Doomed to Sacrifice? Existential and Phenomenological Perspectives on Sacrifice and Gender

International Workshop 28–29 October 2021 at the Institute for Human Sciences, organised within the FWF Research Project M2947-G “Woman without a Name: Gender Identity in Sacrificial Stories” and co-organised by the Research Centre for Religion and Transformation. A report by Katerina Koci.

Sacrifice may be a topic of intense philosophical-theological academic debate, but it is also the everyday experience of millions of ordinary people. Either as the one who is sacrificing or as the one who is being sacrificed, we all encounter sacrifice ‘in our own skin’. Scholarly reflection on sacrifice has produced an ambiguous discourse which stretches across numerous disciplines from anthropology to religious and social studies, to ethics. My project, within which I framed the workshop, seeks to embrace scholarly theories that respect the individual experience of the sacrificial victim: existential phenomenology and theology, psychoanalysis, and gender and feminist studies. Therefore, unlike predominantly comparative perspectives in the sacrificial discourse, particular contributions to the workshop were orientated towards the individual. Speakers from Stockholm, Copenhagen, Vienna and Haifa engaged with masters of existentialism, phenomenology and gender and feminist studies, including Søren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, Jan Patočka, Jacques Derrida, Simone de Beauvoir, Julia Kristeva and Yvonne Sherwood.

In the spring of 2021, when I was, together with RaT’s members Jakob Deibel and Martin Eleven, putting together the abstract and the list of possible speakers, the situation was very different from today. Increasing numbers of people were receiving their first and second covid vaccinations and the atmosphere in society was hopeful. The light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be just around the corner. Between then and 28 October this year (the first day of the workshop), the situation changed dramatically, and I was not sure how many of us (if any) would be able to meet. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it was for a workshop of this kind to be held in person. Despite the ecological and economic benefits of meeting online (Zoom conferences have a lower carbon footprint and are cheaper, even with professional filming and equipment), one cannot dispute that the overall experience is, sadly, flat, not only socially (the benefits of which should not to be underestimated) but also academically (interaction and solid feedback are usually minimal). Thus, the first success of the workshop is that even though speakers were coming from countries with very different policies, we all met at the same place and at the same time (including time zone).

The aim of the workshop was to draw a trajectory of gendered sacrifice from existentialism through existential phenomenology to gender and feminist studies, and to ask the following questions: “Is it possible to overcome the sacrificial logic that seems to be inherent to humanity?”; “Is it possible to transform and share the sacrificial experience so that it is not so obviously lopsided with respect to gender?”

The opening presentation from René Rosfort of the Kierkegaard Research Centre in Copenhagen, entitled ‘Sacrificing Gender’, explored the problematic attitude to gender of the Danish master of existentialism, an attitude that is indeed full of contradictions. The current debate on ‘Kierkegaard and gender’ echoes these contradictions: some scholars praise Kierkegaard’s feminine lens; others insist that he was an irredeemable misogynist. They may all have their part of the truth, according to the distinct perspectives through which they read Kierkegaard. There is no doubt that we find in Kierkegaard a handful of offensive and misogynist comments regarding women, but we can hardly dismiss his existential-phenomenological analysis of human experience as being purely ‘masculine’. For even if we know he did not have women in mind when he was conducting his analysis, his work undoubtedly goes beyond gender boundaries. Some of the gender debates that result in irreconcilable difference are simply, therefore, utterly askew.

Anna Sjöberg from the Newman Institute in Uppsala pondered upon the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. Anna chose the example of Abraham’s faith and presented it, from the perspective of highly secular West European society, as a circular function of call (from God) and response (from Abraham or the believer). The starting point was Augustine, who stressed that call and response have equal importance. Anna suggests that Kierkegaard overplays the response of Abraham, the great hero and knight of faith, and so provokes a reaction in Kafka, who instead mocks Abraham as a ridiculous and self-proclaimed relic of the past. Anna noted the different reactions to a ‘crisis of faith’ which correspond to the different contexts of these crises – Antiquity, Early Modernity, Late Modernity – in which the challenges also differ.

Sandra Lehmann from the University of Vienna used Pierre Hadot and Jan Patočka to struggle with the ancient idea of ‘caring for the soul’, without, nonetheless, forgetting (the souls of) others. Caring for the soul may bring someone to the point when he or she can do no less than give up their very life through self-sacrifice for no objective thing, the so-called sacrifice for no-thing. This is the moment that bears witness to ontological difference. But, Sandra asks, is ontological difference (pure negativity) something one should die for? Is there no positive content, such as Truth/Love/Good/God?

Martin Koci from the University of Vienna picked up from the point where Sandra could not follow Patočka’s pure negativity any further. Martin argues that one gives oneself up in self-sacrifice out of love, which is not a thing, yet it includes every-thing (das All). Unlike Sandra, Martin is persuaded that Patočka allows for the crystallization of pure being/Being out of negativity. Being was lost in technicized society and reduced to a matter of the economy of exchange. In the metaphysical sense, this being, or Being (God), is revealed to those who are witnesses to the event and initiates in them the ‘solidarity of the shaken’. The solidarity of the shaken is an ethical category and thus, according to Martin, assumes (a) the revelation of some positive content beyond ontological difference, and (b) care for the (souls of) others around us.

Sara Cohen Shabot from the University of Haifa asks whether after such a long history of the sacrifice of women (sacrifice by others, and self-sacrifice) it can be acceptable for a feminist scholar even to consider the concept of feminist sacrifice let alone work with it? Sara seeks an answer to this question through analysing the key feminine sacrifice of childbirth. She goes through the developments that freed women from uncontrolled pain and high death rates among both mothers and babies, through ‘medicalized birth’ and a loss of autonomy and agency, to the kind of ‘natural birth’ that compels women to refuse any sort of anaesthetic or pain control. Sara points out that neither of the two attitudes to childbirth serve the mission of feminist sacrifice well. Both overlook the birthing mother as a subject. The true feminist sacrifice of childbirth, Sara argues, can be realized through pain (or otherwise) but must have the birthing mother at its centre.

In my contribution, which sought to answer the question from the workshop title as to whether women are ‘doomed to sacrifice’, I juxtaposed the near-sacrifice of Isaac as the patriarchal sacrifice and the paradigmatic sacrifice of our Western religious philosophical culture, which replaced the sacrifice of childbirth (self-emptying and identity splitting experience of the mother) as the primary sacrifice. By presenting childbirth as a self-emptying and transformative moment not only for the mother but also for those (fathers) who witness the birth and existentially engage in it, I suggested that by sharing in the birth pains we may ultimately come to the point when women will not indeed be “doomed to sacrifice”.

Each pair of papers was followed by a well-informed and insightful response from Petr Vaškovic, Ludger Hagedorn and Clarissa Breu. Together with the questions from the audience, the responses made the workshop a rich and inspiring event. Publication in further cooperation with RaT shall follow in the near future.

Image source: Daniel Domig

RaT-Blog Nr. 01/2022

  • Katerina Koci is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria, and a laureate of the Lise Meitner Fellowship funded by Austrian Science Fund (FWF) for the project entitled Woman without a Name: Gender Identity in Sacrificial Stories (M2947-G). Click on the link below to go to her personal homepage.