Saturday, February 05, 2011

Their Superpower: "Performative Efficiency"


So when, in his reading of the famous chorus from Antigone on the "uncanny/demonic" character of man in the Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger deploys the notion of "ontological" violence that pertains to every founding gesture of the new communal world of people, accomplished by poets, thinkers, and statesmen, one should always bear in mind that this “uncanny/demonic” dimension is ultimately that of language itself:

[...]Violence is usually seen in terms of the domain in which concurring compromise and mutual assistance set the standard of Dasein, and accordingly all violence is necessarily deemed only a disturbance and an offence…The violent one, the creative one who sets forth into the unsaid, who breaks into the unthought, who compels what has never happened and makes appear what is unseen – this violent one stands at all times in daring…

…[W]e should not immunise ourselves against the effects of the violence Heidegger is talking about by classifying it as “merely” ontological; although it is violent as such, imposing a certain disclosure of world, this world constellation also involves social relations of authority. In his interpretation of Heracliutus fragment 53…Heidegger – in contast to those who accuse him of omitting to consider the “cruel” aspects of the ancient Greek life (slavery, etc.) – openly draws attention to how “rank and dominance” are directly grounded in a disclosure of being, thereby providing a direct ontological grounding to social relations of domination:

[…]What is higher in rank is what is stronger. Thus, Being, logos, as the gathered harmony, is not easily available for every man at the same price, but is concealed[…]

[…]Simone de Beauvoir noted: “many racists, ignoring the rigors of science, insist on declaring that even if the psychological [sic] reasons haven’t been established, the fact is that blacks are inferior. You have only to travel through America to be convinced of it.”*

[…]Beauvoir’s claim about the factual inferiority of blacks aims at something more than the simple social fact that in the American South of (not only) that time, blacks were treated as inferior by the white majority and, in a way, they effectively were inferior….This softening distinction misses the truly trenchant dimension of racism; the “being” of blacks…is a socio-symbolic being. When they are treated by whites as inferior, this does indeed make them inferior….[T]he white racist ideology exerts a performative efficiency. It is not merely an interpretation of what blacks are, but an interpretation that determines the very being…of the interpreted subjects.

[Peter Singer] radicalizes and actualizes Jeremiah Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: the ultimate ethical criterion is not the dignity (rationality, soul) of man, but the ability to SUFFER, to experience pain, which man shares with animals[...] Look an orangutan straight in the eye and what do you see? A none-too-distant cousin[...]

Singer argues that "speciesism" is no different from racism [...]

[...O]ne cannot dismiss [Singer] as a monstrous exaggeration – what Adorno said about psychoanalysis (its truth resides in its very exaggerations) fully holds for Singer: he is so traumatic and intolerable because his scandalous “exaggerations” directly renders visible the truth of the so-called postmodern ethics. Is effectively not the ultimate horizon of the postmodern “identity politics” Darwinian – defending the right of some particular species of the humankind within the panoply of their proliferating multitude (gays with AIDS, black single mothers…)? The very opposition between “conservative” and “progressive” politics can be conceived of in the terms of Darwinism: ultimately, conservatives defend the right of those with might (their very success proves that they won in the struggle for survival), while progressives advocate the protection of endangered human species, i.e., of those losing the struggle for survival.

[...]This, then, is the ultimate truth of Singer: our universe of human right is the universe of animal rights.

The obvious counterargument is here: so what? Why should we not reduce humankind to its proper place, that of one of the animal species? What gets lost in this reduction? Jacques-Alain Miller once commented an uncanny laboratory experiment with rats: in a labyrinthine set-up, a desired object (a piece of good food or a sexual partner) is first made easily accessible to a rat; then, the set-up is changed in such a way that the rat sees and thereby knows where the desired object is, but cannot gain access to it; in exchange for it, as a kind of consolation prize, a series of similar objects of inferior value is made easily accessible – how does the rat react to it? For some time, it tries to find its way to the “true” object; then, upon ascertaining that this object is definitely out of reach, the rat will renounce it and put up with some of the inferior substitute objects – in short, it will act as a “rational” subject of utilitarianism.

It is only now, however, that the true experiment begins: the scientists performed a surgical operation on the rat, messing about with its brain, doing things to it with laser beams about which, as Miller put it delicately, it is better to know nothing. So what happened when the operated rat was again let loose in the labyrinth, the one in which the “true” object is inaccessible? The rat insisted: it never became fully reconciled with the loss of the “true” object and resigned itself to one of the inferior substitutes, but repeatedly returned to it, attempted to reach it. In short, the rat in a sense was humanized; it assumed the tragic “human” relationship towards the unattainable absolute object which, on account of its very inaccessibility, forever captivates our desire. On the other hand, it is this very “conservative” fixation that pushes man to continuing renovation, since he never can fully integrate this excess into his life process. So we can see why did Freud use the term Todestrieb: the lesson of psychoanalysis is that humans are not simply alive; on the top of it, they are possessed by a strange drive to enjoy life in excess of the ordinary run of things – and “death” stands simply and precisely for the dimension beyond ordinary biological life.

[...I]t is easy to imagine German officers and soldiers listening to ["Hans Hotter’s outstanding 1942 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise"] in the Stalingrad trenches in the cold Winter of 42/43. Does the topic of Winterreise not evoke a unique consonance with the historical moment? Was not the whole campaign to Stalingrad a gigantic Winterreise, where each German soldier can say for himself the very first lines of the cycle: “I came here a stranger, / As a stranger I depart”? Do the following lines not render their basic experience: “Now the world is so gloomy, / The road shrouded in snow. / I cannot choose the time / To begin my journey, / Must find my own way / In this darkness.”

[...]The obvious counter-argument is that all this is merely a superficial parallel: even if there is an echo of the atmosphere and emotions, they are in each case embedded in an entirely different context: in Schubert, the narrator wanders around in Winter because the beloved has dropped him, while the German soldiers were on the way to Stalingrad because of Hitler’s military plans. However, it is precisely in this displacement that the elementary ideological operation consists: the way for a German soldier to be able to endure his situation was to avoid the reference to concrete social circumstances which would become visible through reflection [...]and, instead, to indulge in the Romantic bemoaning of one’s miserable fate, as if the large historical catastrophe just materializes the trauma of a rejected lover. Is this not the supreme proof of the emotional abstraction, of Hegel’s idea that emotions are ABSTRACT, an escape from the concrete socio-political network accessible only to THINKING.

* What Simone de Beauvoir actually wrote: "In the past twenty years there hasn't been a single serious work that dared to defend the prejudice, however convenient, of biological inferiority. But many racists, ignoring the rigors of science, insist on declaring that even if the physiological reasons haven't been established, the fact is blacks are inferior. You have only to travel through America to be convinced of it. But what does the verb 'to be' mean? Does it define an immutable substance, like oxygen? Or does it describe a moment in a situation that has evolved, like every human situation? That is the question. And to fresh eyes it is clear that the second meaning is the correct one: 'Blacks are uncultured'."

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