So must the gentle Einstein have felt when his dreamed concept of the nature of matter flashed over Hiroshima. – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961/2008)
The brutal acts of a few terrorists in Paris have revealed the thoughtlessness of many in public life and the media.
The entire event-complex is, of course, deeply sad for the families of the dead – all of the dead, including the families of the perpetrators – and this, hopefully, elicits the empathy of those not directly affected.
But the event’s revelation of the inability of the majority of public figures to think in terms of systems and history – to think dynamically, and to see and understand the relationships between different forces, political, economic, cultural and geographic – is a source of profound despair regarding the global future.
So how have politicians and commentators in the mass media reacted senselessly? Four examples are immediately evident.
Good vs. evil?
It is a feeble mind that establishes an exception in the place of a rule – and, equally, it is a feeble mind that is unable to see the exception as the product of the rule.
And one of the rules of human social existence – anyone with a cursory knowledge of world history would know it – is that when people are without hope, they act hopelessly.
Yet commentators and politicians persist in interpreting these actions outside of political and historical events, reducing their analyses to recurrent series of meaningless platitudes, metaphysical caricatures of good versus evil. “The terrorists,” one Prime Minister said, “claim to be doing the work of God – but they’re actually doing the work of the devil.”
What on earth does this mean? And what is the putative value of such a statement, beyond the escalation of enmity?
It certainly primes the ground for extermination. If people are devils, after all, they’re not people – and they can be killed with impunity. Such obliteration of humanity is already occurring in response to Paris, through the shutting of borders to refugees who were generated, in the first place, by the lethal combination of ISIS gangsterism and Western bombs.
At the same time, such Manichean statements ignore (whilst perpetuating) what Louis Althusser described as “interpellation.”
If you label a devil a devil often enough – and treat him or her as such – then a devil, eventually, he or she will become.
And thus can the bedevilled smugly sigh and say “I told you so – I knew they were a devil all along.”
Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889/2001), offered a useful typology of French revolutionary terror that may be worth bearing in mind:
There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
“War” or “terrorism”?
My second example concerns the general confusion between the notions of “war” and “terrorism” - a confusion that has become the structuring limit of myriad discourses on terrorism in the wake of 9-11.
The front page of a prominent Sydney newspaper, for example – it doesn’t need to be named because this minority (as in immaturity) of thought is widespread and not reducible to the local – referred to the events of Paris as an “act of war” and to the perpetrators of the events as “terrorists.”
This merely mirrors the confusion at large surrounding the differences between terrorism and war, but it begs the question, why is something that is, by definition, contradictory, so readily reproduced?
The structure of the asinine phrase “war on terror,” indeed, combines incommensurable elements.
If something is an “act of war,” then it is not also a “terrorist act” – and the perpetrators of the act are warriors, not terrorists. This kind of spectacular semantic mindlessness plays into the hands of terror, fuelled, as it often is, by spectacles of power’s inanity.
Islam and “Holy War”
Perhaps the most significant stroke of ungenius is evident in the interpretations of Paris, amongst other attacks, first and foremost in terms of religion.
The propagation of the notion that such acts are primarily the products and symptoms of some kind of “Holy War” – a notion that serves as invaluable recruitment propaganda for ISIS – ignores the myriad, far more significant factors that are at play, whilst at the same time marginalising the inheritance of Islam of the Messianic traditions of both Judaism and Christianity (all three of the main religious texts have been, at times, interpreted as advocating violence).
Religion is only one element that exists as part of the human complex of culture, political economy, and social, geographical and ecological history.
It is a factor in human technics – but it is far from a single factor operating on its own.
Religion has always been politically embedded a priori – which is why, as Peter Sloterdijk points out in God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms (2007/2009), Islamic communities were able to deal with the Quran’s death-commands through a system of benevolent taxation.
Thus the silliness of statements like “Islam is a peaceful religion.” If one is following the Quaran to the letter, this is hardly the case - like the Old Testament, and, to a lesser extent, the New Testament, it calls for violence in places.
But this is beside the point.
Whilst there is a violent potential embedded in the Quaran, to focus on this is to ignore the prevailing cultural interpretations and histories of the religion: that is, the tenets of the religion as, indeed, peacefully enacted and embodied, beyond the letter, most of the time and in most places throughout the last 1300 or so years.
Sloterdijk discusses, furthermore, the universalising impulses of Christianity, following Paul, as having inspired similar terroristic acts, with the Crusades as an example.
But perhaps the key point is that even the Crusades were driven more by economic and political motives than by religious ones.
Islam, we should remember, is a younger – and thus more primitive (by definition) – technical-religious system.
And universalism, as emperors have been quick to learn, can readily weaken the spiritual grip of those in power.
Bombs - the most effective ISIS propaganda
The call for the escalation of bombing in Syria is distressingly thoughtless.
If a military response is required – always dubious in the context of “terrorism,” when it is probably best to suppress, as much as possible, spectacular responses – then increased bombing is the worst possible strategy.
Why? Because it kills a disproportionate number of civilians to combatants, and merely strengthens the appeal of the enemy.
In the age of death from above, war has become, basically, untenable for anyone who casts a harsh eye on the massacre of civilians.
The civilian to soldier casualty rate has completely flipped around, creating the fantastical irony that it is now more favourable to be a combatant in a war zone than a civilian - combatants have a far higher chance of survival.
The best ISIS recruitment propaganda are the bombs the west continues to drop.
Beside these four guiding stars of senselessness – discourses that reduce complex systems to a Manichean level; the confusion of “war” and “terrorism;” the historical ignorance of Holy War discourse; and the strategic uselessness of bombing civilian populations – there are some other elements in the recent response to Paris that seem on the nose.
Why has Republican France, with its rich history of terror generation, responded to attacks by French people, on French territory, by thinking beyond France? The fact that ISIS claims responsibility isn’t all that relevant – these are crimes perpetrated by (in the main) French people, and should be treated as such. If deconstruction taught us anything, it’s that authorial stamps matter less than discursive-technological systems.
In a related point, the flying of the tricolours the world over seems odd; when Anders Breivik massacred a bunch of people in Norway, the response was not to fly the Norwegian flag.
So why, here, is the perception of religion trumping the perception of nationality – given, furthermore, we’re talking about France, a country with such a strident history of nationalism (and nationalistic atrocities)?
Spectacular global indignation just reveals the hypocrisy of power - an additional arrow in the quiver of ISIS propagandists.
The actions of figures like Churchill, Truman, Hitler, Stalin, and so on, were incalculably horrible, targeted as they were at civilians. The firebombing of Tokyo remains one of the greatest atrocities, and the horrors of the civilian massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are virtually unimaginable by today’s standards.
The Holocaust, rightfully, still occupies central position on the tapestry of 20th century “war crimes” (if such a phrase still carries meaning).
These are all recent events – in terms of cosmic, or even human, history.
The massacre of French people under the guise of Islamism is also horrible – but needs to be interpreted in its historical context, and alongside an ecological context involving other, far graver, human-made disasters.
Just ask the residents of New Orleans.
One-dimensional vision culture
This unwillingness to see connections between systems and events, one suspects, following Lewis Mumford’s argument in Technics and Civilization (1934/2010), is related to the increasing domination of vision culture, and its facilitation of the lack of complex thinking.
In the phase of vision-culture (my phrase), Mumford suggests:
one poses for the camera, or still more, one acts for the motion picture. The change is from an introspective to a behaviorist psychology, from the fulsome sorrows of Werther to the impassive public mask of an Ernest Hemingway. […] Alone, [contemporary man] still thinks of himself as a public character, being watched: and to a greater or less degree everyone, from the crone in a remote hamlet to the political dictator on his carefully prepared stage is in the same position. […] The change is significant: not self-examination but self-exposure: not tortured confession but easy open candor: not the proud soul wrapped in his cloak, pacing the lonely beach at midnight, but the matter-of-fact soul, naked, exposed to the sun on the beach at noonday, one of a crowd of naked people.
Vision culture encourages, to use Herbert Marcuse’s phrase, the kind of “one-dimensional thinking” that characterises the current discourse surrounding Paris.
Perhaps people are, simply, unwilling to think systemically, recalling Frank’s (Keith Davis) refusal to don the sunglasses that reveal the atrocities of the world in John Carpenter’s brilliant critique of vision culture, They Live (1988).
The genius of one of Carpenter’s influences, Karl Marx - impenetrable economic abstractions aside - derived from his ability to think and document the interrelations of divergent fields of being and knowledge, and to historicise, a hundred years before Foucault, the taxonomy of these fields according to varying forms and levels of abstraction.
The magical cure
So what do we do in this despair-inducing age of anti-thought?
Given that the role of the “professor” is to “profess,” to declare publicly (as opposed to privately, “confess”) – and given the minority level of discourse surrounding the recent events in France, and current events in general – perhaps it is time that the roles of academic and intellectual once again came together.
Perhaps, in this country and around the world, the academic – the “professor” – needs to assume more of a public position in order to draw attention to the abuses of thought committed by those in power.
Indeed, both “profess” and “prophet” are derived from words for “speaking out” – and the role of the academic professor as prophet needs rejuvenation.
The academic would become, once again, the public critic of the structures undergirding power.
The professor has always been a combination of cultural physician and sorcerer. And any academic worth his or her salt understands the historical relationship between magic and science - chemistry came out of alchemy - and that the split between “sciences” and “humanities” (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften) is a modern phenomenon.
Thus my own act of profession:
If you want to understand something about the current events in Paris, read: Sloterdijk’s God’s Zeal (2009); Franco Berardi’s Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide (2015); and Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1963).
Each is brilliant in its own right, but together they wave a wand towards cultural understanding. Their spell may go some way towards curing what ails ya.
This discussion began with a quote from one of my favourite American writers, and it shall end with one from a different medium.
In 1984 Dee Snider sang:
Take a good look in your heart, tell me what do you see? It’s black and it’s dark, now is that how you want it to be?