Sacrifice Revisited

Sacrifice has endured as a permanent fixture on our horizon. Its roots can be traced back to the mists of time before history began, but it has existed across cultures and throughout history, looming large in our collective imagination ever since. It is, according to the social anthropologist Maya Mayblin, commonly understood as a strategic investment in which the renunciation of something valuable is compensated by a more advantageous return especially meant to endear men to Gods. It entails a clear moment of transgression, which serves to delineate the sacred from the profane, generally through the consecration of a victim. Already by the twelfth century, the Jewish thinker Maimonides sought to come to grips with it in his philosophical tractate The Guide for the Perplexed; according to him, God’s decision to allow the practice of sacrifice was a concession to our psychological limitations as human beings. Maimonides was trying to make sense of a practice that no longer occurred in Judaism without the Temple. But even in a secular age, sacrificial mythology has not ceased to exert its hold over our cultural, social, and political realms. Beyond utilitarian understandings, how do we make sense of this bloody practice? Crucially, it is as fascinating as it is repulsive and as pervasive as it is unquestioned. How can we account for such a paradox?

The late French thinker René Girard has perhaps, in recent times, elaborated on the topic of sacrifice in greater detail than any other thinker. In his seminal works on the subject, Violence and the Sacred (1979) and The Scapegoat (1982), Girard drew on anthropological evidence about primitive societies, as well as on critical theory and a wide range of literary examples, in his attempt to unpack the relation between sacrifice and violence and extract a set of general truths about human culture. As some of the oldest stories in Western culture have shown—the narratives of Oedipus, on the one hand, and Abraham and Isaac, on the other—mankind’s thirst for violence seems unquenchable:

The mimetic attributes of violence are extraordinary – sometimes direct and positive, at other times indirect and negative. The more men strive to curb their violent impulses, the more these impulses seem to prosper. The very weapons used to combat violence are turned against their users. Violence is like a raging fire that feeds on the very objects intended to smother its flames.

For Girard, the state of nature was not dissimilar to what Hobbes described in Leviathan, a chaotic war of all against all that is driven by the mimetic structure of desire—and behind it, the desire to overcome human finitude, which leads to the escalation of jealousy and rivalry and eventually to an outburst of violence disrupting any kind of order. Within this primitive configuration, the institution of sacrifice operated as a mechanism of substitution whereby the killing of an arbitrary victim helped channel violence and reinstate order by re-enacting this primeval desire. This momentary and controlled act of transgression offered a semblance of cathartic relief that protected men from their own violence: the setting up of a scapegoat mechanism helped reassert the social bond and ensure mankind’s survival. In this manner, sacrifice played a social function and helped regulate the violence, which accrued from human’s onto-metaphysical nature.

Society, Girard continued, was “seeking to deflect upon a relatively indifferent victim, a ‘sacrificeable’ victim, the violence that would otherwise be vented on its own members, the people it most desires to protect.” Jesus, for example, made the ultimate sacrifice for mankind and in his subsequent resurrection emerged as the paradigmatic instance of the self-reflective sacrifice that, ideally, would break the cycle of mimetic desire and chaos once and for all. As Girard argued, “men would not be able to shake loose the violence between them, to make of it a separate entity both sovereign and redemptory, without the surrogate victim.” Indeed, sacrificial violence offered the prospect of new beginnings, “a sort of respite, the fresh beginning of a cycle of ritual after a cycle of violence. Violence will come to an end only after it has had the last word and that word has been accepted as divine.”

But as Girard makes clear, while violence was harnessed and sublimated through this scapegoat mechanism, it was not extinguished altogether. In fact, the onset of modernity, with its host of tensions and disruptions, resulted in a state of perpetual crisis whose latent violence could brutally resurface at any moment. While seemingly less violent than their predecessors, modern societies were still at risk of even more acute bouts of violence that were then managed in various kinds of ways, mainly through projecting violence outward unto external enemies:

The hidden violence of the sacrificial crisis eventually succeeds in destroying distinctions, and this destruction in turn fuels the renewed violence. In short, it seems that anything that adversely affects the institution of sacrifice will ultimately pose a threat to the very basis of the community, to the principles on which its social harmony and equilibrium depend.

Even then, there would be the “sacrificers” and the “sacrificed.” In fact, in some cases, sacrifice was enshrined within social and legal structures. In his 1995 work Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben probed the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the sacrificial practice that attached to the effective sanctification of the sacrificed and led to a distinction between the former and those who were merely “killed” (homo sacer), between political beings and bare life. According to him, in the modern polity all citizens fell in this second, disposable category under sovereign power. Paradoxically, the sacrilization of life here marked it out for preservation. While the prospect of the democratization of this sanctification of life may seem appealing, it invites troublesome questions especially regarding those who would find themselves excluded from the sacrilized community and thus at the mercy of the violence of the modern state.

The sanctifying of the sacrificed is a discourse that has been—and continues to be—deployed in the realm of politics. Political discourse, in fact, regularly invokes two types of sacrificial logics, namely the sacrificing of victims in the name of some future good and the sacrificing of selves through the overcoming of one’s scruples, also in the name of a future-oriented project. Often, both are combined to produce a type of magical thinking that tends to project blindly in the future. As a justificatory mechanism, sacrifice is thus woven into concrete practices of violence and enlists ethical practices to justify evil behaviour. We can see this logic operating in World War II; for example, in 1943 the Wehrmach Captain Wesreidau exhorted his troops in Russia to make this sacrifice. He told them:

We are now embarked on a risky enterprise, with no assurance of safety. We are advancing an idea of unity which is neither rich nor readily digestible, but the vast majority of the German people accept it and adhere to it. . . . This is where we are now risking everything. We are trying … to change the face of the world, hoping to revive the ancient virtues. . . . We shall be suffering not only in the interests of ultimate victory, but in the interests of daily victory against those who hurl themselves at us without respite, and whose only thought is to exterminate us. . . . I would burn and destroy entire villages if by so doing I could prevent even one of us from dying of hunger.

To achieve ultimate victory in a common cause, no sacrifice was too great. “Revolutions,” Lenin had proclaimed, were “festivals of the oppressed and exploited.” He would deploy this logic of sacrificing oneself for a higher purpose: “We shall be traitors to and betrayers of the revolution if we do not use this festive energy of the masses and their revolutionary ardor to wage a ruthless and self-sacrificing struggle for the direct and decisive path.” Later on, Nikolai Yezhov, the chief implementer of the 1938 Soviet “Great Purge,” also reasserted its necessity: “There will be some innocent victims in this fight against fascist agents. We are launching a major attack on the enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away.” Sacrifice became the linchpin to the deployment of monstrous logic through the conscientious distortion of the preexisting moral and ethical framework; now, in the name of the latter’s defense and preservation, sacrifice could justify the worst. This observation sheds light on the profound paradox at work in our reliance on sacrifice, namely how we are ready to rationalize the most extreme violence in the name of what essentially remains magical thinking.

In his 1919 essay, “Tactics and Ethics,” the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács praised this Hegelian vision of “tragedy in the realm of the ethical”:

On the contrary: ethical self-awareness makes it quite clear that there are situations— tragic situations—in which it is impossible to act without burdening oneself with guilt. But at the same time it teaches us that, even faced with the choice of two ways of incurring guilt, we should still find that there is a standard attaching to correct and incorrect action. This standard we call sacrifice. And just as the individual who chooses between two forms of guilt finally makes the correct choice when he sacrifices his inferior self on the altar of the higher idea, so it also takes strength to assess this sacrifice in terms of the collective action. In the latter case, however, the idea represents an imperative of the world-historical situation, a historico-philosophical mission.

These “unpleasant acts” would help bring about utopias of an unprecedented scale. In helping bring about world-historical visions into reality, “[e]very compromise with one’s own conscience [was] perfidy,” as party leader Ivanov explained before a newly-imprisoned Rubashov in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon. As one “ordinary Stalinist” later put it in his memoirs, “I had my doubts about the Five Year Plan. . . . but I justified it by the conviction that we were building something great … a new society that could not have been built by voluntary means. . . . I understand that it was very harsh and perhaps even cruel to build socialism in this way, but I still believe that it was justified.” Sacrificial myth flourished during the twentieth century, embracing its codes and formats in a curious admixture of atavism with modernity. In the 1920s, the German thinker Ernst Cassirer addressed in his book The Myth of the State what he perceived to be the central paradox of his time, namely the resurgence of myth at the heart of modern political life. In the 1920s, political myth was, according to him, borne out of the encounter of primitive belief and mass propaganda. Modern rational techniques of production were placed in the service of the development of a “new technique of myth.” Henceforth, myths could be “manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.” Against all expectations in what we like to think of a rationalist age, myths are very much part and parcel of modernity.

Myths, and in particular sacrificial myths, have long provided us with the conceptual tools for making sense of the past, present, and future as well as the common language with which we structure our communal subconscious. As the French philosopher and semiologist Roland Barthes famously brought to the fore in his seminal 1957 work Mythologies, myths, so to speak, “naturalize” the analogy between form and concept by grafting themselves on—and distorting—a pre-existing system of meaning. As values are passed off as fact, they are transfigured into eternal truths and archetypes. Myths appear as self-evident, in this fashion, displacing any need for explanation.

Our recourse to myth is thus not free from ambiguity; in fact, it is precisely in its ambiguous nature that myth serves us best, as was recently illustrated in the paradoxes and tragic ironies at play during Brexit. As political philosopher Kalypso Nicolaidis argues in her upcoming book Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit, Brexit recently brought to the fore three archetypal myths, namely stories of exodus, of reckoning, and of sacrifice whereby Brexit is successively viewed as a watershed moment in history destined to correct the trajectory of European history; or it is seen as a rupture, a story of reckoning which sorts out the good from the bad; and ultimately, it is understood as a moment of sacrifice. Brexiters and federalists alike ironically upheld this last narrative—arguably the most forceful one— as beneficial for Europe. Both sides invoked Britain’s history of truly heroic sacrifices on the battlefield as the buried evidence of the virtues of Brexit. The essayist Jean Quatremer penned an editorial in the French newspaper Libération, in which he hailed Brexit as a necessary sacrifice to save Europe. Leaving Europe, he argued, would “create a sanitary crisis of the kind that will lead our heroic leaders to act against the moral risk of crumbling into nothingness.” The UK could henceforth resume its true destiny by, perhaps rather ironically, leaving one union in order to preserve another, thereby trading one myth for the greater myth of sovereignty.

In this manner, perhaps more than the myth itself, Brexit shed light on our ability to gloss over these ironies and ambiguities, and it brought to bear the collective pretence and self-righteousness through which communities self-reflexively construct themselves. Ultimately, through the sacrificial myth, we are playing a game of make-believe whose force lies precisely in this paradox. Myths often deploy a net of ubiquitous and limited self-sufficient tautologies more than anything; their forcefully transparent, albeit essentially obfuscating language, as lambasted by the German philosopher Theodor Adorno in his seminal work The Jargon of Authenticity, serves to comfort rather than to probe. From state institutions to how we come collectively to perceive ourselves as a society, they cater to a deep-seated need by subtly molding reality to provide meaning, order, and appeasement. Ironically, the most efficient myths come shrouded in mystery and speaking in riddles.

Recently, the French thinker Bruno Latour has tried to unlink politics from the fantasy of sacrificial rupture, which, according to him, was a seductive and dangerous one it was incumbent upon us to resist. Power, for Latour, was not located exclusively in one actor, but rather it was disseminated everywhere as each actor exerted power on another. When power associations are dissimulated in a performance of supremacy, force gives way to what Latour calls potency. This potency, while illusory, nonetheless proved very effective at divesting human actors of agency. In fact, ultimately “since there was nothing but weakness, power is always an impression.” Patient and meticulous assessments of the situation between essentially weak political actors gave way to projections of daunting enemies that dictated the terms of their representation and their claims to supremacy even though they did not actually exist: “It does not require enormous skill or political acumen to realize that if you have to fight against a force that is invisible, untraceable, ubiquitous, and total, you will be powerless and roundly defeated. It’s only if forces are made of smaller ties, whose resistance can be tested one by one, that you might have a chance to modify a given state of affairs.” Indeed, these eschatological self-understandings and phantasmagorias of total power were born out of our sacrificial fetish and bore little resemblance with reality or its complexity.

By urging us to reject a sacrificial economy, Latour sought to debunk our metaphysical account of agency and modern faith in redemptive revolutions; our modernist attachment to the sacrificial model of change, the fantasy of a definite break with history in favor of a new dawn, was based on a myth. In We’ve Never Been Modern (1991) he sought to guide us away from the allure of radical upheavals and our modern understanding of politics as a realm of decisive action and sacrificial ruptures toward a more sober understanding of politics based on mediation and negotiation: “Those who believe that they can do better than a badly translated compromise between poorly connected forces always do worse.” Political action as well as time itself were essentially hybrid, and it was imperative to relocate the human element—even as a mediocre actant—within these broader networks: “It takes something like courage to admit that we will never do better than a politician.” Compromises and messy alliances were to be favored at all costs above bloody conflict: “Whatever the distance, there is always something upon which an understanding may be built. To put it another way, everything is negotiable.” More generally and drawing on his previous work on the anthropology of science and active network theory, Latour set forth a political model at the micro-level, as a capillary form of power in which the human agent was relocated within a broader network comprising other hybrid agents, alliances, networks, and collaborative endeavors. The enemy would be more effectively opposed on the basis of an accurate assessment of its real force rather than Schmittian fantasies of total conflict.

Latour’s strategy of dividing the political realm between the two extremes of bloody revolution and low-level messy negotiation risked backfiring, however: it inadvertently implied that truly momentous political change occurred only through a type of sacrificial politics. But did the latter model necessarily entail grandiose fantasies of total rupture or could a “bloodless” sacrifice, as once envisaged by Walter Benjamin, be conceivable? Crucially, was a sacrificial model of politics always bad or could it form the cornerstone of a virtuous life? Despite the horrific imagery it conjures, can nothing positive be extracted from the sacrificial mythology?

Gandhi seemed inclined to think so when he consecrated sacrifice as model of political action, one precisely dissociated from violence. Perhaps counterintuitively, sacrifice, according to him, could offer a model of redemption by helping reassert the value of human life and agency. While the desire to preserve and protect life was what enabled violence, conversely Gandhi linked the willingness to die, especially through self-sacrifice, to non-violence. For him, the ability to sacrifice, and especially to sacrifice one’s own life, remained one’s greatest duty and led to a grander form of politics, one devoid of any self-interest or contractual link. As Faisal Devji argued in his 2013 work The Impossible Indian, Gandhi’s valorization of sacrifice occurred against a background of colonialism, and it functioned as a critique of modernity, which, according to him, had reduced identity to interest and led to a contractualization of social relations. According to Gandhi, politics should be reconceived according to a special type of intimacy, ideally woven through unilateral sacrifice. Only through sacrificial sovereignty could one acquire genuine freedom and autonomy as well as agency especially in a time of colonial oppression.

In this manner, through his politics of sacrifice, Gandhi invoked a particular type of political mobilization that placed truth over life and duty over rights. In the face of the growing ideology of property, interest and contract, sacrifice offered an alternative to the instrumentality and violence of politics. Through the performance of one’s sacrificial duty, especially in favor of a weaker being, one could break away from the quantification of human rapports and reinvest the human with dignity. Working out one’s duty would help instantiate one’s own values and help one realize one’s essence as a human being. It was paradoxically the dependent figure, often the weakest in society—such as Jews, women, and minorities, or those lacking in choice—who were ideally positioned to act strictly out of duty: counterintuitively, those who bore the brunt of the greatest cost in society were also the freest.

The French philosopher Georges Batailles espoused a similar uneconomical metaphysical understanding of sacrifice. For him, the critical exploration of sacrifice “[brought] into play the ultimate question of existence.” Sacrifice helped man break free from the alienation imposed by an economy of utility and production, which transformed him into an object by serving no function or purpose per se. Man had become the “plough of the one who eats the bread.” Sacrifice represented the “antithesis of production,” an act of pure loss that wrested man from the world of utility. It constituted “a sovereign, autonomous manner of being” par excellence, which restored man to his full humanity via the violent momentary reassertion of the latter’s bond with the sacred. Man was revealed to himself anew as inhabiting a world between divinity and animality, the immanent and the transcendent. He was simultaneously finite through death and sovereign through autonomy. Accordingly, “Man revealed and founded human truth through sacrifice.”

As Jean-Luc Nancy asserts, sacrifice has today “lost all right and dignity,” and sacrificial mythology is no longer ethically tenable. Yet it seems unavoidable even though it is frequently misleading and often dangerous. Its link to politics and violence, even if evolving over time, also seems inextricable. As the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou demonstrated in his 2013 A Theory of the Drone, the narrative of sacrificial myth has recently been extended to drone warfare by necro-ethicists; the military self-sacrifice and heroism of yore has been re-couched in psychic terms. Myth inhabits our collective horizons much more than we care to acknowledge. Even though they undeniably play social functions that help renew social and religious bonds through a momentary act of transgression, something more is at stake. We find reassurance in the simplifying power of explanation it upholds. Even if we seem unable to dispense with sacrificial language, or, on the other hand, to universalize it to all, it remains a stable beacon on our horizons. It simultaneously fascinates and repels us as it endures in its ability to define us, from our social, cultural and civic lives to political and ethical discourses culminating with warfare. While it may never be possible to exhaust or so to speak “sacrifice sacrifice,” explicitly thinking through the prism of sacrificial myth may well, perhaps paradoxically, help us recover the necessary distance to cultivate a more critical self-reflectivity on ourselves.

Audrey Borowski is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. She is also the founder and convener of the TORCH research network “Crisis, Extremes and Apocalypse” at the University of Oxford.