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Killing Time                                                                  




At the washing away of the blood there is found the exposed edge of an ancient stone half-buried in the flesh of society.


Killing time (all permanence seeks to reach beyond the limitations of the temporary, seeks the death of temporality). If the search for eternity kills time, then this route of escape also always leads back to the rebirth of time. Yet as temporality only resides in the human, the death of temporality requires (at least in a figural sense) a human death. At the furthermost extreme, then, we find that the killing of time, the sacrifice at the gate of eternity, is also the time of killing. At the very worst we behold the sacrifice of a human at the behest of the superhuman and the renewal it oversees. The bright dawn heralding the birth of a new time must pass through the red sunrise of the blood sacrifice: the killing fields of the 'Year Zero' in Cambodia; the Holocaust and the new order of the 'thousand-year Reich'; and in the birth of a new and secular nation, the origin of modern Turkey in the Armenian massacres. All originary exclusions of those designated 'the Other', incisions into the body of society, sacrificial beginnings where someone else pays the price.  Blood, rather than oil, or honey, lubricates this portal, and anoints the marble of this altar; its mark sets aside the chosen.


In a space set-aside, time is used to escape time. To escape time, to make time.


To escape time, to escape its morality; morality, the price of the foundation of a new morality...


Time is only made at a price; the appeal to an eternal guarantee comes only at a cost; for to escape time involves a sacrifice...


Empty now, the incision on the smooth slab of the altar, the waiting hollow.



To the crux of ritual: the sacrificial relation. A spider weaving a web of inter-connections; a close-spun web of exchanges consisting of an investment of energy, a putting aside of units of time, fresh (actual) time or stored time (commodities, gifts, services), ranging in length and intensity from the merest flicker of a eye, to the offering or displaying of possessions, to the shedding of blood, to privation, the wound as contract: a sacrifice. This it is that gives access to eternity (place of the Law, font of renewal).


Transactions embodied and disembodied; legal and felt; written in emotion (affect).


Mis-en-abime of the transcendental appeal; holy sequence: ritual (framing) sacrifice (connecting to) eternity... whether performed (enacted) or merely the place of appeal; the place 'outside time' where sacrificial relations take place, the place the price paid calls up or calls upon for recognition - for always a favour is required. A guarantee not issuing forth from the temporal realm.


Access denied (identity is at fault). Access confirmed (identity verified). All rituals amount to the same thing...


In the space of ritual, a sacrifice must take place which opens a portal onto eternity (be it the universals of reason, residing in propositions beyond axiom, in transhistorical essentialism, in 'eternal truths', or in the heavenly realm promised to the faithful, the afterlife). Function: to confirm a community of identity; a world view or the founding of a world, to cement an existing order or lay its foundations, to push transgression beyond the horizon (or to make a horizon out of transgression) to set 'once and for all' the happy confluence of horizon and community. It is part of the work of ritual that the self achieves suture with its proper universe; communion is confirmed, bought, paid for, offered in exchange for...  - whatever constitutes the price of identity, the going-rate on the social seal that is recognition.


Of course such portals are not real; it is just that we believe utterly in their efficacy, and cling with desperate and ingenious tenacity to their role in our foundation. (And how utterly we rely on these invisible foundations, the strongest yet imagined: the strongest are those imagined - lost in the clouds of the imagination they are unassailable...)


The only true test of ritual; of its efficacy, its depth, its penetration into the psyche: Is there a link to eternity? Or is it only the coming time, the future immediate, that is shored-up against the attrition of social entropy? If the trace of eternity survives as a wish even in this relation, then its centrality in profounder rituals is also finally governed by the mood of the subjunctive (that which we need, we desire, but that which may not of necessity exist). From this side (and there is no other side) all eternity is the rhetoric of eternity. Whence this dependency upon such an impossible link, such a manifestly unbuildable bridge, what guarantee is sought? What is the nature of the price that is demanded for this connection, what is it that is exchanged for such a guarantee? And if there is no real guarantee... then we are satisfied with its symbol, the sacrifice, the price paid, which after all remains (now transformed into pure sign) to perform its function. Remains in place (in the place) of this function... an imaginary connection, like all community, communication... like all signs whose home is finally in the head... the fiction (words, image) that acts as a foundation, a springboard for social existence... final support for a cultural form...  In this respect a sign must function as bridge, portal and guarantee. But signs are empty disembodied things, less than things even, mere cyphers; blood is required to bolster their resolve, to underwrite their claims.


If one reads the signs, spells out the words, deciphers the names upon these claims...


Rwanda... Srebrenica... Carnivals of identity.


(And not only these names; those too present at the founding of nations, the movement of peoples... human history; the history of civilisation, at once the history of the meat-grinder and its renunciation).


Always there are more names. More names, more figures, figures on a ground, figures marking absences, calling to another, naming out loud,  (apostrophe; naming the listeners, the call to the present thought the offices of the absent); a direct (vocative) appeal, roll-call of the missing (a wake-up call to the living); the evocation of the absent ones, the dead (a prosopopoeia). Figures of eternity, reaching out to those beyond - figures of absence; figures on a ground; figures in the ground - marks left upon the ground. Figuring the remains.


What remains?  Something always is left over, left behind, forgotten. What remains? None the eye can discern. Nothing to forget (nothing to remember). Grass soon will grow over the disturbed earth.


Does all rituality carry a trace of this aspect of history? A trace consisting of its forgetting? The active forgetting of the blood freshly-washed from the hands; the long-term forgetting of a society that regards itself as civilised: civilised until reminded of its uncivilised origin - then step back and be wary, watch, least it revert back to atavistic form.


Reserved; yet still capable of moving one, of turning viewer into witness, and witness into participant: the rise of semi-autonomous art under capitalism. Art also enjoins the rubric of ritual; we enter the realm of art as ritual. Here also there is a space set aside, set apart - a lesser cost, an investment of time the only requirement (but as we have seen the sacrifice of time lies at the root of all ritual exchange: things, the products of time; the life of the other, their time). The only sacrifices present here are bloodless, the only sacrifices shown are the symbolic sacrifices in the image, the only actual sacrifice, that of time, by the viewer, pays the price of participation. Time spent; the oblique measure.


Art as rituality civilised; art as the civilising ritual. Art as antidote. A lightning rod for the wary, a safety-rail for the civilised; the only requirement is an investment of time and the voluntary interaction (imaginary but still affective) of the artwork with the body. Art: the civilised way of killing time.


The civilised alternative to the blood ritual of the killing time is the violence of the symbol. We are not concerned here with the violence of the sign's pretence to stand in for something else; rather it is the ability of the sign to adapt itself readily to the role of whipping boy, to present itself both as thing (to be manipulated in an act of mimesis) and as not-thing (offering the possibility of the denial of the violence proffered). This violence consists of the purely symbolic violence we experience everywhere in our culture, from recorded images to everyday speech. Somewhere mid-way between are the speech acts; a less civilised form, as scapegoating is often found to hide behind freedom of speech where the violence of the speech act as word blurs into action. Symbol is transubstantiated into verbal assault and contrasted against more 'harmless' symbolic acts (because unwitnessed by the one of the objects/participants). As found in private jokes, or in a reactive defence by the powerless. A mode of self definition... against others. Yet even this purely symbolic (even private) mode of differentiation has its price. No casting of the negative without a reminder in the mirror, a remainder in the well of the self; the pure spring always retains a trace of its cleansing, purification leaves a mark which itself is not pure. Always a streak of poison remains.


The sacrifice of the sacrifice made for an identity constructed as an agonistic relation lies in the negated other lining the borders of the self.


The drop of blood, warm red pearl, left enthroned on the stainless white coverlet of the soul.




                                                Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk



(Written on 10th anniversary of the attempted genocide of the Tutsis, which was to herald the birth of a Hutu nation, in Rwanda - a genocide that was followed by a counter-genocide as about a million people then fled into the bush to escape retribution.)