Survival : Gil Anidjar

It may well be that the historicity of the survivor and the historiographic disagreements over its dating (ancient or early modern, pre- or post-nuclear, etc.) are ultimately less important than the structure of survival—one that many of the thinkers whom I have referred to invoke and that involves a series of dualities. The survivor is dead and alive, witness and Muselmann, spared and petrified. More importantly, survival is the inherently collective and political significance of one individual figure, a figure which, after Richard Tuck, I proposed that we should understand within the limits of political psychology. Indeed, another theoretical (that is, visual) plane must be mentioned here as well, upon which Martin Harries singularly focalizes, namely, “destructive spectatorship,” that “disturbing form of complicity: demonic participation in the desire to destroy,” which implicates mass audiences.91 But Harries is writing of spectatorship, which however active, is not necessarily the first association we might have when it comes to political power.

In his remarkable contribution to the “history of the future” genre, Sven Lindqvist comes the closest to illustrating the core of Canetti’s claim that “the moment of survival is the moment of power.” Lindqvist locates the first chapter of a new narrative in the emerging scientific imagination of Charles Cuvier, according to which it became conceivable that “the species created by God were not eternal. They could [Cuvier] said, ‘become extinct’ in a kind of ‘revolution of the earth’. And we the new tribes that have taken their place, could ourselves be destroyed one day, and replaced by others.”92 Cuvier’s lecture is dated January 27, 1796. According to Lindqvist, it took only a few years after that for Cuvier’s notion of extinction to capture the imagination of his contemporaries.

In 1806, Cousin de Granville wrote the first of a long series of books famously entitled “The Last Man” or a version thereof. He was followed most famously perhaps by Mary Shelley, who could be said to have written two such books, first in 1818 (Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus) and more explicitly in 1826 (The Last Man). There were many others.93 Arguably, it then took until 1906 for someone to come up with “the first fictional being who consciously and intentionally destroys the entire world.”94 The full political complexity of the figure of the survivor, Lindqvist’s analysis therefore suggests, is found not in testimony, but in the eradication of all witnesses, in the destruction of the entirety of humankind save one. That this is an essential dimension of art and literature in the age of mass production (and mass destruction) is significant enough, but the full theorization of this terrifying insight, which also furnishes an explanation for the collective hold the survivor has on us, is uniquely found in Canetti’s Crowds and Power.

In just a few pages that he dedicates explicitly to the survivor, Canetti is asking us to recognize that the survivor has been at the center of our political imagination, a fact of our political psychology. How? “In survival, each man is the enemy of every other.”95 Hobbes, as we have seen, comes easily enough to mind (although Canetti mentions him but once, and in a different context), but Carl Schmitt does just as well. Schmitt famously asserted (about the political, not survival, but then, what is the precise difference?):

Each participant is in a position to judge whether the adversary intends to negate his opponent’s way of life and therefore must be repulsed or fought in order to preserve one’s own form of existence.96

The matter is remarkably more complicated, however, since for Canetti, the survivor is the very image and structure of power conveyed (if not explicitly formulated) by a general political tradition that reaches everywhere. That is, this tradition reaches everywhere that rulers put themselves in the shelters first to ensure their own survival; everywhere they relentlessly imagine, and often bring about, the annihilation of their surroundings.97 Canetti thus associates survival with the “feeling of superiority to the dead . . . known to everyone who has fought in a war,” with the feeling of invulnerability of the hero, indeed, with the very nature of the military and political leader who defeats his enemies.98

Ultimately, what Canetti means by survivor refers to the ruler, the killer, who, responsible for the deeds of his soldiers on the killing fields, will identify “his most dependable, one might say his truest, subjects [as] those he has sent to their deaths.”99 Though he may appear to speak of archaic societies in particular (Odysseus or even—why not?—Lot’s wife) and to revive images of Asiatic despotism, Canetti spares no one, no ancient or modern culture, in his generalizations. “The desire for a long life which plays such a large part in most cultures really means that most people want to survive their contemporaries,” and “it is remarkable how many tribes all over the world attribute their origin to one couple which alone remains alive after some great catastrophe.100 In the familiar case of the Biblical deluge the austerity of the myth is softened by the fact that Noah claims his whole family.”101

Bringing his book to an astonishing conclusion, however—a conclusion no less remarkable for the checks it ultimately places on his own generalizations—Canetti does say that “the situation of the survivor” is different today, that it “has radically changed in our time.”102 True, Canetti’s explicit and avowed intention with regard to the survivor was to “hunt him out in all his hiding-places and show him for what he is and always has been. He has been glorified as a hero and obeyed as a ruler, but fundamentally he is always the same.”103 And yet the purpose of Crowds and Power was to underscore the fact that the survivor’s “most fantastic triumphs have taken place in our own time, among people who set great store by the idea of humanity . . . The survivor is mankind’s worst evil, its curse and perhaps its doom. Is it possible for us to escape him, even now at this last moment?”104

91. Martin Harries, Forgetting Lot’s Wife, 84.

92. Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, trans. Linda Haverty Rugg (New York: Free Press, 2001), 8.

93. Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, 13. Although I refer to page numbers, I am following the thread called “A History of the Future” in Lindqvist labyrinthine book.

94. Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing, 26.

95. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 227.

96. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 27.

97. Ashis Nandy too would resist Canetti’s generalization, as he aptly remarks that “the changing nature of modern technology has ensured that the state can provide security primarily only to itself, not its citizens. If there were to be a nuclear war between India and China for example, and Nepal maintained its traditional neutrality, that neutrality could no longer guarantee the personal security of a single Nepali citizen . . . The modern state can always ask the citizen to make sacrifices in the name of security; but it cannot always deliver that security,” nor indeed, survival. Ashis Nandy, The Romance of the State and the Fate of Dissent in the Tropics (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 9.

98. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 228.

99. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 233.

100. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 249.

101. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 258.

102. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 468.

103. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 468.

104. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 468.

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