Calasso makes a sweeping thematic statement in The Ruin of Karsch, a book that was written in the shadow of the horrors of the seventies:
“History is summed up in the fact that for a long time men killed other beings and dedicated them to an invisible power, but after a certain point they killed without dedicating the victims to anyone. Did they forget? Did they consider that act of homage futile? Did they condemn it as repugnant? All these reasons had some sort of bearing on the matter. Afterwards, nothing remained but pure killing... (135)
Calasso is writing to tease out the infinite subtleties in the system of war which, in his view, is the real name of modernity. The economic system, whether managed by the private sphere or commanded by the state, exists in the void left by a mechanical and blind system of human sacrifice that no longer has any belief in any invisible power that could explain the compulsive bloodletting. Although this seems to be miles away from the rise of the happiness culture, the two develop in tandem, one with the other.
The substitute in the sacrifice, as Adorno and Horkheimer point out, is both a trick of human rationality, played on the invisible power, and the first step in the long undermining of the need for sacrifice.
Now, it might seem, at first glance, that nothing could be as repugnant to a society organized around the image of the limited good as sacrifice. Sacrifice would seem to violate the assumption that resources are so distributed that the acquisition of them is a zero-sum game. What I have, you don’t have. And this is the genius of sacrifice, its tie to power and wealth and essentially predatory and contingent qualities. As we pointed out in a number of posts, wealth as treasure is wealth as accident – wealth as a thing that comes purely from the exterior, a sign and symbol of it. And that exteriority marks treasure as a part of power, which is that into which all exteriority is merged. If Adorno and Horkheimer are right, then the logic of sacrifice is shaped by these social assumptions. Sacrifice is the symbol of predation, and the predatory portion that goes back to the predator. The predator’s claim is, essential, to ownership of everything, and that claim is the basis of the invisible order of things. The portion sacrificed is the substitute for that all, against the impossible realization of the predatory power’s claim – which would be the end of the world. Death is of course the predator’s triumph, and it is this which the sacrifice wards off for a little while.
Bataille’s idea is that sacrifice defines the sacred and the accursed. The social correlate, here, is treasure and waste. Between the two there is a strong bond. The substitution of waste for treasure, or the magic that makes waste into treasure, or the secret power of waste – these are all deep fairy tale motifs. The substitution of treasure for waste, on the other hand, this was the great Christian paradox of God’s sacrifice of his son. It is such a mad gesture that the first become last in its aftermath, and the world is turned upside down. Theologians, of course, spend centuries turning the world back upright, but the idea of treasure substituted for waste still emits a powerful revolutionary frequency below the official discourse.
LI’s notion, then, is that the substitute has different meanings in the two regimes sketched out by Calasso’s sweeping gesture – the regime in which sacrifice has a meaning, and the regime in which sacrifice turns into futile superstition. Thus, the moment that the substitute is no longer a marker in the intricate transactions by which pure exteriority is appeased with its share, it is, in a sense, freed. First as a character, then as a personality, first as an autonomous subject, then as a sociological object. In the atmosphere of liberty, the substitute seems to disappear entirely – for what is liberty but the absolute uniqueness of the individual? But in that ephemeral moment, the stress of the purposelessness of the unique individual on the system forces the return of the substitute as the subject –its transit through the tropic of liberty returns it to the system freed, more practically, from the mark of the sacred, and ready to get to work. The lack of that substitute within disturbs what Tolstoy calls the animal personality, and there has to be a substitute for the missing substitute – there must be, for instance, self-interest – or there looms the menace of social rejection, various deaths in the madhouse. These are the stakes of transgression, and why, for Bataille, it bears the impress of that unbearable moment when the substitute, in the triumph of rationality over all exteriority, all invisible powers, disappears.