Survival : Gil Anidjar

Remember HSBC? Survivor, soldier, and style. Three that are one, and one that is three. The survivor is dead and alive, killer and victim, perpetrator and survivor, all at once. He is also the one and the many, individual and crowd at the same time.118 As Samuel Weber summarizes the matter, “To rule the planet, one must survive. But to survive one must rule.”119 But what does that have to do with style? Aside from the fact that it reminds us of modernity, I suppose I would be taking the shortest route here were I to mention Talal Asad’s remark that when it comes to conscience, and specifically to Europe’s “bad conscience”—and we have been talking about Christian Europe all along, yes?—“a ‘bad conscience’ is no bar to further immoral action, it merely gives such action a distinctive style.”120 We are still in the vicinity of Freud on Christianity, of course. Three that are one, and one that is three. Survivor, soldier, and style. “There is no-one,” concludes Canetti, “there is no-one who suffers persecution, for whatever reason, who does not in part of his mind see himself as Christ.”121

Agamben could have told us as much, of course, when he described Homo Sacer as “he who could be killed, but not sacrificed.” He could have told us about the glorious and abject body—the collective body of humanity as a whole—of he who could not be killed but had to be sacrificed.122 Or as St Paul famously puts it, “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”123 The survivor is the sovereign. He is the triumph of the peculiar history, of the “curious” fact (as Adriana Cavarero puts it) that “as the Middle Ages [were] waning, a doctrine [was] consolidated that project[ed] the body politic as immortal, yet bound to the corruptible fortunes of the mortal body . . . The natural body, albeit in the guise of a simulacrum, ‘realistically’ acted the part of the body politic. It was identical to the corpse, yet it survived it in the immortality of the reign it incorporated.”124 All that remained to be told was that the sovereign power of the survivor—the political and psychological power of the omnipresent figure of the survivor—does indeed testify. The survivor testifies to the enduring legacy of Christianity: Ecce Homo. The King never dies. But I shall leave the last word to Canetti, as he moves, once again, effortlessly from victim to sovereign, from abject abandon to glorious body, and from individual to universal.125

The image of him whose death Christians have lamented for nearly two thousand years has become part of the consciousness of mankind. He is the dying man and the man who ought not to die. With the increasing secularization of the world his divinity has become less important, but he remains as an individual, suffering and dying. The centuries of his divinity have endowed the man with a kind of earthly immortality. They have strengthened him and everyone who sees himself in him . . . He may die for nothing at all, but the dying itself makes him significant. Christ lends him his lament. In the midst of all our frenzy of increase, which includes men too, the value of the individual has become not less, but more . . . The value that has been put on his soul has helped man to the assurance of his earthly value. He finds his desire for indestructibility justified. Each feels himself a worthy object of lament; each is stubbornly convinced that he ought not to die. Here the legacy of Christianity . . . is inexhaustible.”126

Gil Anidjar is Associate Professor in the Departments of Religion and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. His interests include political theology, race and religion, Christianity, rhetorical exertion and continental philosophy. He is the author of Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (2008), The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (2003), and ‘Our Place in al-Andalus’: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters (2002).

118. The structural link between particular forms of subjectivity and the socio-political formation in which they exist, modes of subjectivation, is by now well accepted, of course. Ulrich Beck, for instance (who may or may not banalize survival) relates modern, individualistic society to the “vigorous model of action in everyday life, which puts the ego at its center, allots and opens up opportunities for action to it, and permits it in this manner to work through the emerging possibilities of decision and arrangement with respect to one’s own biography in a meaningful way. Beneath the superficial intellectual shadow-boxing, this means that in order for one to survive, an ego-centered world view must be developed, which turns the relation of ego and world on its head, so to speak, conceiving of and making them useful for the purpose of shaping an individual biography.” Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London: Sage, 1992), 136. But for an individual to become a figure of humanity, for him to become humanity as such, a corpus mysticum, as it were, implies a different form of political psychology, as we shall see in a moment.

119. Samuel Weber, Theatricality as Medium, 333. Weber understands survival in its connection to capitalism, and ultimately to guilt; he writes of “the links between commodity consumption, on the one hand, and the notion of salvation, on the other. It may therefore suffice to note that in both what is at stake is guilt, on the one hand, and survival, on the other” (348); as for capitalism in its relation to Christianity, this is something to which Weber, following Benjamin, attends elsewhere.

120. Talal Asad in Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors, eds. David Scott and Charles Hirschkind (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 230.

121. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 467. Deleuze, for his part, claimed Bartleby as “le nouveau Christ, ou notre frêre à tous.” Gilles Deleuze, Critique et clinique (Paris: Minuit, 1993), 114. How this bears on Holocaust survivors (and beyond), indeed on the Christian and Christological reading of the Holocaust, may be gathered from Martin S. Jaffee, “The Victim-Community in Myth and History: Holocaust Ritual, the Question of Palestine, and the Rhetoric of Christian Witness,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 28:2 (1991): 223-238; and see Naomi Seidman, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Jewish Social Studies 3:1 (1996): 1-19.

122. I attend to the chiasmic reversal of Agamben’s formula on homo sacer and to Agamben’s treatment (or lack thereof) of Christ and Christianity in my “When Killers Become Victims” and in “The Meaning of Life,” Critical Inquiry 37:4 (2011): 697-723. But the collective dimension of the lone figure must be underscored as well, and Hobbes’s description of the body of Leviathan as one person made of many is equally indispensable, as is its explicit source: “But the Church, if it be one person, is the same thing with a Common-wealth of Christians; called a Common-wealth, because it consisteth of men united in one person, their Soveraign; and a Church, because it consisteth in Christian men, united in one Christian Soveraign.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chapter 34, 268.

123. 1 Corinthians 15:22 (NSRV). Henri de Lubac demonstrates the extraordinary path where by “the mystery of the Passion and the mystery of the Church, the mystery of the body torn apart and the mystery of the unified body—opened one more route by which it was possible to see rejoined the idea of power and the idea of matter, the idea of the most intimate union to the Saviour and the idea of the social building up of the Church, the idea of the union of the Church with Christ and the idea of the union of the members of Christ among themselves: one flesh, one body . . .” Henri de Lubac, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages, trans. Gemma Simmonds et al. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), 184. The connection with Hobbes should be obvious, but see also the following note.

124. Adriana Cavarero, Stately Bodies: Literature, Philosophy, and the Question of Gender, trans. Robert de Lucca and Deanna Shemek (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 119.

125. As Ernst Kantorowicz puts it in a chapter on “continuity and corporations,” “the most significant feature of the personified collectives and corporate bodies was that they projected into past and future, that they preserved their identity despite changes, and that therefore they were legally immortal. The detachment of the corporate universitas from its individual components resulted in the relative insignificance of these mortal components who at any given moment constituted the collective; they were unimportant as compared to the immortal body politic itself which survived its constituents, and could survive even its own physical destruction.” Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: An Essay in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 311-312.

126. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, 467.

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