......• Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters •
As to the "terrorist" fundamentalists' attacks, the first thing that strikes the eye 1 is the inadequacy of the idea, developed most systematically by Donald Davidson, that human acts are rationally-intentional, accountable in the terms of beliefs and desires of the agent. 2 This approach exemplifies the racist bias of the theories of "rationality": although their aim is to understand the Other from within, they end up attributing to the Other the most ridiculous beliefs (up to the infamous 400 virgins awaiting the believer in Paradise as the "rational" explanation of why he is ready to blow himself up), i.e., they makes the other ridiculously weird in the very effort of trying to make him "like us." Here is a passage from one of the propaganda texts distributed by North Korea during the Korean war:
"Hero Kang Ho-yung was seriously wounded in both arms and both legs in the Kamak Hill Battle, so he rolled into the midst of the enemy with a hand grenade in his mouth and wiped them out, shouting: 'My arms and legs were broken. But on the contrary my retaliatory spirit against you scoundrels became a thousand times stronger. I will show the unbending fighting will of a member of the Workers' Party of Korea and unflinching will firmly pledged to the Party and the Leader!'" 3
It is easy to laugh at the ridiculously non-realistic character of this description: how could the poor Kang talk if he was holding the grenade with his mouth? And how is it that, in the midst of a fierce battle, there was time for such a long declamatory proclamation? However, what if the mistake is to read this passage as a realistic description, thus imputing to Koreans ridiculous beliefs? In other words, what if the mistake is the same one as that of the anthropologists who impute to "primitive" aborigines celebrating the eagle as their ancestor the belief that they are really descended from the eagle? Why not read this passage - which effectively sounds operatic in its pathos - in the way similar to listening to Act III of Wagner's Tristan, where the mortally wounded Tristan is singing his (extremely demanding) dying chant for almost an hour - who of us is ready to impute to Wagner the belief that this is possible?
The fundamentalist Islamic terror is NOT grounded in the terrorists' conviction of their superiority and in their desire to safeguard their cultural-religious identity from the onslaught of the global consumerist civilization: the problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that THEY THEMSELVES secretly consider themselves inferior (like, obviously, Hitler himself felt towards Jews) - which is why our condescending Politically Correct assurances that we feel no superiority towards them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment. The problem is not cultural difference (their effort to preserve their identity), but the opposite fact that the fundamentalists are already like us, that they secretly already internalized our standards and measure themselves by them. (This clearly goes for Dalai Lama who justifies the Tibetan Buddhism in WESTERN terms of the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of pain.) Paradoxically, what the fundamentalists really lack is precisely a dosage of "true" "racist" conviction into one's own superiority.
The perplexing fact about the "terrorist" attacks is that they do not fit our standard opposition of Evil as egotism, as disregard for the common Good, and Good as the spirit of (and actual readiness for) the sacrifice for some higher Cause: terrorists cannot but appear as something akin to Milton's Satan with his "Evil, be thou my Good": while they pursue (what appears to us) evil goals with evil means, the very FORM of their activity meets the highest standard of the Good. The resolution of this enigma is easy, known already to Rousseau: egotism (the concern for one's well-being) is NOT opposed to common good, since altruistic norms can easily be deduced from egotist concerns. <4 Individualism versus communitarianism, utilitarianism versus universal normativism, are FALSE oppositions, since the two opposed options amount to the same as to their result. The critics who complain how, in today's hedonistic-egotistic society, true values are lacking, totally miss the point: the true opposite of egotist self-love is not altruism, concern for common Good, but envy, resentment, which makes me act AGAINST my own interests. Freud already knew it: death-drive is opposed to pleasure principle as well as to reality principle, i.e., the true "Evil" (= death drive) involves self-sabotage, it makes us act AGAINST our own interests. (Dupuy is here wrong in his characterization of the Lacanian psychoanalysis as part of the ongoing "mechanization of the mind" - psychoanalysis, on the contrary, REINTRODUCES notions of Evil and responsibility into our ethical vocabulary; "death-drive" is the name for what DISTURBS the homeostatic mechanism of rational pleasure-seeking, the weird reversal where I sabotage my own interests. If THIS is the true evil, then not only of today's secular pragmatic ethical theories, but even the "mechanization of the mind" in cognitive sciences, are to be conceived not as in itself "evil," but as a defense against Evil.
The problem with human desire is that, as Lacan put it, it is always "desire of the Other" in both genitivus subjectivus and genitivus objectivus: desire for the Other, desire to be desired by the Other, and, especially, desire for what the Other desires - envy and resentment are thus a constitutive component of human desire, as already Saint Augustin knew it so well - recall the passage from his Confessions, often quoted by Lacan, the scene of a baby jealous for his brother sucking the mother's breast ("I myself have seen and known an infant to be jealous though it could not speak. It became pale, and cast bitter looks on its foster-brother.")
Based on this insight, Dupuy proposes a convincing critique of John Rawls theory of justice: in the Rawls' model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they are based on natural inequalities, which are considered contingent, not merits. 5 What Rawls doesn't see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully "justified," and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice. Rawls thus proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a good witch: she will either give him one cow, and to his neighbor two cows, or take from him one cow, and from his neighbor two cows - the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: "I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbor twice!" The peasant, with a cunning smile, asks her: "Take one of my eyes!")
Friedrich Hayek 6 knew that it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from an impersonal blind force, so the good thing about "irrationality" of the market success or failure in capitalism (recall the old motif of market as the modern version of the imponderable Fate) is that it allows me precisely to perceive my failure (or success) as "undeserved", contingent... The fact that capitalism is not "just" is thus a key feature that makes it palpable to the majority (I can accept much more easily my failure if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities, but to chance).
What Nietzsche and Freud share is the idea that justice as equality is founded on envy - on the envy of the Other who has what we do not have, and who enjoys it; the demand for justice is thus ultimately the demand that the excessive enjoyment of the Other should be curtailed, so that everyone's access to jouissance should be equal. The necessary outcome of this demand, of course, is asceticism: since it is not possible to impose equal jouissance, what one CAN impose is only the equally shared PROHIBITION. However, one should not forget that today, in our allegedly permissive society, this asceticism assumes precisely the form of its opposite, of the GENERALIZED superego injunction "Enjoy!". We are all under the spell of this injunction, with the outcome that our enjoyment is more hindered than ever - recall the yuppie who combines Narcissistic "Self-Fulfillment" with utter ascetic discipline of jogging, eating health food, etc. This, perhaps, is what Nietzsche had in mind with his notion of the Last Man - it is only today that we can really discern the contours of the Last Man, in the guise of the hedonistic asceticism of yuppies. Nietzsche thus does not simply urge life-assertion against asceticism: he is well aware how a certain asceticism is the obverse of the decadent excessive sensuality - therein resides his criticism of Wagner's Parsifal, and, more generally, of the late Romantic decadence oscillating between damp sensuality and obscure spiritualism.
So what IS envy? Recall again the Augustinian scene of a sibling envying his brother who is sucking the mother's breast: the subject does not envy the Other's possession of the prized object as such, but rather the way the Other is able to ENJOY this object - which is why it is not enough for him simply to steal and thus gain possession of the object: his true aim is to destroy the Other's ability/capacity to enjoy the object. As such, envy is to be located into the triad of envy, thrift and melancholy, the three forms of not being able to enjoy the object (and, of course, reflexively enjoying this very impossibility). In contrast to the subject of envy, who envies the other's possession and/or jouissance of the object, the miser possesses the object, but cannot enjoy/consume it - his satisfaction derives from just possessing it, elevating it into a sacred, untouchable/prohibited, entity which should under no conditions be consumed (recall the proverbial figure of the lone miser who, upon returning home, safely locks the doors, opens up his chest and then takes the secret peek at his prized object, observing it in awe); this very hindrance that prevents the consummation of the object guarantees its status of the object of desire. The melancholic subject, like the miser, possesses the object, but loses the cause that made him desire it: this figure, most tragic of them all, has free access to all he wants, but finds no satisfaction in it.
This excess of envy is the base of Rousseau's well-known, but nonetheless not fully exploited, distinction between egotism, amour-de-soi (which natural), and amour-propre, the perverted preferring of oneself to others in which I focus not on achieving the goal, but on destroying the obstacle to it:
"The primitive passions, which all directly tend towards our happiness, make us deal only with objects which relate to them, and whose principle is only amour de soi, are all in their essence lovable and tender; however, when, diverted from their objects by obstacles, they are more occupied with the obstacle they try to get rid of, than with the object they try to reach, they change their nature and become irascible and hateful. This is how amour de soi, which is a noble and absolute feeling, becomes amour-propre, that is to say, a relative feeling by means of which one compares oneself, a feeling which demands preferences, whose enjoyment is purely negative and which does not strive to find satisfaction in our own well-being, but only in the misfortune of others." (Rousseau, Juge de Jean-Jacques, first dialogue)
For Rousseau, an evil person is NOT an egotist, "thinking only about his own interests": a true egotist is all too busy with taking care of his own good to have time to cause misfortunes to others, while the primary vice of a bad person is precisely that he is more occupied with others than with himself. Rousseau describes here a precise libidinal mechanism: the inversion which generates the shift of the libidinal investment from the object to the obstacle itself. This is why egalitarianism itself should never be accepted at its face value: the notion (and practice) of egalitarian justice, insofar as it is sustained by envy, relies on the inversion of the standard renunciation accomplished to benefit others: "I am ready to renounce it, so that others will (also) NOT (be able to) have it!" Far from being opposed to the spirit of sacrifice, Evil is thus the very spirit of sacrifice, ready to ignore one's own well-being - if, through my sacrifice, I can deprive the Other of his jouissance... Is this sad fact that the opposition to the system cannot articulate itself in the guise of a realistic alternative, or at least a meaningful utopian project, but only as a meaningless outburst, not the strongest indictment of our predicament? Where is here the celebrated freedom of choice, when the only choice is the one between playing by the rules and (self-)destructive violence, a violence which is almost exclusively directed against one's own - the cars burned and the schools torched were not from rich neighborhoods, but were part of the hard-won acquisitions of the very strata from which protesters originate.
Which is why the notion of evaluation is crucial for the functioning of a democratic society: if, at the level of their symbolic identity, all subjects are equal, if, here, un sujet vaut l'autre, if they can be indefinitely substituted to each other, since each of them is reduced to an empty punctual place ($), to a "man without qualities-properties" (to recall the title of Robert Musil's magnum opus) - if, consequently, every reference to their properly symbolic mandate is prohibited, how then, are they to be distributed within the social edifice, how can their occupation be legitimized? The answer is, of course, evaluation: one has to evaluate - as objectively as possible, and through all possible means, from quantified testing of their abilities to more "personalized" in-depth interviews - their potentials. The underlying ideal notion is to produce their characterization deprived of all traces of symbolic identities. 7 Here the standard Leftist critics who denounce the hidden cultural bias of evaluations and tests miss the point: the problem with evaluation, with its total objectivation of criteria, is not that it is unjust, but precisely that it IS just.
What this means is that the "deconstructionist" / "risk society" commonplace according to which the contemporary individual experiences himself as thoroughly denaturalized, that he experiences even his most "natural" features (from his ethnic identity to his sexual preferences) as something chosen, historically contingent, to be learned, is profoundly deceiving: what we are effectively witnessing today is the opposite process of an unheard-of re-naturalization: all big "public issues" are (re)translated into questions about the regulation and stances towards intimate "natural"/"personal" idiosyncrasies. This is also why, at a more general level, the pseudo-naturalized ethnico-religious conflicts are the form of struggle which fits global capitalism: in our age of »post-politics,« when politics proper is progressively replaced by expert social administration, the only remaining legitimate source of conflicts are cultural (religious) or natural (ethnic) tensions. - And "evaluation" is precisely the regulation of social promotion that fits this massive renaturalization. So, perhaps, the time has come to reassert, as the truth of evaluation, the perverted logic to which Marx refers ironically in his description of commodity fetishism, when he quotes Dogberry's advice to Seacoal from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing (Act 3, Scene 3) which concludes Chapter 1 of Das Capital: "To be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune; but reading and writing comes by nature." Today, in our times of evaluation, to be a computer expert or a successful manager is a gift of nature, while to have a beautiful lips or eyes is a fact of culture...
1. Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Avions-nous oublié le ma? Penser la politique après le 11 septembre, Paris: Bayard 2002.
2. Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1980.
3. Quoted in Bradley K. Martin, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, New York: Thomas Dunne Books 2004, p. 85.
4. Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, New York: Basic Books 1984.
5. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1971 (revised edition 1999).
6. Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1994.
7. Jacques-Alain Miller, Jean-Claude Milner, Voulez-vous être évalué?, Paris: Grasset 2004.