Monday, October 8, 2012

In Defence of the Terror

Verso recently published In Defence of the Terror, David Fernbach's translation of Sophie Wahnich's text first published in French in 2003. Slavoj Žižek (practically a "house writer" for Verso) wrote the new English foreword, an essay in its own right called The Dark Matter of Violence. The passage is from this introduction.

"... beneath all these diverging opinions, there seems to be a shared perception that 1989 marks the end of the epoch which began in 1789 – the end of a certain 'paradigm', as we like to put it today: the paradigm of a revolutionary process that is focused on taking over state power and then using this power as a lever to accomplish global social transformation. Even the 'postmodern' Left (from Antonio Negri to John Holloway) emphasizes that a new revolution should break with this fetishization of state power as the ultimate prize and focus on the much deeper 'molecular' level of transforming daily processes. It is at this critical point that Wahnich's book intervenes: its underlying premise is that this shift to 'molecular' activity outside the scope of state power is in itself a symptom of the Left's crisis, an indication that today's Left (in the developed countries) is not ready to confront the topic of violence in all its ambiguity – a topic which is usually obfuscated by the fetish of 'Terror'. This ambiguity was clearly described more than a century ago by Mark Twain, who wrote apropos the French Revolution in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: "There were two 'Reigns of Terror' if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years . . . our shudders are all for the 'horrors' of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with life-long death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? . . . A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror – that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us have been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves."

"Does not the same duality characterize our present? At the forefront of our minds these days, 'violence' signals acts of crime and terror, let alone great wars. One should learn to step back, to disentangle oneself from the fascinating lure of this directly visible 'subjective' violence – violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent. We need to perceive the contours of the background which generates such outbursts. A step back enables us to identify a violence that sustains our very efforts to fight violence and to promote tolerance: the 'objective' violence inscribed into the smooth functioning of our economic and political systems. The catch is that subjective and objective violence cannot be perceived from the same standpoint: subjective violence is experienced as against the background of a non-violent zero-level of 'civility'. It is seen as a perturbation of the normal, peaceful state of things. However, objective violence is precisely the violence inherent in this 'normal' state of things. Objective violence is invisible since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as being subjective violence. Systemic violence is thus something like the notorious 'dark matter' of physics, the counterpart to an all-too-visible subjective violence. It may be invisible, but it has to be taken into account if one is to make sense of what otherwise seem to be 'irrational' explosions of subjective violence."