Sovereignty and the Sacred

Robert Yelle’s recent book offers an attempt to relocate the relationship between sovereignty and the sacred. It is a beautifully written account, covering an enormous range of topics and writers, and it illuminates both sides of his equation.1


Yelle’s work sits within the renewed interest in structuralism on the one hand and divine kingship on the other. It reacts to the challenge posed by two cornerstones of recent theoretical work, the possibility of an axial age and of a moment of disenchantment, the first the product of Jaspers’ attempt to understand a change towards scepticism, individuality and at the same time the replacement of immanence as a religious view with transcendence, the second the outcome of Weber’s explanation of what modernity does to religion.

If we state two of the key contentions of the book, we can see instantly that Yelle is doing something rather unfamiliar in comparison with standard political science approaches. First, Yelle argues that religion is sovereignty (not that sovereignty is part of the scaffolding which supports religion, at least transcendent religion). Second, by using Schmitt and Agamben, he insists that the sovereign and the sacred operate as ruptures of the normative order; they are the moments of exception. In contrast to contemporary language which tends to regard sovereignty as an underlying condition of the social order or a a political norm which is ruptured at peril, sovereignty is itself the antinomian moment, the antithesis of law.

How do we get to this argument, and what is at stake in these inversions? The first point is that both Schmitt and Agamben are controversial starting points. If you commence from the position that sovereignty is singular and the fundamental fact of a hierarchical state, then you arrive at a set of consequences which may well describe a philosophy of power, but might not analyse the real world in any meaningful way. As Ben-Dor Benite, Geroulanos and Jerr put it, if you start from here, this ‘answers the question of sovereignty before it has been properly posed because it determined sovereign power as much through an identification with those at the limit of humanity as through a convenient genealogy of resistance.’2 Schmitt does not have good arguments for the derivation of sovereignty, and Agamben does not have good arguments for the operation of good governance, because both drive the concept to its limit. It is perhaps unsurprising that Arendt, whilst avoiding a direct battle with Schmitt, seeks to ground politics not in the exception but in the contract, not in the flash of the groundless decision but in the repeated working through of immanent principles.3

So Yelle starts from a place which is much more contested than he allows, but which is nonetheless profoundly productive for his thesis.

First, it allows Yelle to make sovereignty a far less rational decision than political theory might suggest, and he underscores this by looking at Weber’s notion that charisma was replaced by routinized power. He argues that Weber had in fact simply taken over the notion of the supercession of the work of miracles and prophecy and applied it to power. The idea, taken from Protestant theology, is that the coming of Christ and the authority of the gospels spelled a new orderliness. Thus disenchantment is not a sociological fact but something closer to a metaphor or a narrative, and as such can be regarded as incomplete, a repression rather than a finished process. (Yelle’s commitment to structuralism shows through here).

So we need to rethink the world in different terms, and this then leads Yelle to tackle the problem of what is at stake in Agamben’s notion of homo sacer, that is the relationship between law and the sacred. Here the professional ancient historian may have to look away because both Agamben and Yelle are effectively dealing with an image of antiquity rather than the real thing. But Yelle’s argument that the sacred ambivalently embraces law-breaking and law-making may be more appealing than Agamben’s insistence on the primacy of law, a primacy which shuts the sacred out of the conception of beginnings. The intersection between law and the sacred is surely more complex than Agamben wanted it to be. Yelle’s intuition is that Agamben needed to claim that the capacity to put someone outside protection reduced to mere life, and defenceless against murder, has no defence in the murky magic of ritual or the sacred. It was a matter of politics, and therefore wholly culpable, a critical position if you run the line directly from antiquity to the Holocaust, as Agamben did.

Once the sacred emerges once more as an expression of ambivalence, it is possible to start thinking more interestingly about the religious as implicated in rather than opposed to the rational world, here largely understood in economic terms. So to recap, the world is not really disenchanted – we have repressed the enchantment; and the sacred is not subsequent to and distinct from the law – it is part of it. And so religion produces value; it requires the existence of the economic world for the surplus and excess which sacrifice entails, and it transforms that wealth.

Where does sovereignty fit in? In dealing with sacrifice, Yelle adopts and adapts Bataille’s views of its unproductiveness and excess, alongside ideas of potlatch and so forth, and argues that sacrifice reflects the sovereign act of largesse. The fact that sacrifice entails the existence of a surplus economy is then taken into a discussion of how (animal) sacrifice may reflect on the move from immediate return economies to storage economies, with their more hierarchical power structures. This then permits a highly economic reading of asceticism as a transformation of an economic relationship, a deposit against salvation. If sovereignty is ‘just another term for not being subject to conditions’ (124) the rejection of the normative polity which is represented by asceticism is a kind of antinomian sovereignty of the self.

In each of the three cases there is a good deal to worry about in detail. It is interesting to see how often Yelle reverts to theorists such as Bataille, Starobinski, Girard, Seaford and Graeber, who might be described as historicising their political theory. The transformation of religion into a parallel economy is a neat inversion, but this is not evidently a transubstantiation; it is more a translation from one metaphorical system to another. Ultimately I think Yelle fails to convince that religion is sovereignty, rather than the theatre of sovereignty being part of the supporting structures of certain polity-centred religions.

What are the gains and losses? One evident gain, I think, is in the contribution to the understanding of transcendence as part of a systemic shift, and here one thinks of Alan Strathern’s magnificent analysis in Unearthly Powers.4

What Strathern does rather more successfully is to insist that transcendence never quite wins, and some aspect of Yelle’s ambivalent sacred is I think bound up in the persistence of the immanent. Strathern’s analysis of how cargo cult reflects how other-worldly salvation became this-worldly salvation in process is a case in point. The interaction of immanent and transcendent views transform relationships between people, metapeople and things. Strathern summarises this quite brilliantly towards the end of his book (320):

In effect, this [the transformation of immanentism] was the strategy of monotheism on the march: first to enhance the salience of the economy of ritual efficacy, by making competition explicit and unavoidable; secondly, by achieving premium value in that economy; and thirdly, by subsequently undermining its significance, so that the vicissitudes of worldly existence could never again challenge the fundamental structures of the tradition. This was the point at which a gleaming new engine of conceptual control was wheeled into action. Promises of immanent assistance were offered with one hand, but rendered insignificant by a flourish of the other; the real reward was always yet to come and had to be conceived in quite different terms.

Now this seems to me very close to what Yelle is arguing, and both make the king, divinized or sacred, a critical figure; the king (or sovereign) is how society understands metaphorically the relationship between power, community and the legitimation. The key difference between them, I think, is where I see the bigger loss entailed in Yelle’s starting point. It is attractive from a certain point of view to make religion antinomian and to eschew a Durkheimian functionalism. Religion can break things as well as make them. But by starting with the sacrifice and not the acts of communication entailed thereby, between sacrificed and sacrificer, people and gods, and within community, Yelle does not quite carry his project forward into the reformulation of sovereignty. He claims to be looking for the exit sign from the disenchanted and rational world, but it is not entirely clear that we will not come out, on this reading, somewhere rather bloody and differently hierarchical.

Naturally there is no instant answer to this; Yelle ends with a question and it is for us to work at it. As one small contribution, I wonder if one of the challenges we might offer is to ask what sort of state we might conceive if our primary model was not a dualism of good and evil, and rather a complexity of ambivalences. This takes us to the politics of pluralism, which David Runciman explored so well, and the problem of authority between competing groups if the sovereign state is one association amongst others.5 Religion encompasses languages which allow us to transform values through the reimagining of possible outcomes.

A state that is conceived as existing in multiple and enchanted/enchanting acts of communication might be worth a look. It is notable that the pluralists took seriously the Hobbesian notion that the state, as a personality, is also a fiction, and grappled with the problem of how the state could be an actor and an author, both a participant and the source of authority. As Runciman put it, discussing Ernest Barker, one could argue that the state is solely responsible for the staging of the drama, but as soon as it acts, takes on a personality, we need to answer the question of who is responsible for the broader drama? Similar questions beset Arendt’s suggestion that the state is there to guarantee our capacity to create and sustain a public space of appearance, to be able to act, which is equivalent to being free. What is this state, that it has the authority to do this?

The divinized king is one way of imagining this public space of appearance. It is not uncommon for the story to be that that the king is constrained by power and limited by his closeness to the immanent. Yelle’s emphasis on the capacity of the sacred to be ambivalent can be extended; power moves around the circuit of metapeople (the immanent world), rulers and community. The broader drama is ritual and the question of how the state can be actor and author is contained within the ambivalence of the persistence of sacred communication which continuously breaks and re-makes community.

On the narrative we have traced, the move towards transcendent rather than immanent notions was harnassed to limit the ambivalence of the sacred; it was, as Strathern says, a power grab at the supernatural and the political level (317). Yet the immanent has not gone away. The more we understand the paths we left, the ways we have been able to constrain and ameliorate power within community, and the strength of the aesthetics and performativity of our common life in all its diversity to empower processes of change, the more chance we might have of finding the exit signs which Yelle was looking for.

1R. A. Yelle, Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion, Chicago 2019.

2Z. Ben-Dor Benite, S. Geroulanos and N. Jerr, The Scaffolding of Sovereignty: Global and Aesthetic perspectives on the History of a Concept, Columbia 2017: 32.

3Well argued by Andreas Kalyvas in Democracy and the Politics of the Extraordinary: Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, and Hannah Arendt, Cambridge 2008: 194-253.

4A. Strathern, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political change in World History, Cambridge 2019.

5D. Runciman, Pluralism and the Personality of the State, Cambridge 1997.

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