Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Seventh Circle – “We’re building a civilized space here”

The first global slaughter, the one that from 1914 to 1918 got rid of a large sector of the urban and rural proletariat, was waged in the name of freedom, democracy, and civilization. It is outwardly in the name of the same values that for the past 6 years we’ve been seeing the famous “war on terror” be waged, from targeted assassinations to special operations. And the parallel stops there: on the level of appearances. Civilization is no longer just something to be brought to the natives without further ado. Freedom is no longer that name you write on the wall, since it’s always followed by “security,” which is now like its shadow. And democracy has a general notoriety about it now, easily soluble in any piece of emergency legislation – for instance in the official reestablishment of torture in the United States, or the Perben II law in France.
In one century, freedom, democracy and civilization have been made into mere theories again. All the work of the rulers now consists in arranging for the material and moral, symbolic and social conditions in which these theories can be validated, and configuring the spaces where they are to appear to function. All means to these ends are acceptable, even the least democratic, the least civilized, and the most security-obsessed. In one century, democracy presided over the birth of the fascist regimes, civilization constantly rhymed – to the tune of Wagner or Iron Maiden – with extermination, and freedom has had both the face of a banker throwing himself from a window, and that of a family of workers dying of hunger, as in 1929. It was agreed since then – or rather, since 1945 – that the manipulation of the masses, the activities of the secret services, the restriction of public liberties, and the total, full sovereignty of the various police forces were part and parcel of the proper way to ensure democracy, freedom and civilization. At the final stage of this evolution, we see the first socialist mayor of Paris putting the final touches on urban pacification, with the highly policed city settlement of a poor neighborhood, and explaining it with carefully chosen words: “We’re building a civilized space here.” There’s nothing to find fault with there; it’s just all got to be destroyed.

Beneath its abstract appearance, this question of civilization is in no way a philosophical one. A civilization is not an abstraction hanging over life. It is what rules, besieges, and colonizes existence in the most everyday, personal way. It’s what holds together its most intimate and most general dimensions. In France, civilization is inseparable from the State. The more a State is powerful and old, the less it is a superstructure and the exoskeleton of a society and the more it is in fact the very form of the subjectivities that people it. The French State is the framework of French subjectivities, the aspect taken on by the centuries-old castration of its subjects. Considering that, no one should be surprised that so many people so often go from being political figures to ending up raving mad in psychiatric hospitals; that people see our leaders as the root of all our ills, that we like to grumble about them and that we grumble them all the way into power as our masters. Because here, we don’t think of politics as a reality outside of us but as a part of ourselves. The life we invest these figures with is the life we’ve had stolen from us.
If there is a French exception, that’s the cause of it. Everything, even the global influence of French literature, is the fruit of this amputation. Literature in France is the space sovereignly granted for the amusement of the castrated. It is the formal freedom conceded to those who can’t get used to the nothingness of their real freedom. That’s what gives rise to all the obscene winks that the Statesmen and men of letters in this country have never stopped giving each other, as they easily borrow each other’s costumes. That’s also why the intellectuals here tend to talk so loud when they’re so soft, and always fail at the decisive moment, the only moment that would’ve given meaning to their existence but which also would’ve gotten them ostracized by their profession.
It’s a forbidden and justifiable thesis that modern literature was born with Baudelaire, Heine, and Flaubert, as the blow-back from the State massacre of June 1848. In the blood of Parisian insurgents, and against the silence surrounding the slaughter, the modern literary forms were born – spleen, ambivalence, fetishism of form, and morbid detachment. The neurotic affection that the French have for their Republic – in the name of which all blunders regain their dignity, and even the worst dishonesty gets its high-level approval – extends the repression of the founding sacrifices through every instant. The June days of 1848 – after one thousand five hundred dead in battle, but many thousands of summary executions among prisoners, the Assembly welcomed the surrender of the last barricade with cries of “Long Live the Republic!” – and the Bloody Week are birthmarks that no surgery can ever erase.

Kojeve wrote in 1945: “The “official” political ideal of France and of the French is today still that of the nation-State, the ‘one and indivisible Republic.’ On the other hand, in the depths of its soul, the country understands how inadequate this ideal is, the political anachronism of the strictly “national” idea. This feeling has admittedly not yet reached the level of a clear and distinct idea: The country cannot, and still does not want to express it openly. Besides, for the very reason of the unparalleled brilliance of its national past, it is particularly difficult for France to recognize clearly and to accept frankly the end of the ‘national’ period of History and understand all of its consequences. It’s hard for a country which created the ideological framework of nationalism out of nothing and exported it to the whole world to recognize that all that remains of it now is a document to be filed in the historical archives.”
The issue of the Nation-State and of mourning it forms the heart of what has had to be called, for the past half-century, the French malaise. We politely give the name of “alternation” to this twitchy indecision, this pendulum-like swinging from the left to the right, and then from the right to the left; like a manic phase after a depressive phase that only prepares another one; or like the way that in France we have, coexisting, such an oratorical critique of individualism and such a ferocious cynicism; such grandiose generosity and such petty obsessions among the masses. Since 1945, this foggy malaise, which only appears to have slightly dissipated in the light of the insurrectionary fervor of May 68, has never really stopped thickening. The era of States, nations, and republics is coming to an end; and a country like ours that has sacrificed everything that was lively about it to them can only remain totally stunned. The explosion that was caused by Jospin’s simple phrase, “the State can’t do everything,” shows the kind of reaction that we’ll be seeing sooner or later when it becomes obvious to everyone that it can’t do anything at all anymore. The feeling we’ve been cheated is like a wound that just keeps growing and getting more infected. It’s the basis for all the latent rage mounting in people towards just about everything. That we’re not mourning the era of nations is the key to the French anachronism, and to the revolutionary possibilities France still has.
Whatever their outcome may be, the role of the next presidential elections will signal the end of our illusions, and the bursting of the historical bubble we’re living in that makes events like the anti-CPE movement (scrutinized by other countries as if it were some bad dream that escaped the 1970s) possible - that’s why no one really wants anything to do with the elections. France is indeed the red lantern of the western zone.

The West today is a GI speeding into Falluja on an Abraham M1 tank while listening to hard rock full blast. It’s a tourist lost on the Mongolian plains, mocked by everyone and clinging to his debit card as to his only lifeline. It’s a manager that swears by the game of Go. It’s a young girl that seeks her happiness in clothes, guys, and moisturizing creams. It’s a Swiss human rights militant that travels to the four corners of the earth to show solidarity with all the world’s rebels – as long as they’ve been defeated. It’s a Spaniard who doesn’t give a shit about political freedom as long as he’s got sexual freedom. It’s a art enthusiast exhibiting a century of artists as the final expression of modern genius; artists from surrealism to Viennese actionism competing to see who could spit in civilization’s face with the best aim, to the dumbfounded admiration of the viewer. It’s a cybernetician who’s found a realistic theory of consciousness in Buddhism and a particle physicist gone to seek out inspiration for his latest discoveries in Hindu metaphysics.
The West is a civilization that has survived all the prophecies of its collapse with a singular stratagem: The bourgeoisie had to deny itself as a class in order to permit the bourgeoisification of society as a whole, from worker to baron; Capital had to sacrifice itself as a wage relationship in order to impose itself as a social relationship, thus becoming cultural capital and holy capital as well as financial capital; Christianity had to sacrifice itself as a religion in order to survive as an emotional structure-- as a diffuse injunction to humanity to be compassionate and powerless, the West has sacrificed itself as a particular civilization to impose itself as a universal culture. The operation comes down to this: a dying entity sacrifices itself as content in order to survive as form.
The individual, reduced to a few crumbs, survives as form thanks to counseling in “spiritual” technologies. The patriarchy, by attributing to women all the worst attributes of men: will, self-control, insensitivity. A disintegrated society, by propagating an epidemic of sociability and entertainment. These are all the great, stale fictions of the West, maintained by artifices that themselves even contradict them point by point.

There’s no “clash of civilizations.” What we have here is a clinically dead civilization that a whole plethora of artificial survival apparatuses are deployed on, to keep it spreading its characteristic pestilence throughout the planet’s atmosphere. At this point no one believes in a single one of that civilization’s “values;” in fact, anyone who affirms them is considered insubordinate, and their affirmation a provocation it feels it must cut to pieces, deconstruct, and return to a state of doubt. Western imperialism today is the imperialism of relativism, of “that’s your point of view”; it’s the little sideways glance, the wounded protestation, at anyone who’s stupid, primitive, or presumptuous enough to still believe in something, to affirm anything at all. You can see the dogmatism of constant questioning give its complicit wink of the eye everywhere in the universities and among the literary intelligentsias. No critique is too radical among postmodernist thinkers, as long as it contains a little nothingness of certitude. Scandal for the past century has come from any too noisy negation; today scandal bursts from any affirmation that does not tremble.

No social order can be durably founded on the principle that nothing is true. So we must make it stick. The application of the concept of “security” to every single thing these days is the expression of a project to securely fasten the ideal order onto places, behaviors, and even people themselves; an ideal order that they aren’t ready to submit to. The saying “nothing is true” says nothing about the world, but it says everything about the western concept of truth. Truth, here, is not seen as an attribute of beings or things, but of their representation. A representation that conforms to experience is considered true. Science is the last resort of this empire of universal verification. All human behaviors, from the most ordinary to the most learned, rest on a foundation of unequally formulated pieces of evidence: but in practice things and representations are only indistinctly linked, and so into every life is introduced a dose of truth that isn’t included in the western concept. They talk about “real people,” but it’s only to mock the “poor in spirit.” That’s why Westerners are universally considered liars and hypocrites by people in the countries they’ve colonized. That’s why they’re envied for what they have, for their technological advancement, and never for what they are, indeed they’re rather justly scorned for it. One couldn’t teach de Sade, Nietzsche, and Artaud in the high schools if their whole idea of truth hadn’t been discredited in advance. To endlessly contain all affirmation; to deactivate all those certitudes that can’t help but come out: such is the long labor of the western intellect. Philosophy and the police are two of its convergent but formally distinct means for doing so.
The imperialism of the relative, in the end, finds a suitable enemy in any and every empty dogmatism: any marxist-leninism, any salafism, any neo-nazism; anything that confuses affirmation and provocation as much as Westerners do.
At this juncture, any strictly social contestation that refuses to see that what we’re faced with is not the crisis of a society but the extinction of a civilization becomes complicit in perpetuating it. And the modern strategy, indeed, is now to critique this society in the vain hope of saving this civilization.
Well then; we’ve got a corpse on our backs, but we won’t be able to shake it off easily. Nothing is to be expected from the end of civilization, from its brain-death: it will only be of interest to historians. But it’s a fact, and we have to make a decision about it. The facts can be covered up, but the decision is political. Only when we decide to put this civilization out of its misery and figure out how it will happen will we get free of its cadaver.

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