they are. He has no basis for reasoned judgements, no means of foreseeing the metamorphosis of his model into a rival. This model’s opposition reverberates in his mind like a terrible condemnation; he can only regard it as an act of excommunication. The future orientation of his desires—that is, the choice of his future models—will be significantly affected by the dichotomies of his childhood. In fact, these models will determine the shape of his personality.

If desire is allowed its own bent, its mimetic nature will almost always lead it into a double bind. The unchanneled mimetic impulse hurls itself blindly against the obstacle of a conflicting desire. It invites its own rebuffs and these rebuffs will in turn strengthen the mimetic inclination. We have, then, a self-perpetuating process, constantly increasing in simplicity and fervor. Whenever the disciple borrows from his model what he believes to be the “true” object, he tries to possess that truth by desiring precisely what this model desires. Whenever he sees himself closest to the supreme goal, he comes into violent conflict with a rival. By a mental shortcut that is both eminently logical and self-defeating, he convinces himself that the violence itself is the most distinctive attribute of this supreme goal! Ever afterward, violence will invariably awaken desire…”

 

[7] René Girard,  Deceit, desire, and the novel; self and other in literary structure, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 155

 

[8] See Kenneth Burke on Motivations being shorthand terms for situations, Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, An Anatomy of Purpose, 3rd edition (California: University of California Press, 1983), 29-30.: “The discovery of a law under simple conditions is not per se evidence that the law operates similarly under highly complex conditions. We may be justified, however, in looking for evidence of its operation in some form, as it either becomes redirected or persists vestigially.”

 

[9] Kenneth Burke, Permanence and Change, prologue. xxv.

 

[10] Burke, Permanence and Change, ibid. at 25: “Insofar as schemes of motivation change, one may expect a change in the very motives which people assign their actions… It is a term of interpretation, and being such it will naturally take its place within the framework of our Weltanschauung as a whole.”

 

[11] Burke, ibid., 157-158.

 

[12] See Roland Barthe, Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (New York: The Noonday Press, 1972): 113-114:

“We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc.), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language. Whether it deals with alphabetical or pictorial writing, myth wants to see in them only a sum of signs, a global sign, the final term of a first semiological chain. And it is precisely this final term which will become the first term of the greater system which it builds and of which it is only a part. Everything happens as if myth shifted the formal system of the first significations sideways…

…It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, 114 the language (or the modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language-object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first. When he reflects on a metalanguage, the semiologist no longer needs to ask himself questions about the composition of the languageobject, he no longer has to take into account the details of the linguistic schema; he will only need to know its total term, or global sign, and only inasmuch as this term lends itself to myth. This is why the semiologist is entitled to treat in the same way writing and pictures: what he retains from them is the fact that they are both signs, that they both reach the threshold of myth endowed with the same signifying function, that they constitute, one just as much as the other, a language-object.”

 

[13] Ernest J. Wrange, “Public Address: A Study in Social and Intellectual History.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, 33 (1947), 451-457: “…it is axiomatic that the extant records of man’s responses to the social and physical world as expressed in formulations of thought provide one approach to a study of the history of his culture.”