Tuesday, April 08, 2008

there is no "like us" because "us" is everyone

Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler which inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “niggers” of Africa.
-- Aime Cesaire, Discourse on Colonialism

We should be more struck than we usually are by a remark that often recurs in articles and commentaries devoted to the war in the former Yugoslavia: it is pointed out--with a kind of subjective excitement, an ornamental pathos--that these atrocities are taking place 'only two hours by plane from Paris'. the authors of these texts invoke, naturally, all the 'rights of man', ethics, humanitarian intervention, the fact that Evil (thought to have been exorcized by the collapse of totalitarianisms') is making a terrible comeback. But then the observation seems ludicrous: if it is a matter of ethical principles, of the victimary essence of Man, of the fact that 'rights are universal and imprescriptible', why should we care about the length of the flight? Is the 'recognition of the other' all the more intense if this other is in some sense almost within my reach?
-- Alain Badiou, Ethics

Funny that when I saw the home invasion sequence I thought the film was trying to make a point about the occupation of Iraq; Agamben is quite right that Abu Ghraib is a camp. Frankly, I am not sure what point this TV spot is trying to get across: is it about Iraq? the restriction of civil liberties since 9/11? Holocaust denial?

The idiocy of the commercial is not just the obvious point that it implies that the "us" to whom the Holocaust happened is only "middle class suburban white people." The real problem is the "like us." In order for there to be a "like us" then there must be those who are not "like us" against whom it is permissible to commit systematic, biopolitical violence. This is Cesaire's point on the Holocaust: that the moral outrage Euro-Americans express (with a certain self-punishing pleasure) about the Holocaust, elevating it to the level of an unthinkable metaphysical catastrophe--didn't Adorno say there could be no poetry after Auschwitz"--brings out, in contrast, the silent complicity with colonialism. Cesaire seems to anticipate Foucault on biopolitics here in a wonderful way. It is interesting that European thinkers are only now getting around to criticizing the elevation of the Holocaust into an unthinkable, metaphysical Evil--although even Agamben, while showing the Holocaust only to be part of a grander biopolitics, still chalks it up to metaphysics--when you had Cesaire writing this in 1953.

Which leads to Alain Badiou and the second point. That rejecting the "like us" doesn't mean reviving an ethics based on the Other-to-be-respected. Badiou and others have argued persuasively that there can be no ethics of otherness, since what respect for otherness does not respect is precisely the other that doesn't respect otherness. Essentially the ethics of the other it is the ethics of liberal democracy, and we can see this repeated throughout liberal assumptions on tolerance--what tolerance doesn't tolerate is the intolerant, a void in tolerance which must be assigned a specific substantive content and thus undoes tolerance--and democracy, conceived of as a form of rule--everyone can participate in democracy except people who are against it. Badiou's passage below speaks to this fact that the other in truth will only be tolerated insofar as the other is same; that the suffering of the Other is only relevant insofar as the other is "like us." Furthermore--and I think this is critical--a professor of mine has argued that to call another an Other is really a one-way exercise of power.

That there is no "like us," then, can only mean that "us" should be everyone. Our politics must strive toward One world, a world of reciprocal gazes that recognizes not Otherness but Sameness in one-another, a world of equality-in-belonging and equality-in-freedom.

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