Horror : Kiarina Kordela

Lezra’s argument relies on the logic of sovereignty (divisible versus indivisible) in the republic as the modern form of power, an issue, which as we know from Carl Schmitt and are reminded of by Giorgio Agamben, is an exemplary point of overlap between politics and logics: how can sovereign power—the power to distinguish between the norm and the case of exception [Ausnahmezustand or Ausnahmefall]—be juridico-politically legitimate (which presupposes being part of the norm), since the above distinction presupposes a meta-level, an agency above and prior to the distinction? In Schmitt’s words, “the case of exception [Ausnahmefall] reveals most clearly the essence of state’s authority,” namely, its “paradox” that in order for “authority . . . to produce the law it need not be based on law [um Recht zu schaffen, nicht Recht zu haben braucht],” since the space of the legal norm, from which alone the exception could be legitimately pronounced, is itself first posited after this pronouncement. Approaching terror from this problematic, Lezra feels compelled to move away from Aristotelian propositional logic (either A or B is true, here and now, and in eternity) to modal logic (either A or B may be true, and it remains to be seen which of the two). In political terms, this means that sovereignty’s legitimization is prospective, it occurs in the future, thereby overlapping only with those logical models that take into account futurity. I find Lezra’s move productive in dispelling any remainders of, particularly non-expectative, theo-political—or, to use Hardt and Negri’s espoused term, “theurgical”—understandings of history and politics that propelled the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries toward the prospective, yet always teleologically given, destiny of realizing the Spirit of History, and which, as Arendt reminds us, led us to both Nazism and Bolshevism.7

Yet, today’s developmentally advanced populations of global capitalism are fascinated not with any prophetic “isms” but with capitalism, as the already accomplished realization of History, to which there is no alternative, and in which terrorism is perceived as an anomaly. Moreover, as we shall see, the fundamentally biopolitical constitution of modern power (as the politics of, and for, life) obliterates the function of sovereignty altogether, relegating us back to the meeting point between politics and (synchronic or atemporal) propositional logic, as the currently crucial philosophico-political gesture. This will be revealed in the following unfolding of the function of horror and its relation to both terror (arguing against Cavarero’s dissociation of the two terms, and in accordance with Lezra’s thesis, that the official discourse of the modern republic excludes terror from the legitimate political sphere) and terrorism (in the face of which the same discourse expects, if not demands, horror).

2. The Incitement to Horror, or, Horror as Bioracist Criterion

Indicative of what I just called the demand for horror in the face of terrorism is the following passage by Rose:

Suicide bombing is most often considered a peculiarly monstrous . . . inhuman aberration that cannot—or must not—be understood. When the Lib Dem MP Jenny Tonge observed, ‘If I had to live in that situation—and I say that advisedly—I might just consider becoming one [suicide bomber] myself’, the Israeli Embassy responded: ‘We would not expect any human being—and surely not a British MP—to express an understanding of such atrocities.’ Tonge was sacked from her party’s front bench . . . When Cherie Blair said in June 2002, ‘As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress,’ Downing Street apologised.8

Here we see the political reversibility of one of the essential conditions of horror, its quality, qua state of being, of lying outside discourse, meaning, understanding—which, in this case, is demanded from those who do express an understanding, or at least their attempt to understand. Tonge and Blair present two attempts at understanding that which power has relegated to the realm of the non-understandable, and both are met with the demand not to understand—a demand that is raised on the basis that no “human being” can “express an understanding of such atrocities.” This, of course, is a double demand, or, more accurately, a demand that is indissolubly welded to the couple of condemnation-blackmail: on the one hand, there is the injunction to the silence of horror in the face of “such atrocities,” which is imposed on “any human being”; on the other hand, the demand again on “any human being” to presuppose that those who perform these atrocious acts are not human beings, which thereby threatens to dehumanize any observer who expresses an understanding for them.

The United Kingdom’s Liberal Democratic Party did not seem to care for Rose’s plea: “The wording she [Tonge] used —‘If I had to’—is crucial. She was not sympathising: she was trying to imagine what it was like to be a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories.” As Rose puts it, “[b]ehind the argument that suicide bombers should not, or cannot, be understood lies a subtext of dehumanisation” that proceeds in degrees, from the questionably human, who expresses an understanding for “such atrocities,” down to the non- or sub-human who enacts them. 9 And in being acutely informed by the media about the repercussions of refusing to enter into the state of horror, horror can be massively incited without needing to pose itself as a demand, but only in exceptional cases. The incitement to horror operates on a reversal of Kristeva’s afore-cited statement that horror involves “the fading away of all meaning and all humanity,” so that it is the presence of meaning (expressing an understanding) that makes humanity fade away for those who bring it forth. The incitement to horror is a discursive mechanism that aims at the construction of a racial divide between humans and non- or subhumans around the criterion of the presence or absence of, precisely, horror.

In this incitement we see in action the most indispensable condition of biopower required to exercise itself as power, in the German sense of the word Gewalt, that is, not only as authority but also as violence. Turning to Michel Foucault, whereas the premodern “sovereign exercised his right of life only by exercising his right to kill, or by refraining from killing”—the power of “the sword”—and whose subjects were called to give up their life for the sake of the sovereign, modern biopower operates on the principle that its function is to “exert a positive influence on life,” to “optimize and multiply it,” “to take control of life, to manage it, to compensate for its aleatory nature, to explore and reduce biological accidents and possibilities,” in short, to foster, promote, and enhance life unconditionally.10

Biopower is legitimate only as long as it performs this function; yet, as we know, violence and the destruction of life perpetrated by legitimate power have remained an integral part of biopolitical democracies throughout modernity. Whence the question of democratic biopower, in Foucault’s words: “How will the power to kill and the function of murder operate in this technology of power, which takes life as both its object and its objective?” Violence can be legitimized only if it complies with the biopolitical principle, that is, only if it presents itself as necessary for the reproduction of life and its improvement toward a better, more (self-re)productive, life than the life that can and should be discarded. Because this discrimination is necessary for the legitimacy of biopolitical violence, biopower’s right to kill finds its sole justification in “racism,” that is, in Foucault’s words, in “the break between what must live and what must die,” according to the logic that “‘[t]he more inferior species die out . . . the more I—as a species rather than individual— . . . will be.” Although Foucault calls it a “racism of the evolutionist kind, biological racism,” bioracism is not based on some essentialized biological-hereditary characteristics, since any characteristic of a group of people that can be discursively constructed as a threat to the social body can become the index of an inferior, subhuman race. For instance, in “States (of the Soviet Union type),” bourgeois convictions sufficed to legitimize the power’s “right to kill or . . . to eliminate, or . . . to disqualify,” just as, on the other side, did communist convictions. But, as the condemnation of Tonge and others suggests, the ideological criteria that worked during the Cold War yield in contemporary global capitalism to affect—as the divide between the human and the subhuman is defined by the choice between responding with horror or remaining within a discursive state. I find it, therefore, more accurate to call it discursive-affective bioracism—a term that recognizes that biopolitics includes the non-political and non-discursive in its discursive justification for violence.11

The first political function of horror, insofar as it is an affective state of being that can be incited discursively, consists in providing the criterion for determining the bioracial break between what must live and what must die.12

7. Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 13, translation modified; Politische Theologie: Vier Kapitel zur Lehre von der Souveränität (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2009), 19; see also Jacques Lezra, Wild Materialism, 93-101; Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 396.

8. Jacqueline Rose, “Deadly Embrace.”

9. Jacqueline Rose, “Deadly Embrace.”

10. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 136-140; “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-6, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 261.

11. Michel Foucault, “Society Must be Defended”, 254-261.

12. Note that the shift from ideological differences to affect as the criterion for the bioracial divide does not in the least amount to the obliteration of ideology as, in fact, an indispensable tool in the workings of biopower. The mere fact that affect is discursively incited entails by definition that ideology remains crucial (and it was only through ideology/discourse that Bolshevism could construct the bourgeoisie as an inferior race too). The point is that in the predominantly ideological case (e.g., Cold War), ideology was put to work to produce a bioracial break on the basis of straightforwardly ideological criteria, whereas in the predominantly biopolitical case ideology is put to work to produce a bioracial break on the basis of an affective criterion. To incite the desired affect (horror), ideology has a long arsenal of trite, yet always effective, (ideological) tools, from the ideals of freedom and human rights to religion itself—even when the latter may simultaneously be employed as a means for stigmatizing the inferior biorace. And the principle that ideologies are inconsistent and thrive on contradictions remains today as strong as ever; thus, even as we presumably live at the end of history, all sorts of prophetic “isms” (Bush’s apocalyptism might come to mind) are incessantly employed in and by the same discourse that endeavors to construct the “other” as an inferior biorace on the basis of, again, “isms” (non-Christian “religious fundamentalists” might come to mind). What differentiates the predominantly ideological from the predominantly biopolitical case is that the latter precludes a priori the possibility of dialogue: a Bolshevist could, at least in theory, debate with a bourgeois; a “human being”—and the mere fact that the term passes by now as a “neutral” designator is in itself telling of the extent of Western capitalist colonialism—cannot debate with the one who causes her/him horror, since s/he is not even supposed (allowed) to understand.

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