Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
Anything in Exchange for the World: Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and the Aqedah.
Dr. Eric Repphun
(University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand)
The relation of gift-giving and economy, death and sacrifice hold a special interest at the start of a new millennium, one in which an epidermis, as it were, of images, of global economic transactions powered by new information systems, envelops our world. Does this radically altered context not demand a new discursive space for considering the issues of gift and sacrifice? (Wyschogrod, 2002:1).
The Aqedah, the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac, is foundational; its importance to Western religion, and thus to Western history, is incalculable. Counting Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who all have a stake in the Aqedah, the story of biblical patriarch Abraham and his beloved son Isaac in some way informs the lives of well over half of the world’s population. As recounted in the 22nd chapter of Genesis, the story itself seems simple: Abraham, an elderly man, has been blessed by his God, YHWH, with a son late in life. When the boy, Isaac, is grown, YHWH demands, for no reason that he chooses to reveal, that Abraham take Isaac into the wilderness and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. However, when Abraham raises his knife over a bound and helpless Isaac on Mount Moriah, YHWH sends an angel to stay Abraham’s hand, offering a ram caught in a thicket nearby as a substitute sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac descend the mountain, their task completed, and Isaac goes on to found the people of Israel. Abraham’s seemingly blithe willingness to sacrifice his son to his God raises agonising questions about love, divine will, and obedience, questions which may simply be unanswerable. Does Abraham act ethically, responsibly? To whom does he act responsibly? Towards his family? Towards his people, whom God had promised would be founded by Isaac’s seed? Towards YHWH? Why does YHWH demand that Abraham sacrifice the son that he himself had given Abraham and who had brought to his aged father such palpable joy?
As the biblical scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has noted, the binding of Isaac is of crucial internal importance to the Torah, a moment upon which the narrative turns as if upon a fulcrum: ‘The story of Abraham is both beginning and end. Here begins the drama of the central family-nation of the Torah; here ends the prehistory, the rough drafts of God’s intent’ (1995: 72). In that it plays a major role in the three great Western monotheistic traditions, however, both the Aqedah and its interpretation are far more than literary or theological matters. Indeed, Bruce Chilton places the story of Abraham and Isaac – or Ibrahim and Ishma’il in the Islamic tradition (which has its origins in the terse, elliptical narrative of Qur’an 37:84-111) – at the heart of our troubled times. He further argues that its long history of interpretation plays a fundamental role in how many people in the contemporary world understand and experience sacrificial violence:
Naming that compulsion to take innocent life in the belief that sacrifice is noble goes beyond the incidents of a single crime, and takes us into the foundations of human culture and of how people understand the divine ... We are not merely living through a political crisis, though it is also that. Powerful cultures rooted in the memory of Abraham are on the cusp of giving in entirely to their sacrificial drive with instruments of sacrifice more terrible than even before. The violence that seems to engulf us is neither random nor unpredictable, but derives from forces whose ways have been traced for millennia in texts that can leave us informed about our own motivations instead of bewildered by our fate. But to confront these forces demands that we engage a story that is often passed over in confused silence or explained away, and that we search our way through the disturbing questions the Aqedah raises (2008: 5-6).
This engagement is, of course, a matter of no insignificant difficulty. The Aqedah, despite the brutal simplicity of its narrative, appears to be inexhaustible. Though there are a handful of enduring, even dominant interpretations, there are also seemingly infinite ways to read the story. More orthodox interpreters have long read the story as a test of Abraham’s faith, a reading at least outwardly supported by the biblical text itself. Indeed, after Abraham shows himself willing to sacrifice his beloved son, YHWH tells Abraham,
Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice (Genesis 22:16-18, New Revised Standard Version).
The significance of the story reaches far outside of the religious traditions that it has influenced directly, extending to a long and complex history of less theological, less orthodox interpretation outside of formal religious frameworks. To cite one of a great many examples, Dan Simmons, in his science fiction novels Hyperion (1989) and The Fall of Hyperion (1990), subjects this traditional interpretation to an intriguing reversal: it was Abraham who was doing the testing and YHWH who is subjected to a trial of his worth.1 The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard, writing pseudonymously in Fear and Trembling, takes this inexhaustibility as a challenge that he passes on to his readers with a wry demand that they face the story honestly, without the comforts of traditional interpretations:
The story about Abraham is remarkable in that it is always glorious no matter how poorly it is understood, but again it is a matter of whether or not we are willing to work and be burdened. We glorify Abraham, but how? We recite the whole story in clichés: ‘The great thing was that he loved God in such a way that he was willing to offer him the best.’ This is very true, but ‘the best’ is a vague term. Mentally and orally, we homologize Isaac and the … contemplator can very well smoke his pipe while cogitating, and the listener may very well stretch out his legs comfortably (1983: 28).
As we shall see in this essay, Kierkegaard speaks to an important truth when he observes that the story of Abraham has little comfort to offer, that any interpretation that is too palatable necessarily fails to engage with the story in all its depth and horror.
This paper offers one possible answer to Kierkegaard’s challenge, or at least suggests an intriguing and at times uncomfortable way to approach the questions raised by the Aqedah. I propose here to investigate what the work of the late philosopher and cultural critic Jean Baudrillard can tell us about the Aqedah. Baudrillard never wrote about Abraham; indeed, as is true of many writers directly influenced by Marx, Baudrillard rarely wrote about religion in any serious or systematic manner. Despite this, Baudrillard’s conception of symbolic exchange, which is closely intertwined with ideas of gift-giving and sacrifice, can help us to make new sense of the Aqedah and on its continuing power to inspire acts of sacrificial violence. To help with this exploration, we will be contrasting Baudrillard’s understandings of gift-giving and sacrifice with those of Jacques Derrida, who took on the Aqedah in his enigmatic 1995 book The Gift of Death. This paper concludes, as it must, with more questions than answers. However, it is possible to argue, in relation to Chilton's assertion that the Aqedah has long been used to inspire and justify acts of violence, that Baudrillard’s understanding of gift-giving and sacrifice reveals crucial aspects of the story of Isaac that Derrida’s more forgiving logic fails to recognise.
II. Jean Baudrillard and Symbolic Exchange
A critique of general political economy (or a critical theory of value) and a theory of symbolic exchange are one and the same thing (Baudrillard, 1981:182).
Baudrillard himself rarely addressed matters of religion directly; however, this is not to suggest that his work is wholly uninterested in the matter. His work is saturated with what theologian Lissa McCullough calls ‘an inverted religious language’ (2001: 1). Throughout his career, Baudrillard made frequent use of decontextualized terms like ‘enlightenment’, ‘worship’, ‘sacrilege’, ‘sacrifice’, ‘ecstasy’, ‘salvation’, ‘transcendence’, ‘immanence’, ‘suffering’, ‘dogma’, and ‘ritual’, to name just a few. His formal address of religion is restricted to a number of almost rote gestures which he repeated at intervals over the decades. One of Baudrillard's most frequent references to religion is to the death of God in a fashion that brings the work of Nietzsche, a significant influence on Baudrillard, immediately to mind. To cite a single, rather charming example, in the first volume of his Cool Memories, Baudrillard writes: ‘The order of the world is always right – such is the judgement of God. For God has departed, but he has left his judgement behind, the way the Cheshire Cat left his grin’ (1990: 4). In relation to religion, his other characteristic gesture was to engage with radical forms of political Islam as a form of resistance to the globalising order of consumer capitalism2.
Given that Baudrillard is often treated with deep suspicion within the social sciences, and given his purposeful, systematic obscuration of meaning, it should perhaps come as little surprise that, with a few notable exceptions, his work has been largely neglected by the various fields which comprise the academic study of religion. Baudrillard is often accused of being a charlatan, a reactionary and a purveyor of the worst kind of relativist nonsense. If he was all of these things, and he most definitely was, he was equally none of them. We ignore him at our peril, especially when we consider that Baudrillard’s diffuse, aphoristic, confrontational style served as a formal complement to his overarching argument that modernity’s obsessive drive for clarity and explanation has robbed the world of its mystery, its seductive qualities, and ultimately its meaning. Victoria Grace aptly summarises the matter of his reception: ‘For all their brilliance, the works of Jean Baudrillard have, during the course of his life, aroused less in the way of serious contemplation and debate, and somewhat more in the way of clamorous idolatry and its inevitable discontent’ (2008: 347). Baudrillard scholar Mike Gane argues simply that ‘there is yet no analysis of Baudrillard's writings which is adequate or altogether convincing’ (2000: 24). In the matter of religion, this is all the more true and it is high time to revisit his enigmatic legacy critically but seriously to assess what if anything he has to offer the study of religion. Broadly, Baudrillard’s work suggests among other things that religion in the modern era is a necessary product of modernity itself, which offers an intriguing reversal of longstanding sociological orthodoxies. Intriguing as this idea may be, it is outside the scope of this paper, which will concern itself wholly with the Aqedah and Baudrillard’s ideas of sacrifice, exchange, and violence.
There is arguably a natural logic to setting these two disparate considerations at play with one another. If we read Baudrillard systematically, it becomes apparent that exchange is more than a passing concern; indeed, it is impossible to understand Baudrillard if we do not have a solid grasp on his ever-shifting usage of the concept of symbolic exchange. Symbolic exchange is the foundation upon which all of Baudrillard’s work is built, from his break with classical Marxism, to his critique of consumer culture, to his well-known discussions of the mass media and the simulated world. Though he would eventually make the idea his own, Baudrillard adopted the notion of symbolic exchange from the cultural anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ 1925 essay The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, which has been so influential within the academy that Marshall Sahlins writes of it without irony as Mauss’ ‘own gift to the ages’ (1997: 70). Working from his flat in Paris and relying entirely on ethnographic reports from others working in the field, Mauss argues that symbolic exchange is the dominant form of exchange in what were then called ‘primitive’ or ‘archaic’ societies. Symbolic exchange describes forms of exchange between people or groups of people in which objects become divorced from considerations of use and exchange value. Mauss writes that such objects take on something of a life of their own: ‘we do not find simple exchange of goods, wealth and produce … Whatever it is, food, possessions, women, children, or ritual, it maintains a magical and religious hold over the recipient. The thing is alive and often personified, and strives to bring to its original clan and homeland some equivalent to take its place’ (1954: 10). The primary purpose of such symbolic exchange, Mauss argues, is not economic but social; its main function is to form and maintain human relationships through the creation of a coercive cycle of obligation. For Mauss, symbolic exchange relies wholly on the promise, or threat, of reciprocity; if one gives a gift to another, on an individual or a cultural scale, the receiver takes the gift knowing that an equal or superior gift is expected in return.
Baudrillard’s earliest work relied heavily on the background that Mauss had laid almost fifty years earlier. In his 1972 book, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Baudrillard defines symbolic exchange in terms of value and the secondary meanings of objects:
In symbolic exchange, of which the gift is our most proximate illustration, the object is not an object: it is inseparable from the concrete relation in which it is exchanged, the transferential pact that it seals between two persons: it is thus not independent as such. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value … It is arbitrary, and yet absolutely singular … As distinct from language, whose material can be disassociated from the subject speaking it, the material of symbolic exchange, the objects given, are not autonomous, hence not codifiable as signs (1981: 64-65).
In Symbolic Exchange and Death, first published in 1976 and without a doubt the most important work in the development of Baudrillard’s writing, stylistically as well as theoretically, symbolic exchange begins to manifest itself clearly as the anchor of his thought. The book opens with spectral imagery that brings immediately to mind the opening passages of The Communist Manifesto: ‘Symbolic exchange is no longer the organizing principle of modern society. Of course, the symbolic haunts modern social institutions in the form of their own death. Indeed, since the symbolic no longer rules these social forms, they experience it only as this haunting, and as a demand forever blocked by the law of value’ (1993: 1). At this point, Baudrillard makes his first radical leap away from Mauss. He transforms symbolic exchange from a simple descriptive term into a generalised logic of exchange. On this logic, the demand for reciprocity manifested in symbolic exchange persists in the background of modern capitalist cultures as a reminder that other, more ethical forms of exchange still exist:
Everywhere, in every domain, a single form predominates: reversibility, cyclical reversal and annulment put an end to the linearity of time, language, economic exchange, accumulation and power. Hence the reversibility of the gift in the counter-gift, the reversibility of exchange in the sacrifice, the reversibility of time in the cycle, the reversibility of production in destruction, the reversibility of life in death, and the reversibility of every term and value of the langue in the anagram (1993:2).
This leads him in unexpected new directions when he poses a simple question: what happens when this reversibility breaks down? What happens to the receiver who is unwilling or unable to respond to a gift that has been given? For Baudrillard the answer can only be death. This answer, perhaps paradoxically, became the anchor for many of Baudrillard’s arguments about morality and ethics:
We must therefore displace everything into the sphere of the symbolic, where challenge, reversal and overbidding are the law, so that we can respond to death only by an equal or superior death. There is no question here of real violence or force, the only question concerns the challenge and the logic of the symbolic … To defy the system with a gift to which it cannot respond save by its own collapse and death. Nothing, not even the system, can avoid the symbolic obligation, and it is in this trap that the only chance of a catastrophe for capital remains ... Nothing corresponds to death except death. Which is precisely what happens in this case: the system itself is driven to suicide in return, which suicide is manifest in its disarray and defeat (1993: 36-37).
For Baudrillard, the unanswerable quality of death affects not only exchange but also the cultural value of death itself, which shares in the division between symbol and sign. ‘Violent death changes everything’, he writes, ‘slow death changes nothing, for there is a rhythm, a scansion necessary to symbolic exchange: something has to be given in the same movement and following the same rhythm, otherwise there is no reciprocity’ (1993: 40). Here, as in so many other places, Baudrillard’s ultimate meaning remains ambiguous, but there can be no doubt that he sees willing sacrifice – the gift of death that almost every person can offer if they so choose – as a powerful challenge to any logic of exchange rooted only in considerations of use or economic exchange value. This is a crucial point that will bear directly on the coming discussion and it worth reiterating that Baudrillard’s conception of symbolic exchange is tied inextricably with ideas of both gift-giving and sacrifice, which makes symbolic exchange a natural fit for the story of the binding of Isaac, which is perhaps the preeminent story of sacrifice in the whole of Western history.
III. Jacques Derrida’s Gifts of Death
To hope to be soothed means turning away from you (Jabès, letter to Jacques Derrida, 1993: 46).
We now turn our attention briefly away from Baudrillard’s conception of exchange, which is in many ways troubling, to something altogether more palatable. Late in his life, Baudrillard’s contemporary Jacques Derrida wrote on gift-giving and sacrifice in two short works, Given Time I: Counterfeit Money (1992) and The Gift of Death (1995). Derrida’s conception of gift differs substantially, even fundamentally, from Baudrillard’s, which demands that every gift be met with an equal or greater counter-gift, a knowing return of what is given. In contrast, Derrida writes:
The moment the gift, however generous it be, is infected with the slightest hint of calculation, the moment it takes account of knowledge or recognition, it falls within the ambit of an economy: it exchanges, in short it gives counterfeit money, since it gives in exchange for payment … In order to avoid this negation or destruction … one must give without knowing, without knowledge or recognition, without thanks: without anything (1995: 112).
Offering a true gift is thus for Derrida impossible. It is also, in a fundamental paradox, a necessary part of human responsibility. In The Gift of Death, Derrida turns to Abraham as the exemplar of this paradox. In the rupture between Abraham’s willingness to give his son as a burnt offering and the fact that he must perform this duty at the cost of the ultimate betrayal of his family, Abraham faces the impossible burden of responsibility. We can see the impossible choice that faces Abraham quite clearly in the simple fact that he answers the same way always when summoned. He responds to summons from YHWH, from Isaac, and finally from the angel who stays his hand with the simple affirmation, ‘Here I am’ (Genesis 22:1, 22:7, 22:11). He can either be equally responsible to each of these summons, or equally irresponsible3.
Derrida, like Chilton, views Abraham’s sacrifice as both a foundational act in Western culture and a continuing model for human action. Derrida here makes an essential point that is perhaps too often ignored in relation to biblical narratives; the story retains much of its power even if we ignore entirely the question of its historicity:
Whether one believes the biblical story or not, whether one gives it credence, doubts it, or transposes it, it could still be said that there is a moral to this story, even if we take it to be a fable … The moral of the fable would be morality itself, at the point where morality brings into play the gift of the death that is so given. The absolutes of duty and of responsibility presume that one denounce, refute, and transcend, at the same time, all duty, all responsibility, and every human law (1995: 66-67).
When faced with the singularity of each person that each of us interacts with every day and when facing the impossible responsibility that we owe to each of them, Derrida argues, we re-enact Abraham’s dilemma and his sacrifice:
As soon as I enter into a relation with the absolute other, my absolute singularity enters into relation with his on the level of obligation and duty … I offer a gift of death, I betray, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and what I must love, over those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably (1995: 68).
Like Abraham, rendered silent in his singular situation, for Derrida, the true act of gift-giving can only be enacted without acknowledgement, without justification. In the case of the gift of death, this is all the more true. Thus, for Derrida, Abraham’s sacrifice is related fundamentally to the necessity and impossibility of giving a gift.
By now the points of contrast between Derrida and Baudrillard in relation to gift-giving should be readily apparent. Derrida demands silence. Baudrillard demands open acknowledgement. Derrida demands singular acts of giving. Baudrillard demands an endlessly circularity of gift and counter-gift. Derrida’s work on the gift is accessible, even comforting, at least by the standards of Derrida’s thought. There is something altogether hopeful about his conclusions, even if he suggests that authentic gift-giving is an impossibility. Baudrillard’s logic of gift-giving, in stark contrast, appears disinterested, coldly logical, even mercenary, something made all the more striking by the general lack of discernible and straightforward rules of logic in much of the rest of his work. This inaccessibility is perhaps reflected in the contemporary discourse on gift and gift-giving, where Derrida is well represented alongside writers likes Jean-Luc Marion, Georges Bataille, Pierre Bourdieu, Emmanuel Levinas, and others. In contrast, serious engagement with Baudrillard’s reading of symbolic exchange is conspicuous in its absence, which is a particular shame, in that his work, rooted absolutely in a logic and a history of exchange, has so much to offer.
IV. Jean Baudrillard. Religious Violence, and the Aqedah
Abraham’s story has never been ours more than it is now, because his motivation has never been more evident in our actions (Chilton, 2008: 5-6).
How might we understand the Aqedah and its continual impact though the lens of Baudrillard’s take on gift-giving and sacrifice? We must speculate without much guidance, as Baudrillard very rarely considered the points of connection between symbolic exchange and the sacrificial economy of the Western world, which is informed, whether or not we believe the stories, whether or not we even know the stories, by both the sacrifice of Isaac and that of Jesus on the cross. When Baudrillard does bring these connections to the forefront, however, it is provocative, as in The Lucidity Pact, where he connects gift of creation to the sacrifice of Jesus:
For mankind is faced with the impossibility of making a sacrifice to equal this gift of God’s, the impossibility of making restitutions and wiping away the debt. Being unable to take up this challenge, it has to humble itself and give thanks. It is at this point that God chose to cancel the debt himself by sending his beloved son to sacrifice himself on the cross. He pretends to humble himself, and, in so doing, inflicts an even greater humiliation on humanity by making it conscious of its impotence. Henceforth humanity is condemned to give thanks, not just for having been created, but for having been saved … This is the greatest act of manipulation ever. And it succeeded far beyond its objective – even beyond the death of God, since we have taken it over today, augmented by the guilt of that death (God’s cunning is infinite). We mimic here below this humiliation received from God: in victimhood, humanitarianism, self-derision and self-deprecation, in this immense sacrificial effort that stands in, in our case, for redemption. We could have taken advantage of the death of God to be free of the debt. But we didn’t take that option. We chose rather to deepen the debt, to eternalise it in an endless performance, a sacrificial accumulation, as though we had already internalised God’s judgement (2005: 157)4.
Thus Baudrillard, like Derrida and Chilton, sees the economy of gift and exchange established in the Judeo-Christian narrative traditions as an ongoing influence even in modernity, despite its pretensions to secularity.
At first glance, by most ethical and moral standards, what Abraham sets out to accomplish out of sheer obedience is nothing short of repellent. This is true even in the larger biblical context, as Chilton notes: ‘What Abraham is called to do in Genesis 22 is, from a biblical point of view, monstrous. He trudges up Moriah to prepare human flesh for God’s consumption, although the laws of ancient Judaism explicitly prohibit treating people as food, committing murder, approaching human blood, or engaging in infanticide’ (2008: 27). The distance of the centuries offers no cushion for the impact of the simple thrust of the narrative: out of love and fear of YHWH, Abraham agrees without argument to sacrifice his beloved son. This is a singular request from YHWH which places Abraham so far outside of normal ethical systems that he is rendered silent. This point, taken up both by Derrida and Kierkegaard, helps to underline the simple fact that the exchange Abraham is being asked to make defies all conventional logics of calculation. Kierkegaard writes:
So Abraham did not speak, he did not speak to Sarah, or Eliezer, or to Isaac; he bypassed these three ethical authorities, since for Abraham the ethical had no higher expression than family life… He can say everything, but one thing he cannot say, and if he cannot say that – that is, say it is such a way that the other understands it – then he is not speaking … Abraham cannot speak, because he cannot say that which would explain everything (that is, so it is understandable) (1983: 112-115).
Taking this even further, Zornberg concludes simply that ‘Silence is the ultimate modality for Abraham’ (1995: 118). In the face of this silence and the deep horror of what Abraham is willing to do, even Kierkegaard is unable to separate his admiration for Abraham from the sheer perversity of the narrative. He writes, ‘Therefore, though Abraham arouses my admiration, he also appals me … One cannot weep over Abraham. One approaches him with a horror religiosus, as Israel approached Mount Sinai’ (1983: 60-61).
The unanswerable nature of the gift of death, as Baudrillard imagines it in relation to symbolic exchange, is crucial to what Baudrillard’s thinking can tell us about Abraham’s appalling act of obedience. For the Aqedah is unquestionably about the violation of the economy of exchange, something Derrida recognises as he grapples with the text. Giving further credence to this reading of the story, ancient Jewish commentaries give some strong indicators that Abraham’s actions – and the actions of YHWH – are deeply embedded in conventional understandings of exchange. In the Babylonian Talmud, Abraham’s dilemma is attributed to a conversation between YHWH and Satan that is rooted in conventions of exchange and reciprocity:
Satan said to God, ‘This old man – You granted him fruit of the womb when he was a hundred years old. And yet all of the feasts that he made, he did not have a single turtle-dove or a young bird to sacrifice to You!’ God answered him, ‘He has done nothing that was not for his son – and if I were to say to him, “Sacrifice your son to Me”, he would immediately obey’ (89b, as cited in Zornberg, 1995: 97).
In the Bereshit (Genesis) Rabbah, it is Abraham who worries about his unfulfilled debts to YHWH: ‘Abraham was troubled; he thought, “I have rejoiced and I have spread joy everywhere – and yet I have never set aside a bullock or a ram for God”. God replied, “In the end you will be told to sacrifice your son and you will not refuse”’ (22:1, as cited in Zornberg, 1995: 98). The Aqedah can be then interpreted with some confidence as a preeminent set of exchanges that we continue to wrestle with intellectually and ethically millennia after the story first emerged out of the desert.
Viewing the Aqedah in light of the idea of exchange, we are still left, as Abraham must always leave us, with more questions than answers. First among these questions is to ask, simply and honestly; is what Abraham wishes to do really so opposed to what many human beings conceive as of right? Chilton argues that the story, if understood as a model for righteous sacrificial violence, is nothing short of a curse. Against the gut reaction that Abraham’s actions are monstrous, we must place the long tradition of interpretation which claims that Abraham carried through with the sacrifice of Isaac, interpretations which ignore or discount the intervention of the angel, going as far as to envision Abraham struggling physically against the angel in order to fulfil YHWH’s demand for blood. Chilton notes, with evident sadness, that this version of the story is the model, rather than the one offered by the biblical Abraham, that has often been followed by believers the world over: ‘However twisted Abraham’s offering may seem, generations of people – with every kind of faith and with no particular faith – have repeated his actions millions of times since he lifted his knife over his son, only unlike Abraham in Genesis, they have brought the knives of war down on their children, convinced that such slaughter is necessary and right’ (2008: 19-20).
For Derrida, that Isaac is not actually killed is of no consequence for the meaning of the story. As with many orthodox theological interpretations, it is Abraham’s unquestioning willingness to offer the gift of Isaac that is important. His impossible act of obedience is what lends the story its considerable power, not the fruits of those actions. This raises a crucial question: if Isaac’s life or death matters little in comparison to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice him, why then have so many people, in so many different situations, decided differently? Why has the Aqedah become a model for sacrificial violence when it does not in fact portray such an act of violence? Can we maintain Derrida’s traditional indifference in the light of the commentarial literature that imagines a violent death for Isaac? Perhaps Baudrillard’s altogether more mercenary logic of the necessary and absolute duty of reciprocity in symbolic exchange helps to explain why this reading, which goes quite against the grain of the biblical telling of the story, has so long motivated sacrificial violence. Imagining the story as an act of symbolic exchange, slaughtering Isaac is the only way that Abraham could have responded to YHWH’s demand for sacrifice without being shackled with an overwhelming debt that he could never repay. Keeping in mind one of Baudrillard’s most difficult statements: ‘Nothing corresponds to death except death’, we can now ask a number of very different questions. Does Abraham meet his responsibility to his creator with his mere willingness, or does he shirk his duty and leave the exchange unfulfilled by sparing his son’s life? Does the ram that is offered in Isaac’s stead make an adequate substitute, enough to cancel the power of Abraham’s gesture, or is YHWH remiss in his duties, in his responsibility to Abraham? Is this another act of divine manipulation, another way to underline the incomparable debts that the biblical Israelites, who traced their very existence to Isaac, owe to their God? Working through this line of thought yields a particularly troubling question: does the Aqedah make us uncomfortable because Abraham’s actions are so alien, or rather because they are so familiar, so understandable?
Switching our focus to the other side of the exchange, we must also act questions about the divine response. How does YHWH respond to Abraham’s obedience? How could YHWH have responded if Abraham carried out the sacrifice and offered his God a gift of violent death? This prompts an interesting answer which Baudrillard, rather surprisingly given his general fondness for the idea of the death of God, never suggested: does God need to offer his death to his creatures if he is offered a gift of death? Is YHWH forced, through the logic of reciprocity, to offer his own death in exchange for that of Isaac? Chilton notes that there is a common Christian theological argument which claims that the sacrifice of Isaac is completed – and its structure of debt transformed into the more forgiving logic of the New Testament – by the death of Jesus on the cross:
Christianity makes Jesus the ideal sacrifice that Isaac did not quite embody, the perfect model of obedient martyrdom. This suffering Christ inevitably became, both overtly and implicitly, an incentive for his followers to become martyrs. No period of Christian history has been exempt from the attractions of Abraham’s curse, or from the conviction that offering young life in a holy cause is noble (2008: 205).
Similarly, in the pitiless logic of symbolic exchange, the sacrifice of Jesus – which, in Trinitarian logic, is a death of God – is necessary to complete the cycle of exchange that is begun with Isaac, who escapes death and foists upon his people a debt that remains unpaid for centuries. The close correspondence we find here raises also the question as to whether Baudrillard’s profoundly agnostic work is more informed by traditional theological ideas than it might seem. Though it is impossible to answer, it is intriguing to ask this question explicitly: How much of Baudrillard’s work is influenced by the deeply-ingrained story of Abraham and Isaac? Is there an unacknowledged theological underpinning to his thought on symbolic exchange?
V. Conclusions / Beginnings: Reading the Aqedah – Reading Sacrificial Violence
One cannot ignore or erase the sacrifice of Isaac recounted in Genesis, nor that recounted in the Gospel of Luke. It has to be taken into account (Derrida, 1995, 64-65).
Is there any way of deciding between Derrida’s reading of the Aqedah and that offered from the standpoint of Baudrillard’s logic of symbolic exchange? If we connect this speculation to Baudrillard’s work on symbolic exchange and death, particularly to his interpretation of acts of sacrificial violence, it is perhaps possible to argue with some confidence that Baudrillard’s logic gets at fundamental aspects of the story of the Aqedah and its long history of interpretation that Derrida’s view of exchange and sacrifice miss out on altogether. The spectre of religious violence, which Baudrillard himself evokes on more than one occasion as an exemplar of symbolic resistance to a globalised monoculture, is perhaps the most logical place to begin such an interrogation. Recent work by scholars studying religious violence has gone some way towards showing that Baudrillard’s elliptical meditations on terrorism as sacrifice are closer to the mark than they might seem at first glance. This gives some credence by extension to the usefulness of his conceptual framework of symbolic exchange. Starting on the broadest front, John R. Hall’s work confirms Baudrillard’s reading of religious violence as a paradoxical outgrowth of modernity itself. He writes, ‘Contemporary religious violence lies outside the normative institutional framework of modernity, but it just as surely has emerged under conditions of modernity, and as a distinctive form of collective action’ (2009: 12). Mark Juergensmeyer’s highly influential work, based largely on a study of the perpetrators of religious violence, has confirmed in broad terms that religious violence is often both sacrificial and performative in nature, a claim Baudrillard makes repeatedly, most noticeably in The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), his meditation on the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. In Terror in the Mind of God, Juergensmeyer writes,
These creations of terror are done not to achieve a strategic goal but to make a symbolic statement. By calling acts of religious terrorism ‘symbolic’, I mean that they are intended to illustrate or refer to something beyond their immediate target: a grander conquest, for instance, or a struggle more awesome than meets the eye … Such explosive scenarios are not tactics directed toward an immediate, earthly, or strategic goal, but dramatic events intended to impress for their symbolic significance … The spectacular assaults of September 11, 2001 were not only tragic acts of violence; they were also spectacular theater (2003: 125-126).
More to the point of our current discussion, Ivan Strenski suggests that, in the case of what is commonly and misleadingly called ‘suicide bombing’, our thinking about religious violence must include notions of gift-giving and sacrifice:
That a ‘human bombing’ can be understood as a ‘gift’, a sacrifice, may first seem absurd. To explain, ‘gift’ is a very capacious notion and phenomenon, capable of very wide application … All that is required in a presentation or exchange is the telltale gap between the appearance of disinterestedness and spontaneity on the one side and the reality of the threefold set of obligations on the other … Perhaps monstrous in its own way, I believe that the same sense of gift exchanges articulated by Mauss will apply equally well to ‘human bombings’ as sacrifices (2003: 20-21).
For Baudrillard, the gift of one’s own death is coextensive with the idea of sacrifice and for Strenski, the human bombing, a complex cultural phenomenon affected in all ways, at all levels, by ‘ambiguity and multivalence’, is both defined by and exemplary of sacrifice. Strenski, like Chilton, places contemporary religio-political violence in play with the story of the Aqedah as a model for human behaviour:
Human sacrifice is precisely what Abraham finally did not do, and what the Abraham-inspired religions eventually declined to engage in at a certain point in their development. Nevertheless, these suicides or homicides are sacrificial gifts of an extreme sort offered to attain something in exchange – Palestine – to keep it alive, to realise it, to create it, in return for the sacrifice of young lives (2003: 27).
Baudrillard suggests precisely the same thing, if somewhat indirectly, with his connection of terrorist acts to the logic of symbolic exchange.
It is perhaps not too great a stretch to imagine that Baudrillard’s central conceit – that death thus has no answer but death – can also go some way to explain or at least shed some light on ways in which many people in the privileged world react to those acts of suicidal resistance all too easily labelled as ‘terrorism’. The postcolonial theorist of religion Talal Asad suggests that suicide bombing is capable of producing a kind of horrified reaction that no other contemporary act of violence is able to equal: ‘The horror that these acts may produce is the result of their deliberate transgression of boundaries that separate the human from the inhuman, the creature from the Creator. Horror is the total loss of practical and mental control’ (2007: 77-78). With Baudrillard’s help, it is possible to take this thought a bit further. Viewed through the logic of Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange, the unanswerable gift of death in suicide bombing is horrifying also in that it violates the conventional logics of exchange rooted in capitalist ideas of exchange and use value. If we take Strenski’s cue and view human bombings as acts of sacrifice, it becomes possible, even necessary to ask new and difficult questions. Are we horrified by suicide bombing because of the violence it displays, because it so casually violates categories of ‘civilian’ and ‘combatant’, or because it calls us, as recipients of such a gift of death, to offer our own death in return? Does this horror stem from the fact that we are called, at the very least, to contemplate whether there is anything or anyone to which we would be willing to offer such a gift?
It is perhaps possible to view the story of Abraham and its reception as forever caught between the two polarities of exchange, one responsible and ethical, the other merciless and reciprocal but for all that no less an agent of human relation. This being said, Baudrillard’s disquieting notions of gift, death, and sacrifice gets to the heart of the matter of sacrificial violence in a way that Derrida’s work on Abraham does not. Can Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange help to explain why Abraham is loved and feared, so long after he first stepped onto the lower slopes of Mount Moriah? Does it explain the seemingly endless drive for sacrifice within the intellectual and social structures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the endless drive to answer death and debt with the gift of sacrifice? For those willing and able to undertake it, the answer to the questions raised by Abraham and to the troubling questions raised by contemporary acts of sacrificial violence may be hidden, at least in part, in the labyrinth of Baudrillard’s work. The time has come to search them out.
Eric Repphun is Associate Lecturer in Religion at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, where he recently completed his doctorate in the Department of Theology and Religion. His doctoral thesis, Haunted: Religious Modernity and Reenchantment, explores the intersections of contemporary Western religiosity and Jean Baudrillard's concept of symbolic exchange. Eric's primary interest is in the relationship of religion and narrative popular culture and he has recently published work on the novels of Douglas Coupland, on the television series Battlestar Galactica, and on the films of Terrence Malick.
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1. In these novels, Simmons engages extensively with the narrative of Abraham and Isaac in a densely-woven allegory involving the Aqedah and Sol Weintraub, a prominent character in the novels. In the story, Sol, a scholar of ethics and author of a best-selling book called The Abraham Problem, is an archetypal long-suffering ‘wandering Jew’ who must decide whether or not to offer his daughter Rachel as a sacrifice. Sol faces a test he sees as much like the one Abraham faces on Mount Moriah, but Sol, unlike Abraham, rages against the demand for sacrifice and tries to reason with the unnamed author or authors of his predicament. Towards the end of The Fall of Hyperion, having just handed Rachel over, not to YHWH, but to a mysterious quasi-divine creature called the Shrike, Sol finds the definitive answer to the question with which he had struggled for so long: ‘With a sudden clarity which went beyond the immediacy of his pain or sorrow, Sol Weintraub suddenly understood perfectly why Abraham had agreed to sacrifice Isaac … Abraham was testing God. By denying the sacrifice at the last moment, by stopping the knife, God had earned the right – in Abraham’s eyes and the hearts of his offspring – to become the God of Abraham’ (1990: 491).
2. Baudrillard’s use of radical Islam as a challenge to the completion of the global order he calls ‘Integral Reality’ is compelling; however, his treatment of Islam as a cultural and historical reality, is, it must be admitted, decidedly lacking. Ian Almond, in a recent book, The New Orientalists, places Baudrillard in a long tradition of modern Orientalist thinkers, which includes figures as prominent as Derrida and Friedrich Nietzsche, a tradition that uses the spectre of Islam – rather than its reality – as a way of ‘obtaining some kind of critical distance’ from European modernity (2007: 2). Almond’s critique of Baudrillard’s use of Islam rests almost entirely on his infamous essays about the first Gulf War, collected later as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which he calls ‘the postmodern Orientalist text par excellence’ (2007: 163). He concludes, and not without good cause, that ‘Baudrillard appears to be relatively unburdened by any deeper knowledge of Islam or its socio-political history’ (2007: 159).
3. For Kierkegaard, to whom Derrida is deeply indebted, Abraham’s simple declaration ‘Here I am’ is a crucial indicator of his singularity, a further cause to admire the patriarch, and another challenge to the reader: ‘You to whom these words are addressed, was this the case with you? When in the far distance you saw overwhelming vicissitudes approaching, did you not say to the mountains, “Hide me”, and to the hills, “Fall on me”? Or, if you were stronger, did your feet nevertheless not drag along the way, did they no long, so to speak, for the old trails? And when your name was called, did you answer, perhaps answer softly, in a whisper? Not so with Abraham. Cheerfully, freely, confidentially, loudly he answered: “Here am I”’ (1983: 21).
4. It is interesting to note here that Slavoj Žižek makes a similar point in a recent meditation on violence: ‘In the Christian view, we humans were born in sin. We cannot ever repay our debts and redeem ourselves through our own acts. Our only salvation lies in God’s mercy, in his supreme sacrifice. Yet in this very gesture of breaking the chain of justice through the inexplicable act of mercy, of paying our debt, Christianity imposes on us an even stronger debt: we are forever indebted to Christ, we cannot ever repay him for what he did for us’ (2008: 161-162).