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Saturday, April 17, 2004


Part II

LI should have posted a few more links to Danielle Allen in our last post. The London Review of her book on punishment in Athens is particularly rich. Reviewers must tread a path between overreach and mere description. This reviewer maxes out on over-reach, barely getting to Allen’s book at all. Still, it is full of interesting explanations of the Athenian system of punishment -- suggesting, bizarrely, that Athens was less like Jefferson's Virginia than like Mao's China.

Allen's book – The World Of Prometheus – was published by Princeton University Press, which has an excellent policy of publishing chapters from their books on the web. Go here to the first chapter of Allen’s book. We love this intro paragraph:

“One of the most important but least acknowledged features of the modern world is that individuals no longer punish for themselves. By this I do not suggest, as so many have, that over time a dark Dionysiac and ancient age of mad blood vengeance has ceded to an era of rational, legally based state punishment and Apolline brightness. I refer rather to the quite specific fact that the modern age has produced the public prosecutor to replace the lay prosecutor as the person responsible for seeing that wrongdoing is dealt with. In the ancient world the victims of wrongs had to enter into judicial processes in order to prosecute their own cases. The modern age has produced the state representative who acts on behalf of wronged individuals and who is supposed to prosecute impartially, disinterestedly, and dispassionately. The invention of the public prosecutor is a small historical detail--small enough to slip out of most history books--but its consequences have been great and systematic.”

Now, to get back to Allen’s essay.

According to Allen, there is a structural problem in any democracy. While democratic government claims to represent all of the people, governance necessarily involves actions which are to the advantage of some, and to the disadvantage of other, people. The task of governance is to assure the latter group that its specific disadvantages will be so assimilated into greater long term advantages that its sacrifices will not have been in vain. This sets the problem of sacrifice before the disadvantaged group.

For the last hundred and fifty years, sacrifice has been a central anthropological theme, since it seems to indicate that the political economy existed even among peoples with no institutionalized market or state. In one of the most cited and moving passages in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment, sacrifice is linked both to the Freudian notion of sublimation and the Marxist problem of how the exploited can be complicit in their own exploitation. For A and H., the image of sacrifice – and the implacable logic that makes every particular sacrifice insufficient – can be glossed from that passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus is lashed to the mast in order to hear the song of the sirens. The song of the sirens, “who know all things that have happened on earth,” embodies the longing for the irretrievable – for what has been surrended in the very constitution of time, which divides itself, for the subject, into the past, present and future. The economy of sacrifice, according to this scenario, pervades our sense of the continuity of the self in time. This is why mourning is that most peculiar of pains – the pain of remembered pleasure. Mourning is the mode through which the sacrificial element in time (conceived as the total connection of the self with itself) is, to use the old Hegelian term, sublated – that is, this is how loss is preserved. A. and H. wrote their book in 1947, as mourners at Europe's funeral. These keeners at the grave have sharp eyes. Here is how they describe the crucial scene in which the ship passes the Sirens:

Its [Civilization’s] way was that of obedience and work, over which shines sensual fulfillment as a semblence, as disenfranchised beauty. Odysseus’ thought, hostile alike to his own death and his own happiness, knows this. He knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to the sailors. He has them stop their ears with wax; they must row forward using their bodily strength. He who wishes to survive must not be susceptible to the temptation of the irrevocable; he can endure it only by not being able to hear it. Society takes care of that. The workers, fresh and concentrated, must look only forward and leave what lies by the side. The compulsion that leads to diversion from the task must be grimly sublimated in the progressive order of striving. It is in this way they become practical. Odysseus, as the Master who has others work for him, chooses the other possibility. He does listen, but bound, impotently, to the mast. The greater the seductive power of the song, the stronger he is bound – in the same way, since, the bourgeois man also stubbornly avoids his happiness.”

(LI’s translation,)

We think Adorno and Horkheimer’s text is (perhaps indirectly) one of those in the background of Allen’s reading. It helps tremendously that, as a classical scholar, Allen is very aware of the civic construction of sacrifice. Ellison’s awareness was less scholarly, and more dramatic.

Remember, from our last post, that the issue of sacrifice rises to the surface of the text in the Invisible Man’s confrontation with Hambro, the spokesman for the brotherhood. Hambro has instructed the I.M. that the party is sacrificing action in Harlem for other actions. The I.M. questions both the interest of the decisionmakers who have ordered this sacrifice, and the very nature of sacrifice itself:

“I.M. articulates one last criterion for determining the legitimacy of particular sacrifices: sacrifice becomes illegitimate when one person or group regularly sacrifices for the rest. Instead, sacrifices must be reciprocated. The weak have been incorporated into the democratic polity only when they are in an equal position to request sacrifice from others…”

This, of course, begs the question of how one defines the weak. Isn’t the demand for equality of sacrifice really the demand for transcending weakness itself? And is that possible? If democratic governance really and necessarily proceeds through acts which always comport some sacrifice by some group, then some group must, in that instance, be the weak. But it seems to us that governance, if it is rational and not arbitrary – if it is, in other words, the concrete project of the governors – is never going to wholly make up to the weak specified by the previous sacrifice with the next one. Moreover, real weakness is not re-defined in every instance of sacrifice, but by the skew evidenced over a series of sacrifices. Where does this skew emerge from? It emerges from the perceptions and biases of the Grundherr, as Adorno and H. call Odysseus.

In order to restore some necessary element of the accidental to the logic of sacrifice, then, what must be done? The answer is written in the whole fabric of the left: resistance.

We’ve gone a long way from Iraq, but we can now apply some of our musings about sacrifice to the paradox of occupation in Iraq: the CPA, in order to really “install” democracy in Iraq, must create its own resistance. Or, more specifically, the logic for its own resistance. Only a real resistance will supplant the armed resistance that crystallized around a Ba’athist remnant, and is now spreading to other parts of Iraqi society. The CPA has, however, no notion of this whatsoever. They operate in high denial mode, claiming that the only sacrifices that are being made burden the Americans. The claim to sacrifice is the claim to weakness – insofar as one has made the sacrifice. But if the pattern of sacrifice shows that those who claim this weakness are actually the powerful – if it shows that their sacrifices are more in the nature of investments, from which they seek a return, while the sacrifices of others are in the nature of permanent losses – we have a situation ripe for the kind of bad faith that characterizes all authoritarian societies, in which the strong engross the claims of weakness, using them to justify more and more intense acts of oppression against the weak. It is a bad faith that arises, first, in the discourse, and then creeps into power. The newspapers cry for the policemen, and the policemen eventually answer the cry – by shutting down newspapers.

Is there a way out of this impasse?

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