Horror : Kiarina Kordela

Emily Stoddart / Untitled
Emily Stoddart / Untitled

Horror : Kiarina Kordela

1. Physics and Para-Physics of Horror

Other differences notwithstanding, theoreticians tend to concur that horror is not a cognitive, but a physiological or affective extra-discursive state of being. Not unlike the state of having a fever or feeling nausea, horror is a state of being, whose manifestation, based on the etymologies of the Greek φρικη [frike] and the Latin horror, may be described, as Adriana Cavarero writes, as “a state of paralysis, reinforced by the feeling of growing stiff on the part of someone who is freezing,” and further, through her mythological reference to the prototypical figure of horror, Medusa, as a state of “petrification.”1 Similarly, Julia Kristeva associates horror with “the fading away of all meaning and all humanity,” and Talal Asad emphasizes the status of horror as an extra-discursive state of being, when he writes:

Horror . . . is essentially not a matter of interpretation . . . it requires no discursive effort . . . It does not convey meaning. It is a state of being . . . When the viewer makes a connection between [for instance] the abattoir and the death camp, she has gone some way to mastering horror and begun to develop an ethical judgment. What I want to say is not that horror is natural (indeed, it is always mediated by sediments and traces that have been inscribed in the body) but that it requires no discursive effort.2

It is, in fact, its status as a state of being that makes horror at first appear to be intrinsically apolitical. But, although the experience itself of horror is an affect as a pure state of being and, as such, extra-discursive, its causation is not. That is, whether or not, in the face of a certain perception, one will find oneself in the state of being in horror is something that, far from being a physiological matter, is conditioned discursively—para-physically. This is not far from saying that freezing because of cold temperature is extra-discursive, and in itself apolitical, yet the cause of the cold temperature may be intrinsically political. Hence, one must expand the concept of horror much beyond its physical conditions in order to delineate its precise conceptual terrain and the conditions of its possibility.

A further distinguishing characteristic that we find in its descriptions across the board is that horror is a reaction to the terror of, in Stanley Cavell’s words, “the precariousness of human identity” and the threat of its loss, on levels that may range from the self or the ego and the body’s identity, to distinctions between animal and human, animate and inanimate life, eroticism and violence, life and death—in short, all conceptual differentiations. According to Julia Kristeva, in “horror, there is a choking sensation that does not separate inside from outside but draws them the one into the other, indefinitely,” collapsing the “I” with “the corpse,” so that it is “[t]he death that ‘I’ am [that] provokes horror” as “my identity is turned into something undecidable.” Cavarero—who objects to Kristeva’s (Bataillean) linkage between death or violence and eroticism, and wants to keep the boundary between perpetrator and victim clearly cut, nevertheless—also acknowledges that “the mirror,” a crucial element in the production of Medusa’s horror, “can be taken to allude to the identification of oneself in the death of the other.” Jacqueline Rose concurs: “Suicide bombing is an act of passionate identification—you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace.” And Primo Levi’s name for the “human beings” that, in Hannah Arendt’s words, were “transformed into specimens of the human animal” in the “real horror” of the Nazi concentration camps, is “living deads.” But Cavarero’s emphasis on the loss of identity falls on the “dismemberment” of the “human being, as an incarnated being” (after all, “Medusa is a severed head”) and as a being “offended in . . . [its] ontological dignity. . . [as] a singular body.” What induces horror and makes something “unwatchable . . . has . . . to do with instinctive disgust for a violence that, not content merely to kill . . . aims to destroy the uniqueness of the body” and to offend “the human condition itself, as incarnated in the singularity of vulnerable bodies.” For Cavarero, then, horror is coupled with the terror of an ontological assault on human dignity, this being understood as its bodily identity.3

A further constitutive element of horror is that its source invariably involves the visual field, or rather, as Cavarero’s reference to Medusa suggests, horror passes through the gaze, that is, its causation lies in representation. This includes verbal representations, since, as Cavarero states, although on “our television screens we rarely see the dismembered bodies of the suicide bombers” given that in “North America and Europe . . . these images are censored,” in addition to the “the Internet, we have available texts . . . that describe them in detail.” Hence “[r]epugnance for the work of horror comes . . . not just from looking but also from imagining” while hearing or reading written testimonies.4 Unlike several other affects, the generation of horror is intrinsically linked to representation and the imaginary.

As the two eminent examples—the Nazi totalitarian terror and the terror of “terrorism”—indicate, the twin, though distinct, concept of horror is terror. Cavarero is content in severing the two phenomena on the basis of lexical-mythological and Homeric references that allow her to infer from Medusa’s petrifying effect that horror arrests movement, whereas terror incites the body to take flight. Cavarero’s move is all the more intriguing given that Arendt, whom Cavarero extensively invokes in her argumentation, locates “real horror” in “total terror,” and, as we shall see in revisiting Arendt, links both to the absence of an instinctual movement toward survival.5

Equally problematic is the relation between terror and “terrorism.” Regarding this question, Jacques Lezra focuses on terror to foreground the constitutive “work of terror in the modern republic” as one of its “defective” or “weak universals”—“defective” insofar as they rest upon the (Derridian) “aporetic of divisible sovereignty,” as opposed to the “Christological, heroic . . . sovereignty of an indivisible act of decision governing the sharing, partage, of power.” The terror inhering in the republic of secular capitalist modernity is “the strong terror of weak concepts” and, therefore, “terror can [and must] be distinguished from terrorism,” since the latter is actually “prophylaxis,” a means that “by association, by contamination, by displacement” works “to obscure the necessary work of terror in the modern republic.”6

1. Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence, trans. William McCuaig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 7-8 .

2. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 18; Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 81.

3. Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 418; Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 25, 150; Jacqueline Rose, “Deadly Embrace,” London Review of Books (Nov. 4, 2004), http://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n21/jacqueline-rose/deadly-embrace, accessed December 2013; Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit, 1988), 83; Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: A Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1973), 454-455; Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism, 8.

4. Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism, 57.

5. See Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism, 4-8.

6. Jacques Lezra, Wild Materialism: The Ethic of Terror and the Modern Republic (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 26-33. Unless otherwise indicated, brackets in citations are mine.

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