Survival : Gil Anidjar

Having begun this essay with Primo Levi and with the Holocaust survivor it may seem strange to bring it to an end with the shocking notion that the survivor would be “mankind’s worst evil,” even if we recall that Levi was telling us that “the worst survived.” Canetti, whose book was published in 1960, could hardly afford to ignore the Holocaust, an event that affected him personally, as is well known. In his discussion of crowds and power, Canetti repeatedly refers to Nazism and to concentration camps (though it is remarkable that he never connects these to the question of survival). I do hope it is clear that the point is not to vilify Holocaust survivors, as if they themselves were now to be seen as the embodiment of evil. What we might do instead is ponder the authority—the sovereignty—of the survivor and his popularity, the larger political significance survival has acquired in our imagination and practices.105

What Canetti is unambiguously responding to is the fact that “one man today has the possibility of surviving at a single stroke more human beings than could generations of his predecessors together.”106 The fact that our identification with him has only increased with the years (with a little help from our Hollywood friends, Homeland Security and, once again, the city of New York) requires that we attend to the survivor’s particularities, not simply to his novelty or modernity, much less his universality. It requires that we consider the structure of the image, its individuality (for as Canetti insists, the survivor is and “feels unique”), and its collective dimension, its being a figure of the crowd.107

One more detour is necessary, however, before we attend to the essential relation between the survivor and this commonplace of our sociability and politics, of our alleged modernity—the individual. For there is another feature of the contemporary survivor that Canetti calls attention to. “Today,” Canetti writes, “the survivor is himself afraid. He has always been afraid, but with his vast new potentialities his fear has grown too, until it is almost unendurable.”108 And rulers too, “rulers tremble today . . . The ancient mainspring of power, the safe-guarding of the ruler at the cost of all other lives, has been broken. Power is greater than it has ever been, but also more precarious. Today either everyone will survive or no-one.”109

Here as elsewhere, one may feel that Canetti is elaborating on well-known Freudian insights. He is no doubt building on the connection between megalomania and paranoia, for with great power, it seems, comes perhaps great responsibility, but more importantly fear, great fear. Rightly or wrongly, Canetti says, the survivor is the ruler, the sovereign who sees himself as persecuted. In this, he is true to what Canetti had earlier described as “one of the most striking traits of the inner life of a crowd . . . the feeling of being persecuted.”110 This correspondence between the survivor and the crowd, between the head and the body, is a complex and layered one, for the survivor is also, as we saw, standing over and against the crowd, which is actually or prospectively dead. To say it too quickly, the survivor is a figure of the crowd, a persecuted crowd, and he is so metaphorically, metonymically, and symbolically—and agonistically too.

That is the secret of his popularity, the source of his sovereignty, and the analytical force of his theorization as a unique instance of political psychology. The survivor is at once the individual and the group: that is why he is popular “among people who set great store by the idea of humanity.”111 This duality, this “doubled meaning of survival,” covers, as Bonnie Honig puts it, “mere life and more life” as well as life and death and (in active and agentive figurations) killer and victim.112 We are familiar with this duality and with the notion that victims can become killers, and have in fact become so.113 But this narrative or sequential correlation is not quite what Canetti is asking us to reflect upon. As we just saw, one key feature of the modern survivor at least is that he sees himself as persecuted. Standing over the killing fields he has created or imagined, the survivor is a killer alright, and he is also, immediately and at the very same time, a victim, a collective victim. As Canetti puts it, moving effortlessly—and for good reasons—between individual and collective, “the hunting or baiting pack expiates its guilt by becoming a lamenting pack.”114 In this scenario, which Canetti develops in a chapter called “The Pack and Religion,” the killers

seek alien flesh, and cut into it, feeding on the torment of weaker creatures . . . Most of them do not divine that, while they feed their bodies, they also feed the darkness within themselves. But their guilt and fear grow ceaselessly, and without knowing it, they long for deliverance. Thus they attach themselves to one who will die for them and, in lamenting him, they feel themselves as persecuted. Whatever they have done, however they have raged, for this moment they are aligned with suffering. It is a sudden change of side with far-reaching consequences.115

If this sounds similar to Freud’s description of Christianity in Moses and Monotheism, it is because it is. Christianity is what Canetti calls a religion of lament, in fact, “the most important of all the religions of lament.”116 Christianity’s singularity is that it turns killers into victims, persecuted individuals into sovereigns—all under one instantaneous figure of individuality and collectivity (the conjunction of ecclesia oppressa and of ecclesia triumphans that Peter Sloterdijk identifies as one of the “secrets to success” of Christianity).117 Against his own explicit claim, Canetti was therefore not offering a general account of the structure of persecution and its mechanisms. All along, and spikes of mass proliferation notwithstanding (the interpretation of the dream is part of the dream, Freud taught us), Canetti was instead commenting on the singularity of Christianity and its politico-psychological nature.

105. Lyotard, who is one of the rare readers of Canetti on the figure of the survivor, is clear that the critique of survival is a critique of totalitarianism, of totalitarianism as it endures in liberal democracy—or in advertising: “Massification and survival, mobilization and saturation, and foreclosure are obtained more efficiently by an organization through communicational networks than by totalitarian politics.” Jean-François Lyotard, “The Survivor,” 162. Earlier, Lyotard explained that “the defeat of the totalitarian regimes alone will doubtless have been insufficient to exhaust the source of totalitarianism’s spirit” (158).

106. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 468.

107. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 227.

108. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 469.

109. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 469.

110. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 22.

111. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 468.

112. Referring to “the paradox of politics,” Bonnie Honig draws on Arendt and Derrida in order to extend the concept of survival (its political pertinence and its current urgency) to democracy as such, not just the modern state. For her, “in their agonistic partnership, these two aspects of survival—mere life and more life—set the parameters of democratic life and emergency politics and invite us to deliver on their promise.” Bonnie Honig, Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law, Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), xviii. Honig writes of “the doubled meaning of survival as mere life and more life” (11); and see also 5-9 on survival and “moral agency.” Honig goes on to ask: “What do we need to do to ensure our continuity as selves and/or our survival as a democracy with integrity? Our survival depends very much on how we handle ourselves in the aftermath of a wrong. We will not recover from some kinds of tragic conflict. But when faced with such situations, we must act and we must inhabit the aftermath of the situation in ways that promote our survival as a democracy” (8); and see 10 for Honig’s summary of Derrida on survival.

113. Mahmood Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers.

114. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 145.

115. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 145.

116. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 145.

117. Peter Sloterdijk, Im selben Boot: Versuch über die Hyperpolitik (Frankfurt a/Main: Suhrkamp, 1995), 30.

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