“There is no book…” ☆

There is no spoonReading Sacrifice: It’s Nature and Function, leaves me wondering about all of our daily investitures. It concludes by pointing to the complex ways in which sacrificial rituals function within our personal and social spheres, even, and especially when they are abstracted. But why? Why sacrifice?

Their answer is that the mediation of the sacrificial object or victim allows for relations between entities that otherwise could only come together dangerously. The god’s are fatal to mere mortals.

Could it be that “the book” is one of the sacred objects we invest in order to mediate our relationship to the educational gods? Nothing could be more fatal than an education actually received in full.

As I continue my new ritual of reviewing books that I have not yet finished—undermining, as it were, the sacralization process, setting it in motion down different lines—it strikes me that there are no books as such. Just as Heraclitus argues that one can never step in the same river twice, since the moment is always swept away in the current, one might say that a “book” is a creature of the moment.

At the very least, a book changes in relationship to the books being read (and not read) around it. Since I can never seem to read one book at a time,  the art of reading begins to be less about a kind of fidelity to the text, and more an art of collage, in which new books are created (and destroyed, “sacrificed” perhaps) from the bookish elements lying at hand.

I can particularly recommend reading Sacrifice in the vicinity of Ernesto Laclau’s On Populist Reason. Living, as we do, in a time where sacrifice appears to have refined itself into abstraction, receding from center stage, we have to ask to what extent its logic and operations are still relevant, and Laclau is particularly fruitful in this enterprise.

If we think of the ways in which Hubert and Mauss show that sacrifice is a complex negotiation of sacred valuation, in which value is passed around, often in diffuse, layered, or sequential strategies, the question that haunts me is the underlying drive. What is it that we are up to?

While not necessarily answering this question head on, Laclau points to the difficult social tension:

…the only possibility of having a true outside [to define the boundaries of our whole] would be that the outside is not simply one more, neutral element but an excluded one, something that the totality expels from itself in order to constitute itself (to give a political example: it is through the demonization of a section of the population that a society reaches a sense of its own cohesion). (70)

And further on down the page, we find the difficulty of this tension between the needs of both cohesion and difference:

What we have, ultimately, is a failed totality, the place of an irretrievable fullness. This totality is an object which is both impossible and necessary.

If we return to sacrifice, this resonates with one of the great oddities of the sacrificial rituals: the more effective they are, the more they repeat themselves. Either the victim is shown to live on, or the story must be retold without end. It is not simply the cycles of the agrarian harvest (still represented in our school calendar) that drive the repetition but this impossible necessity. The sacrifice is never over.

We could take this insight in any number of different directions, but let’s come full circle back to books, or rather to a particular example of the drive towards totalizing cohesion: the Western Canon.

Here we could imagine the ritual of lists serving to determine a social cohesion by investing objects with a sacred force. These are what bring us close to the gods. This is who we are. But if that is the case, how do we sacrifice them? To be sure, book-burning and censorship represent the opposite, excluded pole. The anti-canon, as it were. But such overt violence to books, in this day and age, is deemed uncivilized. We must imagine a more sophisticated kind of sacrifice. Perhaps they are sacrificed by reading itself. The consuming of books. This might account, in part, for the call for fidelity to the completion of the text: let us use every part of the animal, a complete transmutation. Also, repetition and saturation: these are the books everyone should return to.

But what if it involves a kind of unreading as well? These are the books you can never approach. We will read them for you. Or, hand in hand with repetition: these are the books, that even when read, are not read, and cannot be fully grasped, always exceeding any reading. Or more mundanely, these are the books that, because you are supposed to read them, are ensured to be both traditional and inconsumable—like fruitcake during the holidays.

What if War and Peace—representing more than anything impossible fortitude of reading—in being finished, is paradoxically a testament to it’s impossibility? It can be completed but never read.

This would be the sacrifice.