Friday, June 4, 2010

beyond enforcement

Beyond Enforcement:
Traversing State Terror and the Politics of Fear

by Gene Ray

Crises arrive, as if from somewhere, fall like night, bear down, take hold, bite like jaws of teeth, squeeze like vises, break like storms or bubbles: effects ripple pitilessly, positions crumble, assets vanish in a spreading slippage, a sucking from below, an awful culling of the weak and exposed. Planetary meltdowns loom, impend.  Economies grow, and slow, but must grow, must be made to grow, to expand, spiraling incessantly, an immense entwining of flows, the dance of commodities, the “ever new production of the always-the-same.” And resources deplete, oil produced over millennia is turned to fume in two centuries, atoms are split, waste accumulates, like a darkening shadow, a hovering toxin, another ghost of capital. And still the frenzied racing, the rivaled eyeing, muscles flexing, markets judging, terminal arsenals still on fifteen-minute alert, a world awash in arms, skies filling with terminator drones.
Within a given social process, a field of forces and relations in motion, one generated tendency becomes a dominant, mastering logic. One antagonistic logic, a calculus of advantage, a mode of instrumental reason joined to a relation of domination, spreads, expanding its field, overtaking, overwhelming, deranging, pulverizing, liquidating whatever constrains it, consolidating, entrenching, and becomes global – the master logic of a global social process. And reason thereby recoils, becomes unreason, hostile and heedless, eating its own tail. Capitalist modernity and the social world, ours, it has produced: a world turned against its producers escapes all control, is seen finally to have been a terminal, omnicidal logic, busily, blindly undermining its own conditions, the ecological basis, biosphere, the condition of life on earth. 
In the homeland of exception, meanwhile, the face of the regime has changed, but the programmed course continues. Driven by a politics of fear and emergency, the “war on terror” goes on, by whatever name. Now, nearly a decade on, have clarity and perspective gained ground, prevailed? Has a nation returned to its senses, having understood, by painful labor of reflection and deliberation, by a traversal of national fantasies, that the logic and rule of fear and emergency did not begin with the attacks of September 11, 2001? That fear and emergency were not called into being by those atrocities, as if new to the world, unknown before then, unconnected to any past of violence? To ask the question is, unhappily, to answer it.

The reflection, barely begun, ran out of time. A new crisis arrived, financial, global, as if from somewhere, enforcing and reinforcing…fear and emergency. Planetary meltdowns loom, impend. The pause of reflection never comes, can never come, is never allowed to come, the time is gone, always already going and gone, to think, process, invent a politics. And so these needs and urgencies are delegated to others in the division of labor, were at some point at least apparently delegated – but when and by whom? Democracy fails, goes under, is overtaken, overwhelmed, liquidated: only the form remains, hollowed out, bankrupt, foreclosed, cover for the rule of capital’s technocrats, administration. But what the administrators administer is only the given and that alone, the master logic, domination, the vicious circle of a vicious spiral that calculates, mirroring, but does not reflect.
Nevertheless, reflection seeks its time, must insist on a slowing, to hold the place of a different logic. Repeat, rewind, replay; a reach, a throw, a potlatch of representation, emplotment, testing; a passage back from the harried body in pain to the shared critical word. So, thus, again: before and behind the trauma of two dropping towers, a social world in the grip of forces and processes long operative. Fear and emergency are immanent to, belong to the logic of, these same forces and processes: capital, modernity and its state-form. Under the pressure of these same forces and processes, the politics of fear and emergency merely accelerated, expanding opportunistically into the void opened up in Manhattan.

Fear? Shock, terror, trauma, evidently, since the “hatred of freedom” attributed to those suicide attacks insisted too much on their inexplicability. But fear – fear of what? Personal fear of further attacks and disruptions of normality, in a first response. Then, on second thought, fear of economic slowdown; hence the presidential injunctions to “go shopping.” And, linking the economic and strategic calculus: fear of scarcity, the addiction to oil. All this could be heard, in the traumatized homeland, as the bombing began and the war machine prepared for invasion. But unconsciously, blindly and more powerfully: fear of “infinite justice,” of a global reckoning, of retribution from dark hands, the hands of dark exploited others, of the victims of fascist proxies and global counterrevolution, the long accumulating blowback from imperial fantasies gone sour, the actual shrieking, ghost-heavy manifest destiny of the national interest as capital defined it. And all of this falling, as if from somewhere, in the very moment of pride and triumph, the new era of US hyper-power and soaring home values, like hail on a Fourth of July. Emergency indeed.

To grasp what grips us – what grips Americans and, gripping them, grips us all, in this critical moment, this globalized conjuncture – we first would have to “see” it historically, as a force field unfolding in time and generating tendencies and rippling effects. To confront the global social process – this dominant nexus of forces, relations, tendencies and processes that so far has exceeded all attempts to constrain or radically transform it – requires a critical process, a collective labor of conscious reflection and processing. In this, a politicized psychoanalytic theory converges with radical critique and the long struggle for emancipation. Unless arrested, the coping of trauma pushes unstoppably toward a confrontation with the social causes of organized violence: the rule of antagonism, the system of exploitation, the law of domination.

And the oppression of bodies and minds by the operators and beneficiaries of an impersonal valorization-accumulation process is itself grounded in an older, prior relation, the domination of nature, internal and external. This abused and dominated “nature,” we will now be forced to learn, is a repressed that returns on disastrous planetary scale, the specter of depletion, collapsing ecologies and species extinction that is both the toxic fruit of techno-power and its impotence. All this is the stuff of politicized mourning, the precondition of collective self-rescue, a passage beyond the law and system of domination.
The exigency now, for us, the inheritors of the twentieth century, still collected in nations and identities imposed at birth, is to gather the shards of truth from the ruins and organize our pessimism: so Benjamin, so Adorno. There will be no miraculous delivery, no automatic progress, no easy and instantaneous reconciliation bestowed as a gift, from above. There will be only what we ourselves are able to do, together, with patience, compassion, resilience and resolve – against the relations and processes that convert our own activity into the forces that dominate us and are producing, day by day, our common ruin. That, without guarantees, or else: our continuing failure and race to the bottom. 

Rescuing reorganization, then: the shared search for a social logic that breaks with domination and refutes its miserable history. Capital accumulation and commodified life have failed us, basically, if not exactly, as Marx predicted. However, the mirroring dominations of “actually existing socialism” are not to be repeated, either: the techno-bureaucracies of centralized Stalinist states were a false-passage, a lure, a counter-revolutionary capture and strangulation of radical desire – not nearly radical enough in the refusal of domination. That, too, is for mourning, part of our legacy and burden.

If the inescapability of our globalized problems now drives us together, forcing something like humanity to emerge through the very threat of its extinction, this collective “we” is still but a potential, a possibility, an unrealized promise. Its actualization would not be able to bypass the forms of struggle that class antagonism still imposes. The given global regime will not cede power gracefully, the North will not willingly make way for emerging Southern rivals: such, precisely, is the dominant logic. “Capitalism will not die a natural death.” To be adequate, transformation must be radical. To be worthy of its promise, it must also be non-catastrophic, respectful of the living web of singular and irreplaceable lives. Those constraints mark the standing strategic impasse, the gap of a needed but missing politics.

There, where we are, in plight and affliction, we are not paralyzed, however. There is much to do that can be done, and in urgency. And, besides, we can only seek the needed political forms and renewed solidarity from within the struggles we wage together, at the points of social reproduction and contestation. There, in struggle, every point links out to every other, and local and global, subjective and objective, converge. The long dialectic of promise and defeat that led us into domination will now, in our hands, guiding from below, have to lead us out of it. Released from the impulse to dominate, the imperative of survival may yet become a factor of emancipation. There are indications.

If there is no longer, or not yet, an alternative social vision that globally convinces, sufficing to convert our better angels into ready political force, we can at least name the forces aimed against us, the hostile appearance-forms of capital and its processes of universal commodification: the cycles of accumulation and immiseration, dispossession and enclosure; the precarization of labor and the roll-back of social rights; the destruction of commons and community; the relentless subversion and blockage of democracy; the unceasing expansion of techno-administrative control; the reckless spoiling of a life-giving planet. Terror, in a word.

Or more precisely: state terror. For, all of these processes converge and find crystallized form in the state and its agencies, the institutional nexus and force-field of conflicting interests that, as war machine, enforces the given. Managing national identities and economies, mediating capitalist class hegemony, states cooperate and collide with other states in a system of uncontainable rivalry. As the accumulation process strips and plunders the biosphere, the advantaged take what they can and the weak endure what they must. No exception to this rule, war is its perennial demonstration. Against this, what Benjamin called “the real state of exception”: a rupture with domination and permanent catastrophe.

Does experience at last confirm this grim sketch of domination as a global process? The mediations of liberated critical thought reveal what daily life generally obscures. In the everyday, there are places to hide, get lost, pluck pleasures on the run. There, in the lived and experienced commodity world, in the Global North actual and imagined, the phantoms of enjoyment pleasingly blind us. As readers of the Frankfurt School and Guy Debord, we have learned to recognize the libido lures of “culture industry” and “spectacle,” and to see in them systematic organizations of social control. But these disempowerments have their compensations: they deliver the partial enjoyments of fantasies and identities that, driven by lack, keep the capitalized circuits of desire flowing.

Lacanian theorists Yannis Stavrakakis and Jason Glynos, taking up the proposals of Todd McGowen, are helpfully analyzing this aspect under the rubric of “commanded enjoyment.” The compulsive consumption of commodities and the fantasies of national identity are never able to deliver the full enjoyment they promise. Still, the return on these investments is enjoyable enough to win the loyalty of millions and contribute massively to our social “stuckness.” For the price of this enjoyment is resigned accommodation to nation and capital. All this is, evidently, undeniable.

This subjective account, however, points back to the social reality that shapes subjectivity in specific forms: our subjective self-delusions are objectively organized through a system of relations, institutions and processes. But no social system attains the aimed-at closure of perfect control, unless by final solutions: its totalizing tendencies can only be totalized terminally. Capital cannot do without the living labor-power that calls it into question, and the identity-logic of integration can only be absolutized as genocide. At all the points where the repressed returns, where the real exposes the failure of systematic consumptive enjoyment to deliver a life worth living, rebellious subjectivities and uprisings incessantly break out. And uprisings must be preemptively cowed or, that failing, put down – the task of enforcement. Where the market fails to discipline, the state steps in, with its arsenals of terror and its paramilitary auxiliaries.

Enjoyment and enforcement, then, go together: they are two aspects of a single social reality, which neither alone suffices to capture. As Stavrakakis and others warn us, an emancipatory, radically democratic politics cannot rely on reasoned critique alone; it has to mobilize a different enjoyment from that driving addictive consumption and national identity. We ignore enjoyment at our own peril, true enough. But it is also true that there is no escaping the capitalist state and its enforcement functions. Any alternative organization of enjoyment, beyond the fantasies that feed domination, has to defend itself against a global war machine perpetually seeking targets. 
If Marx’s account, in the three volumes of Capital, of the accumulation-valorization process convinces us, still or again, today, is it not because we recognize this automaton of “self-valorizing value,” this “animated monster?” What we can see, behind the spectacular and mesmerizing flux of commodified life, is this: this self-driving and viciously expanding spiral actually functions as a master logic. It really has tended to dominate – has in fact dominated – all counter-logics, all alternative social forms and the tendencies they might generate, all struggling leaps and reaches beyond it, all attempts to tame and gentle it, to this day.

Historically, this dominion was achieved by force of violence, and this violence was and remains constitutive of capitalist modernity. The overpowering of feudal relations and the enclosure of the Commons proceeded in pace with the emergence of the modern state and nation. “So-called original accumulation” and the plunder of the New World made possible the industrialization of Europe but required horrific episodes of terror and genocide. And these processes do not belong to a safely distant and superseded past; they continue today, as an indispensable means by which accumulation renews itself.

What the Midnight Notes Collective has influentially named “the New Enclosures” is inseparable from “the large-scale reorganization of the accumulation process which has been underway since the mid-1970s” – what is now generally called, and perhaps miscalled, “neo-liberalism.” Over the two centuries preceding 1750, the yeomanry of England was evicted from lands held in Commons and driven into slums, ports, mines, mills and colonies. IMF-dictated “Structural Adjustment Programs” today produce the same effects: commoners displaced from their lands and severed from their means of subsistence across the South are forced into favelas, sweatshops and “Free Enterprise Zones.” In 1990, Midnight Notes exposed the secret:  the 1980s had seen “the largest Enclosure of the worldly Common in history.” And the process is global. From spreading shanties and armed evictions, to the deadly borders, “security obstacles,” camps and checkpoints that channel and regulate the flows of labor-power; from the plunder and expropriation of public holdings in the former Eastern bloc, to gentrification and the current wave of home foreclosures in the US; from the corporate seizure of water Commons, traditional seed stocks and genes, to the global network of 700 US military bases and the occupations of the “war on terror”: this is the violent everyday reality behind “the gleaming idols of globalism.”
Violence and terror, then, have always been necessary to secure and reproduce the world of capital, and already in the early modern period the state emerged as the monopoly of this enforcement function. In a spiral that expanded along with that of capital, the power of the state steadily grew, as the constant pressures of a master logic shaped its forms over time, through the conjunctures of class struggle and imperialist world wars. The immanent trajectory of the modern state – the state of, under and for capital, whether liberal “democracy,” “welfare state,” or some form of “exceptional” regime – has become clear only in retrospect, in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the emergence, after 1945, of the national security-surveillance state and its military-industrial complex.

With the development, production and accumulation of nuclear arsenals, the demonstrated power and credible threat of a global termination, naked state terror is openly revealed to be the very essence of the enforcement function. Only there, in the conjunction of state and nuclear Weapon of Mass Destruction, or WMD are the immanent tendencies of the capitalist state as such, partially grasped by Hobbes, Max Weber and Carl Schmitt, finally and chillingly exposed: in the nuclear state, in the fatal knotting of science, state and war machine, techno-power overwhelms politics. Not democracy, then, but techno-administration is the logical fulfillment of the tendencies and processes bundled under the term “enforcement.” The modern capitalist state culminates in the enforcement function of state terror, epitomized in the nuclear WMD and the national security-surveillance nexus required to administer it.
In Negative Dialectics, Adorno remarked that while progress in emancipation remains an unrealized promise, there certainly has been progress in domination: “No universal history leads from savagery to humanity, but one does lead from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.” Sixteen years later, in 1980, as the planned deployment of US Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe provoked a new wave of anti-nuclear protest, Edward Thompson warned that the nuclear WMD must be grasped not as a “Thing,” but as a social process – a dialectical insight that Joel Kovel elaborated compellingly shortly after. Nuclear arsenals and the terror they inflict by their very existence cannot be separated from either the logics that dominate the social context or the states that enforce that context.

The category of enforcement gives a specific inflection and bite to the two tendencies Adorno saw as dominant in late capitalism: administration and integration. Enforcement would name, precisely, their entwinement and merger in the nuclear state. Domination, beginning with the domination of nature, leads to a new fear, the master’s fear of the slave, and this fear responds with terror: out of fear, the capitalist ruling classes called on science to empower weapons without restraint. Science delivered, never ceased to deliver, and finally ended, in terminal self-betrayal, by delivering the terror weapon demonstrated on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and by conducting, by facilitating, enabling and carrying forward on every level, obediently when not ardently or even ecstatically, the whole appalling development of nuclear WMDs that followed, by means of hundreds of tests, on land and sea, undersea and underground, in the atmosphere and beyond it, in secret or with ostentatious publicity. 

The new power of terror is not neutral, however; it recoils in every direction, invading the unconscious, mutating the state-form and corroding democracy, giving rise to techno-administration and the cults of secrecy, and exposing as fraudulent the benign claims of the “peace atom” and space program. Over time, but rapidly enough, the enforcement function of the new power of terror was fully absorbed into the new state-form and its private-sector techno-industrial outriders. Wielding terror to coerce imperialist rivals and rebellious labor, and to fend off feared retribution from Third World and Global South, the state and its technocrats became thoroughly dependent on it. Through administration, terror was ideologized and institutionally entrenched, as the zenith of the state’s enforcement functions. In the US case, Kovel, in particular, has documented this process in great detail, citing twenty-two instances in which the US state has used nuclear weapons by threatening their deployment in “one international crisis or other” between 1946 and 1980. Now, from a liberal-legalist perspective, Garry Wills has gone even further, demonstrating with copious analysis of National Security Council documents the constitutional crisis set in motion by the Manhattan Project and “Bomb Power.”
In the Cold War context, the rise of the nuclear WMD state begat a global nuclear regime of WMD states, raising the stakes of imperialist rivalry to a calculus of insanity and producing psychic effects and scars that remain incalculable. In the decades after 1945, politics as such was absorbed by the gestures and reflexes, the alarms and traps of fear and emergency, and the use of ultimate state terror was normalized. As the state of exception steadily became the norm, as emergency became permanent and thereby gradually slipped back out of consciousness, democratic institutions were systematically corrupted and executive power steadily accumulated. In the US, as Wills convincingly shows, constitutional checks and balances were both structurally undermined and episodically thrown off in terror, permitting power to flow to the Commander-in-Chief and realizing de facto an illegal, extra-constitutional regime.

The legal restraints on this tendency imposed by Congress after Watergate are revealed in retrospect to have been but a weak blip, a momentary counter-trend; in the Reagan era, as the mild response to Iran-Contra confirmed, the stronger tendencies of the security-surveillance state reasserted themselves and continued on their way. The lapse back into arbitrary power, extralegal executions, preventative detentions and the invasion of privacy reflects the dominant operative logic. And what enforcement then enforced, after the defeat of the rebellious global upsurges of the 1960s and early 1970s, was the neo-liberal counterattack of the “New Enclosures”: rollback, privatization, structural adjustment, deregulation, asset stripping, IMF and WTO, Wall Street and Davos, the shifting immiserations of the global debtors prison. Against this, struggling forces gathered, and rebellions again began to flare: in Chiapas, Seoul, and countless other places across the South, as well as, more visibly in Northern media, London, Seattle, Quebec and Genoa. In the mountain caves of Afghanistan, a bearded avenger plotted, at the head of an armed vanguard largely conjured into being by Carter’s CIA in the last phase of the Cold War.

All this, and no less, is the historical and social context of the “war on terror” unleashed by the Bush administration following the attacks of September 11. In this light, the emergency is neither new nor exceptional. No surprise either, then, that the Obama administration has continued the wars of enforcement and, shifts in rhetoric aside, has assumed the logic and obligations of the politics of fear. The permitted interpretations of the mandate for change evidently do not extend to any substantive rupture with the rule of enforcement. In 2011, the US will spend more (in adjusted dollars) on its war machine than it did at the peak of the Second World War. The $1.5 trillion dollar US military budget will eat up fully half of every tax dollar collected and accounts, as it has over the last decade, for roughly half of all global military spending. It is too absurd to credit, that this should be the inescapable cost of defending five per cent of the world’s population against the other 95 per cent. Rather, it confirms that the US state is the primary agency for the enforcement of the global regime. Until this is confronted, no honest debate over social aims and priorities, domestic or international, is possible, and the spectacle of “politics” in the US will remain a lethally childish cartoon. In any case, the opening to a different and transformative social logic will not be the grant of administration, the sham of electioneering “yes, we can!” It will come, if it does, from below, as a massive and resistless demand, a spreading movement of sanity, the belated, robust refusal of domination.

Progress, Hiroshima and the End of Science

The critical conjunction of Auschwitz and Hiroshima is of course still fiercely resisted in some quarters. In some dominant discourses of academia, even writing these two names in the same sentence is tabooed. Nevertheless, these two genocidal events must be grasped together, across their obvious differences and singularity. They, too, are social processes – moments in an unfolding force field. Their context is the unprecedented scale and intensity of twentieth-century violence. By most estimates, the global bloodletting of the Second World War took between fifty and sixty million lives, roughly two-thirds of which were civilian. In the victors’ mythology, this Good War was costly but just: Auschwitz is the crime of the Nazis; Hiroshima, the terrible but necessary measure taken to bring a conflagration caused by fascist aggressors to the swiftest possible end. Critical reflection exposes a less self-flattering reality. 

As social processes, Auschwitz and Hiroshima demonstrate new techno-administrative powers developed in a specific conjuncture of class struggle. From this critical vantage, fascism does not appear out of nowhere, but is a counter-revolutionary intervention into a context of revolutionary struggle. The Russian Revolution of 1917, appearing and unfolding within a war driven by the logics of imperialist rivalries, released waves of revolutionary hope and desire that only reached exhaustion half a century later, with the defeat of the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s across the capitalist core and the channeling of emancipatory impulses into one-party states in China, Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam. This defeat of revolutionary desire, in the forms in which it was put into practice in the struggles of the twentieth century, was accomplished by massive applications of violence and coercions of all kinds, from dirty wars and repeated interventions by the US and other capitalist powers, to the counter-revolutionary terror of Stalinism.

Within this long, traumatic and uneven sequence, the fascisms of the 1920s and 1930s must be seen, as Nicos Poulantzas among others has shown with brilliant clarity, as an exceptional state and regime form – an emergency organization of capitalist power in local situations of threatened or failing hegemony. The logic of emergency and exception would take new forms after 1945, as the new techno-powers of state terror reverberated through the new conjunctures of the so-called Cold War. The difficult critical point is that the powers of terror that came out of the Second World War were, through whatever complex and contradictory mediations, products of the defeats suffered by the exploited in the decades following 1917. After 1945, as the nuclear WMD mutates the state-form in a context of continuing imperialist rivalry and global counter-revolution, the new genocidal powers are not just aimed by states at each other. The targeting of cities and those who live in them, established as a military given through air power in the Second World War, is from then on a strategy of state terror aimed at the exploited – the global multitude of state subjects interpellated into national identities.

In the harsh glare of the global social process, a master logic flowing through the appearance-forms of a planetary force field, Auschwitz and Hiroshima can be recognized as qualitative leaps in genocidal power – as demonstrations of powers absorbed by the capitalist state and from then on held in reserve as weapons of state terror. Very schematically:  Auschwitz demonstrates the qualitatively new potential for systematic genocide inherent in the technics and logics of rationalized industrial production, when these are combined with state administration and directed toward the aim of eliminating targeted communities or populations. Hiroshima demonstrates the qualitatively new potential for genocidal destruction inherent in the project of modernist science itself, when all the state-directed resources of research and development and rationalized production are mobilized for the war machine.

The extermination camp or factory, then, and the doomsday weapon or WMD, are the legacies of terror that are released by globalized logics of antagonism and domination – by capitalist modernity and the social world it has conjured. And these new powers of state terror quickly recoil on that social world itself, mutating the state-form and initiating the politics of fear and permanent emergency in which we live today. With this shift – with these qualitative demonstrations and their subsequent institutional and psychological absorptions – progress is a dead letter. All this is the unhappy historical demonstration of the thesis long argued by Benjamin, Adorno and Max Horkheimer:  so far, there has only been one long, unbroken progress in domination, “one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”

The revolutionary bourgeoisie that opposed reason to arbitrary power, became a new arbitrary power – a capitalist class struggling to keep its grip by every available means. The progress in emancipation promised by the Enlightenment, with its rationalist traditions of humanism and science, was held back and deflected by a social logic that up to now has been more powerful. Empowered by science and techno-administration, that logic has enwrapped the planet, enclosing and overwhelming the project of emancipation and enforcing the exploitative rule of accumulation. The material effects of this logic on the biosphere, and the terminal threats posed by the war machines of enforcement, have put the future itself into doubt. The category of humanity – a dream, a hope, a still-unrealized possibility – now must reflect this history of defeated promise and its awful exposures.

The project of emancipation, bound to seek a process of radical transformation, survives, but bears these collective traumas as its wounds and scars. Mourning, it must renew and reorient itself. Under the eyes of drones and satellites, in the shadows of walls and monied towers, it must re-gather, seek forms and practices, organized agencies and strategies, that do not repeat a history of defeat, but instead edge along a tight-wire between a catastrophic given and a catastrophic confrontation with that given. The national security-surveillance state, with its powers of terror and enforcement, must be disarmed and abolished, but without provoking a terminal war of annihilation. The invention of a politics that can liberate would-be humanity from exploitative relations and the state terror that enforces them is the objective urgency that bears down on us all, indifferently, our planetary exigency. In the extreme precarity of our shared plight, ‘humanity’ may yet emerge.
In the meantime, science and state are stripped of legitimacy, if not of power. The ruination of a mythical progress entails the exposure of a mystified science. Modernist science emerged in the first place as a techno-project aiming to liberate humanity by dominating nature. But nature and the human species, it turned out, are a dialectical unity, each conditioning and transforming the other; and every advance in the domination of nature was quickly enlisted for the domination of a ruling class over others. The fatal logic of domination prepared and predisposed science for its eventual corruption. Its instrumentalization, its tendency to become mercenary, selling its services to the state or highest bidder, was already manifest at the dawn of modernity, as the processes of “original accumulation” enclosed the Commons and remade them in the shape of property and capital.
The entanglement of capital, violence and early science is personified in the career of Francis Bacon, as Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker have revealed in a brilliant feat of history from below.  Bacon – philosopher-scientist, investor in the Virginia Company, Lord High Chancellor of England and torturer in the dungeons of London’s Bridewell Prison – eventually fell from grace. Scribbling furiously in an attempted come-back, he advised his masters in the rising capitalist state to practice capital punishment on a massive scale against the multitudes who stood in the way of progress; his An Advertisement Touching an Holy War (1622) was a call to genocide.

Four centuries on, science serves the war machine without a murmur of protest or resistance. Scientists clock in to work at the elite labs of Los Alamos, or on campuses of research universities across the US, striving tirelessly, cumulatively, to improve the weapons systems, from the next generation of doomsday WMDs to “non-lethal” sonics and tasers for quelling the expected urban uprisings. On the drawing boards and operating tables are the prototypes of assassinating nano-drones that will chase down targets like killer bees: one more deadly convergence of science and fiction. Meanwhile, psychiatrists are on hand for the water-boarders, and anthropologists advise the colonels and generals of counterinsurgency. A hell of surveillance and enforcement is imagined and rigorously realized, funded by extracted surplus-value, recycled as tax revenues or borrowed on credit. Through its everyday labor, a whole society produces a power of terror that poises over its producers like a cobra, ready to strike. The metaphors reveal the legacies of the post-2001 “war on terror”: the MQ-1 Predator drone, the MQ-9 Reaper drone – Obama’s weapons of choice in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen.
Looking back, it can be seen, these tendencies were there from the beginnings of modernist science, alongside counter-tendencies that aimed instead to realize the promise of emancipation. Hiroshima marked the moment when the enlistment of science won out, when the servile tendency became qualitative and science itself became something essentially different. After Hiroshima, there is no more “science” in the Enlightenment sense, the appeal to the dignified authority of which would immediately suffice to silence all objections and quiet all debates. A science that willingly develops weapons of terminal, practically unbounded destruction has forfeited all claims to legitimacy and degraded itself to a reckless instrument of techno-power. Only by disavowal or outright fraud can anyone now persist in bestowing on science either the honorable integrity of a neutral search for truth or the dignity of an essential humanism. After the Manhattan Project, what is left are two kinds of scientists: those who work for the war machine, directly or indirectly, and those who refuse to. Period, full stop.

The break with techno-power and the logic of domination begins from that division, and the implications extend far and wide – for example, into the very terms and assumptions of the politics of energy and climate change, as Iain Boal has incisively argued.

Bertolt Brecht, in exile in Los Angeles at the end of the Second World War, intuited this shift from science to techno-power, and grappled with it.  The three versions of his Galileo document this struggle. The great scientist is all too human; shown the instruments of torture in audience with the Inquisitor, Galileo recants his radical theories. In the first, so-called Danish version of the play, completed in 1938 and first performed in Zurich in 1943, Brecht exonerates the experimenter for his recantations. For Galileo continues his research in secret, and passes the resulting Discoursi to his student Andrea, who hides the manuscript under his cloak and smuggles it across Germany to publishers in Amsterdam. Truth triumphs, and science, if not the scientist, retains its dignity. 

Collaborating with Charles Laughton on an English-language production of Galileo when the news of Hiroshima broke, Brecht revised the great experimenter’s mea culpa speech, registering the horrors of the bomb. In the so-called American version, finished in 1945 and staged two years later in Beverly Hills, Galileo’s recantation is now rewritten as a major social betrayal, the precedent for all the surrenders and sell-outs on the way to Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

For what reason do you labor? I take it the intent of science is to ease human existence. If you give way to coercion, science can be crippled, and your new machines may simply suggest new drudgeries. Should you then, in time, discover all there is to be discovered, your progress must then become a progress away from the bulk of humanity. The gulf might even grow so wide that the sound of your cheering at some new achievement would be echoed by a universal howl of horror.

For the third, so-called German version, published in 1955 but not staged at the Berliner Ensemble until 1957, after Brecht’s death, the speech was revised again. In this version, the indictment is formulated with uncompromising clarity:

As a scientist I had a unique opportunity. In my day astronomy emerged into the marketplace. Given this unique situation, if one man had put up a fight, it might have had tremendous repercussions. Had I stood firm the scientists could have developed something like the doctors’ Hippocratic oath, a vow to use their knowledge exclusively for mankind’s benefit. As things are, the best that can be hoped for is a lineage of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for any purpose.

Brecht had had to struggle hard to reach this position. The open, experimental attitude he associated with true science was central to his conception of dialectical realism. Brecht’s wish to rescue science from its entanglements with power and capital are legible in his conflicted treatments of Francis Bacon, author of the call to capitalist jihad. His short story, “The Experiment,” from 1939, lays the disgraced Bacon all too gently to rest.  Still, Bacon’s Novum Organum inspired Brecht’s Short Organon for the Theater, written in Zurich in 1948, just before the playwright’s return to Germany. The Short Organon, which would become something like the working program for the Berliner Ensemble, resumes what, for Brecht, was the battle “for a theater fit for the scientific age.” But having rethought the relation between pleasure and learning, Brecht here makes a case for what he calls “an aesthetics of the exact sciences”:

Galileo had already spoken of the elegance of certain formulas and of the wit of experiments. Einstein attributed a sense of beauty to function of discovery, and the atomic physicist R. Oppenheimer praised the scientific stance and attitude, which “has its own beauty and seems to suit mankind’s position on the earth.”

This astonishing invocation – after Hiroshima, after the American Galileo – of the lead scientist of the Manhattan Project is however blown up and carbonized several pages on, by the explosive naming of Hiroshima. At the end of a long litany of machine-age techno-achievements, Brecht installs a sentence that obliterates its optimism: “With my father I already spoke across a continent, but it was together with my son that I first saw the moving images of the explosion in Hiroshima.” Brecht then draws back, disavowing what has been admitted, as if in shock. He is not yet ready for a radical critique of science, one that would locate the problem in the domination of nature. In the next section, science per se escapes blame. The problem is that the discoveries of science, “so successful in exploiting and dominating nature,” were monopolized by the exploiting classes, who turned them into tools for social control. This monopoly is undoubtedly a social fact, but Brecht evidently misses, or refuses, the ecological turn that opens before him at that point in his text, leaving the irony of his own language to speak for itself.
The mirroring nightmares of “actually existing socialism” of course included that dominating relation to nature criticized by Benjamin, Brecht’s friend and confidant, in an essay the playwright knew. The “vulgar-Marxist conception of Nature,” Benjamin wrote in his last essay,

recognizes only progress in the domination of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features that later emerge in fascism. Among these is a conception of nature that differs ominously from the one advocated by socialist utopias prior to the Revolution of 1848. The new conception of labor is tantamount to the exploitation of nature, which, with naïve complacency, is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat.

There is, to be sure, a non-vulgar Marxist conception of nature that seeks a non-dominating relation to the non-human. One could even read it out of Marx’s suggestive discussion of the “true realm of freedom,” toward the end of the third volume of Capital. That realm, Marx points out, begins only where the realm of “natural necessity” leaves off – beyond, that is, the necessary satisfaction of basic needs through labor and material production. Within this sphere of natural necessity, however, freedom

can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is its basic prerequisite.

It is not nature, then, but “the metabolism with nature” organized by the associated producers – in other words, the relation to nature, the logic by which the interchange with nature is organized – that must be dominated and brought under rational collective control. This relation should be organized in a way worthy of humanity in its open essence, in a way that treats the life possibilities and potentials of each person as an end in itself, rather than as mere means to the ends of others more powerful.  This radicalization of enlightened autonomy contains an opening to a radically democratic, ecologically sane and respectful form of socialized production and subjectivity – an opening that Stalinist “Marxism” disastrously missed.

The problem we face is not that such a social form is unimaginable or impossible. There are many models at hand that point to possible alternatives both to capitalism and centralized bureaucratic socialism. One that is very promising, for example, envisions a recovery or liberating de-enclosure of the Commons, through a proliferation of decentralized but linked commoning economies under direct, participatory democratic control (the “associated producers”). The problem is rather that we still lack political means – agencies and strategies – to actualize such models and defend them from state terror, in the face of entrenched and terminally armed capitalist power. In any case, in this direction lies the promise of what Adorno, following up on Benjamin, called “reconciliation.” This would be classless society, liberated from the structural violence of exploitation, plus the liberation of nature. The critical theory and practice that supports the struggle for emancipation in this full sense must include a radical critique of science – one in line with the insights of Benjamin’s last essay and Brecht’s last Galileo.

The Exceptional Illegitimacy of the Nuclear WMD State

The notions of legitimacy and legitimation have been standard handles in sociology and political theory since Max Weber offered his typology of “legitimate domination” in 1914. Domination, for Weber, is at bottom the probability that commands will be obeyed, and legitimacy implies a “minimum of voluntary compliance.” Consent, then: acceptance may be genuine or feigned, but if a ruling power or social form enjoys legitimacy, its dominance is generally accepted, while radical challenges to it are not. Wrestling with the same problem from a Marxist stance, Antonio Gramsci developed the category of hegemony as an inflected account of class struggle. When a ruling class secures hegemony, it has convinced the dominated that its dominance is not just inevitable or unchangeable, but actually justified, proper, superior, the best of all possible alternatives. Hegemony presupposes an unceasing struggle for position and advantage, a struggle that also reaches into the dominant classes. In the shifting mix of interests, alliances and relative power, certain ruling class fractions win out over others. Through the mediations of the state, above all in capitalist “democracies,” dominant classes and class fractions organize themselves into hegemonic power blocs.

In a broader sense, the hegemony of a ruling class is secured through its evident leadership in all key fields: science, art and culture, as well as politics and business. The elites rule because they are the best and the brightest, a dubious but carefully cultivated image, established and reinforced through repetition and, we could say following Debord, spectacular power. The contestation of hegemony or legitimacy is first of all the refusal, retraction or active withholding of a previously granted acceptance and obedience. To claim that a state, society or master logic has forfeited legitimacy or become illegitimate is to assert that it has ceased to deserve consent and obedience, that for compelling reasons its domination should no longer be accepted. If the withdrawal of loyalty and support becomes general, then a state or even a whole social form faces what Jürgen Habermas in 1973 called a “legitimation crisis.” While there are signs enough today of a generalized disillusionment with neo-liberal power and dominance, such a crisis of legitimacy or hegemony, if that is what it is, has yet to generate the widespread disobedience and active resistance that could overturn that power and dominance, or transform it into something better.
In our contemporary social world, in which nominally democratic states are held to be the norm for “governance,” the mediation of political hegemony and legitimacy is bound up with fundamental problems of law and legality – namely, law’s well-marked basis in violence. In a more strict sense, legitimacy means conformity to rules or laws, to the rule of law. Such conformity or legality provides a basis for justification and defense: the given may claim legitimacy insofar as it holds to or “plays by” the recognized rules. But what if the rules are hidden or different from the ones that are openly claimed or recognized – or what if the full implications of those rules were blocked from consciousness or emerged there only late in the day, well into a process whose tendencies were thought or imagined to be other than they were? 

What is the rule and what is the exception? The restricted problematic of legality and legitimacy, the fabled “rule of law” by which liberal-bourgeois “order” slew the beast of arbitrary power and violence, opens onto the general problematic of social transformation. Within the given logic, the given regime of laws, rules and institutionalized relations, radical transformation is always already excluded: such transformation is the threat that cannot be admitted, the real and forbidden exception that constitutes the given rules, the rules “in force” – and justifies the state that enforces them. If hegemony really does crumble, and the dominated withdraw their consent, that at least tacit acknowledgment of legitimacy expressed through obedience, then the rule itself is openly confronted and put in question; social aims are thereby opened to reordering, social forms to remaking. To prevent this situation from emerging, states of emergency are declared. The so-called war on terror, we have seen, is the global normalization of emergency, the global installation of a permanent politics of fear.
The expansion of markets for the exchange of use-values gives rise, logically and historically, to exchange-values and production for exchange: the appearance of dancing commodities. The distribution of power in the processes of production transforms labor-power into one more commodity: exploitation, the extraction of surplus. The capitalist relation fixes and codifies the steps of the dance in a viciously expanding spiral. This relation is antagonistic. Within it, no permanent reconciliation between exploiter and exploited is possible. Class conflict and struggle may be suppressed, concealed, or temporarily managed but are immanent to the logic of accumulation – irreducible. Struggle thus haunts the rule of antagonism, the logic of domination. And enforcement aims, must aim, at the returning repressed. What Marx uncovered, in his critique of capitalism, is that the master logic of the global social process is nothing less than a Bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all.

When Thomas Hobbes penned this memorable phrase in the seventeenth century, he was describing a projected hell – a chaotic state of nature from which the modern state and rule of law allegedly deliver us. A mythical anarchy is conjured to explain the problem of violence, and the sovereign power of an over-awing decider is then declared necessary to fend off this specter. The modern state, mystified node of power, takes off. What Marx shows us, of course, is that the modern, capitalist rule of antagonism remains a logic of war that pushes against and takes aim at all that would constrain it. It is a war that has been legalized, formalized and apparently pacified as “the market.” But it continues, must continue, to generate the conflicts, struggles and crises that break out frequently enough in violence and war, in the common language sense of open armed conflict.

Enforcement is the violence needed to support the given relation, the rule of antagonism, the logic of domination. The global regime of rival nation-states structures the planetary accumulation of capital: enclosure, colonialism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, new enclosures, “administration,” “Empire” – the combination, alternation and recombination of enjoyment and enforcement, seduction and terror, what Retort has called “military neoliberalism under conditions of spectacle.”
The state and its war machine is the agency of enforcement. Not that this agency is perfectly unified and monolithic: as we have seen, it is a nexus or force field of many institutions riven by conflicts, contradictions and incessant struggles for hegemony. Nevertheless, it has loci of agency, real powers and functions of command: taxes are collected, funds secured and allocated, decisions made, orders given and obeyed; forces move, are deployed, engaged – and bombs or missiles rain down somewhere in the Global South. Weber, disenchanted, rewrote Hobbes, ditching the mythical state of nature. The sober theorist of value-neutrality had need of other fables, but not that one. What constitutes and defines the modern state, he could see in 1919, is its monopoly on violence. Within a given territory, the state alone can wield violence legitimately.

In the Weimar period, the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt pushed this analysis further, arguing that it is actually exceptional violence that is the essence of state power. Sovereignty is the power to declare the state of exception or emergency – or in other words, to declare the existence of an absolute and intolerable enemy. It is the logical and actual possibility of such an enemy, or existential adversary, and thus of the friend-enemy distinction, that constitutes and activates “the political.” And in declaring a state of emergency, the state invokes the rule of law to exempt itself from the rule of law. It gives itself permission to do whatever it deems necessary to crush the enemy, and it, the state, alone will decide when, or if, it is safe to return to normality. It is the declared state of emergency, of course, which self-authorizes the state to take control of whole sectors of science and the economy and to mobilize all techno-instrumental capacities toward political ends, including the end of terror. But such processes, we have seen, have logics of their own that, once released, can escape rational command and control. Since 1945, the weapons of terror have overwhelmed the political processes that became dependent on them. Emergency became normalized.

In the official security discourses of the “war on terror,” the social contexts and historical background of violent resistance to the states that enforce the master logic are typically suppressed. This suppression or official amnesia conceals the massive asymmetry of state terror and makes it possible to dissimulate it as “defensive violence” aiming to protect all of “us” from the “terrorists.” Afraid, we must run to the state, since, by definition, only the state can protect us. This inversion of reality – of the real facts concerning who controls and deploys the powers of extreme, potentially terminal violence, and in whose interests – is the ideological core of the new politics of fear. So it is necessary to emphasize the point that, despite what we are constantly told today, terror remains above all the prerogative of the state.

So-called non-state actors may get hold of a WMD, but only the state has the power and material capacity to develop, produce, accumulate and deploy WMDs as a matter of policy and strategy. Moreover, only states have the extensive capacities required to develop and produce nuclear WMDs. The much exploited threat that al-Qaeda or some other non-state network will secure and use one of these is fiction – pure and cynical manipulation. But effective, obviously. Nevertheless the fact remains that objectively – with regard to who has control over what powers of violence – we have far, far more to fear from the global regime of nuclear WMD states than from its challenging others, however brutal certain of those others – al-Qaeda and such – may be.

In this light, the “war on terror” is an efficient way of generating fear and maintaining the conditions of emergency that justify in advance new applications of state terror in defense of a global system facing meltdown. The Bush government did not declare a state of emergency in any official, juridical sense, in the way that, for example, Pervez Musharraf did in Pakistan in 2007. Bush did not formally proclaim the suspension of the US Constitution or the rights to free speech and assembly; he did not declare martial law or a curfew. But he did perform the speech acts of emergency, if I can put it like that, famously activating the friend-enemy distinction and invoking the reasons of state and language of exception – even as he enjoined Americans to go shopping. In the event, no formal decree was needed; expanded and exceptional powers flowed to the Executive through the USA Patriot Act of 2001, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, and numerous other pieces of legislation in between. Moreover, continuous extra-legal executive actions were intended to usurp new powers and establish them as precedents. And indeed most of them were so established, in keeping with the dominant long-term tendencies and logics of the post-Hiroshima national security-surveillance state.

Should anyone still imagine, today, in 2010, that the “war on terror” is over or was the temporary insanity of a particular clique of neo-conservative militarists, a rapid review of the new administration’s record should suffice as corrective. Extra-judicial execution, aka assassination, of those deemed enemies, not excluding American citizens, whether or not they are actually engaged in combat on a battlefield or are even armed; selective suspension of Habeas Corpus and preventative detentions on executive order; “extraordinary rendition” (and therefore also, we should suspect, torture by proxy); the operation of covert detention and interrogation facilities beyond public scrutiny; and routine assertions of executive privilege and broad exercise of secrecy and surveillance: all these have continued or even expanded under the Obama administration.  
Of these, Obama’s assassination program, typically carried out by terminator drones flown by joystick from CIA headquarters in Langley or Creech Air Force Base, north of Las Vegas, is by far the most worrying. First of all, because drone strikes are killing innocent civilians, whose deaths are flippantly dismissed or justified as “acceptable.” To assassinate Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud on 5 August 2009, to take just one example, it reportedly took the CIA sixteen drone attempts over fifteen months, killing between 207 and 321 people in the process. Some number of these people, officially disputed of course, were completely innocent. Secondly, such assassinations are clearly illegal, despite the labored justifications and obfuscations of Obama’s hired legal minds. All too obviously, the administration has decided that it is far simpler and less politically complicated to kill these people, along with whoever else is unlucky enough to be around, whenever they are allegedly located, than to capture them and bring them to justice through an open and legal process. These assassinations, with the “collateral” murder of innocents they entail, are the executive actions of a state of emergency. The Constitution, obliging the US state to follow international law as well as its own, need not be suspended formally, by special official decree, because it already is suspended in practice.

Even leaving aside these legal issues, which have to do with claims or just pretenses of legitimacy, drone technologies, once launched and expanded in this way, become a social process with its own immanent logics. As should have been learned in the case with nuclear WMDs but clearly has not been, such logics are not calculable in advance and thus cannot be controlled. There is every indication that the temptation to close the gap between unprecedented new powers of surveillance wielded by Homeland Security and the National Security Agency and the depersonalized power of violence delivered by remote control robotics will be more than the state can resist. As that gap is closed, and as the number of terminator drones continues to grow, quantity will once again pass over into quality, and a new leap toward hell will have been taken.

All this returns us to the problem of state terror and the legitimacy of the WMD state. If, as seen, the legitimacy of modernist science does not survive Hiroshima, this holds all the more for the capitalist state, as the entrusted protector of its citizens. In his Against the State of Nuclear Terror, Joel Kovel shows, unanswerably in my view, that any state that has absorbed and normalized the accumulation and use of nuclear WMDs has forfeited all political and ethical legitimacy, objectively if not subjectively. (It is in this regard that the new constitutionalist critique mounted by Garry Wills is just not radical enough.) If nevertheless nuclear states can and do continue to claim legitimacy and evidently get away with it, one reason why is surely that acknowledging the Emperor’s exposed genitalia would amount to traversing the fantasies of national identity with which the state is so closely bound.

For now, these enjoyable fantasies are holding, the powers of enforcement behind them. Pseudo-democracy, the ever-more direct political mediation of naked economic power, goes through its motions and rituals, supported by the affect- and image-machines of culture industry and spectacle. Meanwhile, techno-administration tightens its grip, year by year. Clearly, the mediating link between enjoyment and enforcement is the politics of fear and emergency. Benjamin, close reader of Schmitt, had exposed the truth about these years before Auschwitz and Hiroshima altered their appearance-form. For the exploited and dominated, he wrote in 1940, it has never ceased to be an emergency: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

The rule is, the exception enforces the rule. Rule and exception rule together. But that rule is simply the law of domination, of brute force, which betrays the ideal of the rule of law and is therefore without legitimacy. What a radically democratic political process could put in place of this organized violence remains to be seen. But to break with the law of domination, it would need to break the logic of antagonism and pass beyond capitalist relations. That would mean struggle, against the forces and powers of terror and enforcement: a risky passage, with no guarantees. But the alternative has been clarified; it offers the dubious certainty of global ruin. Emergency indeed.

Terror, the Sublime and the Problem of Enjoyment

Terror and the sublime go together. More than that, they are inseparable. For Edmund Burke, there can be no sublime without terror, and wherever there is terror there is also, at least potentially, the feeling of the sublime: “Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.” Whether this rule is legitimate or not may certainly be questioned. Still, if, with Burke and Immanuel Kant, the sublime is above all a subjective response to the power or size of nature, and the terror that encounters with such nature may provoke, it is never simply reducible to terror. Direct encounters with the violence of nature – actually to be in the landscape, that is – could precipitate a plunge into pure, undiluted terror. But to contemplate such scenes from a position of relative safety renders the feeling of terror enjoyable.

A quick look at Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” will clarify the difference. The fisherman who tells the story’s narrator about the famous tidal whirlpool off the coast of Norway had the bad luck actually to be sucked into its maw. He survived by lashing himself to a barrel, but the terror of the ordeal made his “jetty black” hair go white. As a survivor, the fisherman now shares his experience with Poe’s main narrator, whom he guides up a high cliff overlooking the maelstrom. Even this remote vantage proves to be exposed to the force of the surging waters in the distance. The main narrator’s ears fill with its roaring, and he begins to feel in the soles of his feet the tremors passing through the rock of the cliff:

The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked.  I threw myself upon my face and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.

As readers, however, our vicarious involvements do not put us bodily at risk; safe, we can fully enjoy the spectacle and its aura of danger. The feeling of the sublime is possible, though in differing intensities, from all three positions: that of the fisherman as survivor-witness looking back on his ordeal; that of Poe’s main narrator, who actively places himself at risk in trying to learn about the maelstrom; and that of the reader-spectator whose approaches are through the medium of fiction or art. Only the actual moment of pure terror, which remains a traumatic and unrepresentable excess, is excluded. The sublime always has to do with terror, then, but is not identical with pure, immediate terror; it is rather terror mediated by a certain physical or temporal distance and compounded with enjoyment and fascination – a strange and singular mix of pleasure and pain. As Kant has it, the feeling of the sublime is an indirect or “negative pleasure.”

The rewriting of the sublime after 1945 was a matter of assimilating into the aesthetic category the terrible and traumatic effects of socially-produced violence. In a sense, the tenor of terror shifts and mutates under the pressures of history. The terror of second nature, our social world, a terror epitomized by Auschwitz and Hiroshima, becomes more threatening to us than the power or size of first nature, the natural world. And this shift, corresponding to the objective exposure and ruination of enlightenment “Progress,” transforms the aesthetic category: the Kantian sublime turned on the presumed moral dignity of human freedom, but after 1945 this humanist dignity shrivels. 

The artistic sublime survives as the mimesis of this trauma, the enjoyment of a mediated terror, but without the rescuing fallback to Enlightenment pieties and a humanism that, we can now see, was prematurely taken for granted. Jacques Lacan has opened up this problem of enjoyment or jouissance for us, marking it as a mode of embodiment that is central to the processes of social reproduction and subjectivization. Adorno, for his part, tried to recover the sublime for his dissonant modernism. In his discussions of Franz Kafka, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Celan and, above all, Samuel Beckett, Adorno held open the possibility of an aesthetic experience that, triggering and passing through emphatic anxiety, gives bodily support to a radical standing-firm against false-reconciliation. Such responses cannot be excluded but are probably, in our accelerated and distracted world, not very generalizable.
The sublime remains a problem because of the element of terror in it, which, enjoyed, tends to make the spectator complicit with social violence and misery. Psychoanalytic theory teaches us that, in the unconscious, there is no contradiction between knowing something is terrible, indefensibly hurtful of self and others, and enjoying it: there, in the unconscious, truth and fantasy enjoyably coexist. The partial jouissance of fantasmatic libido-investments compensates for the castration that accompanies the subject’s entry into social reality, as a placeholder in the symbolic and imaginary networks. The scarring lack with which the forming subject enters society can only ever be partially filled by the object-choices of a restless desire, but there are different ways and modes of enjoying, different kinds of fantasies and different ways of relating to them. And these differences of course have political significance.
The problem of enjoyment, then, is general, extending far beyond the restricted dilemmas of sublime art. The phrase “war porn” – reportedly soldiers’ handle for the driving, by screen and joystick, of drones – is a fair condensation of the problem, as it relates to the new wars of enforcement. A video clip released online by WikiLeaks, the critical archive courageously edited by Julian Assange, clarifies one direction in which the problem plays out. The video shows the gunner’s view from an Apache helicopter gunship as a dozen people were massacred by the helicopter’s 30mm cannon in New Baghdad on 12 July 2007. This everyday massacre, the obscene reality of occupation, is mediated through a screen image that recalls those of video-games, and is accompanied by an audio track, also transcribed by WikiLeaks as a running caption, of the radio traffic between the soldiers of the helicopter and their next-in-command.

On one level, the video is forcefully repulsive; it certainly allows for responses of horror and disgust – all that is called for by the most basic feelings of compassion and solidarity. On another level, however, and at the very same time, the video tends to suck us in and place us in the antagonistic scenario. A habitual structure of projective identification – of interpellation – is activated here that holds out something like a spectatorial path of least resistance. It actually aligns us, like it or not, with the occupier's gaze, the soldiers' gunsights - behind which, the god's eye vantage of fantasmatic power. This of course is exactly how movies and video games work. Similar images, seen countless times in the entertaining fodder of the cinema of war – or even in critical films like Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, one scene of which is almost the exact “pre-image” of this video – subtly erode the power to hold apart fiction and real killing. The template of entertainment matches the actual massacre.
In other words, the video also invites investment in a fantasy of power – invites, that is, identification with the voices heard and, through them, with the power of a war machine that can deliver such death from above with the untouchable, absolute sovereignty of a god. The fantasy of omnipotence is of course only a fantasy: the murderous paranoia of the soldiers in the video, seeing weapons and enemies everywhere, betrays this clearly. Such paranoia is structurally produced by the occupation itself: the soldiers are manifesting the survival imperatives of occupiers (which does damage to them as well). But the ethical lapse this entails is mirrored and encouraged by the structure and template of the video image, which by its alignments sets up the possible enjoyment.

Even if – consciously, ethically, politically – we refuse with a fitting revulsion the point of view offered, the fantasy lure of power never ceases to call to us in ways we cannot be certain we do not respond to unconsciously. Enjoyment, in this sense, does not exclude the displeasure of revulsion. Ethical corruption and the attrition of outrage thus accompany such images, along with disgust and indignation. We are obligated to see and absorb this video, in order to witness what is being done. At the same time, we need to resist and palpate its insidious lures. Here as everywhere else, we have to struggle for our humanity.

The problem of war porn confirms that the war machine has merged not only with science, but with the entertainment industry as well. If the function of what Adorno and Horkheimer named culture industry is to inculcate resignation and conformism, the enjoyment mobilized by the new merger is much more dynamically aggressive. In the 1980s, Ariel Dorfman and Joel Kovel registered sequential critiques of the video games that were then beginning to proliferate. Both saw video gaming as a form of acting out the terror and anxiety generated by nuclear arsenals and brinksmanship; the video screen thus both reflected and helped to normalize state terror. As Dorfman put it: “These games of death, then, are a way of dealing with an eventual holocaust, a way of ‘feeling’ and ‘handling’ the unthinkable.” And Kovel concluded: “Video games are the rooting of nuclear terror in popular culture.”

Now this tendential merger has clearly reached another level. P.W. Singer, writing about the rise of “militainment” in a very disturbing and repulsive issue of Foreign Policy, describes America’s Army, a Pentagon-funded “tactical multiplayer first-person shooter” that has become “one of the most downloaded Internet video-games of all time.” Bizarrely, the US Army contracted the Naval Postgraduate School to develop the game. A powerful recruitment tool, the enjoyable interpellations offered by the game are massively addictive; in its first five years, Singer reports, “some nine million individuals had signed up to join America’s video-game army, spending some 160 million hours on the site and making it one of the top ten of all video games, online or otherwise.” When the game’s commercial rival, Modern Warfare 2, was released in 2009, it registered $310 million in sales in two days. Social facts such as these demonstrate new processes and tendencies that James Der Darian has gestured to with his acronym “MIME-Net,” or Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network.

All this is deeply troubling, and we should have no illusions: neither the sublime arts of dissonant modernism nor the critical provocations of so-called tactical media can compete with the enjoyments now on offer at the intersections of war and capital. Art is a field of “commanded enjoyment” that at its best and most careful can provide models of counter-jouissance that prefigure relations beyond domination. This is an important contribution, but one that must remain modest so long as it submits to administration: art remains a dominated sphere of relative autonomy.

To participate more widely and effectively in the project of emancipatory transformation, art will need to burst its own constraining institutional frames. But such a vector of committed intervention is itself preconditioned on the existence of robust and organized movements for radical change. The break with our addictions to the given will not come from the art world but will go to it, from the struggles, liberating art, along with everything else.

Critical Theory and The Struggles Now

As I write this, in Europe, the enforcing managers of capital are launching a wave of new enclosures; they have opted to address the economic crisis opportunistically, on the backs of the most vulnerable, through a new “austerity” offensive. Right now the weakest link in the neo-imperialist chain and the strongest point of organized popular resistance is Greece. On Greek resistance, the Eurozone may yet founder and the neo-liberal project of Europe come undone. That in itself would be no tragedy. The challenge is to think and aim far enough beyond this neo-liberal given, and together construct in its place something more democratic and livable, less destructive and more compassionate – an organization of enjoyment less compulsive and addictive, less pitiless, less relentlessly, foolishly expansive. Something closer, perhaps, to what the young Marx suggestively called that “social enjoyment” that would befit “the true communal essence of humans.”

To get there, to contain the drive of accumulation and to dismantle and downsize a global economic monster and its enforcing war machine, we will have to aim radically. Nothing less, and certainly not the rehashed sclerosis of Social Democracy, will help us. Aiming radically, all struggles for emancipation converge: struggles to empower labor and end the terror of exploitation; struggles against racism and sexual and gender oppression; struggles to liberate the Commons and defend local and indigenous life-ways; struggles for safe and ethically-produced food and an end to ecological rapine; struggles over access to culture and for free, open and critical education; struggles against the corruption of democracy and for autonomous and critical media; struggles to end the occupations and dirty wars and to shut down the global web of military bases; struggles for disarmament and nuclear abolition. What they all share is a refusal of domination and terror, a refusal of fear and emergency. What they need, urgently, is a politics to link them – the organizational forms and strategies to build global solidarity and agency. Critical theory, if it means anything, belongs to those struggles. It will be there, seeking a practice with others, embodied and on the line, or it will not be at all.

Warm thanks to Iain Boal, Anna Papaeti and Yannis Stavrakakis for many stimulating discussions and exchanges, and for the encouragement that has helped me to write this. The above text is the draft of a new concluding chapter (minus endnotes), to be added to the forthcoming second edition (coming soon, in paperback!) of Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory.

On the artwork: The REPOhistory sign, Advantages of an Unregulated Free Market Economy is the work of Jim Costanzo. The collage, Vetoed Dreams, is by Theodore A. Harris. Thanks to both.


  1. part of your... manifest in Greek
    [from ‘Critical Theory and the Struggles Now’]

    Στην Ευρώπη οι εκτελεστικοί διαχειριστές του κεφαλαίου παρουσιάζουν ένα κύμα νέων χαρτοφυλακίων• έχουν επιλέξει να αντιμετωπίσουν την οικονομική κρίση καιροσκοπικά, πάνω στις πλάτες των πιο ευάλωτων κοινωνικών ομάδων, μέσα από μία νέα επιθετική πολιτική «λιτότητας». Αυτήν τη στιγμή ο πιο αδύναμος κρίκος στη νεοϊμπεριαλιστική αλυσίδα και το ισχυρότερο σημείο οργανωμένης λαϊκής αντίστασης είναι η Ελλάδα. Ως προς την ελληνική αντίσταση, η Ευρωζώνη μπορεί ακόμα να αποτύχει και το νεοφιλελεύθερο πρόγραμμα της Ευρώπης να αναιρεθεί. Αυτό από μόνο του δε θα επέφερε τραγικές συνέπειες. Η πρόκληση είναι να σκεφτόμαστε και να αποβλέπουμε μακράν πέραν αυτού του νεοφιλελεύθερου καθεστώτος, και στη θέση του να οικοδομήσουμε από κοινού κάτι πιο δημοκρατικό και βιώσιμο, λιγότερο καταστροφικό και πιο συμπονετικό κι ανθρωπιστικό: έναν οργανισμό απόλαυσης λιγότερο καταναγκαστικής κι εθιστικής, λιγότερο ανηλεούς, λιγότερο αδυσώπητης κι ανόητα επεκτατικής. Ίσως κάτι πλησιέστερο σε ό,τι ο νεαρός Μαρξ αναφερόταν με την «κοινωνική απόλαυση» που θα προσιδίαζε στην «πραγματική συλλογική υπόσταση των ανθρώπων».
    Για να φτάσουμε εκεί, να διαθέτουμε το δυναμισμό της συσπείρωσης και να κατεδαφίσουμε και να συρρικνώσουμε ένα παγκόσμιο οικονομικό τέρας και την εμβληματική πολεμική μηχανή του, θα πρέπει να έχουμε ριζοσπαστικούς στόχους. Τίποτε λιγότερο δε θα μας βοηθήσει, και σίγουρα όχι η αναμασημένη σκλήρυνση της λεγόμενης «κοινωνικής δημοκρατίας» ή σοσιαλδημοκρατίας.
    Με ριζοσπαστική πολιτική στόχευση, όλοι οι αγώνες χειραφέτησης συγκλίνουν: αγώνες για χειραφέτηση της εργασίας και άρση του τρόμου της εκμετάλλευσης• αγώνες κατά του ρατσισμού και της σεξουαλικής, φυλετικής κι έμφυλης καταπίεσης• αγώνες για την απελευθέρωση κι επανοικειοποίηση των κοινών αγαθών, και την υπεράσπιση των τρόπων ζωής τοπικών κι αυτοχθόνων πληθυσμών• αγώνες για ασφαλή και ηθικά παραγόμενη τροφή, και άρση της οικολογικής λεηλασίας• αγώνες για πρόσβαση στον πολιτισμό και μία ελεύθερη, ανοιχτή και κριτική εκπαίδευση• αγώνες κατά της διαφθοράς της (αστικής) δημοκρατίας και υπέρ αυτόνομων και κριτικών δικτύων ενημέρωσης• αγώνες για τον τερματισμό κάθε κατοχής και κάθε βρόμικου πολέμου, και το κλείσιμο του παγκόσμιου δικτύου στρατιωτικών βάσεων• αγώνες για τον αφοπλισμό και την κατάργηση των πυρηνικών όπλων.
    Αυτό που όλοι αυτοί οι αγώνες μοιράζονται είναι η άρνηση της κυριαρχίας και της τρομοκρατίας της εξουσίας, η απόρριψη του φόβου και της κατάστασης εκτάκτου ανάγκης. Αυτό που χρειάζονται, επειγόντως, είναι μία πολιτική που να τους συνδέσει – οργανωτικές μορφές και στρατηγικές ώστε να δομηθεί διεθνής αλληλεγγύη και αγωνιστική βάση. Η κριτική θεωρία, αν σημαίνει κάτι, ανήκει σε αυτούς τους αγώνες. Θα είναι εκεί, αναζητώντας την κοινή πρακτική, ενσώματη και έγκαιρη, ή δε θα είναι καθόλου.

    sorry for any translation... oversights
    dsps ;-)

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