May 16, 2004

Nick Berg video: human sacrifice, myth & spectacle

In the light of this:
I wonder about Bataille on myth and sacrifice. My thoughts are only half formed and still incoherent.

The image is a still image of a video of the decapitation of Nick Berg, an American civilian in Iraq, by Islamic extremists, reputedly Al Qaeda.

Human sacrifice is what Bataille was talking about in the Acephale society in the late 1930s, but was unable to enact. Well here we have it, enacted for the global media.

What can we say?

I'll start by by reposting this previous post on Bataille to counter the bestiality interpretation--Arab terrorists as as vicious animals---to suggest that the beheading of Nick Berg has to do with the sacred.

Here is the old post:

"In this ABC Encounter programme some insightful remarks about Bataille, the sacred and intense erotic mysticism are made by Mark Taylor. Taylor is referring to the period between 1941 and 1944, when Bataille's wrote Madame Edwarda and Inner Experience, Guilty, and On Nietzsche. In a sense Bataille's work at this time was a continuation of the kind of sacred experiment he'd been undertaking with Acephale.

The founding belief of the Acephale was that rational thought wasn't going to be enough to save the world from the catastrophe that appeared to be looming on the horizon. The formation of Acephale was in part a response to the failure of the political groups opposed to Fascism. They tended to become fascistic themselves ---to become obsessed by seizing power. Acephale, being "headless", was an attempt to decapitate any kind of idea of seizing power. The image they chose for Acephale was the sorcerer's apprentice--- what the sorcerer's apprentice does is release forces that he can't control. Acephale was intended to be a kind of detonator to set off an explosion (a human sacrifice) that would destroy both French society and world society.

The war intervened, the group disbanded, Bataille resigned from his job at the Bibliotheque Nationale, left Paris for the countryside, and lost himself in writing. In writing, the above texts Bataille wasn't just trying to describe the sacred, but to unleash its energies. Taylor says:

"He saw in various kinds of literary texts a substitution for that kind of ritual enactment - in other words, one of the kinds of things that happens not just with Bataille but with a lot of these figures, right down to the present day, is that literature comes to play the role that religious ritual had played heretofore. Just as religious ritual can function as a way of displacing social conflict, containing it in a certain sense, by setting it in a ritual context in which it can be controlled, so religious ritual can get displaced into literary texts - so an author like the Marquis de Sade he finds fascinating, for precisely those reasons. But you also see in his texts (e.g. in one of his most interesting texts called Inner Experience), it's a sort of poetic text, but part of what he's trying to do with language is to enact the kind of disarticulation that he sees at work in the sacred. In the kind of text that I'm talking about here, Inner Experience or some of his fictions which are - well, "pornographic" is not right, but they're over the top in terms of transgressive excess. The text is not about the experience, the text is intended to be the occasion for the experience.

This is within a whole mystical tradition within the West as well - I mean, St Ignatius' spiritual exercises have as their goal, to occasion the one undergoing them, the experience itself. I mean, the carnality of the experience that Bataille is seeking to trigger, is in a certain sense an incarnation of the word - it is the word made flesh, made carnate in the eroticism of the experience. And if you look back in the history of western mysticism, the texts are often shot through with eroticism."

That is the end of the old post.

I do not see that the human sacrifice of Nick Berg would lead to rebirth of new social values. Maybe we have the rebirth of myth and the touching of an explosion of primitive communal drives of the lower chthonian drives that lead to ever more violence. In this case the chthonian energies are have been unleashed and they are transgressive of Islamic values.

Does this sacrifce indicate the limits of Bataille? Why the turn to myth? We continue to live in a world of myths. As Lars over at Spurious says:

"This is still an age of myths, as if we belonged to the era Herodotus had already left behind - the time of the epic, of great causes and triumphal victories. The mythical age is not over - it lingers yet in the war without end which opened more than two years ago - itself the continuance of what perhaps the word 'war' cannot reach: an unsettled and impersonal struggle that has long spread across all the nations on the globe. Yes, it is still mythic, this war, for as long as Bush pretends to be the conscience of the world."

We in the West are enveloped in the Enlightenment myth of using force to bring reason, democracy and freedom to the world.

Maybe you could say that the video of Nick Berg's decapitation indicates an Islamic society that does not repress sacrifice that forms it, as do the Americans. The video turn sacrifice into a bloody spectacle; as are many of the public executions in Islamic societies.

The Americans do have the institutional structures for sacrifice--their prison system and death row. Their prison system both covers up death and displays it before the eyes of the media.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at May 16, 2004 11:50 PM | TrackBack

"Maybe we have the rebirth of myth..."

Fantastic! Because if there's one thing the Muslim world needs, it's MORE MYTH.

Posted by: Chris Farley on May 17, 2004 03:53 AM

Perhaps it's time to grasp the fundamental difference between human sacrifice and ritualized murder.

Sacrifice involves destroying and wasting ("offering to God", for instance) something that is of value to the person performing the sacrifice. Hence, the Biblical examples of Abraham and Isaac, or the calls for burnt offerings of livestock. A sheep is of value to a shepherd because its meat and fleece are valuable. When God calls the shepherd to sacrifice the sheep and burn it, the shepherd must give up, or sacrifice, that which is of prior value to him.

Nick Berg, on the other hand, is of no value to Islamic extremists at all, except as a pawn of their ideological demonstrations. The extremists are not giving up something, or someone, that is of prior value to them; hence, there is no sacrifice. What we see instead is an instance of ritualized killing.

Posted by: Carnamagos on July 2, 2004 04:22 AM
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