Sacrifice : Michael Sawyer
Sacrifice / Michael Sawyer
The late Chinua Achebe, in his magisterial work of fiction, Things Fall Apart, employs the opening of Yeat’s “Second Coming” as the epigraph and as inspiration for the title to his most well known work of fiction. Yeats writes:
To begin this examination, I intend to employ the ancient practice of falconry as metaphor for the Western mind’s imagination of sovereignty and its relationship to the integrity of the state. The direct relationship to the sport and the question of societal order is exemplified by the instructions presented in the 15th century’s Boke of St. Albans which documents a hierarchical relationship of political figures and the species of bird of prey commensurate with their station: The list runs as follows:
This continues apace until it reaches the lower rungs of society with the lowly Knave or Servant who is ordered, through this paradigm, to rely upon the services of the tiny Kestrel. What is implicit in this list and in the marshaling of falconry as an analogy of good governance for both Yeats and Achebe is the notion that the falcon serves the falconer. That the falconer, from the Emperor to the Knave is representative of the multi-layered hierarchy of the state that need only locate the proper avian counterpart for the society to function properly. It is the intention here to invert this understanding and imagine that it is the prince who owes a debt of sacrifice to the raptor and follow the line of the analogy to imagine the bird as the people, and the prince (that the prince is sovereign) as able to possess the services of the falcon. And, when the technologies of control of the sovereign over nature fail, things, such as they are, fall apart, and the center (if we allow for the existence of something like a “center”) no longer holds. I wish to question this notion and do it through thinking more expansively about the term Sacrifice and adding to the poetics of this metaphor by listening to the falcon whisper as she (the female of the species being desired for hunting) flies away: “It is I who will no longer sacrifice.” “Farewell,” says the falcon to the falconer. When this circumstance occurs, governance, as we understand it, fails, and the contract is broken. Going one step further, the argument proposes that the notion of the vector of service understood as flowing from the animal to its human counterpart needs to be reversed and that the debt of service that the state (human) owes the subject (animal) is the abdication of the franchise of death and to allow the subject to participate in the project of state by having the expectation of life.
This notion does not trouble the analogy employed here with falconry. J.A. Baker writes in his text The Peregrine: “We should not sentimentalize his song and forget the killing that sustains it.”2 The same goes here for the state. We must understand that it is death that serves as the coercive framework that undergirds the structures of state power, and to forgo that logic as it relates to the subject is the sacrifice I intend to ask of the state.
Prior to turning more directly to the term Sacrifice, I ask that we unpack the dynamic of the falcon and falconer and guard against the natural inclination to understand it as analogous to the domestication of the dog or the horse, where it is understood that the human is lord and the animal bonded to that figure and relationship. This is not the case in the ancient practice of falconry, and to understand it as the exemplar of a system of governance as well as to mark sacrifice in the theory and praxis of politics we must insure that we give an accurate account of the art. The dog and the horse come to rely upon their human master and our love of these animals is fueled not just by their utility but also by our own affection for their seemingly endless capacity to please us. We have all witnessed the patient canine sitting in front of his bowl while its tail belies the almost uncontrollable exuberance the animal has in the maintenance of the tether to its master for food. The dog, we are told, will never bite the hand that feeds it. This rule does not apply to the falcon. It possesses no such need to wait on the Earth bound human for its food and does not require the explosions and fury man requires to break the hold of gravity. Accepting this we must insure that we understand the bond between falcon and falconer as, in substantial ways, an inversion of that between the human and dog, or at least a flattening of the hierarchy. The falconer must rely upon the falcon to eat. Following this reality to the Yeats/Achebe we are then required to think of the state as the falcon and the human falconer, Emperor or knave, as the subject that relies upon the sacrifice of the wild animal for the center to hold. Obviously, at the outset of the relationship, the falconer captures the falcon and calms it to the presence of the human, and in spite of the tethers, leashes, bells, and hoods, ultimately the falcon must be set free and the falconer is left to hope and wait—relying upon the quality of the relationship the human has formed with the wild animal to insure that she will return when called. The return to the fist of the falconer is exemplar of the political valence of this act that I am hoping to propose as a way to reimagine the role Sacrifice plays in the theory and practice of the political.
The conceit of western governance, of whatever form, places the people (analogized here to the falcon) at the beck and call of the state (the falconer) in the way that a possible reading of Yeats’ poetics appears to lean upon the transcendental authority of the sovereign to enthrall even the eagle as delineated in the hierarchy of raptor possession in the Boke of St. Alban.
This logic is exemplified in President Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 20th 1961 which re-established the imperative of sacrifice as the principal ethical responsibility of the American citizen. “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” This is generally read as a call on the part of Kennedy to fortify the battlements of the state against the necessary and sufficient condition of the external enemy. I mean here to read Kennedy’s exhortation alongside the imperative of inside and outside rendered real by the existence of latent violence on the part of the state exposed by Rousseau’s Social Contract. What is required is that we think carefully about the relationship of the law to the lawgiver and the existence of the criminal as critical for this understanding. In Chapter 5 of The Social Contract, “The Right of Life and Death,” Rousseau takes up the case of the figure that transgresses the laws’ writing:
What Rousseau develops here is the essential understanding that it is the existence of the Lawgiver as an external force that is free from, not only the General Will, but the law itself, that societal order can begin to understand the individual that transgresses the established order with a will that does not comport with that of the collective. This chilling rebuke quoted from Rousseau’s Chapter 5 and its relationship to the coercion that we have illuminated here serves as the foundation of the contract. The individual who transgresses the law is, prior to that event, a citizen and therefore subject to the duties and rights binary that attends that status. Understood as the criminal, the internal subject becomes an enemy who is immediately forced outside and is subject to death. Thinking again of the call to service by Kennedy, we find the speaker and audience complicit in the acceptance and practiced resolute denial of the insidious presence of an internalized friend and enemy distinction illuminated by the addressee of the newly inaugurated president’s order: “my fellow Americans.” To qualify an American as “fellow” necessarily supposes that there are those within the sound of Kennedy’s voice and within the boundaries of the nation who are also understood as Americans and “citizens,” conceived, it is said, in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal and yet are not his fellows.
The argument here is that Sacrifice is an essential component of the theory and practice of governance. However, I propose that by rethinking Sacrifice along with Yeats and Rousseau there is a way to reimagine the term and encounter Kennedy in a different register. Without a reimagined concept of Sacrifice and its relationship to governance, Kennedy’s inaugural exists in the imagination as an exhortation for the endless Sacrifice of the citizen in the service of the state. This relationship of giving extracts from the citizen, in the form of Sacrifice, power of various forms that provide the nation the means to secure its existence against enemies that assail its external borders and its internal logics erected through the establishment of and compliance with the law. There is a way to imagine that it is the state that must be prepared to Sacrifice of itself in the same manner that the falcon gives up her freedom for the falconer.
The return here to think with Rousseau establishes the origins of this thinking as critical to the alteration of the notion of Sacrifice. In service of moving this thinking forward there are three additional seminal “thoughts” that I wish to place into conversation in order to facilitate deformation of prevailing readings of Kennedy’s exhortation and ask what the nation must be willing to Sacrifice of itself for its subjects. This is in service of the inversion of the normative understanding of Sacrifice that requires that it be from the lesser of the parties to the greater, thus distinguishing it from a bribe or mere commerce. The prevailing understanding of the term that views sacrifice as the duty of the citizen understands giving on the part of the state as indicative of a bribe for the allegiance of those who are citizens in the sense that there is something in it for them. The argument presented here relies upon the understanding that Sacrifice occupies so critical a role in the theory and practice of governance that rethinking it in this manner necessarily undermines the possibility of understanding giving by the state as tantamount to a bribe for artificial or conditional allegiance. Or, perhaps, more carefully, in order to avoid recreating the error in reading the Kennedy-esque model of Sacrifice, we are asked to understand that each party, state and subject, must give of itself with no expectation of cause and effect like reward. But as an essential component of this move, the friend and enemy distinction must be exposed for what it is: an excuse for the howling savagery that has delivered at the back-door of civilization an ever growing death toll: 1.4 million dead in the 7 Years War. Another 4 million in the French War of Religion. 11.5 million in the 30 Years War. Napoleon’s wars account for 6 million. Somewhere between 7 and 20 million accompany the conquest of Tamerlane in the 14th century. 40 million in WWI and 85.5 million in WWII. 4,000 or more in this country’s practice of the lynching of black bodies, and in the contemporary moment, in spite of the refusal of police departments to report their violence, we guess that 1,029 have died at the hands of the state and their officers in 2014 alone.
The point exposed by this macabre body count is that it is this notion of the legitimacy of this violence, internal and external, that establishes the coherence of the project of state rendering moot the notion of a violent-less societal ordering. Further, the smearing here of the violence between states and the violence of the state against its internal enemies is purposive of exposing the coherence of Rousseau’s imperative of the internal transgressor becoming an enemy of the state substantively the same as an invader from another nation. With respect to the subject become criminal, disciplining our thinking to disallow an expansive reading of Rousseau but holding the text to its clear language, we understand that the police violence that seems acute in the early moments of the 21st century is in reality a link in the chain that weaves thorough all of these conflicts. The argument is that it is a mistake to view the employment of the police against those who are always already understood to be transgressive as ideologically distinct from the employment of the armed forces of a nation against enemies outside of its borders. Both the internal and external “Other” are read, pace Rousseau, as enemies of the state and treated as such.
Carl Schmitt, in his text The Concept of the Political, proposes that without enemies to fight there is no sacrifice to give and therefore the erasure of the “political.” Thinking in this way with Schmitt allows us to posit a useful equivalency for purposes of analyses between events of violence separated by time, space, and context.
My employment of this quote here has several purposes. Initially it serves to mark Schmitt’s assertion that is descriptive of an ethos that the notion of a particular state as a distinct entity requires that the distinction of inside and outside be maintained. In pressuring this assertion and its consequences we must leave intact the notion that there “need” to be distinct national formations as the normative condition of the world order. Altering that terrain (proposing the dismantling of the state qua the state rather than the workings of it) is another project and for this thinking the modern nation state, as we have found it, along with the requisite distinctions that fuel the need for conflict glossed by Schmitt, remain in place. My concern here is to focus on the inner workings of the state and the presence of a robust friend/enemy distinction amongst the residents within a political boundary. I will propose a genealogy of this internalized notion of Sacrifice that serves as a refusal to hear, in the terms of Yeats, the cries of the falconer when internal subjects, residents of the political space of the state, become an enemy and are treated accordingly. The subjects that concern me here call to the state and find their voices ignored. To be specific, I wish to focus on Kennedy’s notion of the fellow American and demonstrate that the state, in this reimagined model of Sacrifice, has to substantively do away with the internal friend-enemy distinction that is imbedded in the mechanism of the governance and is hidden through a systematic philosophical slight of hand, exemplified by another passage from the Schmitt which alleges that party politics represent a type of internal conflict that:
This should give us pause over and above the discomfort of self-reflection and self-recognition that being frank about the veracity of Schmitt’s claims regarding the venal nature of the state seems to require. The substance of my argument is that Schmitt has obliquely illuminated race as the central problematic facing this nation state and the normative regime of Sacrifice that requires an enemy for its object, and in so doing illustrates the inevitability of civil war as the telos of an internalized “Other” that serves as the enemy. One need only focus on the first of the claims in the quotation from Schmitt employed above that marks “the effect of weakening common identity” to locate evidence of this phenomenon. What I mean to trace is the refusal by the state to accept the sacrifice (efforts at belonging, i.e. abdication or forced destruction of cultural identity through assimilation or erasure, military service, and/or meta-physical allegiance) of certain subjects as the necessary and sufficient condition for creating a technology of exclusion that is unresolvable for the “Othered,” so long as the internal friend-enemy logic reaches its apotheosis in this fashion. Stated differently, the Sacrifice that I am proposing is for the state to allow an expanded notion of the “fellow” and in that Sacrifice of the notional security of homogenous identity accept the offering of those willing to give of themselves in service of a newly imagined constitution of the state. As I have stated, three important “thinking moments” bracket this theorization.
The first of these moments is made apparent by what Halbertal considers in his text usefully titled, On Sacrifice, to be the originary presence of the phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the rejection by God of the offering of Cain. He writes by way of definition and warning that:
What must be understood here is that the Judeo-Christian tradition situates sacrifice as a gift of the lesser to the greater subject (supplicant to God), an understanding that allows the state to request of its subjects without a need for explicit reward for that giving. It is this moment of rejection and the trauma that encumbers the denier and denied that lead me to a significant moment of the same in W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk that serves as the second “thinking moment” where he establishes the conditions under which it became apparent to him that he, in his body, represented a problem to societal order.
This moment, for Du Bois, establishes consciousness of his exclusion and difference as cause and effect. In the repurposed language of Kennedy, Du Bois, in his body, is representative of those Americans who are somehow not the president’s fellows and, in my reading, are a product of what I read as the logical trajectory of Schmitt’s notion of what I deem to be a self-inflicted civil war that drew the lines of battle internal to the state by designating the enemy within. The third of these moments, that logically and temporally situates itself between the denied sacrifices of Cain and Du Bois, is Madison as Publius in his Federalist 54 of February 12, 1788, wherein he pronounces a meta-physical death sentence for the subject in question and the ethical integrity of the state by proclaiming that:
These moments: Cain’s sacrifice read as gift, Du Bois’ rejected offering to a putative friend, and Madison’s dehumanization of a race, establish Sacrifice as an essential element of the modern nation state for which Kennedy, at the moment of his assumption of the mantle of leadership of the greatest among equal of these political formations, reifies the notion that there is nothing that the state possesses that its people can demand and in this assertion there is only a need for the state to require more and part with less. For his part in requiring us to think about the political as a concept, Carl Schmitt renders imperative the logic of this divisive series of moments as the necessary and sufficient condition for the maintenance of the friend enemy distinction that fuels his formulation.
To be clear, what I am arguing is that the three moments I have presented – Cain’s rejected sacrifice which paradoxically witnesses the mortal “giving” as a gift something that the Divine already possesses and is then rejected, Madison’s propitious extraction of the fullness of humanity from the racialized other, and the experience of the rejected offering by the young Du Bois – allow for a superstructure of societal order that is buffeted and defined from without by the existence of an “Other” but buttresses the walls that defend it from external forces by wedging the bodies of an internal, preordained and established enemy against the various pressures that assail its battlements. The oath taken by all who have offered themselves to the service of this state in the armed forces marks the existence of these two dynamic forces that must be resolved and rendered static. The oath taker vows to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Hannah Arendt, in her treatment of modern revolution in the context of its instantiation in the thinking of the Committee of Public Safety that formed and practiced the terror notes the following of their radical reading of Rousseau’s account. Rousseau proposed that “[o]nly in the presence of the enemy can such a thing as la nation une et indivisible . . . come to pass.”9 Saint-Just was of the opinion that politics, as he understood it, as the vehicle for this national unity, was the unique province of international relations. All other “human relations as such, constitute, ‘the social.’”10 Arendt reads this in the following fashion:
A complication should be marked here whose analysis would consume all of the space available but is rich for its implications. To understand that Rousseau and Madison must be read together is to locate the meta-physical existence of the “Negro” within the particular and collectivized desires of the citizens as deposited in the epidermis of this radical other in the common-sense claim that there can only be a generalized will as counter-point to individual desires. The demonizing of the omnipresence of the individual will requires that the enemy (the individual will) framed as the Negro is a presence in all of us and must be alienated from the psyche and embodied and physically coerced from robust participation in the societal order. What I mean here is that the creation of the “Negro” calls into existence an empty cipher that is a vessel to be filled with the negative formations that exist in the psyche of the western subject. This allows the individual will of the normative subject to be projected outward as the way of being of the stereotypical absolute Other that contributes nothing to societal order and is only interested in taking that which it has not earned. The “Negro” in this understanding is an ideological space that exists to satisfy the imperative Arendt locates in Rousseau for a common enemy that becomes the vessel for the accumulation of the individual wills of the citizenry. The idea of the Negro allows the alienation of these individual tendencies from the body of the subject, who is understood to be a welcome presence in the state, to another in order to prevent the violence of the state from being turned against its fellows. The subject who happens to be Black is only one such exemplar of the marginalized Other thrust into the space Rousseau requires, and which I am interpreting as the Negro.
This account may indeed be satisfying in one sense (illuminating the praxis that attends Schmitt’s thinking regarding identity) and may assist in explicating the particular brand of violence done to the subjects targeted by Madison in Federalist 54 in that his assertion, in important ways, requires that we understand the disenfranchisement of certain subjects from the possibility of resolving themselves as static participants in the balancing of the duties and rights binary that I propose forms the basis of full citizenship. The “citizen” is here understood as an essential element of the nation that grants rights to those who are also “man.” This is sufficient in one register, but what of those interests that are not welcome in the calculation of the general will and, further, what of sacrifice in this formulation? In the absence of the possibility of Sacrifice or duty to the state there is no commensurate responsibility for rights broadly understood. Therefore, with the state standing in the place of God, for the black bodies rendered partially human by Madison’s quill, there is no basis for the granting of rights to these subjects because their sacrifices are already understood to be rejected. To revisit Kennedy’s exhortation without alteration one would have to conclude that there is no possibility of Sacrifice for the subject who is included only in exclusion. Readers may detect the presence of Agamben’s homo sacer here, the subject that can be killed but not sacrificed. My reading of Agamben understands the plight of the sacer to mirror that of the Negro in that there is nothing that this subject can give that will be understood as freely offered to the benefit of the state since there is nothing good that can come of that which is already understood to be profane. What I mean here is that Madison’s formulation of the already marginalized humanity of the black body in this political space renders the offer and rejection in Du Bois a micro-cosmic rehearsal of state making through the negation of the humanity of the Other who is rendered abject at the moment of the denial. Here, clearly, I am leaning upon the implication of Rancière’s “Ten Theses on Politics” by putting pressure on the possibility of a figure excluded even from the logic of the 2nd thesis which posits: “What is specific to politics is the existence of a subject defined by its participation in contraries. Politics is a paradoxical form of action.”12 And the 5th: “The people is a supplementary existence that inscribes the count of the uncounted, or part of those who have no part – that is, in the last instance, the equality of speaking beings without which inequality is inconceivable.”13
In the reading of Rancière, it is the destruction of the king and the breaking of the logic of his two-bodies that signals the democratic moment and I adopt that thinking here as one side of the binary of this important and co-equal other duality. Quoting Thesis 5:
Du Bois, at the moment of the denial of his Sacrifice, is inscribed in the blueprint of this American democracy as the persona mixta that preserves, in its creation, the logic of the sovereign in its embodied absence. What I mean to mark here is the absolute sovereignty exercised in the extraction of the fullness of humanity from an empirically “human” subject through the utterance of Madison. It is the ability of Madison to establish a fully human subject as a mixture between human and property (non-human) that banishes and excludes the black subject from the human race as an exercise of absolute sovereignty. Creating those who are not counted among those who are uncounted – Twice excluded from the logic of sovereignty in order to buttress the downside of the sovereign assemblage. Revisiting the three moments that I have proposed exposes the terms and conditions of those not counted, of those who are uncounted. Madison remains definitive here in that his formulation of the persona mixta is only about the counting of bodies that are “compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another. . .”15 are only countable in partiality and even in that, the uncounted portion of this being proves itself insufficient to the franchise of representation. One must carefully witness the evil genius of Madison’s formulation: The black body is counted for purposes of the census for establishing the numbers of members of the House of Representatives, but only partially so in that these same bodies are also property and therefore not sufficiently human enough to be given the right of participation in the governance they are counted to establish. Again, not counted among those who are uncounted. To be clear, I endeavor to leave the formulation here of a theory of democracy that is predicated on the existence of an uncounted and unvoiced demos who become legible in doing that which they are never intended to do: (produce recognizable sound) in place but propose that there is even a second form of exclusion that is internal to the logic of the friend and enemy distinction that forms the center that Achebe posits and is representative of the existence of another vector of Sacrifice that recalls that of the state, analogized as the falcon, to the unheard “citizen” as the falconer.
It is insufficient to imagine that this thinking is an anachronism of the relativist morality that has been overcome by the fighting of an actual civil war, the like of which Schmitt’s thinking explicates a posteriori. The Thirteenth Amendment is insufficient to the task of supporting an argument against the durability of this thinking. The presence of the “except as” clause to the abolition of the enslaved condition gallops again to simultaneously accept and deny the abolition of the fracturing of human subjects to serve as the foundation of a project of state. It reads, “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted shall exist. . .” creating an ever growing class of human subjects that continue to be twice excluded from the demos and find their cries, whispered and shouted disregarded. They are ignored by the state that circles ever higher and flies away from those understood to already exist as the criminal and the enemy.
Here is where Du Bois found an irreconcilable duality:
A phenomenon that Ralph Ellison exposes as invisibility: “I am an invisible man . . . I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . .”17 and in the contemporary moment, paraphrasing Ellison, we have characterized as strangled and I propose, in the current moment would give voice to his existence with the revelatory statement: “I am a can’t breathe man.” This figure cries and cannot be heard. Ruminating about the choking of Eric Garner by the agents of the state, Congressman Peter King of the state of New York waxed eloquently on CNN:
The congressman remains unimpressed by the fact that talking or not, Eric Garner is dead. He was choked to death and his cries were not heard. And the center, as Yeats exposes, cannot hold without it resulting in civil war. To unpack this: the Sacrifice of the body of Gardner to the project of state making is exemplar of the tragic logic I have traced from the denied Sacrifice of Cain through the denial of full humanity to the black body by Madison that plagues the existence of Du Bois in the multi-layered existence of his body as American and Negro. To reverse this logic would allow Gardner to breathe and have his existence recognized as mattering positively in that it matters rather than mattering only in that it doesn’t. The challenge then is to deploy Sacrifice in a different register and for the state to give of itself to those it has sacrificed to its desire for what Schmitt characterizes as “common identity” and deconstruct the internal labyrinth of domestic friends and enemies to facilitate the hearing and listening to the sounds of those who have been un-enumerated even among the uncounted. What I mean to propose here is that Sacrifice, reimagined as the foundation for projects of radical democracy, is much about the rejection of the internal friend/enemy distinction as a companion to the external distinction which separates one state from the other. The argument being that the borders of the state must be allowed to exist but no longer find themselves doubly locked to the inclusion of others by the fact that internal to the state there must be, following the logic of Rousseau and Schmitt, an outside of the inside. The Sacrifice required here allows for the maintenance of unique identity internal to the project of state that disallows itself to become a specter of impending doom to residents and renders Schmitt’s “common identity” and Kennedy’s “fellow Americans” a more capacious formation.
Michael Sawyer is Assistant Professor in the Department of Race, Ethnicity, & Migration Studies at Colorado College.
Published on May 17, 2017
1. Philip Glasier, Falconry and Hawking (London: Batsford, 2005), 19.↩
2. J.A. Baker, The Peregrine (New York: New York Review Book Classics, 2004), 1.↩
3. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (Penguin Classics: 1968), 79.↩
4. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 35.↩
5. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, 32.↩
6. Moshe Halbertal, On Sacrifice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 13.↩
7. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Norton, 1999), 10.↩
8. James Madison, The Federalist Papers (New York: Bantam, 2003), 332-334.↩
9. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin Classics, 1977), 67.↩
10. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 67-68.↩
11. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 68.↩
12. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 29.↩
13. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus 33.↩
14. Jacques Rancière, Dissensus 34.↩
15. James Madison, The Federalist Papers (Dover: 2014) 332.↩
16. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 10-11.↩
17. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Vintage International: 1995), 1.↩
18. Sam Levine, “Peter King Says Eric Garer Would Not have Died From Chokehold Were He Not Obese,” The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/03/peter-king-eric-garner_n_6265748.html↩