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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Dramas of the Dialectic:
Sacrifice and Power in Ancient Polities

Edward Swensen

Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto

As the ritually controlled mediation of life and death, sacrifice sensually materializes the abstraction of dialectical thinking and viscerally dramatizes “process,” and thus by extension “power,” as realized through destructive transformation and generative violence. In fact, the pornography of ritual killing constitutes among the most potent genres of theatrical performance that reifies and effectively conflates metaphysical and social ideologies of power. This paper explores the pervasiveness of political theologies grounded in sacrificial spectacle in ancient complex societies, focusing on the violently “performed” construction of authority and inequality in different cultural settings. A central objective of the presentation is to assess the theoretical implications that “sacred dialecticians” ideologically legitimated political power by controlling the forces of order and change (whether cosmic, social, temporal, mythical, political, spatial etc.) through spectacular rites of violent negation. Ultimately, I argue that the archaeological study of the sacrificial articulation of hierarchy can contribute significantly to our theoretical understanding of the inextricable relationship linking violence, religion, and the state.