Horror : Kiarina Kordela

The answer to my question is partly known, even if not so closely brought to Arendt’s total terror. From the outset Foucault designated biopower as “the power of normalization,” the power of “a normalizing society” that is governed by “one element . . . circulat[ing] between the disciplinary and the regulatory” mechanisms, and this “element . . . is the norm”; moreover, the “technology of normalization” extends far beyond “public hygiene . . . medical care . . . [and the] normaliz[ation of] knowledge” to the overall “normalization of behavior,” including the regularization of desire and enjoyment, as the mediatized massive exposure of the population to two of the increasingly most central institutions of biopolitical normalization, statistics and advertisement, testify to.31 Total normalization would amount to the proof of the superfluity of the ontological human dignity (the unpredictability of humans), just as it would postulate the ultimate bioracial criterion: only what follows the norm is human.

The terror of normalization is at once produced and mitigated, and evidenced above all, in advertisement, as it betrays the biopolitical logic of monistic universality by massively promoting the injunction to consume massively produced commodities and to adopt massively designed behaviors, desires, and pleasures, while desperately promising that pursuing this injunction asserts a unique, individual style: “your own style.” Even the injunction to be unique belongs to the mechanism of normalization, in a gesture that replaces the incitement to horror with the incitement to consumption as the means for foreclosing the recognition of our massive biopolitical uniformization. And since this occurs, to recall Neil Postman’s conclusion, by inflicting not pain but pleasure (the incitement to desires and the injunction to enjoy)—as well as by inflicting horror (as prophylaxis against the manifestations of the exception to the norm)—our society is the realization not of the Orwellian fantasy but of the Huxleyan universe of the Brave New World, accompanied by discursive injections inciting horror.

The superfluity of ontological human dignity is today the radical “normal” terror in the advanced biopolitico-capitalist parts of the world, of which we are reminded when we see its exception: unpredictability in action. Whatever their political intentions may be, the eruption of “terrorist” incidents function for the members of the “normal” situation as the most blatant reminder that the superfluity of unpredictability remains incomplete and that, to repeat Arendt’s words, “the ideal of totalitarian domination has not been achieved.” To prove its premise and to reassert its totalitarian domination, biopower must reassert complete normalization. Therefore, extreme mediatized efforts are invested in presenting “anomalies” as inhuman and in instigating horror as the sole appropriate reaction to them. Thus we are blinded to the fact that, inadvertently or not, the ultimate target of these aberrant acts is the very source of our own terror—the destruction, and even willed sacrifice, of our ontological human dignity on the altar of complete normalization. Grasping the function of horror presupposes understanding that, ultimately, “our enemies” and we share the same enemy. Our political and ethical responsibility, therefore, is to resist horror. This would be the first step towards understanding the true sources of biopower’s terror of its own monistic universality and our terror of total normalization.


A. Kiarina Kordela is Professor of German and Director of the Critical Theory Program at Macalester College, Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Honorary Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


Published on October 3, 2015

31. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” 244, 251-256.

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