Horror : Kiarina Kordela

For Arendt the ontological crime does not consist in dismembering the body beyond just killing it, but in killing humans’ dignity, their spontaneity and unpredictability. At stake is not the ontic terror that passes through the vulnerability of the corporeal body, nor the ontic-ontological terror of the crime that destroys human dignity by destroying the body’s identity and singularity beyond just killing it—both of which cannot approach terror in its purely ontological dimension, since they refer to the ontic existence of the body. Rather, at stake here is the radically ontological terror of destroying human dignity understood as spontaneity—something that a corpse cannot have—which, therefore, can emerge only from an ontological crime against a purely ontological victim (spontaneity), which, in turn, presupposes a living body that, ideally, is perfectly capable of acting in any way that spontaneity would entice it to do. Can the uniqueness of a human being with a perfectly functioning, unrestrained, and well taken-care-of body be annihilated? This would be not the radical terror of the camps but the radical terror of the totalitarian normative biopolitical situation—the normal terror of everyday life.

Returning again to Arendt’s text, whereas the revolutionary “contempt for reality . . . still contained the proud assumption of human masters over the world . . . the totalitarian contempt for reality” is based on “cogency, logicality, and consistency,” which is the reason why what all totalitarianisms “aim at is not . . . the revolutionizing transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself.” In “all isms,” “once their claim to total validity”—e.g., bio-capitalism’s claim that life is its objective—“is taken literally, they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensively and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted,” totally disregarding any aspects of reality, including human interests. Marx comes again to mind, as he would concur with Arendt that if one can attach the “ism” to “capital” this is due to the fact that capital establishes a system that does not care for any human concerns but follows its own cogency, logicality, and consistency. In his his own words, the “magnitudes of value [of “the products of labor,” i.e., commodities] vary continually, independently of the will, foreknowledge and actions of the exchangers,” which include capitalists, laborers, and consumers alike, for their “own movement within society has for them the form of movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their [the exchangers’] control, in fact control them.” In the movement of capital, the sole “dominant subject [übergreifendes Subjekt] of this process” is “self-valorizing value,” an “automatic,” “self-moving subject which passes through a process of its own,” determined by its own logic and consistency, which also governs the exchangers under its control.30 Today, the common term for referring to this logic is the “laws of the market,” whose inviolability stands beyond doubt.

The SS’s systematic bestiality—which, by all accounts of biopolitics, constitutes the extreme, yet both exemplary and symptomatic (in the Freudian sense of the word), case of biopolitics—reveals the core of the biopolitical logic of modern capitalist modernity: the fact that it is based on cogency, logicality, and consistency. And this becomes the exclusive logic once the system becomes total. As Arendt writes, once the system “driven by the motor of logicality” has reached a critical mass of development, “we are indeed at the end of the bourgeois era of profits and power, as well as at the end of expansion and imperialism,” for the situation is already total or global. At that point “the aggressiveness of totalitarianism springs not from lust for power” but from the determination to “prove that its respective . . . [logic] has been right”; “[c]ommon sense trained in utilitarian thinking is helpless against this” logic, “since totalitarian regimes establish a functioning world of no-sense,” in which “[n]othing matters but consistency” and everything is “driven by the motor of logicality.” Once it is totalized, the system no longer operates on the basis of humanly understandable, whether contemptible or not, utilitarian or self-interested principles, but on the basis of its own logical and consistent mechanism, which determines the fates of its human cogs. (Which is why only thinking in terms of structuralism/formalism helps us understand contemporary reality.)

“Cogs” is indeed what is meant in Arendt’s comparison of the SS-camp victims with animals. Far from “beasts,” which would never allow themselves to be led unresistingly to their death—and which was the inspiration of the old (bourgeois) capitalist myth of society as a jungle in which the survival of the fittest reigns—Arendt is referring to “ghastly marionettes with human faces, which all behave like the dog in Pavlov’s experiments” and “react with perfect reliability even when going to their own death, and which do nothing but react” in predictable ways, since spontaneity (human dignity) has been annihilated. “It is chiefly for the sake of this supersense,” the non-sense of logicality, “and for the sake of complete consistency, that it is necessary for totalitarianism to destroy every trace of what we commonly call human dignity,” and that it employs “concentration camps . . . [as] the laboratories where changes in human nature are tested” as to their effectivity in eliminating human dignity. This is why the “uselessness of the camps, their cynically admitted anti-utility, is only apparent,” as in “reality, they are more essential to the preservation” of the nonsensical logicality of the supersense “than any of its other institutions.” For the very definition of totalitarianism consists in that “individuality, anything indeed that distinguishes one man from another, is intolerable,” so that “[t]otalitarian states strive constantly, though never with complete success, to establish the superfluity of man,” and “as long as all men have not been made equally superfluous . . . the ideal of totalitarian domination has not been achieved.” Therefore, when “[c]ommon sense protests desperately that the masses are submissive and that all this gigantic apparatus of terror is therefore superfluous,” if the totalitarian logic could itself speak and “were capable of telling the truth, [it] . . . would reply: The apparatus seems superfluous to you only because it serves to make men superfluous.” Arendt’s analysis locates real horror and absolute terror in the state in which “radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous”—which, as we have seen, constitutes the universal principle of biopolitics.

By “supersense,” Arendt refers to what could be called total ideology, that is, a(n) (ideo)logic that is not experienced and perceived as, precisely, ideology. Rather, it is Truth as the precondition of Totalitarian logic, a Truth that is believed to the point that is no longer cognitively accessible. As long as ideology is recognized, it that can be deconstructed and challenged by counterarguments, something which presupposes the human faculty of interpretative spontaneity. As a result, totalitarianism wants to have nothing to do with ideology. As Arendt puts it while discussing the reasons why “spontaneity as such, with its incalculability, is the greatest of all obstacles to total domination over man”:

What makes conviction and opinion of any sort so ridiculous and dangerous under totalitarian conditions is that totalitarian regimes take the greatest pride in having no need of them . . . Over and above the senselessness of totalitarian society is enthroned the ridiculous supersense of its ideological superstition. Ideologies are harmless, uncritical, and arbitrary opinions only as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems.

The resonance of Arendt’s words with our self-proclaimed post-ideological (i.e., non-ideological) society is once again astonishing.

Having been alerted by Arendt to the totalitarian character of global biopolitical capitalism, the question arises: Is there a method outside the concentration camp or anything that reveals the thanatopolitical aspect of biopolitics, and that lies inside the officially legitimate normative biopolitical situation that can effect, and thereby prove, the superfluity of humans by annihilating them exclusively qua spontaneity? If such a method exists and is effectively practiced, then the source of radical terror would be the ontological crime of annihilating human spontaneity within the “normal” situation.

30. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 168, 255-256.

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