Shattering Silence of Peace (4)

      Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of time is to be considered in the nature of war, as it is in the nature of weather. For as the nature of foul weather lieth not in a shower or two of rain, but in an inclination thereto of many days together: so the nature of war consisteth not in actual fighting, but in the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is peace.

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Part I, Chapter XIII


A theory derived instead from Russia’s long history of communal social forms, and from an immediate experience of Russia’s land and natural history, with its sparse population and harsh environment, would foreground, not surprisingly, the struggle that pits organisms against a challenging, often brutal environment and the forms of cooperation they develop for their survival, over the gladiatorial combat of the survival of the fittest.

— Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, in reference to Peter Kropotkin’s theory of “mutual aid”


The shrieks ought to be over; but I still hear the silence of the executed.

—Elias Canetti, The Human Province, a note from 1947


When people find themselves in a harsh environment, perhaps competing with wolves and other animals over scarce resources, they come together in communities of mutual aid to meet the challenges with which surrounding nature, including all its wolves, confronts them. When men themselves—and my use here of the gendered term men is intentional, for reasons I have already indicated in my previous posts in this present series—become wolves to one another, they naturally draw apart, each suspicious and defensive toward all the others. The first vision, of human beings giving mutual aid to one another in the face of an always-threatening nature, is Kropotkin’s. The second vision, of a standing state of war between all men, is that of Hobbes.

As I put it in an early, short article of my own entitled “The Conversion of Nature and Technology,” published in 1976 (in Analecta Husserliana, Vol. V, pages 281-290), nature was once “the ambiguous dimension of the overwhelming, the inescapable, and the sustaining, all in one.” In such a time—no longer our own—nature, as I put it then,

is both that to which man [and my usage of that gendered term then was just ignorantly sexist] belongs and that which constantly jeopardizes man’s plans and even his very life. As the three-fold dimension of the sustaining, overwhelming, and inescapable, nature, even in its calmest moods, always maintains that tension from which, at any moment, chaos and destruction might suddenly erupt. Here, nature is the unity of that which surrounds, sustains, and yet threatens and endangers man. Nature is cosmos and chaos in one.

In all societies before the modern one, nature was such a “three-fold dimension,” which, “even in its calmest moods,” maintained exactly the sort of threatening “tension,” as I called it in that early discussion, with human communities—the very “disposition” toward “battle,” as Hobbes puts it in my opening epigraph for today’s post, that, as Hobbes saw it, defines the very “nature of war.” In such pre-modern societies, therefore, nature herself was the very place of war, and human communities were pockets of peace established and maintained, always precariously, through what Kropotkin accurately labels “mutual aid.”   In such a world, it was the time of nature that was the time of war, to speak again with Hobbes; and what he calls the “other time,” the time of “peace,” was the time, not of nature, but of human community, a peace built by the mutual aid that Kropotkin envisions.

In modern society, everything changes. War, that inner disposition toward violence or battle, toward disrupting human wishes, wants, plans, and enterprises, is taken away from nature, and put into the hands of “man himself,” as I’ve put it before in this series of posts. Whereas war had been the underlying disposition of nature toward the human being, in the face of which human beings had had to rely upon mutual aid, it now became the disposition of human beings—at least as dominated by men, that is, male human beings—toward one another.

As Hobbes saw and said with brutal clarity at the very start of modern political thought, it was precisely because of that war “of every man against every man,” as he puts it in the lines above, that men established sovereignty, that “Leviathan,” as he aptly named it. In such a condition, men were riddled with suspicion of all their fellows, who were in turn, and altogether properly, no less suspicious of them. In order to allay their radical sense of insecurity, men turned over their right to kill one another to one (or some, the numbers are not what counts) among them, to rule as sovereign over them all, and alone among them vested with the right of decision to kill. Thus arose the State. Thereafter, men no longer had to fear everybody else; they only had to fear the sovereign State, that Leviathan.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Mother bears defending their cubs from perceived threat have no interest in compromise or negotiation. As is typical of “combat in females,” as Walter J. Ong writes in the passage from Fighting for Life that I used for an epigraph to start my second post to this current series, the combativeness of a mother bear among her young “tends to be either perfunctory,” as it is when she huffs and puffs at a cub itself to set it straight when it gets out of line, “or furiously real,” aiming to kill any outsider she perceives as a genuine, non-perfunctory threat to those same cubs. Secure in her own power, the mother bear uses that power whenever necessary to protect her cubs from perceived threat. Otherwise, she rests in peace with her cubs in their nest.

By Ong’s analysis, conflict among males, who are driven by a constitutional feeling of in-security, always tends, in contrast, to become ceremonialized, creating and preserving a distance between the combatants that in fact minimizes the risk of the conflict turning lethal. It therefore is highly conducive to the very processes of avoiding the outbreak of what we call “actual hostilities” through negotiation and compromise, both of which tend themselves to become highly ceremonialized affairs. The price, however, that must be paid for such an outcome is the perpetuation of the condition of underlying, though latent, hostility between the male combatants—the perpetuation, that is, of the “known disposition” of hostility toward one another by which Hobbes defines the very notion of war (though Ong himself does not refer to Hobbes in this context).

Interestingly, in a later passage of Fighting for Life, in a chapter-section called “The New Setting”—namely, the setting of the time in which he was writing, which is still part of our own time—Ong addresses “the conflicts of the 1960s” that erupted on college campuses throughout the United States and beyond during that decade and into the next. What he has to say about those conflicts suggests to me, on that basis of the rest of Ong’s own broader analysis, that they actually involved a return from what he characterizes as predominantly masculine forms of conflict to what he characterizes as more typically feminine ones.

Ong cites six characteristics of the campus-centered conflicts of the 1960s. His remarks are interesting enough to deserve being cited in full. I have added all the emphases, to highlight special pointers to a sort of re-feminization of the conflicts at issue (the ellipses are all mine as well) :

First, the [campus] conflict of the 1960s tended to be between students and administration rather than between students and teachers: in effect, the principal arena for academic ceremonial combat had been vacated. . . .

Second, attacks on faculty members in the 1960s tended to be made because of their personal beliefs, not because of their behavior as teachers or disciplinarians: again, combat had moved from the ceremonial arena and had become an ad hominem attack, in which the attackers pursued their opponents anywhere and everywhere. (In male-with-male ceremonial combat, one male never pursues another beyond a given territorial limit; for infrahuman conspecific males, flight is normally an inhibiting mechanism for the victor—in human ludic terms, the football player who steps outside the gridiron cannot be tackled.)
Third, there was a feeling that if one argued with a teacher about the teacher’s own subject, one risked losing. . . .

Fourth, the academic world itself was often attacked not on academic grounds, but on grounds of social injustice as such: the academic arena was bypassed again.

Fifth, whereas agonistic educational methods had prepared for the subsequent extra-academic give-and-take of politics and diplomacy—here the classic example was the exquisitely agonistic British Latin public school—the new agonistic proposed in the
(by some, not by all) was revolutionary guerilla combat, a different sort of thing, perhaps highly intellectualized, but designedly lethal, not argumentative and ceremonial.

Sixth, the advancing of “nonnegotiable” demands was, superficially at least, an attack on formal negotiation, with its rules of give-and-take . . .

When what is at issue is truly worth fighting for, then fighting is not playing some game, regulated by rules of fair-play and confined to a clearly delimited playing field, and played for ceremonial prizes, honors, recognitions, and applause. It is deadly serious. However, for that very reason, fights truly worth fighting also come to definite ends. When they’re over, they’re over. All the noisy bluster, boasting, cheering, and back-slapping ceases, and silence is restored. Peace returns to the nest.

*     *     *     *     *     *

There are mutual aid societies, and then there are mutual aid societies. Sheep graze together in herds for protection, but wolves also hunt together in packs for predation. At least wolves in nature pack together. With human wolves it is different—at least with Hobbesian human wolves.

Among Hobbesian wolves, mutual aid is replaced by mutual hostility. Such non-natural, which is to say artificial, wolves no long naturally band together in packs to aid one another in the hunt, which is an active process. The “bands of brothers” that they form are instead always and only re-active, designed to protect one another from having to face up each one’s radical sense of weakness and insecurity. All the bluster and brio of such brotherly bands—of buddies all back-slapping and bad-mouthing one another in some “man cave,” for example—goes along with that reactive character, which belongs to all the artificial “packs” into which such artificial wolves enter.

So, too, does it belong to all the pacts into which they enter—“pacts” being always matters of artifice, not things that grow of themselves in nature. Above all, that same reactive character belongs to that pact of all pacts, the original pact whereby, out of terror of one another, their wolfish self-interest leads each man-wolf-man to agree to subject himself to some sovereign one of them, if only all the other man-wolves also so agree. Better to be terrified of only one sovereign man-wolf on his throne, or the equivalent, than to live in constant terror of all one’s brother man-wolves wherever they may be lurking!   So all the frightened man-wolves enter into a pact with one another to set up one of them—or three or three hundred, or maybe even just any available representative of “the people”: It’s not the number that matters, just the sovereignty—to lord it over all the rest of them, in order to buffer themselves against the fear of one another. The pattern here is still the same one of ceremonialization and distancing to which Ong calls attention. In principle, sovereignty is a purely ceremonial thing.

Any “peace” that such sovereignty may be able to establish is also no more than such a distancing, ceremonial sort of peace. It is at most the mere absence of “active” war—which is to say the breaking out above the surface of the always underlying hostile “disposition,” to use Hobbes’s term again, that sovereignty tries to bury beneath that surface: the becoming manifest of what was latent all along, defining the whole process. The peace established by sovereignty is merely the repression of the underlying reality of war.

The repressed, however, will return. Indeed, the more it is repressed the more compulsively it insists on returning. It keeps on returning, every more insistently, until and unless the resistance against it finally completely collapses, letting what has been so long repressed flood the entire system. Then everything changes at last.

After that, a different sort of peace, one which is no longer just the repression of war, may finally have a chance to settle over the ruins.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Peace between men comes with the establishment of the sovereign State, which is to say the nation, which takes from its subjects the right to make war, claiming for itself alone a monopoly over such violence. Infra-national peace, peace within the nation—which is to say inter-human peace (at least so long as the humans are men)—is thus accomplished by the self-subordination, to the nation, of those who henceforth count as that nation’s “subjects,” since they have indeed subjected themselves to the will of whoever or whatever gets counted as the the mouthpiece of the nation’s “sovereign,” “supreme,” or “ruling” power. That mouthpiece is a king or queen in a “monarchy,” for example. It is whatever is set up to count as expressive of the will of “the people” in a “democracy.” And so forth. The nation, exercising its sovereign power through its mouthpiece, thenceforth takes charge of enforcing infra-national, inter-human peace, detecting and punishing anyone whom it perceives as actually or potentially violating such peace—and thereby challenging the nation’s claim to a monopoly over acts of war.

Under such sovereignty, accordingly, war ceases to be between individual men—Hobbes’s “war of every man against every man”—and comes instead to be between nations. In contrast to the peace between men, or infra-national peace, which is imposed upon men by the nation in its sovereignty, peace between nations, or inter-national peace, can only be attained through a “balance of power” between those nations (which in the days of the “Cold War,” to give a good example, was a MAD matter, a matter of “Mutually Assured Destruction” between all the nations with nuclear capacity, should any one of them be tempted to push the button unleashing “the bomb”). Or else it must come through the establishing of some no longer national but international sovereign who can take war from the hands of the nations, just as they took it from the hands of individual men, and claim its own monopoly over war. So far, however, the nations have not been quick to ape men by ceding their individual war powers to any inter-national sovereign, whether in the form of one among them (the U.S. being the only plausibly available candidate today, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, with China not yet positioned to provide a viable alternative), or in the form of some deliberative representative assembly of them all (such as the United Nations, that bug-a-boo of all right-minded nationalists today, at least in the U.S., the sole “superpower” left around today).

Both sorts of peace, infra– and inter-national, are really no more than illusions of peace. Both are built on, and can only be maintained by continuing, the repression of the underlying hostility, the “disposition” toward aggression whereby Hobbes defines the reality of war itself, whether that hostility be of each man toward every other man, or of each nation toward every other nation. Regardless of whether the peace is imposed between men or between nations, it remains just that—an imposed peace. The peace of sovereignty is always an imposed peace.

However, an imposed peace is really no peace at all. It is just the continuation of war by other means. The silence it imposes upon the clamor of war is a false silence: Those who do not speak because their mouths have been wired shut are not maintaining silence; they are merely being silenced.

The coming super-catastrophe of the collapse of global system of catastrophe-generating equivalence will shatter both sorts of illusory peace. It will shatter the silence that sovereignty has for so long imposed upon peace.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Nature may kill, but it never executes. Only men, or their equivalent, can do that. In turn, once any sort of sovereign State is established among men or their equivalent, that State is granted exclusive claim to all right to execute. Indeed, sovereignty has often enough been defined in terms of that very right—as the individual or group or institution vested with the right of decision over life and death, over who will be allowed to live, and who will be executed instead.

The peace of sovereignty is built over the graves of the executed, the shrieks of whom always soon die out, leaving only their silence. That silence, however, is deafening. It breaks to pieces that other silence, the one sovereignty imposes on those it executes—those countless ones.

Once the screaming stops, the silence of peace settles over the graves the executed. That silence alone is the shattering silence of peace itself.

Shattering Silence of Peace (3)

. . . aren’t the new dead everywhere, on all sides, in every nation? Should I harden myself against the Russians because there are Jews, against the Chinese because they are far away, against the Germans because they are possessed by the devil? Can’t I still belong to all of them, as before, and nevertheless be a Jew?

— Elias Canetti, The Human Province, from a note written in 1944


Just this year of 2015 Fordham University Press brought out an English translation of a book by Jean-Luc Nancy that was first published in France three years earlier, in 2012, a book that addressed the disaster of the tsunami that hit the Fukushima nuclear power plant a year before that, in March 2011. The original French title of Nancy’s book was L’Equivalence des catastrophes (après Fukushima), which in the English translation by Charlotte Mandell reversed the two parts of Nancy’s title, eliminated the parentheses, and added a colon, becoming After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes.

I imagine that those changes to the book’s title were made for commercial reasons, but they seem to me to distort things. First of all, they make it look as though Nancy’s primary concern is the still recent disaster at the Fukushima power plant. In the title of the original French edition, however, not only does reference to Fukushima belong to the second part of the title, not the first, but it is also placed in parentheses to emphasize its subordination to the first part of the title—and with no colon between the two parts, a mark that is itself suggestive of an equivalence of the what precedes that with what follows after it.

The reversal of the two parts of the title in the English edition, coupled with the removal of the parentheses and the substitution of a colon, makes Fukushima occupy first place and center-stage. That may indeed sell more copies of the book, but it is likely also to add to the very confusion Nancy is struggling to dispel. For him, the Fukushima disaster is really just a lens through which he focuses his real concern in the book, which is on what’s named in the other part of his title—the first part in the French edition, but made to take second place, like an afterthought, in the English one.

After all, if the Fukushima disaster reveals something such as “the equivalence of catastrophes,” then part of what it reveals is that the disaster at Fukushima in 2011 is interchangeable with one or more other disasters. Thus, one could imagine Nancy writing the book using, perhaps, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl as his focusing example, if the “equivalence” at issue has something to do only with disasters at nuclear installations. Or he might have used just any old disaster—say the fire bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II, or the American massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war, or the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE—if it doesn’t. At any rate, going by the remainder of the title (the part besides “after Fukushima,” whether that itself comes after or before the rest, in parentheses or out of them, and with or without a colon between), he could have used any disaster that does counts by his analysis as “equivalent” to the 2011 one at Fukushima.

What’s more—and more importantly—there is a rich ambiguity to Nancy’s title pertaining especially to how one takes the phrase, “the equivalence of catastrophes.” That phrase can be read in at least three different ways.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could mean, for one thing, that the catastrophes at issue are equivalent to one another, such that the disaster at Fukushima would count as “equivalent to” the earlier ones at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, for example, or to whatever other disasters are at issue.

“The equivalence of catastrophes” could also be taken quite differently, however. It could be taken to mean the equivalence that catastrophes such as Fukushima themselves generate, as it were: How Fukushima and other disasters like it (so: “equivalent disasters,” in the first sense of the phrase at issue) make other things (maybe everything else) equivalent—as a nuclear disaster, for instance, reduces everything within its range to cinders, let’s say.

Finally, “the equivalence of catastrophes” could mean what might be called “catastrophic equivalence.” That is, the phrase could be read as what grammarians call a “subjective genitive,” so that it means “catastrophes’ equivalence.” By such a reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would be taken to mean the equivalence that belongs to catastrophes of the sort at issue, rather than meaning, say, “catastrophes, those equivalent things,” which would be the first reading again (just as “the house of John” could be taken to mean “John’s house,” rather than, say, “John, the house”).

Thus, by the third reading “the equivalence of catastrophes” would mean an equivalence that itself generates catastrophes, by a sort of inversion of the first sense I just suggested. This third reading would point to some sort of catastrophe generating equivalence, some sort of equivalence that, as such, generates catastrophes (presumably including generating the one at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011).

In fact, Nancy is concerned with the intertwining of all three: the catastrophic equivalence that makes all catastrophes equal in destructive potential.   But it is above all toward the equivalence of catastrophes in the third sense that his analysis drives the reader—at least so did the reading of his book drive me, when I first read it just a couple of weeks ago, after it came out in English.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What history shows us of gender-based societies, that is, societies that operate “under the sign of gender,” as Ivan Illich puts it in the passage from Gender I used as the second epigraph to my immediately preceding post, are predominantly if not exclusively societies in which women are made “subordinate” to men, as Illich also puts it. That is, in the recorded human past—which is what we mean by history, in the sense that “historians” concern themselves with it—gender-based societies have institutionalized inequality between the genders, where that word gender means what Illich calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” the duality, namely, of the “feminine” and the “masculine.”

Inequality is not to be endured. It is to be eliminated.

However, to eliminate an inequality is not to erase all differences, or to pretend that there are none. Far from it! It is to acknowledge, recognize, honor, and celebrate differences. For straights to treat gays as equals, for example, is not for the former to treat the latter as just more members of some snot-slinging, belching, skirt-chasing, gun-toting band of macho brethren—incorporating gays into straight wolf packs, as it were. It is not to deny, overlook, or hide the differences between gays and straights, but rather to acknowledge and attend to them, letting them “come out of the closet.” It is, in short, to let them be, in an active sense: to say Amen! So be it! to all the differences, and not to subject any one any longer to subordination to any other.

Equivalence is interchangeability. If two things are equivalent, then they are interchangeable, which is to say freely substitutable one for the other. Each of two equivalents—for example, the quantity (20-18) and the quantity (1+1)—can be substituted for the other in any given structure to which both belong, without the substitution changing the structure as a whole.

If, for example, all guinea pigs are equivalent when it comes to being beloved pets, then if one’s beloved guinea pig—let’s call that dear one “Fluffy”—were to die, then all one would need to do is go out and buy any other guinea pig as a substitute. If Fluffy goes belly-up on you, no problem! Just go out and get yourself another Fluffy!   Just buy another guinea pig and give it that same name, and everything will once again be “copacetic,” as used to be said.

Thus, establishing equivalence between two things is allowing each to substitute for, to take the place of, the other. Right legs, however, cannot substituted for, or take the place of, left legs. Right legs and left legs are not equivalent. Modern prosthetics takes that very lack of interchangeability into account, producing prosthetic legs of both sorts, right and left, rather than just producing one product that will substitute equally well for either leg, as in the old days of peg-legs such as Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick.

In a situation already marked by institutionalized inequalities between two or more groups of people all of whom truly are equal in dignity and worth—as are men and women, or gays and straights, or Germans, Jews, Russians, and Chinese—confusing equality with equivalence can only result in a situation in which the already present in-equalities are entrenched ever more deeply and secured by ever more fully impregnable borders. The most truly impregnable of all borders, in fact, are precisely those that are no longer even visible as borders, but are simply accepted by everyone as defining the field of vision and movement—constituting the very world itself, such that it is no longer even possible so much as really to imagine anything different.   Kierkegaard said ago that the very deepest, most utterly, truly hopeless state of despair—the very etymological meaning of which is to be without hope, from Latin de-, “without,” and sperare, “to hope”—is that in which one does not even know any longer that one is in despair. When equality gets confused with equivalence, in a state where forms of subordination and dominance, the denial of equality, have already been institutionalized, then all real equality has truly been utterly despaired of. What looks like equality under such a desperate condition is really just the final closing of all borders against it.

Such equivalence is catastrophic.

*     *     *     *     *    *

Money is the general equivalent in terms of which everything can be assigned a value relative to all other things, so that interchange of those things can occur without bounds. All economies, whether cast in terms of production or consumption, are systems for the circulation of such unbounded interchange.

To be given a price, which is to say assigned a monetary value so that it can enter into such an economic system of circulation, is to be stripped of all worth. What has only a value, has no worth.* It can be replaced by anything else of equal value, with no resulting loss.

If people can be bought and sold, it is only insofar as they have been deprived of their own dignity, stripped of their own worth. Just to the extent that people are interchangeable one with another, each person is worthless. When all are without worth, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equivalent in their worthlessness, even as their value fluctuates with the market (after all, the price of slaves in the slave-market varies from slave to slave, as does the pay of the worker from worker to worker in the labor-market).

If, on the other hand, each and every single person (or, for that matter, beloved guinea pig) is irreplaceable, then each and every one has a worth that is strictly speaking incalculable: Worth is not a matter of calculation, only value is. Worth can only be esteemed, not estimated. In that sense, we could also say, correlatively, that value, which is just what can be counted and therefore estimated, is nevertheless—and precisely as being subject to estimation—in-esteem-able: Value is not a matter of esteem at all, but just of calculation. What has value has its price, but what has worth is “priceless,” as we rightly say. Thus, if each and every person has worth, which is to say each and every one of them is priceless, then none of them is any better or worse than any other, one’s as good as the other. They are all the same: equally priceless, available to no market (for example, though there can be a market for guinea pigs, there can be no market for Fluffys—or Janes or Jameses).

So whether it is a matter of equivalence or of equality, people are all the same. That sameness is incomparably different in the two cases, however.   Papering over that difference, making equality equivalent to equivalence, itself fosters sameness of the first sort, the sameness of equivalence. Yet it does so only at the cost of altogether undercutting sameness of the second sort, the sameness of equality.

That making equivalent of equivalence and equality is itself a catastrophic equivalence: an equivalence that engenders catastrophes.

*     *     *     *     *     *

It is in the nature of the economy, at least of the money-based modern economic system of commodity and service interchange, to go global. Exchange as such knows no limits within which it naturally confines itself. Of its nature, we might say, it has no natural limits, but rather just keeps on expanding, until and unless it runs up against some non-economic barrier it cannot overcome. Then it just collapses, since it belongs to its very nature always to expand, always just to keep the interchanges not only going but also always growing, and if it can no longer do that, it can no longer be.

Nietzsche said that life never attains any steady state. Always life is either growing, or else it is dying; it never just maintains itself at any given level. In that way, life, we could say today, is like the global market economy, which is always either growing or diminishing, and can never strike some balance point beyond which it just stays steady. The nature of life, however, is such that when life hits a limit in one of its forms, life can trans-from itself, then keep on growing in its new form—biting the head off any black snake of limits that may crawl into its mouth   The economy, however, is no living thing. It cannot transform itself. When it comes up against a limit to its continuing growth, all it can do is shatter.

In going global and then going on, the economy enmeshes all things ever more deeply with one another in and across global networks of exchange and interchange. All we need to do to confirm that is open any daily paper, online or in print, to the business section, and at a glace we can see how what happens anywhere on the globe has an impact on the worldwide economy, as expressed in global stock-market fluctuations. Accordingly, what used to be local catastrophes cease to be local at all any longer, but have globally catastrophic impact. The very boundary between local and global catastrophe gets washed out, as does the one between “natural” catastrophes and “man-made” ones—which latter boundary has always been somewhat porous anyway: for example, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE would not have been so catastrophic, had a bunch of Romans not chosen to live in such close-by places as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In his reflections after the 2011 disaster at the Fukishima nuclear power station, Nancy tries to call our attention to all that.

*     *     *     *     *     *

What Jean-Luc Nancy tries to call to our attention in his book pertaining to Fukushima is really the same thing that Ivan Illich tries to call to our attention not only in Gender but also in most of his works. Both Illich and Nancy try to call to our attention how catastrophic our entire economic system” (as well as the entirety of our “politics,” which has become nothing more than the pursuit of the economy by other means, we might add), based as it is on what might well be called “the rule of equivalence” is. It has been catastrophic, that is, generative of catastrophes, from the very start, since to generate catastrophes is nothing less than the very mechanism of its growth—a growth that could belong to no living thing, but only to something man-made.

However, in this age of the equivalence of all things, including men and women, an age in which the typically masculine fear of fear itself at last comes out permanently on top, such calls upon our attention really accomplish no purpose. They are as useless as my daughter’s now long-dead childhood pet guinea pig, Fluffly. So far as it comes to effecting significant changes in the global system, such calls cannot but fall on deaf ears.

They do nothing but break the peace, shattering the silence.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Still more to come, in my next post.

* That’s how I will here use the terms value and worth, at any rate: to mark the difference at issue. Others may prefer other ways of marking that difference. In the end, how we choose to mark the difference at issue makes no difference, just so long as the difference itself gets clearly marked, and remembered—the difference between what I’m here calling value and what I’m here calling worth.

Shattering Silence of Peace (2)

The basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones, is matched by their phylogenetic insecurity. Males are expendable for the good of the species. Intraspecific male-with-male combat, however furious, is normally ceremonial rather than lethal and often effects territorial distancing. This distancing reduces intense individual interaction, thereby among human beings giving more play to the “objective” elements in conscious attention. The corresponding relatively nonceremonial character of combat in females tends to be either perfunctory or furiously real. Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio. Males feel a defensive need to advertise the female as the “weaker sex,” which basically means weaker in ceremonial combat and all that it entails, for in other arenas the female is probably the stronger. . .

— Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness


While under the sign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.

— Ivan Illich, Gender

Like the male ego and the capitalist economy, the modern state is founded on fear. All three are founded on the same fear, one fear in particular. In a famous line from a speech he gave in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state, that is more than enough. It is specifically that fear—the very fear of fear itself—that founds all three.

To say the same thing differently, and to carry it one step further, the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state are all three founded on the denial and repression of fear itself, specifically on the denial and repression of that fear that is literally root-fear itself, the very root of fear as such: the fear of death. The modern state, the capitalist economy, and the male ego are all three alike founded on the denial and repression of the fear of death.

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“From death, from the fear of death, arises all knowledge of the All.”

That is the opening line of Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction to the first part of his great work, The Star of Redemption, first published in German in 1921. What he means by “knowledge of the all” (Erkennen des All) is the presumption to be able to know it, the claim that it is possible to have such knowledge, as the title he gives his introduction makes clear: “Über die Möglichkeit, das All zu erkennen,” “On the Possibility of Knowing the All.”

In a class once, one of my philosophy professors in graduate school defined philosophy itself as “the attempt to give a rational account of all things.” Even back then, that was not what I meant by that word, though I certainly acknowledged then, and still do, that such a definition captures well enough the sense of the term insofar as philosophy takes itself to be what gives birth to what we call “science,” which in the whole is just such an attempt, one “to give a rational account of all things.”

That is also the sense Rosenzweig gives the word in The Star of Redemption—“philosophy” in a sense that he contests in that work. That is philosophy insofar as it “takes it upon itself to throw off the anxiety of earthly existence, to take away from death its poison sting, from Hades its pestilential breath,” as he puts it in the third sentence of the book.

It is nothing but a delusion that such knowledge of the all is even possible, and a dream born of that delusion that through such knowledge “man” might eventually be able to establish “dominion and control” over nature, as Descartes states to be the aim of the “method” he recommends be adopted in his Discourse thereon. That is, to return to Rosenzweig’s terms, it is delusional to think that earthly life can ever be made impervious to anxiety, death deprived of its sting, or hell of it stench.

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In my immediately preceding post, the first in this present series under the general title, “Shattering Silence of Peace,” I addressed the process of transition that Walter J. Ong, following Roger Callois, traces in The Presence of the Word: the transition from a society in which war is taken as the rule and peace as the exception, to one in which peace is taken as the rule and war as the exception. As I also already suggested in my preceding post, that process could well be called one of general “de-polemicization.”

What above all gets “de-polemicized” in the process at question is nature—understood as Aristotle understood physis, from which we get our English word “physics,” in opposition to techne, whence come such English words as “technique,” “technical,” and “technology.” War (Greek polemos) gets removed from nature as Aristotle defined that latter notion, namely, as that from which comes whatever emerges of itself and serves no purpose—whatever is an “end in itself,” to use a traditional but distorting way of putting it. War is torn out of nature so conceived and delivered over instead into the domain of the technical, in the broad sense of that which must be made, to serve a purpose.

When peace gets thus cast as the underlying rule and war as the interruptive exception, nature herself ceases to be defined by war any longer. Instead, nature comes to be cast as the place of a sort of original peace. In turn war, removed from nature, becomes itself something essentially “man-made.” War becomes something men wage against one another, instead of belonging to the very nature of nature herself.

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Combining what Ong writes in The Presence of the Word with what he writes more than a decade later in Fighting for Life, from which my first epigraph for today’s post is taken, discloses that the process of de-polemicizing nature intersects with another process, that of the de-ceremonializing of war and combat—that is, the de-ceremonializing of the polemical as such. Thus, at the same time war undergoes a process whereby it ceases to belong to nature (physis) and instead becomes something artificial (a matter of techne), war also undergoes a process whereby it becomes less and less ceremonial.

Perhaps that intersection of the two processes of the de-polemicization of nature, on the one hand, and the de-cermonialization of war, on the other, can be at least partially accounted for in terms of what Ong sketches out in my epigraph passage about the thoroughly hostile character of the maternal womb for males of the species—about “[t]he basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones.” Talk of nature herself as a “womb”—as in “the womb of nature”—is an old commonplace.

Perhaps, then, the very ascription of polemos to nature in the first place derives from the predominately male experience of the natural, maternal womb. It would then be expressive not of anything itself “natural” to all premodern societies, but only to so called “patriarchal” ones. To the both ontogenetically and phylogenetically indispensable female of the species, the natural, maternal womb is not such an utterly anxiety-provoking place as it is to the ontogenetically and phylogenetically expendable male. (No wonder we men would want to develop the technology for making “test-tube babies”! We can control a test-tube womb!)

Precisely in becoming something man-made, rather than something belonging to nature herself (the pronoun is telling here, and I have been trying to be consistent in using it: “nature herself”), war ceases to be something against which man must be so driven to build a shelter for himself, a buffer against the hostile environment of nature, that womb. But such shelter and buffering is just what the ceremonialization of the polemical so typical of male combat provides for the genetically insecure male psyche, the psyche that so desperately feels itself in need of them. As Ong describes in such passages of Fighting for Life as the one I’ve used in my epigraph, the “ceremonial” nature of “infraspecific male to male combat”—which is to say man-made “polemics,” or “warfare” in the broadest sense— has precisely the effect of “distancing” the combatants to provide such accommodations.

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As Ong remarks a bit later in the same passage, “Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio.” “Braggadocio,” it bears noting, is a way of posturing, of puffing oneself up like a cat upset by an intruder on its territory. It is only when fluffing up no longer works to keep the intruder at a distance that the catfight begins. In contrast to feline fur-fluffing, however, bragging is a distinctively linguistic activity. Thus, it is only when the boastful words stop flying that the fists start to do so—or the swords to start cutting, the guns to start shooting, the bombs to start dropping, or the like.

Thus, the ceremonialization of warfare guards against the very lethality of war between men. However, if in the very process of what we might well call being “de-natured”— that is, taken out of nature and turned over into men’s hands—war is also de-ceremonialized, then war is loosed from all the restrains with which either artificial ceremonies for distancing and posturing, or natural tendencies for keeping combat perfunctory and brief, guard against war automatically escalating into something lethal whenever it occurs. In being loosed from its ceremonial constraints, having already been loosed from any natural restraints, war is thus freed from all bounds. It is set free to become boundless.

All wars now threaten to become total war. At least in terms of their potential lethality, an equivalence of wars is established.

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The process of taking polemos out of the womb of nature and putting it into the hands of man pacifies both nature and the feminine, turning the maternal womb from the scariest of all places for men into something they can handle—indeed, into something that now “nurtures” them, rather than subjecting them to wave after wave of lethal assault. As part of that, women in a man’s world get treated as delicate, requiring masculine “protection” in exchange for all their nurturing: Women become “the weaker sex,” as Ong notes.

Pushed to its limit, this pacification—what we might well call the literal dis-em-powerment—of nature and the feminine as such eventually results in just the sort of situation Ivan Illich describes in my second epigraph for today’s post. That is a situation in which the liberation of women from domination by men comes to present itself as though such liberation were a mater of establishing an equivalence between men and women, but in which that equivalence itself is defined in exclusively masculine terms that, however, can no longer even be acknowledged as such. What is characteristically masculine—in all its from-the-womb anxiety-ridden insecurity—comes to be universalized, which is to say counted as universally true for all human beings without exception. In that sense the masculine gets “neutered,” as Illich puts it. That is, what is really essentially masculine is no longer given as just one side of what Illich, as I’ve discussed in my earlier series of posts on “The Traumatic Word, calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” but is instead counted as the unquestioned, exclusively definitive ideal for all, to such a degree that it is no longer even visible as only one side of an irreducible duality.

Thus, equivalence between men and women is projected solely in terms that actually only ensconce the now “neutered” man in a position of dominance that can no longer even be acknowledged, since the very words of acknowledgement have been repressed beyond recall.   In every position that might be adopted after that, “the man ends up on top,” as Illich indecorously but accurately puts it.

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We might put Illich’s general point this way: Establishing equivalence is anything but establishing genuine equality, since the very measure of equivalence is determined by only one side of an asymmetrically complementary duality.

Equivalence turns out to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—to use a current commonplace of which I’m fond. Indeed, equivalence turns out to be a hardening of the problem itself, what we might well call a petrifaction of the problem, a literal turning of it into stone. Equivalence thus provides a rock-hard organ to penetrate all resistance and guarantee perpetual dominance. Now the man can always stay on top.

(Finally! A safe place at last for all of us who are so constitutionally insecure!)

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To be continued again.

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 10:29 pm  Comments (2)  
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Shattering Silence of Peace (1)


Any student of earlier periods of Western culture from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance soon becomes aware that he is dealing with cultures in which overt personal hostilities are exhibited and even flaunted far more than in the ordinary technological style of existence. It may sound quaint to say this in a society so unfortunately given to wars as our technological society still is, but, despite the potential for mass destruction in an atomic age, the evidence is overpowering that earlier man commonly accepted hostility as part of the manifest fabric of life to a degree beyond that typical of technological man.

— Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word

Shortly after making the remarks above from The Presence of the Word (page 195), Walter J. Ong cites French scholar Roger Caillois’ L’Homme et le sacré—first published in French in 1930 eventually in English in 1959 as Man and the Sacred (translated by Meyer Barash, Glencoe: Free Press). As Ong recounts it, with obvious agreement, in that book Callois contrasts what both authors continue to call “primitive” society (even though they use that term to include even such highly advanced examples of society as classical Greece) with modern society. Callois contrasts the two in terms of how each stands with regard to war and peace.

In “primitive” society, as Ong recounts Callois, “war commonly (though of course not in every instance) constitutes ‘a permanent state that forms the fabric of basic existence.’” That is, in such society war is the underlying given and basic human condition, as it were. Thus, in such society:

even festivals are often defined by their relationship to war. They are allied to war in that both ‘inaugurate a period of vigorous socialization and share instruments, resources, and powers in common.’ The festival, however, interrupts the normal now of hostilities, temporarily reconciles the worst enemies, causing them to fraternize, but ‘in the same effervescence’ characterizing the state of war, as when the Olympic Games suspended Greek quarrels.

In contrast, modern society “takes peace to be the permanent or normally expected state, at least psychologically.”   Accordingly, in modern society it is no longer “festival” that interrupts and temporarily stops the regular flow and order of things (namely, “war”). Rather, it is now war that interrupts and temporarily stops that regular flow and order (namely, “peace”). Ong gives a definitive example: “The football game is not the interruption that the Olympic Games were; it is rather more of the regular cloth of life.”

As I observed before in a recent post (namely, the second of five on “The Traumatic Word), our word polemical derives from the Greek polemos, which means “war” or “strife.” Following Ong’s own analysis in more than one book, the process at work in what he and Callois describe as the transition from “primitive” to modern society is one we might accordingly call “the de-polemicizing of public life.” Both Callois and Ong seem to regard that transition from war itself being taken as the rule, to it being taken to be an exception to the rule, as a generally positive development. They seem to regard that change as something to be applauded overall, despite reservations about some of its particulars—such as the unfortunate temptation of us hyper-technologized moderns to “nuke” one another on occasion.

However, Ong’s himself immediately suggests at least one downside to the shift from war to festival as the “regular cloth of life”: In effect, with the shift from war to peace as the basic inter-human condition, festival looses much of its festivity.   Precisely because “modern man, even when he wars, does not regard war as being necessarily of the fabric of basic existence,” Ong writes in the very next sentence after the one about such things as modern football games becoming part of the fabric of everyday life, “[m]odern man’s festivals are less urgent than primitive man’s.”

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What’s urgent carries weight, pressing upon us, impelling us, urging us on: Urge comes from Latin urgere, “to press hard, push forward, drive, stimulate.” The less urgent something becomes, the less it moves us, affects us, matters to us. Most modern “holidays” have lost anything holy about them—anything special, set apart, erupting into the everyday, “interrupting” it, as Ong says. For most of us most of the time today, a holiday is simply another day off, a sort of extra weekend-day. We are glad to have days off, of course, but they have no great “urgency” of their own. A holiday is finally “just another day,” no different in kind from any other. Nothing special.

For that very reason, we often find ourselves “at loose ends” on holidays or other days off work. We “don’t know what to do with ourselves.” So we do whatever we can just to fill all the dead time, from eating compulsively, to shopping, to Facebooking, to doing drugs, to addictively watching sports on TV.

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Thus, too, do we keep the whole economic system going. Or, rather, so does that system keep itself going—and ever growing—by generating ever more need for the production of ever more products by simultaneously producing ever more consumers to consume them.

The Pax Romanum, the peace that reigned within the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire, was purchased at the price of recurrent wars at those boundaries themselves, against all the “barbarians” who surrounded that Empire across those boundaries, which accordingly had to be tightly maintained and defended. Today, the peace that reigns within the borders of what Michael Hardt and Paulo Negri label “Empire”—that is, within the context of the global economic market system—may look quite different at first glance. However, a second, slightly more penetrating glance reveals that it, too, is purchased at the price of wars conducted at its own boundaries. It is just that those boundaries have, in effect, gone global along with the Empire they delimit.

As that Empire has globalized itself, it has not freed itself from all bounds, so much as it has driven those bounds inward, as it were. It has traced and trenched them into the very hearts of all its global “subjects,” which is to say all us good little obedient consumers, who have meanwhile been enticed to become thoroughly “cosmopolitan” in our tastes. That is, we have come to be equally at home anywhere, regardless of whether the MacDonald’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, or Pizza Hut we go to is in Alabama or Zimbabwe, Tulsa or Timbuktu.

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In my same earlier post referred to above, where I briefly discussed the meaning of our word polemical, I also cited Ong’s remark about what might well be called the underlying pacific—the “peaceful” or “peace-fostering”—tendency of the word as word, which is to say as spoken, sounding. The word as such, Ong says (as I cited from page 192 of The Presence of the Word), “moves toward peace,” no matter how polemical the given word may be, “because it mediates between person and person.”

The words we speak one to another, even said in the heat of anger and confrontation, even in the exchange or curses and obscenities delivered under the breath or at the top of one’s lungs, “mediate” between us. They manifest and build relationship between us, regardless of the specific nature of the given relationship, be it one of friendliness and love, or one of hostility and hatred (the word “mediating” between those opposites as well.)

As already cited in my earlier post, Ong goes on to remark (on page 193) that it is when “speech is simply broken off” altogether that “assaults” begin, or that people at least “cut” each other by just passing one another by “in total silence,” or else take one another “to court.” In fact, to add to Ong’s insight, even the latter two cases—ignoring and court-ing, to put it punningly—continue to move within linguistic space broadly conceived: Both involve displaying themselves as gestures, which is what all words finally remain, as Merleau-Ponty for one reminds us. Thus, for example, to “cut” someone is not the same as being indifferent toward them. Rather, it is to make a show of one’s refusal to address them, to let one’s taciturnity toward them itself “speak volumes,” as we say.

Taking someone to court also continues to testify to maintaining an underlying relationship with that person. That is attested by what Ong himself adds immediately after mentioning that third option: “Or one goes to court, where, significantly, the parties do not speak directly to each other but only to the judge, whose decision, if accepted as just by both parties, at least in theory and intent brings them to resume normal conversation with each other once more.” Thus, when we take one another to court, the speaking does not cease. It just shifts from addressing one another directly to addressing one another indirectly through a third, who serves as an institutionally sanctioned “mediator” to do our word-work for us. Instead of mediating with one another directly, we now do it indirectly through that officially designated mediator, whose job it is to mediate our mediation—and that, in turn, with the final goal of reestablishing direct mediation (that is, communication) between us. Thus, it is not at all by chance that courts issue “judgments” and pass “sentences,” both irrefragably linguistic operations.

In short, even “cutting” one another and “going to court” over disputes continue to be ways of relating to one another. They are just continuations of relationships “by other means”—other than the usual ones of face-to-face address, even if that address is carried on in a screaming exchange of obscenities and curses.

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Von Clausewitz said the same thing, of course, about war in relation to politics. War, he said in the first chapter of On War, was nothing but “the continuation of politics by other means.” That very remark attests to the underlying transition that Ong and Callois call to our attention, the transition from a world in which war is taken as the given and basic condition, which peace “interrupts,” to one in which it is peace that is given and basic, and in which war accordingly becomes the interruption. Or as we might also put it, the transition is from a world in which war is taken as the “rule,” and peace as the “exception” to that rule, to one in which the reverse is the case, with peace being the rule and war the exception.

Where war is the rule and peace the exception, peace is no common thing, as the very notion of exception entails. It takes a lot of work to carve out a place of peace within the pervasive wilderness of war. The latter is the natural condition, whereas the former, the place of peace, can only be artificial, in the original sense of that word: Places of peace do not just spring up of themselves, but must be made. They are the products of “art,” not the produce of “nature,” to use an old distinction that goes back to the ancient Greeks. And once built, such places must be diligently maintained, lest they be reclaimed by that nature that always stands ready to overgrow them again.

What above all clears a space for, and then builds, such pockets of peace is the word. It is speech, the grand peace-maker that Ong describes.

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Such a place of peace was just what the ancient Greeks called the polis, the “city,” wherein it was not by chance that discourse flowered. The “political” was, accordingly, that which pertained to the construction and maintenance of such an artificial, high-maintenance, talkative place. The political was what pertained to the polis—that safe place built as a shelter against the pervasively surrounding “war” or “strife,” the polemos, that was nature and the natural.

In such a world, to say that “politics” was just a continuation of “war” would thus have made no sense at all. It is only in a very different world, one where war gets made by men rather than gods, taken out of nature’s hands and made a product of human ones (at least male human hands: a point to which I will eventually return), that such a remark could even occur to someone as something to be said.

Rome and its Empire lie between those two worlds—or perhaps beyond the boundaries of both.

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At any rate, in the transition to a world in which peace rather than war is given as the basic human condition, it is not only festival that is divested of much of its urgency. So, in its own way, is war itself, at least in the sense of polemos. As festival becomes less festive so does polemos become less polemical. “War” become less warlike.   It becomes itself a sort of game.

It is thus by no accident that we have come to call the training that prepares armies to do their own thing to other armies “war-games,” and at the same time use the language of war when describing such activities as football, with its “defenses” and “offenses,” “tactics” and “strategies,” “campaigns” and “battles.”

Nor is it at all merely by chance that today in both war and football (which is sort of like saying “animals and dogs”) winning, as Vince Lombardi famously said, is not “everything,” because it is the only thing. To borrow in turn from Malcolm X: Finally, all subterfuge aside, the goal of playing a game, whether it be a war-game or a football game or some other game altogether, such as “the game of life,” is simply and solely to win, “by any means necessary.” Nothing else counts.

At the same time, as the border between wars and games gets erased, both also become more and more the specialty of a few, rather than part of the fabric of the daily life of all. For most people, both battling and celebrating pass from being matters in which they participate directly, to being something they only experience vicariously, through those who come to serve in effect as their representatives at publicly sanctioned wars and festivals. The majority of us become spectators rooting for the special few of us who are delegated to do the actual struggling, whether that be on the battlefield or on the gridiron, and then celebrating victory or agonizing over defeat.   All the rest is just the same old same old. As Ong writes toward the end of the fourth chapter of Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), published more than a decade after The Presence of the Word: “While the teams slug it out, the spectator sips beer.”

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To be continued.

Published in: on March 29, 2015 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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