Sophie Wahnich: Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Terror

My hypothesis is mimetic: because humans imitate one another more than animals, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism that reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else is sacrifice. Humanity results from sacrifice; we are thus the children of religion.1

In my post yesterday Brassier reminded us that for Adorno and Horkheimer, both “mimesis and subsumption are intimately connected to fear: a nexus of terror links civilization’s fear of regression, the individual’s fear of social disapprobation, the fear of conceptual indistinction, and the prey’s fear of its predator” (45-46).2

Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries describes the new “siege mentality” which overtook citizens of Europe during the medieval era, and by the 14th Century would be accompanied by an oppressive sense of guilt, an unprecedented movement toward introspection, and the development of a new moral conscience. With the growth of Humanism came what he termed, the “scruple sickness”:

It was as if the aggressivity directed against the enemies of Christendom had not entirely spent itself in incessant religious warfare, despite constantly renewed battles and an endless variety of opponents. A global anxiety, broken up into “labeled” fears, discovered a new foe in each of the inhabitants of the besieged city, and a new fear – the fear of one’s own self.(1)

Since the dawn of humanity, millions of innocent victims have been killed and sacrificed to the gods as part of an underlying pattern or myth: the scapegoat is guilty of disorder, and the only way to restore order and promote the continuity of life for a group or society’s institutions is through the blood sacrifice of the one for the many (Girard, Kindle Locations 78-81). In Journal of Affective Disorders the “Neuroevolutionary Time-depth Principle” of innate fears, based on prevalence data, suggests that high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after combat exposure can be due to the fact that this fear-stress response appeared as a reaction to inter-group male-to-male and intra-group killings after the rising of population densities in the Neolithic period.3 Obviously its a far stretch to equate myths of sacrifice with neruoevolutionary theory at present, but it does at least show that the brain of male-to-male conflictual relations seems to repeat some of these same behaviors from the Neolithic onward.

Joseph de Maistre once wrote that, “War is thus divine.”3.54  Such reactionary statements have always collapsed violence into theological terms that justify it in the name of deity thereby displacing their own responsibility in the matter. But Wahnich sees terror not in some discursive sieve of theology but in terms of emotion, saying: ” I put forward the hypothesis of a founding dynamic of emotional economy, one that arises from the sacred and from vengeance .  In this context, the revolutionaries had both to understand the risks of violence and dislocation of society bound up with the rapid circulation of emotions, and to control these by the symbolic activity of which discourse is part – in particular, the discourse of law” (19).

During the Convention Louis XVI had been portrayed as a victim of circumstance, not a resolute tyrant, a monarch who had tried to do his best for the people, who had never intended bloodshed.4 Yet, Saint-Just would be the first among many to drop the axe, saying:

Louis tainted vertu; to whom henceforth will it appear innocent?… Some will say that the Revolution is over, that we have nothing more to fear from the tyrant… but citizens, tyranny is like a reed that bends with the wind and which rises again. What do you call a Revolution? The fall of a throne, a few blows leveled at a few abuses? The moral order is like the physical; abuses disappear for an instant, as the dew dries in the morning, and as it falls again with the night, so the abuses will reappear. The Revolution begins when the tyrant ends. (KL 4143-4147)

The logic of sacrifice comes through loud and clear as we read the words of Maximilien Robespierre who affirmed Saint-Just’s statement, with his own pronouncement: “It is with regret that I pronounce the fatal truth: Louis must die that the country may live.” This notion that the foundation of the new revolutionary France must be bathed in the blood and purification of ritual sacrifice seems to play itself out like the repetitive nightmare drama over and over in modern history. The more one seeks rational answers for irrational behavior the more one devolves into unjustified justifications. Reading the biographies of Marat, Danton, Robespierre, and others, along with histories of the Jacobins and their enemies one gets a feeling that this, like our own world, was teetering between two ages, unable to return to the old world, but yet unwilling to accept the truth of the new one. Caught in this double-bind they negotiated it with the oldest of blood rituals and signals of primitive man reverting to older modes of existence caught in the meshes of – what some might term now, a neuroevolutionary playback. But to reduce it to biology wouldn’t explain anything, it would only give us more labels in which to hide the actual decisionary processes that brought such actions into play in the first place.

When we come upon the French Revolution  in the pages of most critical histories or other books today we discover what the British call the ‘Reign of Terror’, and the French simply ‘the Terror’, as both detestable and something to be reviled.5 Yet, as Sophie Wahnich asks: “Is this disgust and rejection based on any reflective and critical stance? (3)”. She answers: “No.” As she states it in our time “the Terror” is played out as the pure figure of historical evil, of the inability to settle political conflicts peacefully – i.e. without inflicting violence on the body, without putting to death. To be a happy heir to the French Revolution means becoming complicit with a historical crime (7-8). She further states her case in comparing present Western democracies and their affiliated discourses:

This new disgust with the French Revolution is inseparable from a ‘parallel’ constructed with the history of political catastrophes in the twentieth century, and from a related idealization of the present democratic model of politics.(8)

After a lengthy review of Agamben’s Homo Sacer in which he fuses Michael Focault’s conceptions of biopower to biopolitics he argues that there is an alliance between our conceptions of sovereignty and its convergence in the “Reign of Terror” with the people. With that event, or state of the exception in his terms, democracy become totalitarian and sovereign, incarnated in the group, the people through an expulsion of certain others: the excluded. As she states it:

The end point of this long line of argument is that the question asked about the French Revolution indicates a profound solidarity between democratic and totalitarian regimes, a political foundation at which there is no longer a difference between animal life and political life. But is this at all tenable? Is the French Revolution, and the Terror in particular, part and parcel of this zone of irreducible non-differentiation ? And if yes, how so? Finally – and this question is fundamental – did the revolutionary effort aim to let this zone of non-differentiation expand without limits, in the way that historians have spoken for example of unbounded suspicion, or did it aim on the contrary to maintain this as a marginal place in the political organization?(11-12)

More than anything else she tells us is that critics of the event that was the “the Terror” has led to the conclusion that democracy leads to “political impotence” (14). She tells us that most modern critics refrain from seeing any religious or anthropological attribution to the violence of this event, and instead portray it as just a deep seated hatred of the Ancient Regime. As she relates:

Various religious rituals commemorate times of foundation and symbolically handle the risks of violence bound up with a moment that combines the destruction and the construction of social ties, risks that can indeed lead to the demise of the community. It is these same risks that make it possible to understand and analyze the Terror as foundation.(15-16)

Slavoj Zizek in his reading of Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s The Mark of the Sacred connects the specific link between sacrifice and the sacred as harboring within its mythical narrative the ultimate mystery of the so-called human or social sciences, that of the origins of what Lacan calls the “big Other,” what Hegel called “externalization” (Entäusserung), what Marx called “alienation,” and— why not?—what Friedrich von Hayek called “self-transcendence”: how, out of the interaction of individuals, can the appearance of an “objective order” arrive which cannot be reduced to that interaction, but is experienced by the individuals involved as a substantial agency which determines their lives?5

“The sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder— what makes it sacred is the fact that it limits or contains violence, including murder, in ordinary life,” says Zizek (KL 21724-21725).6 The point being that in the revolutionary event of “the Terror” the acts of the Jacobins was a staged violence enacted for the veritable containment of the revolutionary forces that were beginning to upset the new order being formed.

As Zizek tells us: “Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate this contingency” (KL 21764-21765). The contingent factor in “the Terror” was the remainder of those in the Ancient Regime who were in that limbo between the old order and the new, and with the resentment  of the poor and excluded at stake there needed to be some form of release, an outlet for all those years of resentment and hatred that had built up over time. As Zizek puts in commenting on Dupuy: “Dupuy draws the conclusion that it would be a great mistake to think that a society which is just and which also perceives itself as just will thereby be free of all resentment— on the contrary, it is precisely in such a society that those who occupy inferior positions will only find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment” (KL 21773-21775).

In 2009 contesting Robespierre’s legacy Slavoj Zizek and Simon Schama were part of a documentary Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution (1/6) in which Schama spoke from within the moderate liberal perspective condemning Robespierre as a tyrant whose revolutionary terror ran straight to the gulag and the 20th-century concentration cam, while Zizek on the other hand portrays Robespierre as a radical incarnation of enlightenment virtu. The TV drama, based on original sources, follows the life-and-death politics of the Committee during “Year Two” of the new Republic. The battle between liberal condemnation and communist justification plays well within the reading the Wahnich gives us in her book. As Wahnich states:

The revolutionary Terror, which is attacked for its revolutionary tribunal, its law of suspects and its guillotine, was a process welded to a regime of popular sovereignty in which the object was to conquer tyranny or die for liberty. This Terror was willed by those who, having won sovereign power by dint of insurrection, refused to let this be destroyed by counter-revolutionary enemies. The Terror took place in an uncertain struggle waged by people who tried everything to deflect the fear felt towards the counter-revolutionary enemy into a terror imposed on it. This enemy, for its part, tried everything to bring the Revolution to an end. The greatest danger was then that of a weakening of the revolutionary desire – a discouragement, a corruption of the founding desire. It was this danger that haunted those actors most committed to the revolutionary process.(97)

1. Girard, René (2012-01-01). Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture) (Kindle Locations 75-78). Michigan State University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Ray Brassier. Nihil Unbound Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave McMillan 2007)
3. Posttraumatic stress disorder in war veterans: A discussion of the Neuroevolutionary Time-depth Principle
3.5. Joseph de Maistre, “The Saint Petersburg Dialogues .”
4. Scurr, Ruth (2007-04-17). Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Kindle Locations 4142-4143). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
5. Wahnich, Sophie (2012-08-07). In Defence of the Terror: Liberty or Death in the French Revolution (p. 3). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
6. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 21657-21662). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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