By Christian Matheis
Imagine you hold a particular place truly sacred.
Perhaps a town, or a building, or a region.
Let’s give the image a bit of life. The place, your most cherished, holds sacred for your community. As the sine qua non – that without which nothing else in your life can matter – you consider it holy, divine, hallowed. It bears the symbolic markings of your history and the history of your people. For hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of years, all of the greatest stories about the history of your people happened there. Or began there. Or ended up there. Every custom and ritual reminds you in one way or another that you belong there. The knowledge you hold about your own history depends on the place. To think about your future without this place poses an impossibility – a hypothesis so terrifying it cuts at your dignity as sheer as any terror. Without this place, you have no future. Sine qua non res future / That without which no future can occur.
Call this “the city.”
Now, imagine two identical, indistinguishable, immutably perfect copies of the city. For whatever reason, on some day, two exact cities where before only one. Not the people, they have not been cloned, but only the place. The physics need not make sense. Maybe the world just grew perfectly larger and now two identical cities rest side-by-side. Or maybe dimensions simply doubled this little corner of the universe and you can choose to enter either version at will, but not both at the same time. It would not matter to call one “north” and one “south,” nor to call one “east” or “west.” And you cannot tell whether one came first and the other came second; you cannot call one “original” and one “the copy.” You cannot tell the difference. Even if you could, you know that symbolically carving them up in order to differentiate them would amount to a profanity, a desecration. Every single aspect of the two cities that makes them sacred mirrors one another perfectly, and nothing else irrelevant duplicated. Two sacred cities, simply as perfect as when only one stood before.
Could you permit one of the two cities, each no more or less perfectly sacred than the other, to serve as home to another people? Whether long-time allies or ancient foes, could one city suffice?
Do you still consider one sacred enough? Or does twice as much now seem somehow more scarce? How can more feel scarce?
Yesterday, one felt sacred enough. Today, you have to choose.
If you could permit it, how would you choose which to share, which to forsake?
Would the city remain as sacred as before?
If you could not permit another people to reside in one of the two cities, what does it say about the sacred qualities of the city before it doubled?
Can one city, perfectly sacred the day before, count as enough? Or must you and your people have both? Must no other people have any share?
If you cannot have both, does one somehow count as less sacred than the other?
You get to choose, though. What will you make of your relationship with the sacred twin cities?
I suspect that something happens to profane sacred places when treated as unsharable property. Anarchists like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (2010), Emma Goldman (1969), and Ursula K. Le Guin (1974) invite us to reconsider whether propertarian beliefs help us to humanize one another. I use the term “propertarian” to refer to a disposition for individualized control of objects that somehow excludes mutuality, a complex belief system organized under the symbolic label “property.”
Not to mistake two different versions of “property,” technical claims to property rights, for one, and deep beliefs about transcendental conditions of owning something, the other. I have in mind the second, deeper and more complicated concept. When I call this “mine” and that “yours” it differs from when I say “this” and “that,” or “the one I use” and “the one you use.”
In his book The Gift (2007) literary theorist Lewis Hyde helps illustrate the flimsy bases most of us have for our contemporary (and almost entirely unreflective) ideas of property and consolidated ownership. Technically, one cannot claim to “own” something in the present or future. The closest thing to owning property amounts to possessing something with the temporary power to dispossess oneself of it. The proposition goes something like this: only after I have given something away can I demonstrate that I once, temporarily, had the power to dispossess myself of it. Things “owned” in the present always refer to tentative claims about what one might do in the future, perhaps. “Having” or “owning” always refers to something past-tense; I never “own” but can only say “used to own” a thing, if I can claim anything resembling ownership at all. Enacting the power to give something away, to share it or dispossess oneself of it, demonstrates the only power we have.
Once given away, you can say you used to have a thing and had the power to share that thing. While you “have” a thing, you can only potentially give it away.
In this way, we can claim to have power to give and receive, but never to own. Conventionally, owning refers to a belief about a known or unknown, but ostensibly reliable, metaphysics of property as if some actions, choices, and circumstances make an object essentially owned in a transcendental sense. I can have this or that object, I can use this or that object, I can share this or that thing, and you can give and receive this or that bauble. Try as we may, and labor as hard as we can, nothing about owning transcends the past-tense power to temporarily hold on to something or to share it.
At what point do sacred and suffering count for less than owning, controlling, and consuming?
Many anarchists reject strong propertarian dispositions. Some use the logic of giving and using objects, some point to the illogic of transcendental property claims, and others critique the way that fictive consolidation of objects corrupts our reasoning.
Think of the old and troubled adage, “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Swap the terms a bit, “property corrupts, absolute property corrupts absolutely.” Friedrich Nietzsche would likely argue that these statements tend toward a slave morality intent on making already-disempowered people power-phobic and property-phobic (Nietzsche 1989). That seems like an important worry. After all, coercing people to fear their power counts as a way to discourage people from pursuing liberation and egalitarian relationships. But I think multiple interpretations work, including an understanding of power that calls for mutualistic respect even if we sometimes coerce one another (Taylor 1982). Does it make us fear power and fear property to more carefully consider how both can, when misunderstood and made transcendent, corrupt reasoning? Belief in absolute, transcendent property can corrupt our ability to understand how fleeting our “hold” on things we sometimes call “mine.” Dismantling the transcendence of power, similarly, helps gain clarity on the actual, feasible power we do wield – or share, as it seems to me.
Can this work for places we call “sacred?”
I should acknowledge the difficulty in using terms like “sacred” and “profane” given the very broad, and I think inevitable, range of potential connotations. Even in the tiny breach of thought descended from Greece and Europe, the uses vary widely. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, shows the historical complications with the term “sacred” as something that in Ancient Greece referred to a hybrid of “hallowed” and “accursed” (Agamben 1998). Agamben’s work implies that labeling something “sacred” ultimately places it in a polarized relationship with the profane and, therefore, tends toward conceiving of sacred things as subject to desecration. Prior to calling a thing “sacred” we would not have need to consider what it would take to make it profane; once “sacred,” transcendentally inviolable, it will also appear in the imagination as impure, corrupt – or, that which we can sacrifice. In a somewhat similar vein René Girard poses organized religious and secular institutions as regimes that manage the perpetual tragic drama of violence humans mete out upon ourselves (Girard and Gregory 2005). I mention this to at least show that it will not do to treat the terms casually, or to assume a common understanding; I do not suggest anyone take “sacred” and “profane” for granted.
Although I understand the concerns Agamben and Girard pose, and think it wise to worry with some vigilance about the problems they raise, I do not give over “sacred” and “profane” so easily to their analyses. In the case I pose above, perhaps I dodge the issue a bit too haphazardly by making “sacred” synonymous with sine qua non. As it goes, with the emphasis here on the thought experiment of the identical twin cities, I hope you take the point that something at least feasibly sacred may reconcile with the given context: sine qua non res future / that without which no future can occur.
What of places we call Palestine and Israel? Can they count as sacred if they cannot count as sharable? What to do about peoples in conflict over sacred places, those for whom no future can occur without sharing of some sort?
Let us not get too distracted by the grandstanding that surrounds well-known cities. Rather, consider the case of an occupied village in the Ramallah District called Burqah. As a recent report from B’Tselem (2014) explains,
A rather unremarkable village, Burqah has never taken center stage in the fight against the occupation, and has not been subjected to extreme punitive measures. In fact, we chose to focus on Burqah precisely because it is unexceptional, as a case in point demonstrating what life under the occupation is like for residents of Palestinian villages. It is a small, picturesque village, surrounded by fields. Like many other villages, it endures severe travel restrictions which isolate it from its surroundings. It is also subject to massive land-grabs and stifling planning, all of which have turned it into a derelict, crowded and backward village with half its population living at or below the poverty line.
The thought experiment of two perfectly identical sacred places, holy lands, may reveal something about the desecration that comes with and reinforces propertarian thinking. If we cannot imagine one city as sufficiently sacred – enough — while accepting and even encouraging others to make use of the abundance, then perhaps it says something about the limits of what we call sacred. And about the priority we place on control, ownership over sharing in abundance. Would an infinite abundance of identical cities satisfy those with propertarian thinking?
A resident of Burqah describes life in the village this way,
We think a thousand times before we build, go on vacation, study, work, trade, or grow crops. It’s not because of laziness, or inability. It’s because of concerns about the obstacles, about harassment and attacks by the Israeli military or by settlers. It’s as if we live in a big prison, with invisible walls, as a result of the restrictions imposed on us (Staff 2014).
Forms of desecration vary in an unsharable place. As the villagers in Burqah endure one form of coercion, residents of the Jerusalem district of Silwan face another type of radical pressures in the form of eviction orders (Silwanic 2014). At present, government agencies have plans to demolish privately owned homes, apartment buildings, stores, and other locations. Property claims of one faction cannot, it seems, even fairly withstand property claims of another faction. Even owning a piece of the sacred cannot sustain a share.
Certainly, I have oversimplified a vastly more complex situation to one of tensions about notions of the sacred, property, and desecration. But, to raise a point, I have a hunch that the architects and rulers of contemporary nation-states, a small minority of influential persons who decry mutualism in favor of military force and radical individualism, would prefer we not think clearly about sharing. Or maybe it serves their purposes if most of us do think clearly about sharing but solely within the dominant ideology of property? Either way, I wonder what we forsake or desecrate – whether secular or spiritual – by converting certain things into the kind of property that we forbid to share.
Can I treat a place as truly sacred if I cannot permit myself to share it without the desire for absolute, transcendent control over it? Or, to treat something sacred, must I do best to keep sharing it?
- My thanks to Brian Britt, professor and chair of the Department of Religion and Culture a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University, for his comments and suggestions.
Agamben, G. (1998). Homo sacer. Sovereign power and bare life. Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press.
Girard, R. and P. Gregory (2005). Violence and the Sacred, Bloomsbury Academic.
Goldman, E. (1969). Anarchism, and other essays. New York,, Dover Publications.
Hyde, L. (2007). The gift : creativity and the artist in the modern world. New York, Vintage Books.
Le Guin, U. K. (1974). The dispossessed; an ambiguous Utopia. New York,, Harper & Row.
Nietzsche, F. (1989). On the genealogy of morals and ecce homo. New York, Vintage Books.
Proudhon, P. J. (2010). Property is theft! : a Pierre Joseph proudhon reader. Oakland, CA, AK Press.
Silwanic (2014) “Distributing administrative demolition orders in Silwan.” silwanic.net.
Staff (2014) “The Invisible Walls of Occupation: Burqah, Ramallah District, A case study.” B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Taylor, M. (1982). Community, anarchy, and liberty. Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York, Cambridge University Press.