Tuesday, November 17, 2015


The 'creditor' always becomes more humane as his wealth increases; finally, the amount of his wealth determines how much injury he can sustain without suffering from it. It is not impossible to imagine society so conscious of its power that is could allow itself the noblest luxury available to it, – that of letting its malefactors go unpunished. 'What do I care about my parasites', it could say, 'let them live and flourish: I am strong enough for all that!' . . . Justice, which began by saying 'Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off', ends by turning a blind eye and letting off those unable to pay, – it ends, like every good thing on earth, by sublimating itself. The self-sublimation of justice: we know what a nice name it gives itself – mercy; it remains, of course, the prerogative of the most powerful man, better still, his way of being beyond the law. – Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Second Essay, Section 10, trans. Carol Diethe
Friday evening, after hearing the news from France, we left to attend a modern dance performance. On the surface, it would appear as if we were countering mourning and fear by affirming art, culture, sociability. But scratch the thinness of the surface and we encounter even more violence.

All culture is predicated upon various registers of violence; that's why the false dilemma of terrorism and culture is even more dangerous. "They" don't hate us for our "culture" any more than our "culture" rescues and redeems us from "them." All culture is a culture of violence.

The Marxist register of violence, formed by economic injustice, is maybe the easiest one to get your head around. It says that the arts that are practiced by a society are built upon the backs of the working class, of those who are excluded from "high" art. Miners and factory workers don't attend the opera; yet the opera wouldn't have developed except for the leisure afforded the nobility and bourgeoisie–the artist class–by the proletariat, the cannon fodder, the serfs and slaves. You don't have Paris, London, and New York without the Congo. (This, of course, should go without saying, but I'll nevertheless say it: just because Paris was relatively quiet, such quietude was relative, perhaps inversely so to the sheer level of (both explicit and sublimated) violence it took for a Paris to come into existence.)

A more insidious form of the Marxist register can be excavated with the aid of the Frankfurt School and those on its periphery (Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis). This view can be summed up with a quotation from Benjamin's On the Concept of History:
For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. (Seventh Thesis.)
This is Marcuse's project of liberation from the affluent society. This is Adorno's critique of the nach Auschwitz world. This is Davis's analysis of state violence: "because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions."

It's not merely the violence perpetrated upon the working class and disenfranchised but an active state apparatus of violence as well that enforces and disciplines its subjects so that violence–always already sublimated by the state, by the culture at large–even becomes increasingly sublimated by the individual. I no longer even recognize the ways in which the forces, the nexus of power/knowledge, shape my own thinking, "my own" expressions of force. (This, I think, is the shrewdest definition of ideology, and something that needs to be developed, better understood.) The mythology of the suffering artist, the rigorous discipline artists demand of themselves both stems from the necessary violence of culture as well as nourishes it.

Art becomes yet another register, expression, praxis of violence. Attending the opera, the ballet, the Jackson Pollock exhibit neither insulates nor inoculates us from the ineluctable savagery that undergirds and maintains our culture. In other words, we are our own parasites; in rejecting strength, in forgoing mercy, we have sublimated our own sublimation of violence. We are the ones who require, demand mercy, and the ones who can ill afford–ill accord–it.

Only a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction, can otherwise liberate us out from this quagmire.
  1. None of this is in any way an attempt to excuse the behavior of terrorists, whether in the current form or in a historical (and therefore already sublimated) form.
  2. I do not understand this analysis as nihilistic. That is, it necessarily concludes that there is something to be done (i.e., a rigorous agenda of critique, of deconstruction) that can help to recalibrate the wrongs of (both current and historical) violence, to move us toward a different power/knowledge, and to come to a time when we no longer create our own enemies.
  3. The sublimated (as well as implicit) structures of violence have been known to us for a long time. There is nothing new here. Many of the philosophers I reference are from the early or mid twentieth century, and Nietzsche's text was written in 1887. Also, the argument I (and they) make is but a Western one within the framework of European philosophy; these structures, however, have been known for centuries through, among others, Buddhist and Taoist writings. We merely need to relearn to stop participating within our culture-violence dynamic. Admittedly, much too much hinges on that "merely."


  1. Can I get the Cliff Notes for this? :)
    Nice! Where can I sign up for a class with Prof. Garrett?

  2. Ha! Ah, pani Chrzanka, Prof. Garrett no longer has class. (In at least 3 senses!) Now excuse me while I sit around and philosophize on my Apple computer built by slave labor.