Friday, January 19, 2007

She Gleams Like a Splendor, But Does Not Deliver Herself

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


Karl Steel said...

Quite moving piece, EJ. I hope to have more to say about it once my cold clears up, but for now, here's one of the passages that leapt out at me:

National Geographic documentary on the subject, said in an interview that the female bombers “were normal girls” who, nevertheless, also “saw no way out.

What do you suppose the National Geographic meant by "normal"? Do they mean "without ideology?"


Also, do you deal with male suicide bombers (MSB) in your piece? It strikes me that MSB end up constructed as expected, comprehensible, because FSB are so frightening. As frightening as, say, Mohamed Atta and his "monstrous eyes" are, he and his cohort becomes less monstrous because of the emergence of figures whose are monstrous manifestations of many more sites of Otherness. That is, where Atta represents only the racial and religious Other to dominant American media, Chechen FSB represent racial, religious, gender, and economic Others.

The latter point also leaps out at me. On the one hand--following the Baudrillard you quote but also your piece as a whole--the death of the suicide bomber prevents the deaths the bomber causes from being exchanged with anything: with punishment of the killer and perhaps even with explanation from/of the killer. Yet we can exchange their deaths with explanation to some degree, as you demonstrate: many of these women are people "with nothing left to lose."

With that in mind, what do we do with Atta? He was a "Middle Class"--always a problem word--man, educated in the West. How do we convert that upbringing into something that can be "exchanged" in explanation for his death and the deaths he caused? Is there a way that the enigma of Atta--a well educated, well off man from a city with which many in the West are familiar--is actually more monstrous than Chechen FSB, who are likely not well educated, who are likely poor, who live in areas wholly unfamiliar to the West?

And so the cold propelled me to say more than I had first intended. I suppose that speaks to the strength of your piece.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--thanks for your very thoughtful comments; I do not deal with male suicide bombers, partly because I was drawn in by the case of the female Chechen suicide bombers, and also because the Russia/Chechnya situation is so unique vis-a-vis the "problem" of suicide terrorism, partly because, with enough attention to historical details, it is possible to see the Chechen "terrorists," I believe, as heroic, even though, of course, they are also murderers [this is my own argument, I understand, and not all will agree, but in this situation it is my belief that it is the Russian government who are the real terrorists]. I don't know enough about Atta, or others like him, but even just from what details you provide, I can see your point [or provocation to thought] quite clearly, and think it is compelling: that Atta could be considered even *more* Other than the Chechen women because his background creates a cultural/political context that would seem to contraindicate his actions. He is more "anomalous," in other words, in his terroristic actions [and animosity toward the US] than the Chechen women, whose immediate social/political context almost seems designed ahead of time to elicit their self-willed deaths and acts of murder [and rage, but also despair]. The two best books on the subject of suicide terrorism that, nevertheless, almost completely and maddeningly ignore the subject of female terrorists, is Robert Pape's "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism" (New York, 2005) and Christoph Reuter's "My Life Is A Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing," trans. Helena Ragg-Kirkby (Princeton, 2004). On the dismal subject of Chechnya, which offers the best commentary I've seen so far on the subject of the female suicide bombers, I recommend Anna Politkoskaya, "A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya," trans. Alexander Burry (Chicago, 2003).

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for translating my muddled comment into English, EJ!

Part of what's peculiar about Atta is that he so clearly chose to do what he did. He wasn't compelled into hatred of the US and hatred of Jews because of his immediate situation but because he made the decision to affiliate himself with other people as his neighbors, so to speak. The crimes against "the Arab world" (placeholder) became crimes against him ("Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." MLK) On the one hand, by abandoning his privilege to sacrifice himself for what he saw as the greater good, Atta performed something that might be recognized as a profoundly ethical, profoundly admirable act. But what he did was (obviously) monstrous, not only because of the deed itself, but also because his act, because it was so clearly willed, cannot be explained by cause and effect. Volition is often understood as unnatural, monstrous (see Butler, Undoing Gender), whereas the sacrifice to compulsion--as in the case of Chechen FSB, or certain defenses of queerness--is natural. This isn't to say that there isn't also a manifestation of monstrosity in the FSB! It's just that I've just become--at least for the last 20 minutes--hung up on Atta.

BTW, your post inspired me to buy Violence and Its Alternatives: An Interdisciplinary Reader. The TOC looks really exciting.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm catching up on the blog by reading backwards, so I came to this piece after the more recent A-S one. I'm tired (I'm supposed to explain Richard III to 150-300 strangers tomorrow) and probably not being a close enough reader, but my foggy brain sees in Eileen's story an impulse to find the culturally determined in the Chechen female bomber (what is more natural than to give into despair, especially when you live in a world without alternative and hope?). Karl on the other hand is wondering about what exceeds such determinism ("[Atta's] act, because it was so clearly willed, cannot be explained by cause and effect").

I guess I'm wondering about what happens at the place both meet, we foreground what is transhistorical: the surprising [?] human willingness to destroy self and other in an orgy of violence -- that is, the human ability to turn empathy off. Since Richard 3 is on my mind, I keep thinking about how the nameless men who murder Clarence and Tyrrel, the thug who suffocates the princes in the Tower, are both hit at the moment of violence by pangs of conscience -- really, I think, pangs of seeing the other and self at once in the way Eileen writes about Levinas -- and hesitate before returning to the historical/political force that determines their roles and propels them towards violence. Their hesitation doesn't save any lives, but it does alter the ethical tenor of the play in lasting ways.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--thanks for the reference to the book "Violence and Its Alternatives"--I didn't know about it, and it looks awfully apropos to my subject.

JJC--your comments are really apropos to the epigraph I use at the beginning of my essay, which I will copy here [it is from Simone Weil's essay, "The Iliad, or, A Poem of Force":

"He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow–creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The variety of constraints pressing upon man give rise to the illusion of several distinct species that cannot communicate. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice."

I will also share here how, closer to the opening of my essay, I try to explain what I am doing by talking about Levinas, female Chechen terrorists, and Grendel in "Beowulf":

--------beginning of excerpt-------

In his conclusion to "Totality and Infinity," Levinas writes that, “In the measure that the face of the Other relates us with a third party, the metaphysical relation of the I with the Other moves into the form of a We, aspires to a State, institutions, laws, which are the source of universality. But politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself; it deforms the I and the other who have given rise to it, for it judges them according to universal rules, and thus as in absentia.” Although the individual ethical subject is ultimately made invisible by the State’s insistence on “universality,” and therefore hospitality has to define itself, in certain singular situations, against the State, the State nevertheless reserves a framework for it (through various of its institutions, such as law courts and bills of rights), and also operates as a placeholder of borders that will need to be transgressed in order for true ethics to be possible. Although the democratic State, in Levinas’s view, can function as a rational political order that ends exile and violence and endows men with freedom, the world in which the welcoming of the stranger-Other is possible will always be radically different from the State, which, “with its realpolitik, comes from another universe, sealed off from sensibility, or protest by ‘beautiful souls,’ or tears shed by an ‘unhappy unconsciousness’.” There is a necessity for a type of politics that purposefully forces open a door (porte) in the place that marks the border between the enclosure of the State and the more perfect future that lies beyond it, and this politics is often accomplished, in different times and places, by what Levinas calls the “isolated and heroic being that the State produces by its virile virtues. Such a being confronts death out of pure courage and whatever the cause for which he dies.”

What I offer in this essay is a consideration of Levinas’s philosophy of hospitality in relation to that “isolated and heroic being that the State produces by its virile virtues,” through an analysis of the ethical “problem” of terrorism in the cases of female Chechen suicide bombers in contemporary Russia and Grendel in the Old English poem "Beowulf." In the trauma that is created in the wake of disturbance of the violent, destroying stranger-Other—-such as a Grendel or a suicide terrorist—-how is welcoming, or hospitality (the very foundation of ethicity), even possible? If the actual, material face is the “somewhere of a dwelling” of the stranger-Other whom we must welcome, how do the faces of those who have been determined ahead of time to be “too exterior” (read: too foreign or inhuman) forbid, yet also call more urgently for our welcoming of them? If the home constitutes the site of recollection (a coming–to–oneself) which is the condition for welcoming (a going–out–of–oneself to the Other), what happens to the ethical project of hospitality when the stranger-Other is actively trying to destroy that home (perhaps out of an anomie, but also rage, over his or her own homelessness)? If, as Levinas argues, the “positive deployment of a pacific relation with the other, without frontier or any negativity, is produced in language,” how can we make peace with those to whom we refuse to speak, and who, in turn, refuse to speak to us? In what way does terroristic violence (whether the anthrophagy of a Grendel or the belted bomb of a suicide terrorist) simultaneously summon and accuse us as those who are irreplaceable? How, finally, do these terroristic figures signify and enact a type of violence (even, a type of radical evil) that the State itself simultaneously exercises and punishes?

Most likely written in a tenth- to eleventh-century Anglo-Saxon monastic setting that would have been structured by a Christian ethics of hospitality, and taking as its subject an earlier, proto-Christian cultural milieu (Scandinavia in the geardagum, “the old days”) that was also structured, in important ways, by particular socially-regulated modes of hospitality, Beowulf reveals many of the fissures that often open up when the moral dictums, “welcome the Stranger” and “love thy neighbor as thyself,” run up against the troubling socio-political question, “what if the Stranger, or my neighbor, is also my enemy?” The dead bodies of Chechen women who have killed themselves and others in the course of their suicide missions within Russia pose the same troubling question, and also serve as placeholders of Levinasian “faces” that, because they are both vulnerably and nakedly human but also enclose a terrifying will–to–death, challenge our ability to welcome the expressions of what we believe are the radically exterior beings concealed within. In the same way, the disfigured (and monstrous) yet still human form of Grendel, whom Beowulf describes as an uncuðne nið (“unknown violence”; l. 276), both refuses all gestures of welcoming and recollection, while also calling into question the limits of the ethics (and even, the law) of hospitality that were clearly important in both Anglo-Saxon England and in the world of the poem.

I do not wish, at any point in this essay, to imply that there is a one-to-one correlation between the female Chechen suicide bombers and Grendel, for their “cases,” as it were, are very different: the former are real persons situated in a very real and troubling contemporary history, whereas Grendel is a fictional bogeyman situated in a pseudo-historical, medieval text. And whereas the political crisis and motives of the suicide bombers can, without too much trouble, be well articulated, Grendel is a figure who appears, at first, to come from nowhere bearing an inscrutable hatred. But as figures bearing terroristic violence, they both pose a certain challenge to societies that claim not to know them or not to understand their aggression (or both), while at the same time these societies are themselves caught up in cycles of aggression and murder for which they have devised legalistic and other justifications, and terrorism, for these societies, is always on the outside. Both the suicide bombers and Grendel engage in forms of supposedly extralegal force that frustrate the very self-identity of societies that consider themselves “just” or “right,” and that either see no remedy under their laws for these terrifying “invaders,” or will not admit the possibility of one. While both the Chechen women and Grendel are viewed in their respective cultures as figures of exorbitant exteriority, nevertheless, they are mainly terrifying for the ways in which they bring to vivid life (and death) the obscene violence at the interior heart of States that mark the place of a supposedly more ethical community. Finally, through their ferocious aggression—which aggression, I would argue, is born out of particular historical moments as a kind of excess—both the Chechen women and Grendel perform what Levinas calls a “deadly jump” (salto mortale) over the abyss that separates the present from death, and thereby enter the horizon of the “not-yet” which is “more vast than history itself” and “in which history is judged.”

Karl Steel said...

Looks like it's going to be a really exciting essay, EJ.

Two quick q's:

You play with Grendel as ellengaest, powerful/valiant guest/demon? It's perfect for what you're doing. I don't really know Beowulf scholarship, so perhaps that bit's already been done to death over the last 16 years or more.

What does a "true ethics" look like? Naive question maybe? Should I read more Levinas?

I also think of the way I teach the Odyssey, as an effort to work out the problem of the indiscernibility between being a pirate and being a guest and the place of anthropophagy in that node. There's something in that that touches on what you're doing, too.

Karl Steel said...

One more little thing. Although I find his argument a bit strained, you might find useful William Perry Marvin's discussion of Grendel and Heorot and hunting law in Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (D. S. Brewer, 2006). Working with Heorot as "Hart," Marvin sees Grendel's attack on the hall as one system of hunting (an archaic, egalitarian system) at odds with another (a more recent one in which hunting is a means of consolidating territory and establishing hierarchies):

"Grendel's bearing towards Heorot adopts the posture of an immediate-return hunter angered by the Danes' appropriation of an egalitarian symbol. He disdains Hrothgar's gifting prerogative and, as it were, forces the parting out of pieces of the body of the Hart--literally, Scylding warriors in the flesh." (43)

The incommensurable social orders represented by the hunting of Grendel on the one hand and Hrothgar/Beowulf on the other seem fitted to your argument.

Eileen Joy said...

As always, Karl, your provocations-to-thought and references are so helpful. For once, I can say, YES, I know the Marvin book, and it's on my work table. It hasn't proved as useful as I had initially hoped, but it *is* kind of tangentially apropos to my subject. And yeah, I spend a good deal of time on the terms used to describe Grendel, especially "ellengaest" but even more so "ellorgaest" and "aglaeca." I do not know about conflating "gaest" [ghost] and "gest" [guest]. I'll have to ponder that more [and also check out the DOE corpus!]. Cheers, and thanks again.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the kind comments, and all best with this project. I'd love to see whatever you come up with vis-a-vis ghost/guest. I'd check the MED and OED, myself, but I know these are probably sad substitutes for whatever ASaxonists use.