Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Clash of Civilisations, Enlightenment and Gotterdammerung.

I was genuinely surprised at the lack of vitriol issued about Baudrillard when he kicked the bucket. Although there was a great deal of snickering about the reality principle having finally bit him on the arse, there was nothing to compare to the seething hatred of Derrida when he copped it. This is by way of introducing the theme of pro-imperialist contempt for what is usually called 'postmodernism': it is not the Lyotards or the professional blatherers and pretentious art critics they most despise, as far as I can tell. It is the serious philosophical attack on the West's claim to ownership of Enlightenment, and therefore superiority.

In an older age, to speak of a 'clash of civilisations' would have rang hollow, since it was believed that civilisation was something Europe was bringing to the world - racial competition was a more ubiquitous theme. Aristocrat and litterateur, the Comte de Gobineau wrote his Essay on the Inequality of Races in 1855, dedicating it to King George V of Hanover - the same royal house that contained Queen Victoria. In it, he famously articulated the view that racial 'mixing' was responsible for the degradation of European culture, particularly through the vector of Mediterranean interaction with Africa, and the presence of so many Muslims on the continent for so many centuries. Various social Darwinists and eugenicists would follow up on this thesis with shocking 'findings' of their own, including Eugen Fischer whose experiments on the Herero people, against whom the German state was busily commiting genocide, led him to say that 'mixing the blood' produced a devaluation in genetic stock. Fischer's two most famous students were Hitler and Mengeles. Said points out that when Gobineau wrote, he did so as a romantic humanist, and in a context in which Europeans were elaborating a 'race science' based in on philological ties. De Gobineau was not as sanguine about the human lot and its capacity for knowledge as most Enlightenment intellectuals, yet he operated entirely within its orbit.

It was Nietzche, another theorist of European decline, who attacked Enlightenment and the presumed bases for European superiority most vigorously. Declaring God's death, as so many others had done, was not satisfactory to him. The removal of God allowed us to perceive that the true basis for morals, language and reason was the fallible human being, and as such one had to dispense with the idea that the forms of knowledge one had access to were in any sense 'true': they were necessary to arrange things and make them intelligible, to satisfy human need. The danger for Nietzche was that the role previously played by God, that of a psychological anchor, guaranteeing the integrity of the ideational structure, would simply be taken over by some other capitalised fiction: Progress, Truth, Reason etc. Thus Nietzche attacked the pure, unproblematic 'fact': "Against positivism, which halts at phenomena - 'There are only facts' - I would say: No, facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact 'in itself'". On progress: "The overall aspect is that of a tremendous experimental laboratory in which a few successes are stored, scattered throughout all ages, while there are untold failures, and all order, logic, union, and kindness are lacking". Meaning, he held, is generated by power (or the will thereto), not by some mythical human community (race, nation, culture) or by some historical mandate (progress, telos) or by the spirit in the sky (you know who). Thus, while Nietzche had no problem with domination, indeed he valorised precisely the figure of the barbarian for his ability to overcome 'slave morality' (that which is always reactive, which depends upon resentment, whose claim that meekness and victimhood is virtuous relies on the postulated existence of the oppressive or evil Other), the basis for the Enlightened European to lord it over other 'races' is in ruins. If one wishes to lord it over anyone, it must be as a barbarian, a new man assuming the full responsibility of power, and dispensing with the constraints of fictitious morality: the exertion of power will produce its own morality. It is altogether too easy to see how Nietzsche's anti-social individualism was appropriated and misappropriated by the Nazis, but it won't do to leave it at that - not because Nietzsche was opposed to antisemitism and nationalism unlike a good number of Enlightened intellectuals, but more basically because the purview of reaction offers its own kinds of insights.

In questioning Western forms of knowledge, particularly the underlying operations of power and desire, the poststructuralists were heavily influenced by Nietzche. It is perhaps necessary to state that they have often they have been engaged in supporting emancipatory struggles - Said and Deleuze supported the Palestinians, Foucault supported various political struggles including the overthrow of the Shah, Kristeva is (sort of) for female emancipation, as is Butler. Derrida's politics were for the most part inoffensively liberal (Zionist too), and it is precisely his theoretical work that has enraged Anglocentric reactionaries and liberal bombers. Why? Because, as Hari put it at the time 'the bad man wants to take away our language and reason and morality and give the country away to the terrorists'. He didn't use those words, but more or less. Perhaps it is because what Derrida (et al) represent is a challenge to the kind of baby talk that passes for Enlightenment in certain circles. In the penultimate essay of Writing and Difference, 'Structure and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences', Derrida elaborates his critique of the metaphysics of presence, and crucially rearticulates the Nietzchean attack on the fictitious centre, the position previously metonymously occupied by God, the guarantor of structure, the foundation of the belief system/structure. It is because of the finitude of the signifier, because of a lack inherent in it, that the metaphorical centre emerges as a supplement. It lends a surety to our narratives that we are not entitled to. Using Derrida's scare quotes, we might say that the founding 'event' of a belief system like 'The Clash of Civilisations' is the arrival of Culture as the new centre.

Most people when asked profess not to believe in anything so infantile as the notion that the crucial geopolitical cleavages today are caused by culture and systems of belief. We might admit that such things are enabling or constraining one way or the other, but these are patterned more like climactic zones than nation-states, and at any rate the main fissures do not correspond to any neat divide on the axes of religion or culture. Yet that basic framework is alarmingly persistent, and is built-in to the narrative of the 'war on terror'. It isn't satisfactory to say, as Bush and Blair sometimes do, that it is an intra-civilisational conflict. That is less than satisfactory, which is to say it is obscene, especially coming from these two fuckwits. They have persistently relied on the sotto voce dehumanisation of Muslims to legitimise their barbaric global strategies, particularly the use of torture, the suspension of habeus corpus, secret prisons and so forth. The focus of their military interventions and bellicosity is overwhelmingly targeted at predominantly Muslim parts of the world. Most of the dictators, terror groups and warlords that they support are concentrated in Muslim parts of the world, even as they profess to support liberals and modernisers and such. Further, since they refuse to publicly acknowledge the connection between their foreign policy and the kinds of attacks we have witnessed in parts of Europe and America, they rely on ridiculous claims, such as the one that They are envious and hateful, driven to insanity by Our freedom and democracy and wealth. Indeed, the very fact that they insist on pretending to be threatened by the various desperado combatants readying bomb attacks on cafes, when they know they could easily finish them off (or, as in the case of the bombers in Iran, stop supporting them), when it is obvious that their strategies have nothing to do with Political Islam or Al Qaeda or freedom - that very insistence invites the 'civilisational' analysis, especially when it is clear that most Muslims are ill-disposed to accepting the variety of freedom proffered by the axis of imperialism. Clearly, one doesn't say, as it wouldn't do to say, that the West is engaged in an existential struggle with the Islamic enemy. Such rhetorical styles are preserved for a grimmer period, and would probably be espoused by more openly racist politicians. But the actions and rhetoric of Bush and Blair, as well as the didactic modes of their supporters, imply a cultural struggle in which the West automatically, by sheer dint of what is emphasised and what is excluded from analysis, has the upper hand. Effortlessly superior in terms of its secularism, commitment to tolerance, human rights, dedication to freedom etc etc - provided one narrows and distorts the analytical frame in the usual ways, so as to omit most of the history of 'the West' and a good deal of the present conduct of Western states, if one only frames the discussion in terms of these abstractions of 'Islam' versus 'the West', one has an excellent story to tell the children.

Only through such fabulations could one, in all seriousness, counterpose imperialism to fascism. As Mark Salter points out in Barbarians and Civilisation in International Relations, poststructuralists were not the first or last to attack the binary opposition of civilised Europe versus its barbarian Others. Anti-colonial writers were quick to point out that Europe had itself become barbarian, precisely by means of the methods used to subordinate the colonies. That the Nazi holocaust was a barbaric extreme different in degree but not method to the forms of slavery and genocide imposed on non-white countries is a point repeatedly made by Fanon and Cesaire. Indeed, Hitler's plans for Russia and the Eastern territories were precisely modelled on what the English had made of India, and he repeatedly said so: "What India was for England, the territories of Russia will be for us"; "If the English were to be driven out of India, India would perish. Our role in Russia will be analogous to that of England in India"; Ukraine "that new Indian Empire"; the new German will "come to feel that nothing is impossible and, as the young Briton of today serves his apprenticeship in India, the young German will learn his lessons looking around the most easterly territories of the Reich", and so on. Salter remarks on the connection between Operation Barbarossa, the great push in the struggle for an Indian Empire, and the Nazi holocaust. The Final Solution was implemented in the conditions of a deliberately barbaric all-out war on the Russians, whose own alleged barbarism was imported to the German soldiers through insistent propaganda. The Nazis had blamed Russia for threatening Germany's extinction, and the result of the widespread acceptance of this lie and the viciously racist demonisation that went with it, was that the German army fought a war without regard to any of the restraints that then held and were encouraged to do so. Indeed, since the stated purpose of the war was to kill and enslave the Russians and Slavs, the enemy was deemed to be so inhuman that nothing was beyond the pale. The soldiers maintained a system of concentration camps for Russian slaves in which 3.3 million died. They took part in the Einsatzgruppen killings of Jews who, in Nazi propaganda, were the epitome of Bolshevist evil, the cause of the war, and the cause of Germany's misfortunes. And then, when all was lost, the Wehrmacht returned and helped the Nazi regime destroy the remnants of Germany so that nothing could be 'plundered' by the barbarians, so that every trace of the German nation would be removed from memory. The point of which is not only that the fascists pursued the means of empire - slavery, racism and genocide - to the most brutal and shocking ends. Nor is it that Hitler wanted to be like England. It is that they took the logic in which the imperialist or coloniser brutalises himself to the point of auto-obliteration.

The continuities don't obliterate the distinctions, any more than continuity abolishes the difference between dusk and midnight. But observers more alert to them and to the operations of power in knowledge, the way in which power generates knowledge and meaning, would have detected a whiff of the torture chamber and the mass grave in the rhetoric of the war on terror, in the 'clash of civilisations' background noise, and especially in the hysterical moral effusions which statesmen typically turn to when they're preparing to do something particularly atrocious.