Survival : Gil Anidjar

Starting with Hugo Grotius then, “the content of the laws of nature” was to be sought in “a consideration of the character of the natural world, and in particular the fundamental principles upon which all creatures seem to act, above all the principle of self-preservation.”72 But it is of course Hobbes’ “plea for the right of self-preservation even if the agent had endangered himself by his own unjust conduct” that is best remembered today.73 It is in Hobbes that the notion is rooted and sealed that “no conventions or covenants are secure in the state of nature, since at any time they may be trumped by the force of the right of self-preservation and private judgement.”74 The implications traced by Tuck are therefore far-reaching, from the definition of self-interest to the rights of war and conquest and the principles governing state relations and international law. “We are survival machines,” aptly concludes Richard Dawkins, perhaps rightly, “but ‘we’ does not mean just people. It embraces all animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses. The total number of survival machines on earth is very difficult to count.”75

Indeed, the full extent to which survival as a minimal defining feature and a governing principle of animal, moral and political existence has spread to all spheres of modern life remains to be ascertained. It is furthermore possible that we need to expand the reach of survival, extend the meaning of the word survivor and carry it to realms where it seems to have been absent, where it has not been possible to claim it. This, among other things, might be what is entailed by Mahmood Mamdani’s recent call for the substitution of “survivor’s justice” for “victor’s justice.”76 For there is or would be a moral and legal reticence to recognize the status of survivors for those whose “identity” defaults to the only alternative currently available to the law and to political practice, namely, perpetrator. The impossibility of building a common world, of reaching a political settlement on the basis of divisive terms (victor and victim, perpetrator and survivor) is what Mamdani interrogates, proposing to uphold the term “survivor” as a shared and necessary condition for a political justice to come.

In a remarkable 1984 book that has failed to receive the attention it deserves, Christopher Lasch goes the furthest in attempting to map the politico-psychological range already occupied by the survivor. Lasch is broadly attending to the massive generalization of survival, the proliferating use of the word survivor.77 Following William James, Lasch refers in fact to “the entire modern deification of survival.”78 For Lasch, “the concern with the self, which seems so characteristic of our time, takes the form of a concern with its psychic survival.”79 Lasch is mostly troubled by American culture, but he identifies in meticulous detail the spread of survival, and of survivors, through scholarly and popular, scientific and political discourse and practice. He lambasts “the new ‘personhood’” for which survival has become a ubiquitous component and already insists on “the global dimension of the survival issue,” going on to evoke the way in which “everyday life has begun to pattern itself on the survival strategies forced on those exposed to extreme adversity.”80

This is why, what Lasch himself had famously called in a previous book “the culture of narcissism might better be characterized, at least for the moment, as a culture of survivalism.”81 For Lasch, though, “the preoccupation with survival” has only been “a prominent feature of American culture . . . since the early seventies.”82 It is also typical of large organizations and institutions. Indeed, and more generally, “the pursuit of success has been reconceived as a daily struggle for survival.”83 As the following quote—which partly dates the book as a product of the 1980s—makes clear, Lasch is by no means unconvincing.

A left-wing magazine, Mother Jones, advertises itself as a “survival guide” to the “political Dark Ages” brought about by the election of Ronald Reagan. A Los Angeles radio station, hoping to spread “kindness, joy, love, and happiness,” commends itself to its listeners as “your survival station of the eighties.” Samsonite, a manufacturer of luggage, advertises its latest briefcase as “the survivor.” A New York Times headline refers to an attempt to limit the substitution of recorded music for live performers, conducted by the American Federation of Musicians, as a “survival battle.” An antifeminist tirade, published with the usual media fanfare, announces itself as A Survival Guide for the Bedeviled Male. A basketball coach praises one of his players for his capacity to learn from his mistakes and to “survive” them. The same sportswriter who reports this tribute muses about the “survival” of college basketball as a major spectator sport.84

The rhetoric of survival is ubiquitous, increasingly so. Furthermore, it is most certainly the case that “a list of recent books on survival and survivalism would include books on ecology and nuclear war, books on the Holocaust, books on technology and automation, and a flood of ‘future studies’, not to mention an outpouring of science fiction that takes a coming apocalypse as its major premise.”85 And just think, as Sontag did, of the movies. In short, “our perception not only of the past and the future but of the present has been colored by a new awareness of extremes. We think of ourselves both as survivors and as victims or potential victims.”86 The popularity of Spencer’s (not Darwin’s) phrase, “the survival of the fittest” comes naturally to mind, along with the naturalization, as it were, of “the survival instinct.” Still, what Lasch aptly designates as “the banality of survival” may have had an earlier onset, and older antecedents.87

Aside from those influences I have already mentioned, whose historical consciousness includes more than the current century, many scholars identify the Holocaust and the Cold War (i.e. the threat of nuclear extinction) as having played a major role in the development of “the survival mentality.” Bruno Bettelheim is key here, as is Robert Jay Lifton. And so would be, perhaps, Darwin himself (after his teacher Richard Hofstadter, Lasch engages sharply with the living legacy of “social Darwinism”).88 More recently, Jacques Derrida has elaborated a concept of survival (deserving of a separate treatment) that broadly confirms the ruling periodization, while making survival into a structure, a quasi-transcendental of sorts, albeit an implicit one. Suffice it to say, that from the early notion of “trace”—one of his major interventions on the American literary-critical scene—all the way to his last interview, Derrida has raised our collective awareness of the structural dimensions of survival.89 There has also been a critique of survivalism, if not, remarkably, of survival reason as a whole. I would have wanted to discuss the extraordinary treatment of survival recently proposed by Marc Nichanian, who brings us back to HSBC and its negationism. “Survival is denial,” Nichanian says and we should definitely listen. And read.

Now having said all this, it may seem eminently perverse to give the foregoing argument an anti-historical twist and identify in survival the “weak messianic power” evoked by Walter Benjamin. And yet, we do not need to have read much Freud to remember that survival is not weak but triumphant and triumphalist, that “the moment of survival” is, as Elias Canetti strikingly puts it, “the moment of power.”90 In this, and other ways, Canetti certainly fosters the generalization of survival, finding it in the very exercise of power and in the practices of many religions and cultures. But I want to insist that in my own resistance to this generalization, this universalization, I am trying to be faithful to a definite novelty attached to the figure of the survivor, asserted, as we have seen, by many. And in order to attend to the nature of this novelty (or to its precise dating), it is crucial to follow Canetti on at least two more counts. First, that the survivor remains a contingent figure of human existence, and second, that he is a figure of political power, a peculiar incarnation of a determined, collective, political imagination.

72. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 100.

73. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 127.

74. Richard Tuck, Rights of War and Peace, 133.

75. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 21; Agamben pertinently sums up (after Bichat, not Dawkins), “Whether what survives is the human or the inhuman, the animal or the organic, it seems that life bears within itself the dream—or the nightmare—of survival.” Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz, 155.

76. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 272-282 and Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror (New York: Pantheon, 2009).

77. And see Lyotard who, in engaging survival and the reigning melancholia to which it testifies, argues that by now “every entity is a survivor.” Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” 147.

78. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1984), 10.

79. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 16.

80. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 17.

81. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 57.

82. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 60.

83. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 69.

84. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 60-61.

85. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 63.

86. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 66.

87. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, 73.

88. Richard Hofstadter, Social Darwinism in American Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955); and see, in a different perspective, Jacques Barzun, Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

89. Jacques Derrida, “Living On. Border Lines,” in Deconstruction and Criticism, ed. Harold Bloom et al. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 75-176; see also Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Palgrave, 2007); Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008); and Didier Fassin, “Ethics of Survival,” which finds its explicit inspiration in Derrida.

90. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 227.

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