Saturday, August 01, 2009

Quick and Dirty Reviews: Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism

by KARL STEEL

I honestly can't remember who recommended Adriana Cavarero's Horrorism to me, so, whoever or whatever you are, thanks for enriching my understanding of violence as I slog my way towards finishing my book. Review is below the fold.

"Today it is particularly senseless that the meaning of war and its horror--as well, obviously, as its terror--should still be entrusted to the perspective of the warrior....The civilian victims, of whom the numbers of dead have soared from the Second World War on, do not share the desire to kill, much less the desire to get killed" (65).

"the instant of time that blows the bodies of the 'human bombs' and their victims to pieces today annuls the dimension of time: time in which to face up to the reality of one's own crime and to answer for it singularly. Closed in on itself, suicidal horrorism thus takes pride in the unappealability of its work in the service of an instantaneous and irresponsible violence. In this sense, it is no surprise that books on female suicide bombings written by women who are disposed to understand them, if not justify and sympathize with them, have a tendency to minimize the ethical responsibility of the bombers" (103)

I think other people are likely to to get a lot more out of this book than I did. Adriana Cavarero rightly demands that we should try to apprehend violence from the perspective not of the warrior (or 'terrorist') but from that of the victim. The victim, we should presume, does not care about whether or not he or she is being mutilated, tortured, or killed by a state actor, a criminal, or suicide bomber. Nor does the victim care about the motivation of the agent of violence: here she might have used one of Zizek's favorite quotes, this from Deleuze: "si vous êtes pris dans le rêve de l'autre, vous êtes foutu!", since these dreams of the other, dreams whether for 'freedom and democracy' or for the Caliphate or whatever, do not matter to the victim. What matters is the pain and death, especially when the victim, caught unawares, has been unable to defend him or herself from the violence. This latter point, too, is key to Cavarero, as she observes that what distinguishes modern warfare from Homeric violence (her paradigm) is the particular suffering of the defenseless. Not the battlefield, but the bombed out city, or marketplace, or supermarket, or the theater filled with corpses and poison gas, is the picture of modern mass violence. For those interested in a richer philosophy and politics of war, for those interested in engaging in further debates with Bataille (she's against him), Arendt (largely for), suicide bombing (particularly when committed by women), and contemporary modes of violence, I imagine this book is indispensable. But it absolutely needs to be paired with Zizek's Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, in large part because Cavarero never considers the systemic violence of global capitalism itself. To use Zizek's terminology, she is so committed to studying subjective violence that--symptomatically--she does not see the system of violence that sustains her own way of life.

We might save Cavarero's analysis by imagining what a 'horroristic' study might make of the fancy widget-maker (fwm): does the fwm care whether or not she is making a fw for the international yuppie smart set? Would it be all the same to her if she were manufacturing, say, toilet plungers? I suspect so. Cavarero demands that warriors and terrorists alike try to understand the violence they commit from the perspective of the victim. What might happen to our (where our= "the international yuppie smart set") love of our fw when we try to apprehend it from the perspective of the worker? Alternately, in my own work, I could demand that we try to understand nonhuman death from the perspective of the nonhuman. What does the cow care whether its meat is properly cooked? What does the sheep care whether its skin will be used for Chaucer or, god help it, Lydgate? Cavarero could ask such questions, but she is relentlessly and unthinkingly anthropocentric, a stance that is becoming increasingly unforgivable for any critical theorist, given the growing body of critical animal theory. However, when she writes, "Horror has to do precisely with the killing of uniqueness....it consists in an attack on the ontological material that, transforming unique beings into a mass of superfluous beings whose 'murder is as impersonal as the squashing of a gnat' [qting Arendt Origins of Totalitarianism:], also takes away from them their own death" (43), this surely applies as much to animals, medieval or modern, as it does to the human animal caught up in some totalitarian fantasy.

I have to confess to a perhaps petty annoyance with her typical litany of historical horrors: Stalinist Ukraine, Maoist China, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Guernica, the Khmer Rouge, Chechnya, Rwanda, German and Japanese firebombed (& otherwise) cities, Nanking, the Holocaust, Armenia (with a few scattered references to Italian cases). There's no evidence that she considered why this representative litany occurred to her and not, say, the Congo of King Leopold or the DR Congo of the twenty-first century: my sense is that consideration of these other African killing fields would require an analysis of her own complicity as a citizen of a wealthy European nation. I suffer an even pettier annoyance when she writes: "Any review of the refined arts of war developed over the course of the century would have to dedicate a separate chapter to the aerial bombardments inaugurated by German forces over Guernica and Coventry" (51). Why not Italian forces over Ethiopia the year before Guernica, or, arguably, RAF forces over Sulaymaniyah? (and while it's tempting to suggest the Zeppelin raids of English, beginning in 1915, the difference between these and Sulaymaniyah, Ethiopia, or Guernica is that the English could defend themselves: the Kurds, Ethiopians, and Basques could not, and thus stand as better representatives of horrorism (unlike the inhabitants of Coventry)). And perhaps pettiest of all: her moments of sloppiness, e.g., "...in this massacre there are not even innocents anymore, given that, whoever they are, each one is as good as the next in the abstract role of example. Although called infidel or miscreant, the absolute enemy loses all quality and assumes the role of anyone at all, with respect to whom the eventual faith of every singular victim--who sometimes, and certainly in modern Iraq, believes in the same god as his murderers--is just an accident" (75). Good point on the purposeful randomness of the victims of modern mass violence, but, c'mon, this not only elides the religious differences between Sunni and Shia, it also elides the fact that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God! Sheesh. Just like Catholics and Protestants, who have gotten along, as we know, famously well.

5 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Karl, how did you pack so much into so short a review?! Thanks for this. I read it on my iPhone last night in transit from Dulles to chez Cohen (everyone else was nodding off but I was restless). Then I woke up at 2 AM with it on my mind -- partly because 2 AM is 8 AM in Paris and it was time to get up, but mainly because these lines were getting at an issue that has long haunted me:

But [the book] absolutely needs to be paired with Zizek's Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, in large part because Cavarero never considers the systemic violence of global capitalism itself. To use Zizek's terminology, she is so committed to studying subjective violence that--symptomatically--she does not see the system of violence that sustains her own way of life.

I get that capitalism is built upon the exploitation of and violence to invisiblized others. Marxism and cultural materialism, like the postcolonial theory that comes directly from them, reminds us that every tangible enjoyment capitalism provides is sullied by the human suffering on which it depends. Medievals were fond of the memento mori: death vitiates all that is earthly, urging an ascetic turn. The "remember the blood of others" seems to me a secular version of the same illumination of taint, but -- I hope -- with a turn to human lives and alleviation of suffering rather than to distant divinity and a hope for what is next.

Why am I making so much of this medieval-modern, memento mori/remember the blood continuity? Because sometimes I think the very continuity is so comfortable that recognition of the sorry state of the present world becomes in itself satisfying, even sufficient. Spoiling enjoyments becomes the objective, rather than ameliorating the suffering of others.

So after all this longwindedness, the question: what next after the recognition? "The system of violence that sustains [our] own way of life" isn't so easy to change, because we can't simply step out of that system. What is to be done? I've learned quite a bit from you, Karl, about some tangible possibilities: your work for your own faculty union, for example, and your pointing out why Powells is better than Amazon (unionized workers). These things really matter. The same with the commitment you've made to sustainable eating through your participation in a farm cooperative.

But writings about "horrorism" or any other kind of endemic violence frequently leave me feeling stuck. Yes, support progressive causes. Yes, do the legwork for promoting the candidates who will represent our beliefs in the democracy we live in, in the hope that such change will have an impact far beyond the borders of the US. But no matter what I envision, it never seems enough.

Karl Steel said...

Great question Jeffrey, and thanks for the link to the medieval. I'm reminded of an argument I had at a dinner party a week or so ago about my work on animals. The other guy accused me of utopianism; because I have rendered the moral life impossible, he might have just as well accused me of nihilism. Now, Derrida was accused of the same thing (which is about as far as I can make the likeness between us go!), and he stressed (in some of the interviews in Points, iirc) that he's no nihilist, but rather someone who refuses to let the good conscience be by "inscribing excess and inadequation" into all "decisions worthy of the name" (qting from memory here, so I might have the words wrong).

This can look like mere fun-spoiling, but it is also a call to stop and think. One of the things I like about this moral insufficiency is that the moral and analytical life work in tandem. We are being called up to enlarge the frame of our affect. We should feel, and think, more deeply, and we should act, cautiously (Zizek in Violence stresses that we should stop and think), knowing that we could always do more. This will be ennervating and exhausting, but so is thinking and feeling more generally, if it's being done right.

(To keep on with the Zizek, I like to think about my union work or membership in a CSA (neither are uncommon in my CUNY set of friends) in terms of the 'subject supposed to be moral.' I KNOW I'm not doing enough, but I like to imagine that others (say, my friend Scott Dexter, a Comp Sci prof who heads up the local chapter of our union and does a million other administrative tasks brilliantly) are leading the good and sincere life to which I can only aspire. As a good disciple of Zizek, I know that Scott is a barred Other, but Zizek points out that knowledge and belief aren't the same thing. My belief, my fantasy, that someone--e.g., Scott--is leading the life of the good both prevents me from my own self-satisfaction (a positive spin on constitutive lack?) and lets me fantasize that I might one day arrive at moral sufficiency.)

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Thanks for that serious answer to my in the end unanswerable) question, Karl. This sentence seemed especially eloquent to me:

We are being called up to enlarge the frame of our affect. We should feel, and think, more deeply, and we should act, cautiously (Zizek in Violence stresses that we should stop and think), knowing that we could always do more. This will be ennervating and exhausting, but so is thinking and feeling more generally, if it's being done right.

That more to do is exhausting, isn't it, especially when there is already more than enough to do. It's funny, on the one hand I started to think about these questions more systematically once kids were part of my life (what future do I want them to have? what example am I setting for them?), but that is also has marked the period in my life with the most constraints on my time. It is tough to negotiate the dues of family, of friends, of the neighbor, of those who should be as if neighbors.

Julie said...

Karl, great review! Not that I’ve read Cavarero's book, but your discussion touches on so many issues that have been on the edges of my mind…. I also recently read Zizek’s Violence, and while I don’t think I’m quite as big a fan of it as you are, I do value the point you’ve emphasized (although I don’t think he explores it as thoroughly as he could within the meat of his analysis) – that one ought to pay attention to systemic violence, violence as norm rather than exception, in attempting to give an account of it in the modern world and that this ongoing, “necessary” violence can be concealed, obfuscated, and given an alibi by exclusively subjective, phenomenological, humanist, or empathic perspectives on violence. An anatomy or analysis of violence raises, I think, the imperative and the great methodological difficulties of bringing together structural and phenomenological perspectives/methods (“subjectivism” and “objectivism” in Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice) – so, following from this, the difficulty or misguidedness of an (unmediated) turn to the victim as the proper source of knowledge about violence. As Bourdieu writes (apropos something of a straw-man, but still):

The mode of knowledge that can be called ‘phenomenological’ […] cannot go beyond a description of what specifically characterizes ‘lived’ experience of the social world, that is, apprehension of the world as self-evident, ‘taken for granted’. This is because it excludes the question of the conditions of possibility of this experience, namely the coincidence of the objective structures and the internalized structures which provides the illusion of immediate understanding […]. At a deeper level, it is also because, like the practical knowledge it takes for its object, it excludes any inquiry into as to its own social conditions of possibility. (25-6)

Your criticisms of Horrorism (including the “petty” ones, which I’m glad you voiced: they are powerful if not ironclad!) seem to me methodological ones, about the writing subject’s self-confidence in proceeding as though she knows WHERE and WHAT violence IS (Stalinist Ukraine, Maoist China, Palestine and Israel, Iraq, Guernica, the Khmer Rouge, Chechnya, Rwanda…) when surely this must be part of the question and the beginning of critique. So, in response to Jeffrey’s post, I think some of the issues Karl raises are more immediately methodological and theoretical than practically moral-ethical: what are the meanings of the terms we use? what are our objects of analysis, our texts to be read? what counts as an example, an event? This scholarly re-direction of Jeffrey’s question “what next?” is probably rather suspect in itself – but if the critique of violence has practical and political aspirations, I do think that methodology and theoretical premises are ethically crucial. It seems to me not so much about one’s response being “enough” (the “never enough” is constitutive, the labor of decency necessary but unfinished) but about setting out in one’s pursuit of knowledge as clear-sightedly as one can.

Julie said...

[continued] In this context, I’d recommend to everyone a really stunning essay by Elizabeth A. Povinelli – “The Child in the Broom Closet: States of Killing and Letting Die” (South Atlantic Quarterly 107:3 [Summer 2008] 509-30). Maybe people already know it? Povinelli is exploring “lethality” in the modern state/market – which encompasses both spectacular state killings and what she calls “letting die” – “ordinary, chronic, acute, and cruddy rather than catastrophic, eventful, and sublime” (511). There are about a zillion densely compelling passages in the essay, so I’ll just share one, in which Povinelli is speaking in the context of the miserable state of indigenous peoples’ health in Australia:

In contrast to cruddy, cumulative, and chronic lethality are special forms of enemies and spectacular forms of death that capture and rivet the imagination of late liberal societies and act as an alibi for the concentration and consolidation of state executive power. Certain kinds of enemies, events, and history are seen as having a spectacular, even sublime, quality: they cut time into two present decisive ideological struggles and demand that exceptional measures be taken. Those within late liberal societies seeking to increase state surveillance powers cite these decisive kinds of enemies and devastating images of airplanes, nightclubs, and towers exploding and vomiting forth singed and dismembered bodies. The lethal state of indigenous life hardly competes with the society of the terrorist spectacle: bodies in hoods, in naked piles, attached to real or fake electrodes. Bodies disappear only to reappear with drill marks. These forms of violence seem to oppose and stand outside of the everyday uneventful forms of misery and dying that characterize indigenous life. (521)

Povinelli’s essay is also theoretically important for its tackling the difficult work of thinking the Schmittian sovereign state and the Foucauldian biopolitical state together, in relation to one another and in relation to ethics. (She also discusses statistics very powerfully, about the way statistics are capable of turning the grinding realities of poverty and “letting die” into events, but not without cost: “By transforming the invisible, dispersed, and uneventful into the visible, compact, and eventful, statistics obliterate the very nature of this kind of death. Rather than understand this kind of lethality within its own terms (its dailiness, ordinariness, livedness), we demand that it conform to the spectacular event and the ethical dictates of empathic identification” (528) -- which quote suggests the downsides of letting the phenomenological go completely in favor of "objective" "structural" perspectives....) Anyway, sorry to be so long-winded, but thanks for the provocation!