First, I apologize for my practically non-existent status in the past few weeks [although, perhaps, no one has really noticed--an idea I "might should," as they say down South, consider]. Several events have converged at once to make the beginning of my spring semester both heady and frighteningly overhwhelming at once:
1. We [meaning myself, Myra Seaman, Kimberly Bell, and Mary Ramsey] are in the final revising and editing stages of our collection, Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages, due to Palgrave the beginning of February.
2. I am presenting a talk on the Old English Wonders of the East at the Newberry Library in Chicago later this month at a Renaissance Consortium seminar being led by Susan Kim, titled "Unworthy Bodies: The Other Texts of the 'Beowulf' Manuscript." [This is very exciting for me, by the way, as I am extremely admiring of Susan Kim's work and Asa Simon Mittman will also be participating--he recently published the very cool book, Maps and Monsters in Medieval England (Routledge, 2006).
3. I am teaching an M.A. seminar on monsters and demons in medieval literature and the contemporary horror film.
I'm freaking overwhelmed. But then it suddenly occurs to me today as I'm sitting--yes, once again--at my favorite table in my favorite bar in St. Louis, Erato, that there is a marvelous point of convergence between all of these things and JJC's recent post about Little Light's "feminism of monstrosity" and some of the diss-ing she has received as a result. In other words, as often happens on this blog [and rightly so, given the focus of much of JJC's scholarship], we are talking, again, about monstrosity and identity, and that has pretty much been the focus of my own work of late. My talk at the Newberry is going to focus on the thirteen-feet-tall marble-bodied women with boar’s tusks, ox-tails, and camel’s feet of the Old English Wonders, who, “on account of their giant-ness” (“For heora micelnesse”), and because they have “foul and worthless bodies” (“pa acwealde he hi for ðam hi syndon æwisce on lichoman 7 unweorðe”), are killed by Alexander the Great. I'll share more about that when I return from Chicago, but in the meantime, I want to share a portion of the chapter I am contributing to the Palgrave book, which, all of a sudden it occured to me is extremely apropos to Little Light's post, as well as the many responses to her post.
This chapter, "Exteriority Is Not a Negation But a Marvel: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf," is an overly-long essay that has been "in progress," quite literally, since the spring of 2004, and it has undergone many painful and laborious revisions. It has three sections--the first dealing with Emmanuel Levinas's philosophy of hospitality and being-for-the-other, the second dealing with female Chechen suicide bombers, and the final section dealing with Grendel in Beowulf. What I am going to share here is the second part of the essay, primarily because it speaks directly to the idea of women who, because of their decision to become suicide bombers, evoke the language of monstrosity.
Also, given everything that is going on right now in my professional life, I am hoping I have a lot to share over the next few months, relative to my M.A. course, the Newberry seminar, and also the Palgrave book, from which I plan to share excerpts from all of the chapters in the coming weeks.
excerpt from "Exteriority Is Not a Negation But a Marvel: Hospitality, Terrorism, Levinas, Beowulf":
II. It Gleams Like a Splendor But Does Not Reveal Itself
In Levinas’s philosophy, “being–for–the–other” posits the possibility of transcending the burden of self and ego through a face–to–face relationship—what Levinas terms la face–à–face sans intermediare, “a facing without intermediary.” This is a relationship with the Other, who, “under all the particular forms of expression where the Other, already in a character’s skin, plays a role—is. . .pure expression, an extradition without defense or cover, precisely the extreme rectitude of a facing, which in this nudity is an exposure unto death: nudity, destitution, passivity, and pure vulnerability.” Further, this “pure expression” always exceeds any figurative limits we might put on it—“Expression, or the face, overflows images.”
Even though I know that, in Levinas’s scheme of things, the face is not really a face, per se, but rather, an expression that exceeds figuration, I have thought, obsessively, about the face of Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva, the twenty year old Chechen woman who approached the admissions booth of an outdoor rock festival at Moscow’s Tushino airfield on July 5, 2003 and detonated the explosives strapped to her belt, killing only herself (another female bomber who was with her managed to kill herself and fourteen others). Browsing the Internet one day searching for pictures of this event, partly due to my curiosity about the phenomenon of women who are suicide terrorists, I came across the photograph of Elikhadzhiyeva lying on her back between police barricades, blood splattered on the bottom edges of her shirt, one fist partially clenched over her heart, a beer can overturned on the ground beside her head, her eyes closed, her mouth half-open—the scene is almost peaceful, and her face, serene, if also vulnerable.
I could not get Elikhadzhieyeva’s face out of my mind when I first saw it, nor can I, even now. Elikhadzhieyeva’s face haunts me precisely because it is what Levinas would have said is not really a face, but a façade, “whose essence is indifference, cold splendor, and silence,” and in which “the thing which keeps its secret is exposed and enclosed in its monumental essence and in its myth, in which it gleams like a splendor but does not deliver itself.” While there are some, I know, who will claim that it is not possible to be captivated (which is to say, to be struck with wonder) by such a face, the possessor of which is a suicide bomber (whom we call a monster and for whom some will argue no empathy is possible or even required), I would argue that, at the very least, this face—which is extraordinary in its exteriority—is a marvel that commands our attention and challenges us to take on the task, in Levinas’s words, of responding “to the life of the other man,” for we “do not have the right to leave him alone at his death.”
Between October of 2002, when roughly forty Chechen rebels, including over a dozen women, seized a theater in Moscow in the middle of a musical performance and held 800 theatergoers hostage, and September of 2004, when more than a dozen Chechen rebels, also including women, seized a school in Beslan (in the southern republic of North Ossetia), Chechens and Russians have witnessed the emergence of what many consider to be a shocking phenomenon—female suicide bombers. Because many Chechens reject the idea that these women have embraced a radical Islamic fundamentalism, and many Russians, conversely, have assumed that these women embody what they see as the “Palestinianization” of the Chechen rebellion, a certain tension, confusion, and even hysteria, attaches to the ways in which ordinary Russians and Chechens, government officials, and the international press have attempted to describe them. It has been said about the female Chechen suicide bombers, alternatively, that they have been kidnapped by Islamic extremists, given psychotropic drugs, and then raped as part of their coercion into doing what no woman would supposedly do of her own accord; that they are emotionless “brick walls,” “pre-programmed,” “brainwashed,” and “de-humanized”; that they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder; that they are blackmailed “zombies”; and that they are the harbingers of the fact that “something has come unglued at the heart of Chechen society.”
Standing in stark opposition to the idea that the female bombers are somehow not in their right mind, or that they have been coerced against their will, are the statements of the women themselves, or of those who might have known something about their motives. In September of 2003, an anonymous Chechen woman (going by the pseudonym “Kowa”) told a BBC World Service reporter, “I have only one dream now, only one mission—to blow myself up somewhere in Russia, ideally in Moscow. . . .To take as many Russian lives as possible—this is the only way to stop the Russians from killing my people. . . .Maybe this way they will get the message once and for all.” A surviving hostage of the of the Chechen rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in October of 2003 told an Associated Press reporter that one of her female captors, whose husband and brother had been killed in the war with Russia, said the following: “I have nothing to lose, I have nobody left. So I’ll go all the way with this, even though I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.” Speaking of one of the first female Chechen suicide bombers, Elza Gazuyeva, who in November of 2001 killed herself and a Russian commander who she believed had ordered the execution of her husband, a woman interviewed in Grozny said of Gazuyeva, “She was, is and will remain a heroine for us.” Lisa Ling, who traveled to Chechnya in order to interview families of female suicide bombers for a National Geographic documentary on the subject, said in an interview that the female bombers “were normal girls” who, nevertheless, also “saw no way out. They saw their lives. . .as too difficult to handle, and when they reached that stage, in their minds, taking out the enemy was an opportunity to become a hero.”
It is important to understand the larger historical context within which Elikhadzhieyeva and other Chechen women have committed themselves to murder and suicide—a context, moreover, that can be seen as conducive to, simultaneously, inhumanity, insanity, and the completely rational (and sane) desire for a revenge that could only be accomplished extralegally. Since 1999, when Russia reintroduced military forces into Chechnya in order to suppress the Chechen rebellion (a rebellion they had “put down” once before with massive bombing and other war campaigns in 1994 and 1995), but especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center towers, when Russian President Valdmir Putin declared that the struggle against Chechen rebels was simultaneously a struggle against al Qaeda-sponsored terrorism, Chechen citizens have been plunged into a nightmarish cycle of vicious abuse, including abductions, torture, rape, assassination, and mass extermination. Of particular concern to international human rights organizations have been the systematic “sweep” operations and nighttime raids, on the part of the Russian military, that have resulted in the “disappearance” (likely after torture and extrajudicial execution) of thousands of Chechens since 1999. According to a Human Rights Watch “Briefing Paper” on the subject published in March of 2005, the Russian government “contends that its operations in Chechnya are its contribution to the global campaign against terrorism. But the human rights violations Russian forces have committed there, reinforced by the climate of impunity the government has created, have not only brought untold suffering to hundreds of thousands of civilians but also undermined the goal of fighting terrorism.” In addition, “as part of Russia’s policy of ‘Chechenization’ of the conflict, pro-Moscow Chechen forces have begun to play an increasingly active role in the conflict, gradually replacing federal troops as the main perpetrators of ‘disappearances’ and other human rights violations.” Most of the “disappeared” are men between the ages of eighteen and forty, although children and women have also been targeted, and while local and federal prosecutors routinely investigate abductions reported by families of the victims, no actual convictions have ever resulted from these investigations. According to Human Rights Watch, most of the cases “are closed or suspended after several months ‘due to the impossibility of establishing the identity of perpetrators’,” and even “when detainees held in unacknowledged detention are released and the perpetrators established, no accountability process takes place.” There has also been evidence of Russian military forces burying executed Chechens in mass graves.
So, while on the one hand, the State, in the form of local and federal government authorities, is “investigating” the abductions and extrajudicial executions of Chechen citizens, with the other hand, in the form of its military, it is burying the evidence of the murder of its own citizens. To add to the general terror and despair of all this, the 2005 “Briefing Paper” also notes that in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, “most people. . .live in the partial ruins of apartment buildings damaged by relentless bombing campaigns. There is no running water and power outages are frequent.” In other areas, people “who have survived the chaos of two wars and actively protested the abuses perpetrated in their villages are now to terrified to open their door even to their neighbors.” Such is the bleak world in which Elikhadzhieyeva and other female suicide terrorists were formed.
It has to be admitted that suicide terrorists do not “play fair,” since, as Jean Baudrillard writes, “they put their own deaths into play—to which there is no possible response (‘they are cowards’),” but they are also attempting to contest a system “whose very excess of power poses an insoluble challenge,” to which “the terrorists respond with a definitive act that is also not susceptible of exchange.” In turn, the government’s response is typically one of complete refusal to negotiate and flat-out extermination. After the siege at the school in Beslan, Putin told the press, “We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons, and destroy them.” Putin’s comments are typical of most state governments’ responses to terrorists. In April of 2004, in a speech delivered in Kansas City, Missouri that referred to terrorist attacks in the cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad in Iraq, United States Vice-President Dick Cheney stated, “Such an enemy cannot be deterred, cannot be contained, cannot be appeased, or negotiated with. It can only be destroyed. And that is the business at hand.” On both sides, this is a zero-sum game, and it also raises the difficult question, posed by Derrida, “What difference is there between, on the one hand, the force that can be just, or in any case deemed legitimate (not only an instrument in the service of the law but the practice and even the realization, the essence of droit), and on the other other hand the violence that one always deems unjust? What is a just force or a non-violent force?”
Because the current government of Russia, and the United States, whatever evidence to the contrary, do not identify themselves as tyrannies, but rather, as federalist democracies that supposedly set certain limits to the government’s use of force, terrorism—in particular, suicide terrorism—poses a special problem, because it is a type of violence that cannot be brought to court, as it were. And yet, suicide terrorism—at least, in the case of the female Chechens—can also be a violence of last resort. It does not represent the first time the stranger-Other, who is also a citizen, has knocked on (or blown open) the door of the State and demanded recognition. And in the case of Chechnya, especially, where the perpetrators of abuse against civilians, in “the vast majority of cases. . .are unquestionably government agents,” the avenue of legal recourse for redress of abuses against civilians is obviously not open, except as an apparition.
We must never forget that terrorists are real persons with real lives grounded in all the material and psychic particularities of the local—Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva, for instance, lived with her sister in a brick house in a small Chechen village and studied at the medical vocational school there. The two Chechen women, Amanat Nagayeva and Satsita Dzhbirkhanova, who brought down two Russian passenger planes in August of 2004, killing themselves and eighty-nine other passengers, lived with two other women in a cramped, bombed-out apartment building in Grozny and worked selling clothing and other goods in the central market. In his study My Life Is A Weapon, Christoph Reuter writes that suicide attackers “are not cruise missiles on two legs, killing machines who come out of nowhere with the wrath of God or the murderous orders of a cult leader programmed into them. They are, whatever lengths they or we will go to forget it, people—individuals with families rooted in a given society.” The Chechen women who have become suicide bombers have been living in conditions of absolute poverty and desolation—both physical and psychic—and their acts of terrorism can be seen as the last gestures of an extreme desperation. But we cannot forget that these gestures are also immoral acts of violence that maimed and killed others who were, like the female bombers themselves, “ordinary civilians.”
Just as “we” refuse to negotiate with terrorists—just as we withhold, in other words, the gift of welcoming through language—“they” also refuse to welcome us through language, and instead, write their suicide letters on our collective body with their weapons and render us incapable of returning anything to them except our hatred, which they do not stay to receive. But our understanding of these women, if we are willing to embark on such a project, will have to begin with an understanding of the general perception of them, grounded in the order of the symbolic, as monsters. As Jeffrey Cohen reminds us, the monster’s body is always a cultural body: “The monster is born. . .as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence.” In his “seven theses toward understanding cultures through the monsters they bear,” Cohen argues that the monster always embodies difference writ large (usually along lines that are sexual, racial, and cultural), and “the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur” in the body of the monster which always threatens “to fragment the delicate matrix of relational systems that unite every private body to the public world.” The female Chechen suicide bombers are especially troubling in this scenario because they bring together in their cultural bodies two “signs” that have traditionally terrified through their Otherness: “woman” and “nonwhite” (what Cohen terms She and Them!).
Also central to the issue of what might be called the troubling, yet intimate alterity of these women, is the name given to them, as a collectivity, by the Russian government and quickly picked up and broadcast widely by the international press: they are the “black widows” of Chechnya—that is to say, they are the actual widows (the wives, yes, but also the mothers, sisters, and daughters) of men killed in an ongoing war with Russia that has claimed over 100,000 lives, but they are also venomous black widow spiders who kill with one bite. Apparently, the Chechen women first earned this moniker during the rebel takeover of the Dubrovka Theater when they were seen on Russian television wearing black hijabs and explosive-laden belts. Furthermore, the supposed leader of these women has been referred to as “Black Fatima,” a nickname that incorporates racial and religious fears. They are therefore both intimately familiar, yet also monstrously Other, and it is precisely because of their intimacy—because they are, ultimately, like us—that they drive us to the language of exteriority: we say that they are inhuman, and even, monstrous, and their acts, evil and unspeakable. We say, in as many ways as we can, they are not like us.
According to Cohen, the monster resides in the “marginal geography of the Exterior, beyond the limits of the Thinkable, a place that is doubly dangerous: simultaneously ‘exorbitant’ and ‘quite close’.” The female Chechen terrorists are strange to many Russians (and even to some Chechens), yet also lie very close to the heart of what Russia is—a state that originated and maintains its hegemonic authority with violence against persons and groups of people who do not possess equivalent force: they are, in Levinas's words, the “isolated and heroic being[s] the State produces by its virile virtues”—and therefore, it will never be a matter of simply driving them back to the wilderness from which they supposedly came, nor of just destroying them (Russia’s “official policy”).
If the only policy against terrorists is to hunt them down and destroy—i.e., to kill—them, without conversation, they will keep returning to us, bearing the gift of their deaths and our own murder. If we cannot approach these figures except as monsters, as inhuman, as illegible, then we cannot embark on what Levinas calls the “absolute adventure” of pluralistic being, which is peace itself, but only when we understand that peace “cannot be identified with the end of combats that cease for want of combatants, by the defeat of some and the victory of the others, that is, with cemeteries or future universal empires. Peace must be my peace, in a relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness, where the I both maintains itself and exists without egoism.” But this kind of desiring, which requires that we turn our home (our recollection of ourselves–to–ourselves) into a kind of wandering that allows us to meet and welcome the stranger-Other and even behold her—behold the face of Zulikhan Elikhadzhiyeva—on the plane of the expression of her most enraged and suicidal being, currently exceeds our grasp. It is almost too much to ask. And yet, by her death, she both demands and escapes our judgment