Friday, July 31, 2009

Tongues of Fire: Articulations of and against Terror (Part I of IV)

In his eighth thesis on the philosophy of history, written during the spring of 1940, Walter Benjamin writes,

One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable. (257)

Can we say the same of terrorism in the twenty-first century? Is it simply our view of history that we somehow have gotten wrong? In this essay, I approach the issue of contemporary terrorism and its affect on knowledge by examining the philosophical discourse of terror as well as exploring the possibility that terror is yet one more articulation of power itself. Arguing against the humanist tradition that would split knowledge and power into separate spheres, Michel Foucault asserts, “knowledge and power are integrated with one another” (52). Moreover, he argues, “nothing is more material, physical, corporal than the exercise of power” (57-58). Still, terror, much like Foucault’s notion of the State, is dispersed: individuals are merely nodes, or articulations, of power confined within a closed, yet nevertheless ubiquitous network (98). For Foucault, the exercise of power is never wholly negative: although one aspect of power is repressive, power nevertheless does generate new knowledge. But there seems to be an ethical disconnect in comparing terror-power to state-power: would Foucault himself even be able to maintain that the exercise of such terror-power cannot only be in negative terms, particularly to Benjamin, who was literally fleeing the “negative exercise of power” of the Third Reich as he penned the thesis cited above?

Benjamin implicates our previous view of history in the production of fascism. Furthermore, he seems to be suggesting—much like Foucault—that with a complete shift in our understanding of history and knowledge, a new power might be possible. But the usefulness of a terror-knowledge appears flawed at best. Is a terror-knowledge something we (should) want? In his analysis of denotative and prescriptive language games, Jean-François Lyotard moves toward addressing the ethical issues surrounding power/knowledge and its articulations. He contends, “It is one thing for an undertaking to be possible and another for it to be just. Knowledge is no longer the subject, but in the service of the subject: its only legitimacy (though it is formidable) is the fact that it allows morality to become reality” (36). If knowledge is truly in the service of a subject, then that subject, insofar as Lyotard seems to be arguing here, has a certain amount of agency to deploy knowledge in hopes of realizing and substantiating morality. In addition, the possibility that terror can ever be an acceptable form of interaction does not exist for Lyotard; terror itself “lies outside the realm of language games” (46). Both denotative and prescriptive language games are played by participants who agree to keep within the prescribed rules of a particular game. The only goal is to make a better move, thereby successfully extending the game as well as the social bond it creates. On the other hand, with terror, the threat to eliminate an opposing player negates the efficacy of any force: “Whenever efficiency (that is, obtaining the desired effect) is derived from a ‘Say or do this, or else you’ll never speak again,’ then we are in the realm of terror, and the social bond is destroyed” (ibid). He reaffirms this definition later by noting that terror is not purely the force to eliminate but also the threat to eliminate: “By terror I mean the efficiency gained by eliminating, or threatening to eliminate, a player from the language game one shares with him. He is silenced or consents, not because he has been refuted, but because his ability to participate has been threatened (there are many ways to prevent someone from playing)” (63-64). According to this perspective, when one utilizes terror-knowledge from a position of agency and power, other participants are silenced and their own agency is effaced.

Within this process of morality becoming reality (à la Lyotard), and within the process of power itself as it is dispersed across its own language game, it seems that an interrogation of terror-power (even if that terror-power is the selfsame state-power, as in Benjamin’s case) would be a possible means of understanding both Foucault’s and Benjamin’s conflicting notions of resistance as well as their views on any efficacy of an agentic subject contained by that resistance. For the purposes of this project, I hope at least to move toward an answer to these more abstract questions by first attempting to answer three preliminary constellations of questions that address the following issues: the nature and ontological category of terror-power, the possibility of a terror-knowledge, and the problem of resistance.

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