The Involuntary Victims of the Aztecs

By Benedict Seymour, 6 March 2003
Image: Human sacrifice (2003 - )

Benedict Seymour visits the Aztecs exhibition at London's Royal Academy and discovers latent isomorphisms with contemporary Western empire. Is ours a culture of sacrifice that simply lacks the luxuries granted to the 'savage' sacrificial man?


[...] in primitive societies, where the exploitation of man by man is still fairly weak, the products of human activity not only flow in great quantities to rich men because of the protection or social leadership services these men supposedly provide, but also because of the spectacular collective expenditures for which they must pay. In so-called civilized societies, the fundamental obligation of wealth disappeared only in a fairly recent period [...] Everything that was generous, orgiastic, and excessive has disappeared; the themes of rivalry upon which individual activity still depends develop in obscurity, and are as shameful as belching. The representatives of the bourgeoisie have adopted an effaced manner; wealth is now displayed behind closed doors, in accordance with depressing and boring conventions [...] Such trickery has become the principle reason for living, working, and suffering for those who lack the courage to condemn this moldy society to revolutionary destruction.

As for the masters and exploiters, whose function is to create the contemptuous forms that exclude human nature - causing this nature to exist at the limits of the earth, in other words in mud - a simple law of reciprocity requires that they be condemned to fear, to the great night when their beautiful phrases will be drowned out by death screams in riots.

– Georges Bataille, 1933.


LONDON PREPARES FOR TERROR (Evening Standard, 4 March 2003)

Notoriously, the Spanish conquistadors saw the Aztecs as heathens and idolaters. Europeans dissimulated their own violent way of making new acquaintances by being conspicuously appalled at the unapologetic violence of the Aztecs. The practices of this strange and brutal civilisation were horrifically ‘uncivilised’ yet, plainly, allied to prodigious wealth, cultural sophistication and an extensive Meso-American empire built on trade. The Victorians were consequently less judgemental, and with each subsequent generation the bloodthirsty hierarchs have seemed to appear more simpatico. With the current Royal Academy show Aztecs currently packing in the mums, dads and kids who flow like a human stream through the RA’s august courtyard into the maw of the Mexicas, our relation to the Aztecs has clearly reached a new pitch of enthusiasm.

Fascination reigns. The annihilating drive to convert the heathens has modulated from respectfully terrified repulsion, via Tintin, into a kind of gleeful intensity culminating in the central galleries of this exhibition where kids wearing headphones revel in tape-recorded descriptions of the Aztecs’ symbolically enriched live heart-bypass operations and mums say ‘yuck!’ While the adults succumb to the long fallow enthusiasms of their infancy (‘I always loved Prisoners of the Sun’, says one), the kids remain the carriers of the Aztec virus. As the centipede obsessive and erstwhile denizen of Mexico City W.S. Burroughs put it, 'young boys need it special'.



But as another bohemian enthusiast of the Aztecs observed, we are bored in the city; there is no more temple of the sun. Shows like Aztecs illuminate the tedium of the long Sunday afternoons in the eternal run up to a war that will never not always-already have unbegun. The mangled formulaic negations of the protest marchers echo round the walls of the RA’s courtyard, multiplying and cancelling themselves to infinity: ‘What do we want: not war! When do we want it? Now!’.[1] The vitrified violence of Aztecs takes the mind off the virtual reality of the slaughter that is being prepared and the ongoing numb violence of day to day life. In a sense nothing is new about the show. As Lewis Mumford argued, modern city life requires horrorshows to pep itself up, leavening the basic dullness that the city must impose on its population to ensure homeostatic functioning and the smooth extraction of surplus value. The action movie element of blockbuster exhibitions such as this one, however well-cloaked in scholarship and bulked out with educational workshops, is the pulsing heart that keeps the streams of bodies flowing in from primary schools across the nation. As Walter Benjamin would add, Aztecs proves just how much every document of civilisation is a document of barbarism: the exhibits come from the Mexican national collection, a country steeped in the blood extracted from its 'people' by the IMF and the CIA, the living hearts sucked out by a thousand maquiladoras.

On a less epic level, barbarism bleeds into even this Sunday civilisation, the crowds keep coming for the fascination of sacrifice, while appreciating Xochipilli, the god of flowers and poetry or admiring, so the wall texts suggest, the generally well-ordered and disciplined nature of Aztec society between spasms of homicidal rebirth. It’s a bit like we were reading the Aztecs through the prism of Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ while trying to ignore the concept’s ethical imperative: the priests were bureaucrats of ecstatic extermination, coolly observing the carefully ordered routines that structured the blood-letting, conscious of no ill-will or surplus enjoyment in the prosecution of their tasks; thus we can excuse the violence of their society – it was all a long time ago and, for them, there was nothing wrong with having a large working and slave class. Respect for cultural difference dictates only reverence and the same infinite compassion we reserve for Muslims and the citizens of extraneously changeable regimes. Besides, as one cannot help suspecting, the coded message of all this tolerance is: we have a large working and slave class, and if we were to find that intolerable where would it all end? Our empathy for the Aztecs proves to be just as suspect as our earlier revulsion, one more stigma of a fucked up society.



Aztecs gives plenty of evidence of this ‘maturing’ of western attitudes towards what the wall text apologetically describes as ‘so-called primitive societies’. As Jean Baudrillard stated with characteristic asperity back in the early ‘90s, western repentance is all-encompassing; a panoramic apology for bloodily imposing its alien reason on other cultures which now, implicitly or explicitly, it hails as lost Edens of authenticity, sociability, and balance. Perhaps, after Sensation and Apocalypse (the first two categories in some new phenomenology of spirit leading to Aztecs?) the Royal Academy may have caught up with Baudrillard’s sacred ancestor, Georges Bataille. After the holocaust irony of Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Hell, all this Aztec shit looks like a walk in the park, pleasantly earnest, for all the grinning skulls and horrorface priests. Bataille famously felt that the Aztecs' cultural economy of excess and death was a useful (or rather, useless) corrective to the tightarsed bourgeois restricted economy of modern capitalism:

The victim is surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings.

In The Accursed Share, Bataille argued that the magnificence of Aztec cultural artifacts must be understood in conjunction with the practice of human sacrifice: the beautiful is always rooted in the base. Wars provided the victims for the bloody ritual, where the priest would plunge an obsidian knife into the chest of the victim and pull out the still pulsating heart, which he would then offer to the sun, the supreme god of the Aztecs.

Without condoning Aztec sacrifice, Bataille saw its logic. Human sacrifice introduced disequilibrium into a society dominated by utilitarian exchange values. Slavery embodied the degradation of this condition, where the slave is nothing but an object to be used by the free elite. The victim of Aztec sacrifice, by contrast, was often treated humanely, and even given special treatment. Bataille detected an intimate link between the victim and captor. The victim dies in the executioner’s place (a fairly good formula for empathy, and redolent of its limitations as political practice, despite the peace marcher’s banner, ‘Empathy is the most radical emotion!’). The victim ‘is’ their experience of death, an experience manifest in anguish as the executioner resonates to the suffering of the victim. Sacrifice ‘restores to the sacred world that which servile use has degraded, rendered profane. The sacred, for Bataille, lies beyond exchange-value; it has no equivalent: nothing, as a result, can be a substitute for the sacrificial act. In a society where exchange value has almost completely taken over, sacrifice cannot be understood. However, it still found an echo in isolated acts of bodily mutilation such as Van Gogh’s, where the act ruptures the homogeneity of self, and reintroduces heterogeneity into social life.

Whether the prodigal return of the Aztecs reflects our embrace of Bataille’s expansive ethos of sacrifice and ‘expenditure without reserve’ against the utilitarian capitalist imperative of profit (insular reinvestment, infinite thrift masquerading as generosity) is open to question now that Bataille too has become an antique, however. The development of capitalism beyond its earlier instrumental rationality has now intensified to a point where the profit motive is so pervasive that, paradoxically, disinterested intellectual observers no longer see it, declaring society free from economic determination. Capitalism seems to have grown almost Aztec in its excesses, the gratuitousness of its (re)production and, not least, its wars, taking on an almost festal inutility. This appearance of non-utilitarian largesse (no more than skin deep - the lightest flaying reveals its continuing duplicity) marks the era of Bataille’s academic and, no doubt, business-manual recuperation (expect a guide to post-dotcom management called Funky Sacrifice sometime last week). The limits of a valorisation of sacrifice as counter-capitalist tactic are, then, not too hard to make out.



Meanwhile, even critics of the postmodern, somewhat bowdlerised Bataille, are now themselves enjoying, like involuntary victims of the Aztecs, their own moment in the sun. While Baudrillard basks on the comfy no logo chez longue of Le Monde Diplomatique after millennial terrorists recently fulfilled his ‘70s malediction of consumer society, it may be that both Bataille and Baudrillard’s invocations of emancipatory death have expired and returned as a parodic repetition of their former selves. The counterposition of visions of excess and violent gift-exchange to utilitarian capitalism was already problematic in the mid-20th century, with Bataille oscillating between the Nazis and Stalin in his attempt to find a north-west passage beyond Bolshevism, but the inadequacy of a nostalgia for spectacular violence and symbolic ex-termination in a regime of ‘cool’ atrocities and operational power is palpable. It doesn’t feel like a good time for slippered pyromania. The possibility of recovering anything truly liberating in an image of Aztec society is more likely to be amplified in the writings of Giorgio Agamben and Theodor Adorno, less exhilarated analysts of the irrationality of both western and non-western societies.



Like the Aztecs’, today’s empire is at once extensive, robust and intensely fragile, a regime at the end of its tether, simultaneously new and over-ripe, begging for some messianic collective Cortés to come along and give it its quietus. However, like the Aztecs’ revered serpent, a creature repeatedly reborn each time it sheds its skin, this empire mocks time, finding stasis and permanence in perpetual crisis and catastrophe. As Adorno suggests in Minima Moralia, not generosity but the self-interest of the masses, Amadeo Bordiga’s ‘class without reserve’, may prove a better catalyser of the qualitatively different crisis Agamben lightly but compellingly limns in Homo Sacer. As Agamben sedulously reveals, the concept of the sacred is fraught with problems for a world in which the reduction of human beings to the level of lice remains the state’s (not to mention the corporations’) innermost drive. Capitalism is still happy to dress up its perpetual reduction of subjects to ‘bare life’ (mere labour power, mere matter for administration and extermination) as an ethical crusade, hymning the self-sacrifice of working class troops and collaterally damaged civilians in its glorious(ly indeterminate) war on terror while stripping its citizens of all rights and x-raying them out of social existence like, but crucially unlike, the Aztecs' gifts to the sun. Modern sacrifice is a sick parody of even the Aztecs' lethal generosity. As Agamben has shown, the Nazis' pretensions to a sacrificial mission were no more than the most obscene piece of petit-bourgeois affectation in history. Today, homo sacer – the sacred man who can be killed with impunity – is legion, and, unlike the Aztecs, today’s priests don’t feel any need to treat their victims to a year of deluxe living before bundling them into the detention centre. We have kept the Aztecs’ violence but ditched the ritual - the humanity, you might even say. If, after September 11, politicians and media commentators can openly speak of reintroducing torture as a reasonable means for extracting information from ‘illegal non-combatants’ (i.e., anyone), how far are we from openly accepting the need for violent public rituals of mass homicide for propitiation of the economy (our last and strangest god)? On second thoughts, don’t answer that. What is currently implicit may yet become explicit and then we will truly have entered another phase in our empathic ‘relation’ to the Aztecs.



The contemporary sacred men are not only the terrorists on the jets but also the immigrants singled out for exceptionally sensitive treatment by David Blunkett. The notion of life as the last holy sacrament, beloved of new agers, NGOs and United Nation’s humanists seems more obviously than ever a political rather than a religious category. ‘The sacredness of life’ underwrites every bombing raid, every police siege, every housing development, it suffuses everyday life as the imperative that no outbreak of events, no actual human community, as opposed to working, shopping, ‘consultations’ or war, may occur. Clearly, the sacred man is as distinct from the sacrificial victim of yore as Templo Mayor from the MI5 building (compare and contrast). In fact, there aren’t any more sacrificial victims, only the sacred men daily constituted by the new global sovereignty.

Meanwhile, contemporary moralists, from Al-Qaeda to Jack Straw, are keen to revive the principle of self-sacrifice (Aztec priests routinely practiced auto-sacrifice, ritually letting blood from their ear lobes or genitalia). Few such enthusiasts, however, are willing to step forward for the role of sacrificial victim in their proper persons. Even bin Laden (if he can be said to exist) doesn’t seem to have taken the martyrs’ path just yet. If we are really intent on renewing our connection to the Aztecs’ visceral culture with its ‘profound respect for the interconnection of life and death’, perhaps some of the self-appointed priests of economic regeneration and renewal-through-war should step up to the block. Glory and the obsidian knife await them.



Aztecs, in spite, or rather because of its attempt to ‘get under the skin’ of the flesh-flayers, presents a very contemporary account of the old culture. While the curators hymn the Aztecs' sense of the imbrication of life and death which we are said to have mislaid, the show smoothly subsumes this fascinatingly ‘other’ civilisation under the logic of our own. Everything comes down to the restricted economy of a functionalist mythopoesis: maize (the goddess Chicomecoatl) is essential to the survival of the empire; its production requires rain (the god, Tlaloc), brought by the wind (the god Ehecatl), and light, from the sun (the god Huitzilopochtli, also responsible for War). In order to secure the original energy source in this supply chain – the continuous return of the sun from its nightly passage thru Mictlan (the underworld) - and to prevent it from stalling lethally over the earth during the day, sacrifice of human blood to quench the sun’s thirst and renew its strength for the journey is required.



In a piece of reductive anthropology not a million miles from The Golden Bough, the Aztecs become Victorians in disguise, uptight moralists with a big empire, a large civil service bureaucracy, repressive sexual and social morés and – somewhat incongruously - a passion for ritual human sacrifice. Okay, so the last bit sticks out rather, but the basic logic is unimpeded and questions regarding the uncanny over-presence of violent death pass by unremarked. Instead we are treated to further reinforcements of the known and the now – ‘Fish... were abundant in lake Titzcoco and provided an important source of protein for the population of Tenochtitlan’, and so on... It would be no problem to link up the Aztecs' spicy aphrodisiac chocolate (available at one of the various workshops ‘fleshing out’ the show – antechambers of the cult, outré outreach) to the contemporary and burgeoning penchant of neo-Aztecs for functional beverages. In the end, everything about the Aztecs’ particular version of propitiation remains mysterious, as if true to Bataille’s diagnosis of modernity’s mechanistic and restricted economics.

However, there is every reason to doubt this first analysis. Do we really live like Victorians? Are we really still the kind of Aztecs the show thinks they are, as it were? Isn’t the reverse true, and, pace the predictions of the younger Baudrillard, have we not entered into the protracted revenge of ‘savage’ culture on the rational and teleological pretensions of modernity? What if, while screening the real nature of the process under a functionalist algebra, we are simultaneously and violently succumbing to the lure of another logic, another way of death? The Aztecs' convulsive, visceral, ecstatic and immanent aspects may prove to be more infectious than at first seems the case. If we destroy the sacred in other cultures by replicating them (and the Aztecs themselves came into being through a succession of acts of simulation, replication, appropriative imitation – from the theft of other gods to their impersonation in the ecstatic moment by the priest caste), do we not simultaneously, and parodically, enter into a new kind of immanence, the information culture equivalent of the Aztecs’ irrational blood pact with the sun? Where the priests would mediate between the humans and the gods, impersonating them and so blurring the boundaries between the earthly and the divine, transcendent and immanent, shedding blood to establish channels of direct communication, so a culture that can buy and sell ‘Aztec mousemats’ in its temples / supermarkets like the RA, may be living in a new hybrid of immanence and transcendence, establishing a new form of intensive dwelling where, as Benjamin would say, the erlebnis of information overload, the 1000 unnatural shocks that data is heir to, becomes so permanent a condition that it feels like home.



The communion with human-gods and god-humans, whether pop star demi-deities or the CEOs of progressively ‘human-faced’ companies like Virgin (Branson, our Lord of the Air resembles the Aztec priest in his Ehecatl-Quetzalcotl beak mask), the general persistence of mediation, hierarchy and violence alongside a nevertheless visceral and almost orgiastic culture of ecstatic communion (constant file swapping, datacannibalism, gift-giving, identity exchange, und so weiter) would see the cultural (il)logic of the Aztecs overthrowing our own by an occult ruse of (un)reason while itself segueing back toward earlier, possibly nomadic, even pre-historic precursors. In the end it’s not that we like the Aztecs because we have made them resemble us, but because they have made us resemble them. To invert Adorno, the pre-enlightenment is totalitarian: it only takes one turtle ocarina or codex t-shirt from the Aztec-inspired gift shop to turn a child into a fully interpellated savage (not to mention the effect of the tequila worm lollipops, so full of ‘E’ numbers!). Indeed the general tendency to infantilisation is hardly checked by such shows – in the end every adult is dragged down by their children’s goggling preoccupation with flesh fleeces and beaten gold lip-plugs. After all, their overworked and no doubt accursed progenitors already survive on idealist brand substitutes for the juice of the maguey cactus such as Red Bull (‘Red Bull, it gives you wings’). Could it be that there is only a hair’s breadth, albeit an abyssal one, between the Aztecs’ infantilised slave class and ours?



America is a nation ... that values our relationship with the Almighty. We need commonsense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God.

–George W. Bush

The irony of this atavistic return becomes the one reliable cosmic force, a tone as pervasive as the cocktail of ecstatic horror and blankness one sees in the masks of the Aztecs, the algebra of the skull that combines maximum expression (the grinning teeth) and complete impassivity (the hollow sockets) in a single image (Benjamin). Today’s equation is ironic detachment and rampant panic, the formula of the peace protest (‘Make Tea Not War’) and of politics, of beauty products and global warming. This cocktail of terror and apathia is still pervasive, intoxicating as the psychotropic pulque, the juice of the maguey cactus imbibed by both the Aztec priest pre-sacrifice and by the working class populace in seasons of riot. Revered as symbolic rite in the one, denounced as moral dereliction in the other, the same asymmetry applies to violence and sacrifice, terror and apathy, as it does to morality and booze. Taken out of the hands of the priests and politicians, the dagger, the cactus, indifference and sacrifice can still have an emancipatory potential. Aztecs’ narrative of collapsing new civilisations (Einsturzende Neuzivilisations?) reveals the fragility of contemporary hierarchies, subverted, from their children to their slaves, by constituting subalterns, the bloodstream of living labour that creates the abundance that sacrificial hierarchies from 1325 to this day find so hard to bear.[2] This is the excess that traumatised the Aztec priests and the 20th century bourgeoisie, not so much Bataille’s orgy of riot as the promise of a world in which a ruling elite and its theatre of cruelty could not and need not exist. The mass deception of organised sacrifice turned technological advance and prodigious beauty into a machinery of subjugation. While this is still the case today, the tenuousness, as well as the terror, of this systematic inversion of potential abundance has never been more tangible. This is one vision of excess that today’s involuntary victims of the Aztecs really should carry away with them, an Aztec-inspired gift really worth giving.



[1] This chant heard on Piccadilly during the recent anti-war march can be read as evidence of the insufficiency of a politics of negation, or at least of its exhausted slogan-machine, for both the current crisis and the current multitude, although more complex involutions could render more satisfyingly abstruse results: for example, what don’t we not not want? Not war! When don’t we want it? Not now nor never! Given the radical indeterminacy that permeates the undeclared, unbeginning, already begun and unending War Against Terror (what you could call the logic of TWAT), only the self-cancellingly absurd will suffice. The demotic, proto-cockney of the latter part also suggests a margin for a more truly proletarian revolutionary idiom.

[2] Did the Christian conquistadors defeat the Aztec populace so quickly because they combined enslavement with slave morality, offering the working and slave classes the ideological promise of a freedom from their rulers never previously imaginable? The Aztecs had enshrined their future demise in their foundation myth, rhyming it with their cosmology of birth-through-sacrifice (the Aztec universe begins with the self-sacrifice of the gods), but, while this glamrock fixation with imminent demise was no doubt a part of the glamour of Aztec life, the rhythm of its particular state of emergency, inherent frangibility does not on its own explain the civilisation’s rapid implosion on contact with a more highly evolved and abstracted order of violence.