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Imagining Sacrifice: Secular Politics and the Invention of a Religious Phenomenon

Panel Chair: Martin Mulsow | Thursday, August 27, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Sacrifice traditionally has been accorded an important role in the constitution of society. Displays of wealth, and of the power of life and death – of a monopoly over violence – are common attributes of sovereignty. Sacrifice, however, is hardly the static and eternal manifestation of the sacred that some have taken it to be. This panel focuses on a few of the representations of sacrifice from early modernity to the contemporary era, and on how such representations have encoded visions of polity: of normal and abnormal religion; of the ties that bind a community; and of the constitution of sovereign authority. Responding to the IAHR call to examine the “Dynamics of Religion,” this panel shows that ideas of a violent origin for society may not record an actual event in illo tempore, but rather signal the vital and changing role that sacrifice plays, even today, in the social imaginary.

Jonathan Sheehan

Sacrifice and the Origins of Culture, 1625-1750

In 1744, the Neapolitan scholar Giambattista Vico offered a new science of human social and cultural institutions. At their very foundations lay two institutions: care for the dead and gifts to the gods. The first established basic relations of property, and with the second began the cultivation of land, and eventually the emergence of human civilization. Since the early seventeenth century, the relationship between sacrifice and human institutions – usually religious ones – had become a truism of sorts among European scholarly elites, including greats like Hugo Grotius and John Selden, as well as a host of lesser writers. This paper will explore the theological context for this seventeenth century discussion, and explain how and why sacrifice would become one of the fundamental markers of human culture, and thus a cornerstone of nascent disciplines of both anthropology and comparative religion.

Yvonne Sherwood

The Dynamics of Sacrifice

The ‘dynamics of religion’ is an intriguing concept that could only be thought in late modernity. Like religion, dynamics really only gets going in the nineteenth century. Named from the Greek δύναμις (from dunasthai to be able) dynamics evokes capability, power, force. But it does so in ways that deliberately conjure the old gods and miracles that used to act so mysteriously and forcefully on human space. Dynamics presents itself as a secularisation of dunamos. But it decentres the body, or agent, and seems (quite deliberately) not to try and escape from ideas of being acted upon, being overpowered, transcendence and excess. Dynamics is the branch of mechanics concerned with the effects of forces on the motion of a body or system of bodies, ‘especially of forces that do not originate within the system itself’. In this talk I want to study the dynamics of sacrifice by looking at how theories of sacrifice – often understood as a process of radical transformation – have changed. What fundamental changes have been attributed to the dynamo of sacrifice in ancient texts and modern polities? How have reconfigurations of sacrifice been used to think about, control and ‘secularise’ the powers – political and religious – that we imagine to be acting on ‘social’ space? For example, for many modern and early modern thinkers, such as Kant and the so-called English Deists (such as Chubb and Morgan), human sacrifice became the impossible transgression of natural and political law, akin to miracles. The gods (and sovereigns) who were forced to die were, above all, the gods who demanded blood sacrifice. Modernity and secularity were founded, in part, by the death of the gods who commanded sacrificial death. In this talk I look at how changing understandings of sacrifice helped to redefine spheres of energy and possibility. Which acts and objects and powers and forces were real (and legitimate); which were mere projection, dangerous, or fake?

Mateo Taussig-Rubbo

Neoliberal Sacrifice: Notes on the Blackwater Memoir

The outsourcing of military services has provoked concern as to whether private firms can act in the public interest. I examine one partisan effort to reframe the conventional opposition between private and public values, profit and sacrifice, an opposition that deems the private military worker a mercenary, an actor who does not “sacrifice.” Eric Prince, the founder of the private military company Blackwater, in his memoir Civilian Warriors: the Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror (2013), describes contractors as profit seeking while also sacrificing for the nation, what I call neoliberal sacrifice. While conventional neoliberal thinking (as exemplified by Milton Friedman) dismissed sacrifice as immoral, the rhetoric and practice of neoliberal sacrifice integrates affective claims of altruism with a conception of society ordered through market exchange. This conception bypasses the state, as Prince’s “civilian warriors” make claims for honor from an indebted public.

Robert Yelle

The Domestication of Sacrifice: From Arbitrary Command to Communal Feast

Carl Schmitt famously contended that the rejection of sovereign absolutism and the foundation of the modern Rechtsstaat coordinated with the theological rejection of a sovereign God, one who interrupted natural law through miracles. He pinpointed this transition in the deist period. For many deists, sacrifice, as represented in the Hebrew Bible, was just as problematic as the miracle, as both appeared to signal the arbitrariness of divine command. For this reason, deists such as Matthew Tindal and Thomas Morgan attacked the sacrificial prescriptions and narratives of the Torah, while also denying any sacrificial value to the Crucifixion. Over a century later, biblical scholars such as Julius Wellhausen and William Robertson Smith rehabilitated sacrifice as a spontaneous celebration of community that had become corrupted by Jewish legalism. My talk will consider the different visions of polity that have coordinated with these varying representations of sacrifice in the modern period.


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