There is a paradoxical relationship between necessity and destiny: it is chance that determines necessity. The desert rose owes its beauty to the elements that sculpted it, just the way it is, without a reason. Yet, it is precisely its beauty-in-form that makes it a ‘rose’ and entrusts it to its destiny. We are a thrown project, Heidegger used to say, and our ‘thrownness’ is the most original characteristic of who we are. This ‘origin’ stays with us and keeps feeding our destiny. Even if we accepted the most strongly deterministic conception of the universe – in which everything is entirely predetermined –, we would still not be able to know the totality of its past, present, and future elements. As contingent and finite beings, we have no access to the mind of God or to the countless possibilities of the world’s becoming. Chance is, therefore, our necessity: of being, of existing, of living.
This tension between chance and necessity has served as the backdrop for the changing relationship between order and political violence in the experience of human communities. Archaeology provides us with numerous examples of this. In an important Assyrian tablet preserved in the British Museum, for example, it is written, “Sky and Earth both produce portents. Though appearing separately, they are not separate: Sky and Earth are related” (Diviner’s Manual, ME K.2847). This dual conception of being is a fundamental metaphysical characteristic of ancient civilizations. And the mechanism that unites and articulates these two worlds – the high and the low – is sovereignty, which should not be conceived simply as a manifestation of absolute power. Originally, the sovereign was, in fact, the fulcrum that preserved political order through the interpretation of signs (omens and portents). In his autobiography, the great king of Assyria Ashurbanipal states: “I learnt … the hidden secret of all the scribal art. I can recognise celestial and terrestrial omens” (ME K.2694). The most powerful ruler is the one capable of better interpreting the signs of destiny by ‘capturing’ time.
It is possible to encounter such a structure of power in many ancient civilizations. When it enters history, Rome is also shaped, according to André Magdelain’s beautiful image, by the flight of birds and the semiotics of lightning. And it is no coincidence that in the ancient Roman kingdom the auspices were considered the most archaic source of political power. In ancient times, the relationship between sky and earth was thus configured as a semiotics that gazed into heaven in order to understand the meaning of history (this technique was well-known in Babylon, Greece, and even in Etruria: the liver of Piacenza is an important example of this divinatory art).
The sovereign was entrusted with a mediatory task because he represented a physical point of intersection between heaven and earth, necessity and contingency, order and chaos. For this reason, it was even believed that he was capable of regulating the weather by performing “ceremonies which were deemed necessary to ensure the fertility of the earth and the multiplication of animals.”[i] In ancient times, the sacred and the political were merged in one sovereign body upon which the whole community depended: the king, whose life was constantly exposed to the risks of holding this power. His role was constantly affected by the impossibility of establishing a certain and definitive order – an order sheltered from the cyclical instability of vital and natural forces: “for if the course of nature is dependent on the man-god’s life, what catastrophes may not be expected from the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death?”[ii]
According to many studies (e.g., Frazer, Jensen, Hocart, and Girard, to mention just a few), when the ruler seemed unable to control the order of things, he himself was exposed to the forces of contingency: he then had to restore order through his own sacrifice. No matter whether the king was sacrificed periodically, in accordance with the seasonal cycle, or as soon as he showed the first signs of weakness and decadence, or when his power did not slavishly match the natural rhythms, but gave bad omens, the purpose of this royal sacrifice was always the same: to rebuild the nexus between rebirth and order – between killing and renewal – or to transform the chaos of contingency into a new order of necessity. In its originary form, then, sovereignty is not an exception that captures the bare life of its subjects, but, rather, a power constantly exposed to itself, to its own incommensurability – a body that is traversed and crucified by the forces of chance and time.
Nonetheless, under the pressure of unavoidable social changes, this sacrificial paradigm has transformed itself: nature and culture, contingency and necessity, reverse their polar positions. The modern age is the acme of this evolution. In modernity, the so-called state of nature is no longer conceived as ‘nature’ per se, but as the nature of culture, or the total politicization of the earth carried out by human forces. At this juncture, it is no longer nature that bears the signs of contingency, but the human who acts within it. In fact, as humans gain greater control over the forces and resources of nature, they introject the problem of contingency and political order: it is now the human who, as an absolute agent, needs to be controlled at any cost. It is at this historical juncture, also, that the biopolitical threshold emerges: to the naturalization of culture symmetrically corresponds the culturalization of nature, and control over nature and its resources coincides with growing practices of social and political control. Human life becomes the political problem par excellence, which requires a further screen or artifice to be nourished and protected.
Hobbes’s Leviathan is, perhaps, the most iconic example here. In this masterpiece of paradox and, in a more evident way, from the French Revolution onwards, what is to be protected through the sacrifice of one’s own life is power as such – a power imagined as personal but endowed with a collective body, individual but without a recognizable face. It is, further, a power that is conceived of as mere, absolute representation: an enlarged and abstract reflection of the individual who looks at herself in her own illusory image (the nation). Hence, the state becomes a giant double, an ‘oversized man’ (makros anthrōpos), whose sacrificable body belongs to its people, while its empty soul is nothing but the refuge of power: an empty chair, an imperishable and unsacrificable office, in fact.
In short, the paradigm of sacrificability proved to be the mechanism through which the modern political order tried to close itself upon itself. In western experience, order really means, first and foremost, the expulsion of contingency by means of sacrifice. Yet, having reached the outermost point of its genealogical journey, the sacrificial mechanism seems unable to guarantee the unity of political systems (which are today pierced by financial, economic and universalist forces). By losing its symbolic and sacrificial strength, sovereignty has turned into a thanatopolitical device for controlling the foreigner, the migrant and the poor. Globalization seems to have become precisely what Hobbes feared most: unstructured and uncontrollable immanence.
Today, contingency hides behind the ungovernable flows of global economy and its innumerable financial operations which constantly give rise to unexpected consequences. On the one hand, the market affirms the ‘sovereignty’ of the liberal subject, with her desire to be manufactured and sold; on the other hand, we are witnessing the dismemberment of public space that, pierced by private interests, transforms order into a merely punitive mechanism, a threshold for excluding the ‘have-nots’. This is the form we are giving to contingency: that of the migrant, of the exploited minorities: they are the ‘disorder’ to be controlled, the sacrifice to be made to ensure the closure of our public space (think of ‘offshore processing sites’ such as Nauru). But, in fact, public order is eroded by the only genuinely bad form of contingency left: the one created by the reflection of our desire in the fetishized objects that we have made for ourselves. As Tacitus once wrote, we are enslaved by the lies, of which we ourselves are the authors.
[i] James Frazer, Lectures on the Early History of the Kingship (London: Macmillan, 1905), 280.
[ii] James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (London: Macmillan, 1941), 265.