GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

May 21, 2019

Beyond “Post-Sacrificial”

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:00 am

I’ve been using the phrase “post-sacrificial culture,” generally in conjunction with the “Axial Age acquisitions,” to refer to the breakdown of the “imperative exchange” constitutive of sacrifice. Sacrifice involves an imperative exchange because the human member of the community offering the sacrifice (bringing his goat, or whatever, to the altar) is following an order issued by the deity to offer up some of the fruits provided, ultimately, by that deity; while, in exchange, the sacrifice represents a request, on the part of the one offering the sacrifice, that the deity continue providing these benefits (more goats). In a sense, our culture is not post-sacrificial, and it may be that no culture can ever be so, definitively—we engage the institutional orders around us in terms of imperative exchanges all the time, simply by assuming if we “play by the rules” we will be commensurately rewarded, and in resenting the failure of the institutional center to hold up its end of the bargain. But it’s still correct to call our culture post-sacrificial, because our “sacrifices” are figurative and not directly measurable—we speak in terms of trust, consent, contract, and so on, and keep extending those terms into areas where the ”superstitious” nature of our “faith” on institutional structures would be embarrassing. But the fact that it would be embarrassing, for most, in most situations, to say we offer up a “piece” of ourselves not so much to our boss (which would feel especially ridiculous) or even the institution, but to some “idea” of the institution, even one we don’t really “believe” in, is what makes us post-sacrificial.

But any concept with a “post” (or, for that matter, a “neo”) in it is still a placeholder, and therefore unsatisfactory. Now, we can say much more about how we have arrived, through those “Axial Age acquisitions,” at a “post-sacrificial” culture. Sacrifice is “embarrassing” because it has been discredited, and it has been discredited because the violent centralizing involved in sacrifice—we commit violence against this being that we all focus on in exchange for peace and prosperity—has been revealed as fraudulent. It’s our own mimetic desires that confer centrality on the “sacred” being, not any attribute of the being itself. And we see this because all sacrifice tends towards human sacrifice and, paradoxically, as Eric Gans shows in The End of Culture, does so the more God Himself is understood in “human” terms—that is, more as a mediator between humans than a central focus precluding the emergence of humans as centers in their own right. If the gods give us food, then we owe them food in return; if God has created us out of nothing, we owe him everything, even our firstborn. But how could even that be enough?

Human sacrifice emerges along with human hierarchy, as the first figures to make a claim to permanent centrality were sacral kings, who were no doubt often killed in manners that, with immense variation across cultures, became increasingly ritualized. The sacral king mediated between the community and the cosmos, and if that mediation went wrong sacrificing the king would restore it; at a certain point it would make sense to regularize the oscillation between effective and ineffective mediation. Divine kings introduced layers of bureaucratic mediation between themselves and those they ruled, so they themselves could no longer be sacrificed. But divine kings eventually established justice systems to deal with disputes between the new centers inevitably created within those new “layers” between themselves and the people. Regularized forms of compensation are established. Large scale imperative exchanges are established between the divine king and those situated in the various layers, all of whom bring tributes to the divine king who has, of course, provided his people with everything. With a justice system, injustice becomes a possibility; if injustice becomes a possibility, it is also possible for the system as a whole, in failing to remedy that injustice, to itself be unjust. And its unjust nature could be concentrated in a singular figure, a victim who has become meaningful in a new way, by being victimized precisely as a result of revealing systemic injustice. The sacrifice of such a victim in order to resolve some crisis would take on the ritual sacrificial forms but would be impossible to “contain” within those forms. This process would set in motion the erosion of sacrificial forms, and of the imperative exchange they institute.

So, the divine king inches ever closer to demanding a “total” gift or sacrifice, but can only do so in terms that are so monstrous that the more civilized regions of the system make it possible to see those terms as an indictment of divine kinship itself. From here, those in a position to negotiate in some way with the divine center can go in one of two directions: toward cynicism and nihilism, on the one hand; or, towards another form of “total donation” on the other. Cynicism and nihilism can only be a local phenomenon indulged in by the privileged. The new kind of total donation is to a new kind of center, which cannot be embodied in a central figure, and certainly not a central ruler—this is a center that commands a refusal to engage in the discredited forms of violent centralizing. A genuinely and completely post-sacrificial center would be devoted to propagating and embodying, or signifying, this command. Very few do so wholly, but it is only a certain number, which we couldn’t determine in advance, which would necessary to exemplify the limits of sacrifice and preventing the social order from being engulfed in it.

So, if we don’t want to call this order “post-sacrificial,” what should we call it? Part of the difficulty is that liberalism “launders” sacrificial imperative exchanges through a post-sacrificial order. Needless to say, scapegoating goes on constantly within a liberal order—much of it remains symbolic, which raises a question: are we irredeemable scapegoaters, so the best we can do is make scapegoating more symbolic, and less violent?; or does a liberal democratic system predicated upon symbolic scapegoating prevent us from more decisively marginalizing scapegoating? If the latter is the case, the only way of creating an order that would be more than merely “post-sacrificial” would be the establishment of an order we might call “charismatic autocracy.” “Charismatic” in Philip Rieff’s “graceful” sense of charisma as deferral in obedience to an absolute imperative (in our terms, the imperative to defer violent centralizing). “Autocracy,” meanwhile, is essential, because as long as we have hierarchical societies, someone will be at the center, and the only way to avoid constant accusations of illegitimate usurpations of the center and hidden powers behind the temporary occupant of the center would be to place the occupant of the center beyond any external criteria of “legitimacy.” That would represent a radical curtailment of sacrificial logics, because the desire to replace the figure at the center is the most “bad faith” desire possible because it self-evidently represents an attempt to be closer to the center oneself. A general renunciation of that desire would represent a quantum leap in the deferral power of all members of the social order. The argument for such an order would be predicated upon the assumption, for which we could find a wealth of practical examples, that symbolic scapegoating is really just a “gateway drug” prepping us for the real thing. The “charismatic” component of the “autocracy,” then, is less a quality possessed by than conferred upon the autocrat, who is himself in fact desacralized and represents nothing more than the need that someone occupy the center. (This doesn’t mean a social order wouldn’t want, and couldn’t arrange for, the best possible person to occupy the position—it just means that such arrangements must themselves be bound up with the irreducibility of the central authority.)

In grammatical terms, “charismatic autocracy” involves a movement past “imperative exchange” to “interrogative imperativity.” Under the regime of imperative exchange, declarative culture is ultimately a kind of scorekeeping, trying to figure out the respective “values” that are being exchanged. To this day, most discussions of morality take this form. But once the imperative is to resist or defer imperative exchanges, an interrogative, a question, is introduced explicitly into the proceedings. Not the question, “how much is this worth,” which is never a real question because it’s just a way of accommodating oneself to the powers framing the existing order; rather, the question is, what violent centralizing lies at the end of this imperative exchange? All the linguistic means by which you construct yourself as a center then become open to “interrogation,” as either demands for a better “deal” or “intimations” of the creation of new centers that would render any deal irrelevant. Only the demand for this state of questioning can satisfy the command for a total donation.

Within the imperative exchange, declaratives essentially involve haggling over prices—what one owes the gods/institutions, what they owe us, and, further down, what we owe to each other, whether in market terms or in terms of honor and kinship. Within interrogative imperativity, declaratives take on a far wider scope, that of converting possible (and impossible) imperative exchanges into a rule or constraint for deferring “analogous” imperative exchanges. The first question, rather than, “how do we get what we’re owed,” becomes more like, “what makes you think obligations can be calculated?” And then an inquiry is opened up into all the different ways people can imagined they’re owed this or that—and once the strict terms of obligation have been displaced many more such possibilities become imaginable. All the mythical and ritual imperatives you are obeying to imagine each and every one of them become evident. Narratives accordingly shift from telling of the spiraling out of control of one imperative economy until it leads to a reset, to putting all imperative economies in question, exposing the imbalance in all presumed balances.

The most powerful way of doing this is originary satire, which involves turning every threshold and boundary into a narrative wherein figures on both sides of the boundary or threshold turn into each other, so that the terms of some expected imperative exchange are reversed. That is, the “vocation” or telos of the sentence is represent other scenes within the scene of composing and hearing/reading the sentence itself. Everything grammar does—tense, mood, aspect, etc.—it does in order to articulate relationships between the scene of utterance and the other scene(s) it refers/defers to. In that case, all these boundaries and thresholds are themselves materials for originary satire: the relation between present and past, between a continual and a completed action, between possible and actual are all abstracted and re-embedded in narratives. It’s just as easy to say we spoke with each other a thousand years ago as it is to say we spoke with each other yesterday; that we are in the middle of doing something that’s been going on for decades and is further metastasizing even as we speak as it is to mention where we are right now; something that is unbelievably unlikely can be set alongside something that seems obvious; linguistically, you could be saying what I think as easily as I can. Originary satire targets chunks of language, stereotypical sentence types, which tend to harden into the marshalling of evidence for imperative exchanges, for their beneficial or inevitable nature—i.e., sentences that supplement imperative exchanges, rather than extracting samples of language from them so as to remind us that language is always received on a scene. In simpler terms, our expectations of one another rest on the bedrock of imperative exchanges, and the purpose of disciplinary spaces aimed at satirizing those expectations is so that we can see them, ultimately in order to construct charismatic and autocratic modes of interaction requiring more “input” into the construction of expectations. In truth, this is the most realistic use of language, because we are always, still, on the originary scene, which can never “close.”

The concept of “interrogative imperativity” makes it possible to pose more explicitly a question that has been implicit in my earlier discussions of literacy as a kind of supplementary originary scene: why is the scene of classical prose objectionable, or worth exposing? Because it fulfills one imperative of the declarative (to defer imperatives by “absenting” the demanded object) by renouncing the other imperative of the declarative—to articulate other scenes with the scene of language itself. This means that the literate declarative scene can only keep reiterating and justifying its own supplementations (again, all the “beliefs,” “assumptions,” “claims,” “suggestions,” “implications,” etc.) so as to sustain the unitary prose scene—it must systematically obfuscate the declarative’s grounding in the ostensive-imperative world. Classical prose and the “classic” disciplines are interested in making beliefs, assumptions, etc., unequivocal, that is, used the same way by everyone—for this reason, they cannot construct, or even imagine, the possible ostensives and imperatives that would come before any “belief” or “assumption.” Originary writing, in that case, restores this grounding, but not, of course, by pretending the literacy revolution never happened. Rather it takes the nominalizations constructed by classic prose as names which we can apply beyond their restriction, imposed by classic prose, to the unitary scene—most directly, by applying them to the disciplinary iterations of classic prose itself. So, originary writing obeys an imperative from the center discovered/invented by the nominalizations of classic prose and the disciplines. That imperative is to generate more potential ostensives and what these ostensives do is name sites of emergent dangerous violent centralization, as early on in their onset as possible. Some nominalizations will end up being genuine names for practices of advanced deferral; some will turn out to have been incitements toward violent centralization—the work of the disciplinary space is to iterate these nominalizations/names so as to discover/expose which is which (or to detour them to new uses).

When we study “reality,” that is, what we are doing is inventing and deploying concepts enabling us to detect potential sites of mimetic contagious outbreak. We can do this because of the cognitive consequences of literacy, which parallel and contribute to the discrediting of sacrifice. But classical prose and its metaphysical superstructure just contain and normalize sacrifice by classifying and ordering the markings of the potential victim rather than relying on the spontaneous crisis. Still, it is only through that prose and those superstructures that we can generate the terms of a charismatic autocracy. The supplementary concepts used to simulate a shared scene for writer and reader can be turned into means for generating new scenes of origin of deferred scapegoating. If you take a concept out of its context so as to conceptualize the context itself you create a disciplinary space within that context—that disciplinary space will either reveal that the discipline (the “context”) is too bound to its unitary scene to generate further potential ostensives, or recover and prolong the origin of the discipline/context in a recontextualized ostensive.

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