Friday, March 24, 2017
Acts of violence posted by Richard Seymour
It makes no sense.
How could it possibly? You slam a fast-moving car into a group of people, crash the vehicle, clamber out and dash toward the Houses of Parliament with two huge knives, stabbing a police officer, before being quite predictably and efficiently shot to death. In a densely peopled, heavily policed, high-security tourist zone, where the odds of actually making it anywhere near the parliament building were negligible, and where the only likely victims were those who actually died: school students, passers-by, police officers. Four dead, nearly thirty injured. For what net gain, to what end?
This was a lone wolf suicide attack. What distinguishes it from other suicide attacks, globally, is its low level of resources, technology and sophistication. There is also the attacker, Khalid Masood, born Adrian Russell Ajao to an English mother and a Nigerian father, and a convert. The literature on suicide attackers has tended to find that they are likely to be better off than the reference population, highly educated and altruistic in motive -- the level of planning and commitment involved necessitates this. But, while the 7/7 attackers arguably fit this profile, a number of jihadis in British society over the last few years have demonstrated a slightly different pattern.
The Woolwich killers, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were working class British men of Nigerian background, who converted in their late teens. Richard Reid, the shoe-bomber, was a working class British man of Jamaican background who had been through the prison system and converted. It is not known when Khalid Masood converted, but it is clear that he went through the criminal justice system many times, garnering convictions for serious violent offences -- one of which was reportedly incurred after he was subjected to a racist provocation. We are still working with the bare minimum of information, but it is possible that conversion was his way out of a pattern of chaotic violence, for a while.
But the role of conversion here, one way or another, is probably quite important. In the wake of the collapse of political Blackness, a contingent form of coalition built around groups of people whose experiences converged at a particular moment after the fall of the colonial empires, race-making has taken a new turn. Islam, you might say, is the new Black. The racialisation of Islam, and all the apparatuses of violence and surveillance built up around it, seem to have created a situation in which some people want Islam to do the same sort of work as political Blackness, forming a unity among people across continents, and among Britons whose parents or grandparents migrated across continents.
In this way, the violence, condescension and exclusions of Britain's racial order can be linked to violence against others in the Umma, and a kind of transnational identity can somehow be formed around that. It's easy to see why this might appeal to people of a certain generation, who have lived through the death of political Blackness -- the trauma of racial injury is perpetuated, but the compensating fantasy of community provided by such coalitions is lost. There is, though, a structural impossibility here, because global race-making processes just aren't overlapping in that way; there is more fragmentation than unification. The al-Muhajirouns and Saviour Sects and al-Ghoraabas and so on, who appeal to the most criminalised and reactionary men among Britain's racial minorities, arguably represent the impossibilist wing of Islamism; just as Thomas Mair was an impossibilist lone wolf of "Britain First" nationalism. There, at least, would be somewhere to begin making sense: with impossibility.
We can admit that there is enough humiliation and anguish in everyday life, even if you aren't on the losing side of white-supremacy, to fuel a lot of violent rage. Research suggests that most people have experienced violent, murderous fantasies. The fact that most people never try to act on these, let alone act out something so spectacularly and indiscriminately bloody, is in part a function of forms of political and social embodiment that, however flimsy, mostly sustain the prohibition on violence and redirect that rage elsewhere.
On that basis, we could simply take the capacity for murderous violence, which we see acted out everyday in this country, for granted. We could follow the literature on suicide attacks, and analyse this tactic along rational choice lines, as a logical tactic within the political purview of jihadism. However, Masood's attack is almost the opposite of a tactic -- it is a means to thwart tactics, to disrupt planning. It may be linked to a definable political objective, but what it seeks is the unpredictable: it solicits chaos, panic, the undefinable. It makes no sense.
It seems, on the face of it, quite different from another act of violence on the same day, directed by the US air force against a school near Raqqa. That attack, which killed thirty people, was no doubt approved by President Trump, but also devised in line with long-standing bureaucratic imperatives, plans and strategies developed by the Pentagon. No doubt, it was a tactic choreographed as part of a wider campaign intended to win a strategic objective toward winning the war against Daesh. A state murder carried out within a certain jurisprudence, along the lines and trajectories of military bureaucratic decision-making, is surely not the same thing as a suicide attack. It makes too much sense.
That, at least, is what the ideology of war and terrorism tells us. The point of 'race' -- and the ideology of terror/war is integral to current race-making practices -- is precisely to make a spurious sort of sense out of violence and exploitation. The ideology of terror/war tells us that the violence of imperialist states is constrained within reason, justice and humanity, while that of its opponents is nefarious, groundless, unconstrained by law or decency. In a sense, that ideology merely re-states Albert Memmi's dictum that the colonial can have his arsenals, but the discovery of a rusty weapon among the colonised is a just cause for punishment. But there is always a point in the life of white-supremacy and imperialism where the sense-making apparatuses breakdown. And it is the failures and nonsense of this system which are most enlightening. They can be opportunities to change, or they can produce blind panic and grotesque, violent reactions.
And in fact, US imperialism doesn't make sense; it doesn't add up. There is, for example, no mystery about the fact that its bombings raids and invasions always exceed any plausible strategic purpose. Drone attacks murder dozens of non-combatants, and they are instantly reclassified as 'militants'. Iraq was devastated, systematically, defiled-city-by-defiled-city, with everything that could support human life being pointlessly demolished, perverse institutions of torment being set up in their place and new forms of statecraft built around sectarian parties, death squads and televised show trials. Afghanistan experienced even higher rates of aerial bombardment, coupled with a ridiculous campaign of crop poisoning (supposedly to stop the opium trade which, of course it didn't), while a statelet rump composed of warlords and patriarchs and religious fundamentalists was mobilised behind a useless war against other warlords, patriarchs and religious fundamentalists. In both contexts, groups of US soldiers repeatedly went on racist killing rampages, deliberately hunting and killing non-combatants.
There is something frighteningly volatile and supererogatory about these situations. Yes, of course, there were strategic objectives; yes, of course, there were things to gain; yes, of course, capitalist imperialism has its own imperatives which have nothing to do with reason, justice and humanity. And there is no such thing as a perfect strategy. The world is never completely lucid, never transparent, and there is no point from which totalised knowledge is possible. Yet the consistency with which US military ventures have produced bloody chaos for, predictably, no net gain, is not an accident. And Trump, though he is worse than his predecessors, is not in this respect undertaking a sharp departure from established policy.
All of this -- imperialist chaos, securitarian crackdowns, and demented lone wolf blowback -- is obviously not reducible to a relationship between coloniser and colonised: but it can't be abstracted from that relationship, with is still with us today.
"The ghost of the former colonial subject haunts (without their being aware of it) relationships among whites who have never left Europe." -- Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban.
In Ellis Sharp's short story from 1991, Dead Iraqis, the charred, scorched bodies of Iraq take a strange detour. The surrealists used to talk of dépaysement -- dislocation, disorientation -- as a way of describing how things go astray, are taken out of their usual habitat, and in so doing demonstrate capacities that it was never clear they had. Travel was one way of achieving a kind of dépaysement, breaking old habits, forming new ways of being. But wherever the traveler goes, as the surrealists knew all too well, the colonial agent may not be far behind. In Sharp's story, the bodies come back with him. They are taken out of their habitat, and appear on the kitchen floors of English householders. They don't haunt, so much as get in the way. They're a nuisance.
Mannoni's observation was based on the strange fact that the dream life of white Europeans who had never visited the colonies, was often populated by black colonial subjects: one wonders whom white British subjects dream of today, whether in fact the spectre of 'the Muslim' doesn't haunt their dream-life. It is not surprising that the ghosts of colonialism and a certain type of white-supremacist sovereignty which passed with it, are still with us: trauma passes on, as abundant clinical evidence shows, intergenerationally. But how? Mannoni's account, which for good reasons was criticised sharply by Fanon, is unsustainable. Prospero and Caliban represents an early and only partially successful attempt by Mannoni to analyse and decolonise himself, an attempt which would go on being a work in progress, and it still contains a lot of unusable colonial tropes. But it has the considerable virtue of stressing the nonsense, the breakdown, the failure of colonial life -- he was writing as a former colonial official in the aftermath of the French genocide of the Malagasy, the very experience that led him to seek his first analysis.
In particular, what Mannoni brought to the fore, which Fanon drew upon, was the pattern of violent transference in the colonial relationship. “The observer,” Mannoni observe, is “repelled by the thoughts he encounters in his own mind, and it seems to him that they are the thoughts of the people he is observing.” The European "personality type," had discovered through its dépaysement, its dislocation in the colonial relationship, new qualities, a new inferiority complex, which it transferred onto "the negro" -- making the colonised its symptom. This imaginarisation of the colonial relationship was organised by "racial differences" which, having "absolutely no meaning in the natural order," nonetheless had a real material, social basis, and persisted beyond all sense.
And, he argued, this logic had become so enfolded into the existing psychic tendencies of Europeans that it would persist beyond even the demise of racism.
Racism is far from dead, and race persists, like an automaton. Sheldon George, in his book on race, slavery and trauma, argues that the discourse of race today is organised by an "automaton of racial signifiers". This striking metaphor suggests that one might be, as Lacan put it, the "slave of a discourse," in which, or under which, our place is "already inscribed at birth".
Whereas Mannoni and Fanon, both of them indebted to Lacan, argued that the idea of the 'native' or 'savage' provided an image (imago) of the European subject's own drives, George suggests that the image itself is given its place and meaning by signifiers. Taking his cue from Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks, who has provided by far the most rigorous updating of Fanon's analysis, he argues that in a racial order of white-supremacy we are slaves to the signifier of whiteness. This signifier, introjected into the unconscious, promises a plenitude of being and enjoyment for white subjects, establishing whiteness as the pinnacle of being. But this depends, necessarily, on the non-being, or lack, of the black subject.
The signifier of whiteness, of course, is a fetish -- like the phallus. The logic of the phallus is that you either have it, or you don't; women are assumed not to have it, and men are assumed not to be without it. Likewise, whiteness is something you are assumed to have, or not: black people are assumed not to have it, white people are assumed not to be without it. And as with the phallus, the truth is that no one has it, because it is a fetishisation and objectification of power and being, qualities which are intrinsically relational. So, the signifier of whiteness, this fetish, is the pivot around which a certain kind of objectification of black bodies around contingent facts of skin, hair, bone length and physiognomy, is organised.
This analysis brings George's position quite close to that of Mannoni and Fanon, albeit within in a new perspective that foregrounds the symbolic, rather than the imaginary. In the context of slavery, George argues, black bodies were reduced to an exchange value, and a jouissance-value. Slaves were constantly confronted with their lack, their not-having, and denied access to the fantasies of being through which white masters covered over their own lack. This relationship freed white masters to engage in shocking acts of violence, freeing up the “evil desires that agitate around the internal emptiness characteristic of the subject,” since the denial of black subjectivity meant that their shaming gaze, and their testimony, could have no effect. The jouissance of whiteness was a jouissance of plenty, without limits, procured through the production of black destitution.
If, at first, black subjects had to develop alternative fantasies of being through religion, which guaranteed that there was a fragment of God's being in every slave, and that all could be redeemed, George argues that after the trauma of slavery, race itself began to provide certain satisfactions for African Americans. It became possible to identify with race as itself both a confrontation with and a displacement of lack. Personal lack, which is universal, was conflated with the slave's suffering and trauma. One could come to believe that it would be redeemed through a redemption of the race, even while acknowledging the evil of race. Ironically, says George, those who took this step bound themselves, ambivalently, through the signifiers of race to the historical trauma of slavery. The automaton of signifiers, he argues, perpetuates, repeats this terrible traumatic jouissance, a repetition which will not lose its grip until race, and its ability to organise both our life chances and our politics, does.
But that also raises the question of what is going on with whiteness, when the connection to the racial past established through this automaton of signifiers is disavowed? The answer to this is never straightforward, since all racial identifications materialise in different ways at different times. But repetition follows an implacable logic, and I want to suggest that for those out on the imperial frontiers, raping and butchering Afghans and Iraqis for fun, before returning to the United States to live comfortably disturbed lives, one of the things they are doing is repeating a relationship established in colonialism and slavery. And it would be worth thinking about how much the apparatuses of the American state, built through struggles over just these relationships, continues to circulate that kind of jouissance, such that sense can break down repeatedly in imperial ventures.
The suicide attacker, as Richard Boothby has written, short-circuits this relationship between master and slave. The uneven dialectic is based on the formula: your freedom or your life. But it is uneven because, if you choose the former, you can't have either. In a suicide attack, the attacker abruptly proves willing to give up her life to end the stand-off; turning her corporeality, her body, into a weapon. Jacqueline Rose made the point, writing about suicide attackers some years ago, that every such attack is "an act of passionate identification -- you take your enemy with you". Which could be interpreted as meaning, you take a bit of their whiteness, their being, with you. You claim a share of being, seemingly always precarious, always endangered, through death.
Lone wolf suicide attackers may not kill many people compared to the apparatuses of military full-spectrum dominance, or militarised policing. But they evoke a particular horror because they upend the (racialised) political and strategic calculations through which this assymetrical stand-off was assumed to be manageable. It is the precise opposite of 'risk-transfer war', in which the eroticised embodiment of death and killing is eliminated through drone abstractions, and policed out of national imaginaries both by borders and security apparatuses and by the working of ideology. Facebook users were grimly amused, during the fall-out from the Westminster attack, to notice people from far afield marking themselves as 'safe'. Only a very small number of people in this world are actually entirely safe; we are all continually living the crisis, to a greater or lesser extent, a precarious situation in which our lives can be blown apart by recession, austerity, violent crime, family breakdown, or a major social conflict. Only when people start being murdered is it possible to think of oneself as 'safe'. The appearance of the dead, the unpredictable irruption of a form of violence that belongs elsewhere -- what ITN called "Baghdad-style violence" in the wake of the Woolwich attack -- reminds us forcefully of the ideology according to which we are indeed safe.
But this abstraction itself, Boothby notes, is like a "pure tincture" of the Freudian death-drive. Rather than being eliminated through repression, it is chemically concentrated in the clarity of the remote aerial visuals beamed back to the Situation Room in Washington. Talal Asad, writing about suicide attacks, wondered if what horrifies us most about such actions is the seemingly "limitless pursuit of freedom", even a freedom to carry out marauding, unconstrained attacks on pedestrians, children, anyone in the way of an almost arbitrary path of destruction. What the suicide attacker brings into stark relief, from that point of view, is exactly what has been repressed and distilled in the 'war on terror'. The limitless jouissance of the master.
It doesn't make sense. It shouldn't make sense. The sense-making of white-supremacy and imperialism, which is not a one-way street but a relationship, is continually breaking down. The immediate, mantra-like revival of deadening slogans about "values" and "stoicism" and "pride" which will "never be defeated", is an attempt to restore, through sheer nonsense, through absolute meaningless waffle, the apparatuses of sense-making. But their breakdown, rather than being a cause of panic, could be an opportunity for change. We who didn't choose this violent, chaotic, oppressive relationship, are still inhabiting it, still driven by the automaton. But we don't have to be.