Listening in Order Not to Hear? Darwin, Politics, and Sacrifice

30 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2013  

Stefan P. Dolgert

Brock University

Date Written: 2013


Little seems to unite political theorists as diverse as Robert Axelrod (on the one hand), and Elizabeth Grosz and Isabelle Stengers (on the other) – game theorists and Deleuzean feminists are widely separated by matters of ontology, epistemology, and politics – yet both groups share in the resurgence of interest in the political salience of Charles Darwin. Though once considered a political theorist only in the crude manner of early 20th century eugenicists, Darwin is now seen across the political spectrum as an inspiring boundary-crossing figure. His description of the “numberless gradations” between human and animal consciousness betokens the breakdown of rigid dichotomies between nature and culture, science and the humanities, and human and nonhuman, so much so that E. O. Wilson could proclaim the inauguration of the era of “consilience.” Yet while there is much to applaud in the deconstruction of such polarities of artifice, we are left with many questions about the specific contours of this science/humanities chimera, in particular concerning the status of nonhumans in this new cosmopolis of human/nonhuman materialism.

One specific danger in this venture, in “man’s new dialogue with nature” (as Stengers and Prigogine put it), is that this effort to give voice – to “nature,” to nonhumans, to matter – may itself be part of a larger campaign to secure “order out of chaos” (Stengers and Prigogine, again) by sacrificing the nonhuman to the human. I bring this temptation to the fore by reading Elizabeth Grosz in conjunction with the classical Athenian tragedian Aeschylus and his Oresteia trilogy. In the Oresteia we see what at first glance appears to be an advance in the progress of justice, where the outcome of Orestes’ trial incorporates the interests of both accuser (Furies) and accused (Orestes) – while Orestes is acquitted, the Furies consent to Athena’s request and are given an honored place in the Athenian civic pantheon, and are thereby transformed into the Eumenides (”kindly ones”). This solution is less progressive than it seems, however, since the cooptation of the Furies is exactly in accordance with the Greek ritual of sacrifice, in which the animal victim figuratively consents to its own destruction. The upshot is that “giving voice” and “sacrifice” are not necessarily antithetical but are part of a larger ritual of human dominance, and I inquire whether these recent efforts in the Darwinian mode are employing textual strategies similar to those of the Oresteia. Are nonhumans granted voice, given a place in a dialogue, only to have their interests ultimately sacrificed on behalf of that pseudo-voice? The irony, then would be that Grosz, who challenges the neoliberal reductionism of Axelrod’s game-playing cancer cells, is as embroiled in rituals of sacrifice as the game theorists she otherwise so skillfully debunks.

Suggested Citation

Dolgert, Stefan P., Listening in Order Not to Hear? Darwin, Politics, and Sacrifice (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper; American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN:

Stefan P. Dolgert (Contact Author)

Brock University ( email )

Department of Political Science
500 Glenridge Ave.
St. Catharines, Ontario L2S 3A1

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