Sacrifice and Natality: Surrogacy Structures


Why do so many texts with no agenda on ‘gender’–created long before the rise of feminist theology and philosophy—force the mother into the foreground, next to or superimposed upon the sacrificial altar? The numerous examples (we will only be touching on a selection in this lecture!) include Kierkegaard’s Attunement section in Fear and Trembling; early Christian Syriac poetry; and the strangely self-harming triptych of Genesis 21-23, where the doubled surrogate mothers, Hagar and Sarah, stand on either side of the ‘sacrifice’ (in inverted commas)—a sacrifice that is textualised, transformed, but infinitely reproductive nonetheless.

Why have histories of sacrifice been so haunted (though ‘haunted’ is too thin a word for such visceral figures of birth and the maternal body) by the uncanny mimesis—and repulsion—between mortality and natality? And how does the strange kinship between sacrifice and birth affect the old theological/philosophical debate over the ends and edges of ‘man’, in his fragile position between animalplus and divinityminus (and distinct from ‘woman’—always elsewhere, somewhere)? 'Like' birth, blood sacrifice is situated at, or just teetering over, life’s outer edge.

Yvonne Sherwood has taught for thirty years in British universities, such as King's College London, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Kent. She has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the British Academy, was the 2015 Speaker's Lecturer at the University of Oxford, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Oslo in 2017. Among her published works is Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for a Secular Age, which was shortlisted for the American Academy Awards for Excellence Book Prize; The Invention of the Biblical Scholar: A Critical Manifesto (co-authored with Stephen D. Moore, 2011), and The Bible and Feminism: Remapping the Field (2017).

Katerina Koci, post-doctoral researcher at the IWM, introduced the speaker and moderated the ensuing Q&A.

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