Survival : Gil Anidjar

Nothing of the sort appears to be available for the term “survivor,” whose etymology is deceptively transparent, albeit semantically enigmatic as well: it has been related to superstes and superstitio, yet what are we to make of supervivere?57 How much could we make of it? Still, whereas the term—an early modern one, according to the OED—has failed to elicit much by way of etymological curiosity, it seems ludicrous to argue that the phenomenon of survival is anything but ageless. Quite literally. Hence, whereas the few scholars who have attended to the matter all agree, if not on the precise dating, at least on the novelty of the concern with survival, one might be hard put to think of any among the major figures of the “Athens and Jerusalem” tradition who would not deserve the attribute “survivor.”

From Cain, Noah, and Lot (sans his wife), to Isaac (no sacrificial ram, him) and Moses sauvé des eaux; from Job and Jonah to Prometheus, Tiresias, and even Antigone (at least for a while these last three); Oedipus too, of course, Ulysses and Thucydides, Saint Peter, Dante and Boccaccio, Prospero and Hamlet, and Melville’s Ishmael too; and many, many more—there is no shortage of “venerable literary prototypes of the survivor,” paradigmatic survivors, who crowd our cultural imagination.58 The “ambiguity” to which Fassin and Rechtman refer, in which the image of the survivor remains “imprisoned,” may have as much to do with its antiquity and universality as with its otherwise tentatively recognized political novelty.59 Still, we find it difficult, wrote Hannah Arendt, “to realize that according to ancient thought on these matters… whatever was ‘economic,’ related to the life of the individual and the survival of the species, was a non-political, household affair by definition.”60

Arendt herself certainly went on to grant survival its full political charge when she opened The Human Condition with the striking image of Sputnik as the actual possibility of human life conducted outside of a now expandable planet. This not so “future man,” Arendt tells us, “seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”61 Arendt here drives a point that can never go home again, when she adds that “there is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.”62 But she was not alone in identifying survival—at its extremity, the possibility of human existence in the absence of “all organic life on earth”—as a new object, as a novel political concern. (Marshall McLuhan, feeling more positively inclined toward Sputnik, spoke of the planet becoming “an art form, an ecologically programmable environment”; McLuhan called this “Art as Survival in the Electric Age.”63) Fassin and Rechtman attend to its recent elaborations across the social and scientific field, while Marc Abélès identifies therein (and himself claims to bring about) a paradigm shift:

The hypothesis that I propose in this book is that the emergence of a new transnational scene is above all the effect—and not the cause—of an unprecedented transformation in our relationship to the political realm. This relationship is now played out around a representation that puts the preoccupation with living and surviving—what I refer to as survival [survivance]—at the heart of political action.64

Embracing the longue durée, Fiona Stafford writes of a “widespread awareness of profound cultural change.” But she traces survival reason—the myth of the survivor, of “the last man” and of “the last of the race”—to the English Restoration and further traces Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein—not to mention Darwin’s struggling species—as its towering figures.65 Richard Tuck, finally, may have made a most crucial contribution for my purpose here, bringing us closer to what we will have to understand as the dual structure of survival, its psychico-political dimension, its significance for what Ashis Nandy calls “political psychology.”

Tuck pushes the genealogy of the survivor further back in history, locating it more squarely within the political tradition since Renaissance humanism. He also underscores the novelty that resides in the notion of individual survival. Tuck does not mention Arendt, but he points out that for Cicero, and for the ancients in general, “only a civitas, and not a private individual, had an overriding need to survive.”66 But the idea of self-preservation, of “endless survival” as a first principle of individual and state sovereignty, Tuck argues, is most definitely a modern one.67 The principle rested on “the claim that an individual nature (that is, before transferring any rights to a civil society) was morally identical to a state, and that there were no powers possessed by a state which an individual could not possess in nature.”68

Now, once the individual was seen as “a miniature sovereign state, to which the vocabulary of liberty and sovereignty could be applied,” self-preservation could become a principle, an imperative even, shared by both individual (the liberal agent) and state.69 It was only a matter of time before self-preservation became the first and final value and principle, a principle central for the “entire modern natural law tradition,” something that “gave in general an extremely minimal picture of the natural moral life.”70 Still, the “crucial role being played . . . by the analogy between states and natural individuals” in political philosophy and international law, the way in which for “all the writers in this tradition,” individuals “heuristically took on the characteristics of sovereign states”—all this pales in comparison to the rise of survival as the ultimate value by which all are defined.71

57. Manuella Consonni proved me wrong by engaging in this precise etymological exertion in a paper delivered at the conference in which I presented a version of this argument. She kindly agreed that philological investments and etymological inquiries have been made almost exclusively on the witness. See Manuella Consonni, “Primo Levi, Robert Antelme, and the Body of the Muselmann,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 7:2 (2009), esp. 246; see also Remnants of Auschwitz, 132; and Georges Didi-Huberman, “Surviving Image,” 62 n15.

58. Jonathan Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism, 8. With that expression, Druker is describing Ulysses. By way of Levi, Druker goes on to recast the entirety of Western civilization in terms of figures of survival, writing of “the irreconcilable difference between two competing notions of virtue that hold sway in Western civilization and cannot be resolved in Survival in Auschwitz: the Judeo-Christian ‘survival of the weakest,’ which informs Levi’s ethical discourse, and the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest,’ which embodied by Ulysses, serves the dark side of enlightenment so well.” Druker, Primo Levi and Humanism, 46. Edith Hall goes at it from a different direction tying temporality—selfhood and subjectivity, and along with it, survival—to ancient Greece: “The physical survival of the ancient texts, the reassembly from fragments of ancient subjects, modern identification with ancient survivors: these are only a few of the resonances of the term survival for classical reception studies today.” Edith Hall, “Subjects, Selves, and Survivors,” Helios 34:2 (2007): 143. Assuming that survival is among “the defining characteristics of the millenial subject reacting to the Greek and Roman cultural canon” (144), Hall smoothes over the historical ruptures otherwise inscribed in the historiography of survival, rendering them in an incremental logic. Insofar as “we are all Survivors” now (145), insofar as “we are all diagnostically posttraumatic,” there would be nothing particularly remarkable about “our era’s obsession with the idea of survival” (146). It is little more than “a collective fantasy” (147).

59. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma, 74.

60. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 29.

61. Arendt, The Human Condition, 2-3.

62. Arendt, The Human Condition, 3.

63. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews, eds. Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 208.

64. Marc Abélès, The Politics of Survival, trans. Julie Kleinman (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 15.

65. Fiona J. Stafford, The Last of the Race: The Growth of a Myth from Milton to Darwin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). See also Jonathan Elmer, On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008) and Lecia Rosenthal, Mourning Modernism: Literature, Catastrophe, and the Politics of Consolation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2011).

66. Richard Tuck, The Rights of War and Peace: Political Thought and the International Order from Grotius to Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22. cf. Augustine’s view that “a citizen who clung to his own life was guilty of unchristian conduct.” Augustine writes on killing in self-defense, for instance, “I do not see how they can be excused, even if the law itself is just. For the law does not force them to kill; it merely leaves that in their power” (quoted in Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 56). More space would be needed, however, to elaborate on the possible objection, suggested by Jacob Taubes, with regard to “the motif of individual eschatology which has dominated the Christian Church ever since Augustine.” Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 76; see also Taubes, 80 and 146.

67. Elias Canetti, to whom I shall return below, interrogates the equivalence between “self-preservation” and “survival,” though he may not have taken into consideration the transformation undergone by the notion of “self-preservation” in modern times. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, trans. Carol Stewart (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 250-51. Although he insists on the antiquity of survival, Canetti acknowledges that something has changed radically in the modern period, something he associates with the atomic bomb (468). The contingency of survival—and of self-preservation—is articulated in proximate terms by Pierre Clastres who opposed the notion that “archaic societies do not live, they survive; their existence is an endless struggle against starvation.” Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 13. For Clastres, “the notion of a subsistence economy conceals within it the implicit assumption that if primitive societies do not produce a surplus, this is because they are incapable of doing so, entirely absorbed as they are in producing the minimum necessary for survival, for subsistence” (190). As the title of his famous book makes clear, Clastres was identifying an alternative to the state (which Tuck identifies as a crucial site of the institution of survival), an alternative to survival; for more on the new and renewed conceptions of self-preservation in modern political philosophy, see Justin B. Jacobs, “The Ancient Notion of Self-Preservation in the Theories of Hobbes and Spinoza,” Ph.D. dissertation, King’s College, University of Cambridge, 2010.

68. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 47 and 82.

69. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 84.

70. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 129 and 86.

71. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 95 and 129.

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