A brief history of sacrifice in digitised economies.

READER – Life has been unbelievably strange and difficult in the last month. Much writing has come of it, a virtue at least. This is the first of a three part series on DISAPPEARANCES. Next one will be on Cordyceps, whose pollination season generally occurs in early April. This is A Brief History of Sacrifice in Digitised Economies – one or two have seen a draft version of this, but the original model has been flattened and then reshaped, origami for fidgety insomniacs.


 “All the differing elements which enter into ordinary sacrifice here enter into each other and become mixed together. But such mixing is possible only for mythical, that is, ideal beings. This is how the concept of a god sacrificing himself for the world could be realized, and has become, even for the most civilized peoples, the highest expression and, as it were, the ideal limit of abnegation, in which no apportionment occurs.
– (Hubert and Mauss, Sacrifice: Its Nature and Function, trans. Halls 1964)


We begin with a few definitions to establish the limits of our inquiry. Sacrifice firstly is an offering made in order to worship, appease or effect a transformation from higher forces. Such offerings have notably taken the forms of gifts to deities such as food, human or animal victims – what is correctly called oblation. Sacrifice has also taken the function of consecration, that is, to make an object holy or possessive of power – the term ‘sacrifice’ itself originates from the Latin ‘sacrificere’ – sacer sacred + facere to make, to make sacred. Yet sacrifice predates Roman offerings. Each sacrifice necessarily involves an object of sacrifice; a sacrificer (he, she, the community, the land, goods etc.) that will benefit; a deity to whom the sacrifice is invoked; a place for the sacrifice – somewhere private and made sacred, such as the temple, the slaughterhouse; and finally the event – a date of significance, be it a saint’s day, an ancestor’s birthday, a solar solstice or such. Ignorant of natural causes or intending to overpower or destroy their fellow-humans, these early humans carried out the primordial religious and mystical act of sacrifice.


The above definition of sacrifice, faithful to existing definitions as it may be, remains hopelessly inaccurate and banal. Sacrifice is not an obscure footnote in the evolution of human societies. This offering we speak of involves profound loss or trauma. Sacrifice must be performed correctly, involving complete devotion and adherence to established rites, otherwise myths like that of Cain and Abel warn us of fratricide. What is sacrificed must be valuable – in the game of Potlatch, one of the earliest competitions of conspicuous consumption, indigenous American tribes competed to sacrifice and eventually destroy objects of value (hunting spoils, goods, sacred items) in order to ‘flatten’ their rivals. As Hubert and Mauss have described, humans began by sacrificing fruit and vegetables, then hunting spoils, prisoners of war, children, before the sacrifice became complicated by rites and more immaterial devotions. Gods themselves have been required finally to sacrifice themselves, either in order to bring life to the world in the case of Osiris in Egyptian myth, or Purusha in Vedic myth, or to bring knowledge to man as in Prometheus’ theft of fire, which ultimately required the sacrifice of his liver. Gods have been offered to save humanity from its own intrinsic evil, as in the myth of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice is continually practised in the consumption of his dead flesh and blood, as well as the fetishising of the crucifix upon which he was sacrificed.  


We have lost, then, the rhythm of sacrifice, in its simple original form. Our heroes often move us most closely when they are in fact victims, and are seen as victims. Our emotional commitment, in a majority of cases, is to the man who dies, rather than to the action in which he dies. At this point a new rhythm of tragedy enters, and the ceremony of sacrifice is drowned, not in blood but in pity.
(Raymond Williams, “Tragic Resignation and Sacrifice” 1963)

Yet history does not isolate us from the sacrifice. The line between execution and sacrifice is blurred in the public executions that gripped the imaginations of early modern Europeans, whilst the cult of suffering or death to reach or express a higher, transcendent truth has become essential in fomenting revolt – we might think of the individual standing in front of the tank at 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, of the self-immolation of Ryszard Siwiec in Poland, Thích Quảng Đức in Vietnam, or most recently Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, which began the radical democratic uprising that has since caught alight throughout the Middle East. The fire of sacrifice remains unabated.

Yet banal affirmative endorsements of the heroics of mass agency and revolt obscure the fundamental failure of all the recent democratic revolts since 1973. Burning one’s own flesh inspires a pity that congeals into sentimental condolence. Wounds inflicted by authorities or other competing tribes incite calls for revenge, that most conservative and hierarchical of all feelings. The martyrographers of self-immolators are finally guilty of overlooking the violent liberation of discarding one’s own skin. Resentment, anger, cruelty – what the humanists might call injustice – are a kind of waste product of social being, and require proper expenditure, be it in physical or emotional violence, sport, sex or intoxication. There is a supreme and indeed paradigmatic violence carried out against civilisation through the extent of heinous cruelty inflicted on one’s own body, yet in its ascetic release of the flesh calls on a new birth. But self-immolators play with matches out of necessity. As bright movements burn out into frustrated nothings, we must sidestep self-inflicted cruelty. Mephisto is the true herald of modernity: unprincipled, disruptive devils, fighting with wooden shoes (saboteurs) who inflict all their cruelty and affirmation outwards. The era of guilt is over: we ask only for the heavy responsibility of our own desires.

Communism calls upon workers to sacrifice their chains with the vision of liberated grandchildren. A more complacent social democracy calls on workers to be grateful to the sacrifices of their spectre-like grandparents, rattling their chains within smoky workhouses, industrialised wars or coal-mines. The more modern experience of self-sacrifice – the gift of one’s own body as sacrificial victim testifies to the changes in religious function in modernity. 20th century revolutionaries and 21st century jihadists refer in their self-martyrologies to dying for a higher cause – be it the coming revolution that ends all wars and suffering, or the coming deity who ends all wars and suffering. Before we continue further, we identify four key rituals of sacrifice in our digitised economies: the body; time; society; and citizenship.


The role of the sacrifice in modern digitised economies has yet to be fully investigated. It is widely assumed in times of ostensibly decreasing religious authority that the importance of the divine offering has also waned. But this may not be the case. We are in a digitised age. Efforts to conceptually periodise our era have so far demonstrated themselves to be entirely inadequate. The hologrammatic term ‘postmodern’ that once irritated and fascinated enough academic opportunists since the 1980s has exhausted itself into an obscure corner, and talk of our ‘digimodernity’ or ‘altermodernity’ is risible. Digitisation is the process of representing and transforming objects, images, and information by converting them into a binary code that can be represented and endlessly reproduced electronically. A predominant feature of our culture is the use and consumption of information and knowledge in a digital format, from television or mp3 music to dvd and online films, pdf texts we download for free, to the social relations we are transferring to email or Facebook, to the shopping and consumer items we order online.

Our subjectivity and our memories have themselves been digitised into our blog posts, our Facebook likes, our Flickr photo-albums. Critics will immediately and rightly point out that such an argument is relevant only to fairly wealthy populations in fairly wealthy nations, that many cannot afford digital technologies. Our argument is prognostic: these technologies are becoming much cheaper and much more diffusive. Military warfare and revolutionary uprisings now begin online. The immaterial and machine-like flows of Capital take place in a digital space. The computer is now the primary place of cultural, social and economic exchange, and this kind of exchange is carried out not in an analog but a digitised format. But we must also be careful to reveal the limits of the digital. Advances are already being made in quantum computing as the digital bit is replaced by the quantum qubit, but it would be a hasty generalisation to announce the coming of the quantum economy just yet, despite the military and commercial interest in such technologies.


One major problem for our thesis is the lack of a specific site for the sacrifice to take place. Historically a site needed to be sacred, ordained – the temple, the Church, the grove, the cave, the slaughterhouse, the execution stand. In London’s histories, a love of violent spectacle and sacrifice brought together the public for a city-wide execution day. Traditionally on a Monday, public executions of notorious murderers like Haggerty and Holloway in 1807 erupted in a fatal crush of people eager to see the spectacle. The role of spilt-blood and illicit pleasures afforded the sacrifice a site at the meat-market at Smithfield and St. Bartholomew’s Church, also site of the debauched Bartholomew Fair up until the mid-19th century. But a sign of our times is the current government consideration of whether to strip Mayday of its public holiday status. The sacrifice-as-spectacle now takes place on the digitised TV and computer screen, in brutal reality TV and competition formats. In the past 30 years there has been a profound shift in the loss of public place in favour of private space, a corporate non-place. With CCTV surveillance and open-plan architecture all around us, individuals feel anxious of being constantly watched, hence the retreat of the mp3 player and the free adpaper for individuals travelling through public places. Even the smokers’ corners have been curtailed and the divine mad ASBO’d off into bedsit rigor mortis.


The sacrifice of the body relates most immediately to the sacrifice of soldiers, from the “never again” sacrifice of a generation of youth in WWI – a game of blood potlatch among Europe nations that achieved absolutely nothing, perhaps with the exception of that one false victory at Versailles 1919 – to the “blood sacrifice” of anti-colonial uprisings like Easter 1916 in Ireland, which involved the self-conscious creation of new national myths based on the symbolic language of former civilisations. We think today of the sacrifice of ‘our boys’ in various Middle East conflicts – the danger of such sacrifices is that the offering becomes itself a victim, like the medieval heretic, the modern traitor, or the lamb. This sacrificial language also has the seditious potential of unravelling the nature of the blood sacrifice for democracy itself – why are these 20 year olds, ‘our boys’,  being brain-damaged, losing their limbs and minds when the expected transformation is either impossible or an Imperialist ruse?


The body has been sacrificed since the feudal system of the European Middle Ages (or we might think of similar semi-feudal systems in colonised Africa, Latin America and the Far East, or in China up until the demise of the Qing dynasty). We find ourselves in a situation where, aged over 21, we are precisely £5.93 an hour at minimum. We are called on individually to sacrifice our bodies for productive work – the recent scourge of NEETs (youths Not in Education, Employment or Training) demonstrates the state’s anxiety over idle and unruly youths who ‘scrounge’ in an insultingly meagre welfare system that offers little actual employment or opportunity. For those of us more fortunate, we are increasingly working on temporary or freelance contracts – we must advertise and sell ourselves with appropriate networking and CV buzzwords like dynamic, liaising, team-player, arselicker, clean criminal record. A fact rarely remarked upon is that the majority of jobs within London (for example) are largely superfluous to the general welfare and functioning of the city. Yet in competition for these posts we sacrifice our integrity and often our time to obtain prestigious volunteering and internship opportunities, working for free in roles previously paid for, stripped of contracts and working rights. Access to repaying our debts is debarred by interest rates and further necessary expenditures in our continuous process of re-training: debt becomes our existential and political condition, a new feudalism. Its religious anguish is depression, with the violent morbidity of the drunk who demands of her hapless friends some kind of consolation or petty victory for this stupidity. Call for a taxi? We are called to sacrifice our personal happiness and freedom in exchange for material success, with the belief that this in itself might lead to us becoming happier – a carrot-and-stick effect.


Our individual lives are one thing. The role of sacrifice in society is also reaching an  unparalleled level – the current ConDem government demands widespread and irreversible cuts to education, healthcare, social services and the public sector, with consequently millions of job losses. We are called then to sacrifice what is socially and culturally essential for what is considered economically valuable, for an elite few who forced such a sacrifice to take place. The high priests tell us that these are not ideologically-driven efforts to remove institutions which have been fought for by workers to protect the public and the social, but a necessary sacrifice we must all make – “we are all in it together”. The language of sacrifice is an established electoral trick for pushing through what should be hugely unpopular and violently-protested reforms, and the increasing racism and political resignation of the English is depressingly reminiscent of lemmings falling from a cliff. We lurch from one state of emergency to another, from IRA terrorism to 7/7 British Jihadi terrorism, from SARS and foot-and-mouth to swine-flu, to financial crises and more necessary cuts, from 1973 to 1981 to 2010. The UK government clearly is no longer a democracy but at best a plutocracy, that is, rule under the dark moon of a wealthy few representing a small Oxbridge-educated class in finance, media, arms and politics. We have in fact sacrificed our sovereignty for a continual state of emergency.

The fiasco of this democratic puppet-show is recently illumined by the mass-rejection of electoral reform in the UK, principally in the rejection of the deceptive character of deputy prime minister Nick Clegg himself. Whilst the Liberal Democrats have been effectively sacrificed to sustain the Neoliberal destruction of the welfare state, social democracy in the UK is in terminal decline, replaced with a new narcissistic reactive desire for violence, signalling a renascent rise in a right-wing politics of mass resentment.


One of the most prevalent yet unarticulated experiences of our contemporary age is our decreasing sense of empowerment. We are unable to meaningfully elect a representative government that will act on its manifesto pledges; we cannot afford to legally challenge employers who can now formally sack us with little notice; we do not have enough security to change jobs, to travel, to bring up children without working, to spend actual time with our friends and family without feeling stressed or tired out. We are bombarded with advertisements and signs that limit our imaginary freedom and our personal choices, with emails that reduce our capacity to properly read and reflect on texts, causing a new quasi-illiterate age of reading quickly without absorbing. Having sacrificed so much, we require something to revive us, to make us clean, to lift our minds from our worries, a purgative or hygiene-product of some kind. Hence alcohol has become an anaesthetic for the individual in digitised economies. We drink and we forget. Whilst alcohol has traditionally been a form of payment for low-paid workers in the hospitality sector, it is increasingly the religious glue that allows our lives to function outside our sacrifices to work. Alcohol becomes additionally therefore an antiseptic of effective working life in neoliberal digitised economies. It is a banal observation that the majority of youth live with very large debts, yet what has not been considered is whether this global condition of debt results in a new feudalism where, obliged to repay debts we could not help ourselves getting into, we are bound into the existential sacrifice of our bodies, time and identities in exchange for a room to live.


Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.” – (Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, trans. Zorn 1999).

But the body is also sacrificed to time. A recent CIPD 2011 Barometer revealed that the only type of employment increasing was casual, temporary, part-time.  Yet we are all increasingly working beyond the 40 hours a week fought for or sacrificed by generations of workers’ struggles, as we work from home in our evenings and weekends, in unpaid internships that last for months, or into further studying and self-training. Time is increasingly scarce – and beyond digitised media, personal contact with friends and family becomes increasingly precious and precarious. The new and hitherto unsurpassed speeds of contemporary communication technologies generate further anxieties about our performance and security, and as well as alcohol and other drugs we have shopping to relieve our tensions. Time and space as dimensional concepts and experiential spaces are increasingly deadened by the anxiety of informational flows.

No, I won’t clarify that last sentence – there is no time, and even less space, even in html code dripfeed. Fuck you time. Would it be perhaps less acceptable to be so fawningly willing to sacrifice our physical organs and blood to service and begin to repay immaterial debts, in the same way we do our time, mental alertness, and health? Like Prometheus, the time has come to break ranks with mediocrity and twist rules, lying and laughing with a black-humoured mythic mischief. The common-sense negation of behaving well and accepting things as they are can be answered with a double-negation: your why becomes my why not. The sacrifice of time can only be answered with a new politicised reclamation of time, in ruminating, reading slowly, breathing slowly, perhaps even walking slowly….


Citizenship and civil rights have also been sacrificed in exchange for a feeling of national security. Of course the more citizens are confronted with images and headlines of terror and crime the less secure they feel and the more they demand the protection of the swelling police-force. In terms of immigration, non-UK residents have to prove their right to ‘citizenship’ through tests that many Daily Mail-reading British residents would easily fail. From 2010 onwards there has been another largely unreported phenomenon of workers, often though not exclusively from non-EU nations, disappearing without trace. The UK Border Agency has embarked on a systemic campaign to narrow borders, forcibly kidnap and deport workers from their British homes to their previous nations of origin, and make life as difficult as possible for international workers on visas. At the same time, a banal level of racism is on the rise among white British as well as second and third-generation immigrant communities, sponsored by the violent jeremiads against society in Cameron and Merkel’s bigoted polemics against multiculturalism. These are no mere coincidence. But they are easily reversible, once workers recognise and reject the burden and cause of the sacrifices they are making. Nor is it exclusive to the UK – the roads from Mumbai, El Paso–Juárez , Dubai, Los Angeles and London will one day be sites of new sacrifices, of photographs and flowers of these missing people. At the time of writing there has been no concerted effort to document this phenomenon of missing workers taken by the British state.


It is admirable that in this way he both manifested a love that refused to take anything into account and in a way spat in the faces of all those who have accepted the elevated and official idea of life that is so well known. Perhaps the practice of sacrifice has disappeared from the earth because it was not able to be sufficiently charged with this element of hate and disgust, without which it appears in our eyes as servitude.
(Georges Bataille, “Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh”, trans. Stoekl 1985).

We can attempt to protest – we get high, or drunk, and love is largely the one feeling that can save us from the daily sacrifices we make of our lives and time. But illness, distraction and occasionally (though significantly) self-harm are other means of expressing some kind of addictive relief from unhappiness brought about by the atomisation and violence of our malfunctioning personal relationships and working lives. The wound marks a false site of relief, but never enough to incapacitate the body from fully functioning – it is a means to an end, albeit a dangerous and negative one. Though different, it is similar to the worker who drinks to get extremely drunk at home. In a language of cuts and necessary sacrifices, wounding and self-wounding becomes the psychic internalisation of symbolic and social violence inflicted against us. Tensions and insecurity are relieved by taking control over the contested site of possession, reasserting dominion by the violent resolution of conflict. But no atlas of self-inflicted injuries or garden of bruises will lift us to some transcendent loving redemption, and like all forms of libidinal release, even cutting marks its own limit.

We present our findings on sacrifice in digitised economies here so that we can demonstrate the worst, which is precisely the situation we are in now. If we accept our circumstances then we are good slaves; but if we hope to effect a real transformation or sleight of hand, we will perhaps have to sacrifice some of those ideals and false deities  instead of ourselves. The contemporary individual looks in the mirror and sees not flesh but a shadow. It is time to reverse the stakes.


Alcohol demand its own sacrifices, frequently those of the most intensely personal nature. Friendships and relationships are often founded on the ecstasy and idiocy of inebriation. Every city has its restless ghosts and catacombs.  We are drunk and sad, and there are no damn stars in these streets, only the homogeneous contents of mp3 players. Who were we, baby? Maybe you knew, once. For the rest there is the Internet and intensive alcohol consumption, or nights with friends chasing glimmers of pleasure and hope like distant port lights between rusted mesh wire. I slept on night-buses and lost all my things. Maybe I gave them up for a god or nothing at all. The guarantee of stable meanings is over in our Kafka-defined black-humoured modernity. Possible maybe, not for us, not now, not at this moment. In dark suburbia and in bus garages there is nothing – across the hinterlands of Europe, in the people carriers that take us to farming work, in the cargo compartments of damp container ships, fellow-passengers screwing in the bed above. I’m not sick of this – but I would sacrifice far less for more. Decision-making becomes a cynical roll of the die – how much do you want to win? Or sister, with those debased brown eyes day-dreaming about the tartan casino rug, the shape of my croupier bow tie, the scrupulous condition of the Russian gentleman’s fingernails, what you ate that day, where she is, who he was, et cetera – sister, I ask, are your eyes still on the game? Perhaps my children are in someone else’s country. They are the new mystics if they think our lives are anything but entirely insignificant. Their debarred value is precisely within this paradox.


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