The Unsacrificeable Subject?

The Unsacrificeable Subject?



Published as Chapter 5 in Who Deserves to Die: Constructing the Executable Subject, Austin Sarat & Karl Shoemaker, eds.

Formalized, legalized and ritualized killing by political and religious authorities has been central to the maintenance, transformation and regeneration of a vast range of societies. Whether such killing or destruction involved human beings, other animals, or vegetable life, the action very often took the form of a sacrifice to sovereign powers. Sacrifice has thus often been understood as a form of mediation between sovereign and subject. In turn, the rejection of sacrificial action is at the heart of many conceptions of political modernity (for instance those of Rene Girard and Giorgio Agamben). Exploring the nature of the ‘executable subject,’ this Chapter asks whether the killing that takes place as a result of the imposition of the death penalty can be thought of as sacrificial, homicidal, or neither. It argues that sacrifice and the death penalty are in a complicated relation to one another — sacrifice emerges as the unauthorized narrative of some executions, a narrative that the state often struggles to contain. In sum, the rejection and containment of sacrifice plays an important role in the construction of the executable subject.

Publication Date



University of Massachusetts Press





First Page



death penalty, sacrifice, human sacrifice, purification, ritual, anthropology of law


Criminal Law | Law


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The Unsacrificeable Subject?