The birth of terrorism out of the spirit of the Enlightenment The subject of Enlightenment and the terrorist sensorium

Chapter 9
The birth of terrorism out of the spirit of the Enlightenment The subject of Enlightenment and the terrorist sensorium

Artemy Magun

Terrorism today

Perhaps the most puzzling and pressing form in which the question of evil surfaces for us today is the phenomenon of terrorism. While terrorism may be understandable and rational as an efficient strategy in a mediate way, in its immediacy it appears as an action directly aimed at doing evil: not evil against a particular person or group, but evil as such. Unlike the acts of a regular war, which do evil to someone in particular, contemporary terrorist acts seek to do something monstrous or catastrophic in itself. Only in the second turn, their action could serve an expressive purpose (to express one’s despair) or an instrumental purpose, to do harm to the world hegemony or to a regional hegemony, and/or provoke it into an adventurous and destabilizing military action. Hence, apart from the natural anger and hatred of the terrorists, their acts evoke the age-old question: how can humans will such a thing; how can such a diabolical evil, evil for the sake of evil, be a ‘maxim’ of someone’s behaviour?

Contemporary ‘terrorism’ is one of the main military strategies of unprivileged groups across the world, used both to achieve direct military goals and to make symbolic statements of opposition and dissent against the global hegemony of liberal capitalism. Terrorism against the indeterminate civilian population came to a dominance in the last decades, following the rise of fundamentalist Islamic radicals after the Iranian revolution, and particularly after the end of the Cold War, which turned the bilateral frame of the local conflicts (allies of the United States against the allies of the Soviet Union) into the asymmetrical frame (rebels and radicals against the rest of the ‘civilized world’). The disappearance of the symmetry in status and in the Enlightenment-based ideology (communism versus liberalism), the position of lonely partisans in the face of an all-powerful hegemony, facilitated the transition of many rebellious groups, particularly in Islamic countries, to the terrorist acts as purely negative self-manifestations.

While violence against the civil population and hostage-taking have always existed in wars, today’s radicals use them abundantly, sometimes as their only strategy, and their acts of violence produce an enormous impact due to their dissemination through the world media, mainly television. The ‘terrorist’ acts are shocking in their use of violence and in the relatively arbitrary choice of victims. Therefore, they are not only shown on television worldwide, but they also attract the exceptional attention both of news agencies and of their audience. One other crucial factor in the efficiency and spread of terrorism is democracy, existing de jure and in some ways de facto, and thus making the whole population symbolically responsible for state policy and capable, through election or public opinion, to change that policy. The blind violence of terrorism, addressed from nobody to nobody, corresponds to the idea of modern democracy as of impersonal, post-regicide rule, as the classical professional war corresponded to the absolutist, personified states.

I suggest, at least for the sake of this chapter, to limit the meaning of the word ‘terrorism’ to the strategy of intimidation with regard to civil population. This definition differs from most definitions adopted in international and US law1 in that it narrows the ‘intimidation’ down to the civil population, instead of considering any intimidation to be a sign of terrorism. In the latter case, violence against soldiers or government officials, meant to intimidate other soldiers or officials, would count as terrorism, and then almost any act of war could be considered as such. Although, historically, ‘terrorism’ from below started in Russia, from violence against officials, such use of the term makes it entirely ideological, subjective and lacking historical specificity: any violence not recognized by the state, any breach of the peace would be considered as terrorism. The intimidating violence against civilians is, on the other hand, if not entirely new, at least objectively characteristic for the civil warfare of our times.

Historically, the concept of ‘terrorism’ made a long journey, from the pejorative title of the violent politics linked with the Jacobin Terror of the French revolutionary government, then to the revolutionary violence against the officials as practised by the nineteenth-century Russian narodniks, but also by the Red Brigades and RAF of the late twentieth century, to terrorism against the arbitrarily taken civilian population, practised in the twentieth century by the Algerian rebels, Palestinian liberation fighters, and currently by many clandestine groups in the historically Muslim region. What is common among these three different phenomena is their democratic character, the use of intimidation, and the recourse to the merely negative affirmation of sovereignty. But otherwise, these are three completely different concepts. The first two ‘terrorisms’ are not really unique: the policy of intimidation against enemies of the state and the war against the ruling class are not that special or surprising. Moreover, the identification of the addressed violence of the Russian nihilists and of the violence against arbitrary victims, in the case of, say, Al Qaeda, is an ideological statement which depends on belief in the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence. Which, again, is not to say that there can be no drift between these two concepts, as we will further see in reading Dostoyevsky.

Terrorism and the subject of Enlightenment.

In what follows I will try to show that the contemporary terrorism is the crisis of the Enlightenment subject. This subject is, first of all, characterized by self-control and self-mastery. But the task of mastering oneself sets the further task of auto-affectation. As Heidegger rightly maintained, the true origin of subjectivity (as conceptualized by Kant) is the auto-affectation, or the affectation with nothing, a sphere where the activity of the subject coincides with its passivity, and this indeterminate affective moment provides a foundation for the mutual determination of subject and object.2 The new subject needs to feel itself, to make sure of itself and of its surroundings. Therefore, Enlightenment consists, literally, in the desire to know. Moreover, this desire is practically expressed by the drive, to feel: to know with empirical certainty, and to add the feeling of self to the feeling of an object. This is why the Enlightenment, as a historical movement, brings about not just the emancipation of the subject and the victory of reason over prejudice, but equally the anxiety and the vulnerability.

It is in today’s world, the world of mediatized terrorism, that this ambivalence of Enlightenment has reached its culmination. I will start with a brief discussion of the last film by Michael Haneke, Le Caché.3 The protagonist, George (played by Daniel Auteuil), works in a television show. His family is terrorized by someone who keeps sending them the tapes from a video camera that is directed at their yard and records everything that goes on there. These camera shots are subtly integrated into the visual line of the movie, so that we often confuse this spying camera with the camera shooting the movie we are watching. (The movie is shot in a very prosaic, ‘realistic’ style.) We thus find ourselves in the position of a spy. George starts an inquiry, which turns into a psychoanalytic search of his past, and ends with the discovery of a cruel injustice he has committed on someone in his early childhood. Following the clues left by the perpetrator, George finds the victim of this early injustice, a middle-aged Arabic guy living in an HLM (the French economy housing project). After several meetings and mutual accusations, the latter cuts his throat in front of him. At the end of the movie we see the hero ‘hiding’ (caché) from anyone’s gaze in a room with closed curtains. Thus he passes from hiding one’s past to hiding oneself, from the gaze of the media, of terror, and of his conscience (which all make one). In the end, the camera gives us a long gaze at the schoolyard, where, on the margin, with our peripheral vision, we can observe the sons of the protagonist and of the victim talking to each other in a friendly way – which suggests they might have planned the whole thing together.

The meaning of the movie is quite straightforward. It is an allegory of present-day terrorism and its complicity with the media: terrorist acts are efficient only as long as the media are obsessively showing them, and because television spectators are fascinated by these acts that horrify them. Thus the gaze of the media and of the spectators bears terror in itself, and the terrorists return it to them by fulfilling their expectations. What is additionally interesting here, however, is the play between the two functions of the media: that of exposing, making something public, and that of anxiously watching and gazing. The character of Auteuil is a television anchor, but while his exposure in public (in a stupid talk show) is a source of pride and enjoyment, his exposure in his private life is the source of anxiety and terror, which induces him to ‘analytic’ self-questioning.

Haneke’s movie alludes to some contemporary theoretical reflections on the link between the media, society and terror. Thus Paul Virilio defines our time as that of ‘universal voyeurism’.4 Patricia Mellencamp, in her analysis of US television since 9/11,5 notes the images of anxiety, of ‘pure gaze’, that dominate the depiction of contemporary wars, such as the picture of an empty parking lot which was shown, for most of the time, during the operation in Baghdad in 2003. Such images, says Mellencamp, both arouse anxiety and play the role of psychological shield against the traumatic knowledge of violence (which is not shown, but feared). Thus the mediatic ‘terror’ is an ideological phenomenon which raises concerns of security and legitimates states’ use of violence and repression but which, at the same time, makes the situation tolerable by concealing the violence itself and showing only its expectation.

Terror, both chronologically and logically, is a child of Enlightenment – the age when the famous ‘public sphere’ and the first modern media were born.6 This is the sequence we find already in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.7 (The section on freedom and terror during the French revolution follows right after the section dedicated to the Enlightenment.) For Hegel, however, the fault of the Enlightenment consisted in failing to conceive a thing as it is, and, instead, in deriving value only from external utility. The analysis by Haneke in his movie suggests that we might need to take Enlightenment literally, seeing it primarily as the will to light, to vision and knowledge of things as they are. This will to light is at the same time tightly connected to anxiety. Here we might need to go back from Hegel to Kant.

Kant continued the rebellion of Rousseau against the vulgar Enlightenment as described by Hegel; against the Enlightenment that wanted to subjugate humans to the calculation of Understanding. Instead, as we know, Kant spoke of the primacy of practical reason over theoretical reason8 – not in the sense that a hu/man must use his/her knowledge for a noble purpose, but in the sense that s/he has already been in advance active in this seemingly passive knowledge. The most famous application of this principle is the famous ‘force of imagination’, this ‘hidden art’ that works productively when we think that we just passively process the sensory data.9

However, in the short text from 1784, ‘An answer to the question: What is Enlightenment?’,10 Kant presents the activity of reason in another form, that of the motto, coming from Horace: Sapere aude (‘Dare to know!’), ‘ courage to make use of your own understanding!’11 This ‘public use of one’s reason’12 is in itself an act, the praxis of courageous exposure which, according to Kant, prepares and even already embodies the process of Enlightenment. One exercises it in texts, Schriften – public writings. Kant mentions the danger that accompanies those texts, as it follows any exposure – this time, danger probably coming from the Prussian police.

In the same text, Kant repeatedly defines the Enlightenment as the ‘exit out of the state of immaturity’ which is achieved when we learn to live by our own reason, without trusting the state’s officials in matters of knowledge and belief. This immaturity, says Kant, we owe to ourselves. And yet we have to exit from this state in order to be truly autonomous, truly obliged only to ourselves – truly subjects, as we would now say.

Thus the motive of being active in the very passivity is joined here with two other definitions of Enlightenment: that of a passage or promotion to recognition, almost a rite of passage to dignity, and that of subjectivity: of self-relation or self-affection. The media perfectly embody these three sides of Enlightenment: they publish and expose knowledge and opinion; they keep our attention through the constant expectation of something new and breaking through (they speak of the ‘news’, of the ‘new’), thus routinely enacting a collective rite of passage into a new life or a new world; and they also provide an excellent instrument of self-control and self-monitoring of society – a mediation necessary for a finite being to refer to itself, to be a subject.

The French revolution was the explosion of the internal contradictions in the Enlightenment. It was a decisive step forward to ‘extricate himself from [his] minority’ (one more task of Enlightenment, according to Kant), to build a self-governing, republican nation-subject – and, last but not least, to increase the transparency of society, the rationality of its government. Unexpectedly for most, this laudable project, which seduced almost everyone in Europe in 1789 and 1790, turned into a burst of violence culminating in the September 1792 prison murders and the law against suspects in 1794. This turn received the name of ‘terror’. This word was coined in 1793 by the Montagnard fraction of Jacobins who explicitly wanted to terrify their hidden and dissimulated enemies by ruthless repression, but who also accused those enemies of terrifying the people, in their turn. Let us note the strangeness in the use of the very word ‘terror’ for the phenomenon of modern political violence. This is a word which actually means the feeling of someone who experiences fear, but whose political meaning means, contrarily, the imposition of this feeling. Clearly, the French terrorists felt and exercised terror at the same time, and it was for them a kind of negative auto-affection.

Now, Kant, as we know, reacted to the revolution in a way that one usually understands as ‘ambiguous’. Indeed, in the second division of The Conflict of the Faculties (1795, published 1798), he writes about it in an enthusiastic tone, and in the Metaphysics of Morals (1797) he vigorously denounces it. What exactly could have happened there? We’ll understand it better if we consider these texts in some detail.

In the second part of The Conflict Kant points at the experience that could both show and guarantee the irreversible progress, in spite of the finitude of our perspective on time.

There must be some experience in human kind which, as an event [Begebenheit], points to the disposition and capacity of the human race to be the cause of its own advance toward the better … An event [Begebenheit] must be sought which points to the existence of such a cause and to its effectiveness in humankind, undetermined with regard to time, and which would allow progress toward the better to be concluded as an inevitable consequence.

The conclusion then could also be extended to the history of the past (that it has always been in progress) in such a way that the event [Begebenheit] would have to be considered not itself as the cause of history, but only as an intimation [als hindeutend], a historical sign demonstrating [beweisen] the tendency of humankind viewed in its entirety.13

Kant finds this event happening ‘in our time’: in the time of the French revolution. But he finds it in a curious way – with a negation: the one which Freud called Verneinung,14 ‘denegation’. The event in question, says Kant, does not either depend on whether the ‘revolution of the spiritual people’ will succeed or fail. Instead:

It is simply the mode of thinking of the spectators which reveals itself publicly in this game of great transformations, and manifests such a universal yet disinterested sympathy for the players on one side against those on the other, even at the risk that this partiality could become very disadvantageous for them if discovered.15

What he means here is the enlightened German audience expressing support for revolution in the journals and in the cafés. A curious argument that locates the event, not in a political occurrence, but in the reflexive turn from this occurrence to the subject. The event is reduced to a gaze at this event. And, of course, these German spectators exemplify the sapere aude, being active in their very (political and epistemological) passivity.

This constellation, says Kant, ‘is not to be forgotten’ and thus, through the memory of humanity, it guarantees the slow but sure progress.

For that event is too important, too much interwoven with the interest of humanity, and its influence too widely propagated in all areas of the world not to be recalled on any favourable occasion by the nations which would then be roused to a repetition of new efforts of this kind.16

Thus the turn from the essentially negative event away to the subject is further reproduced in the repetitive returns to the site of this turn: these returns precisely constitute subjectivity. This is possible precisely because the event is unaccomplished, not quite real, so that it is a sign that constantly requires interpretation. (‘Ein Zeichen sind wir, deutungslos,’ we are a sign with no meaning or interpretation, said famously Friedrich Hölderlin, Kant’s reader and follower, in his ‘Patmos’.) The ‘progress’ builds upon the memory of a trauma.

Similar things go on in Kant’s text on the regicide, from The Metaphysics of Morals.17 But there the ‘unforgettable,’ mnemotechnical character of the event is expressed as ‘a crime that remains for ever and can never be expiated (crimen immortale, inexpiabile), and it seems to be like the sin that cannot be forgiven either in this world or the next’.18 The subjectivation is accomplished also through the repeated return: through the ‘shudder [Schaudern] that one repeatedly feels as soon as and as often as one thinks of this scene, like the fate of Charles I or Louis XVI’.19

However, the good news is that no such event has ever happened! A human being, says Kant, is incapable of the diabolical evil, because the latter is a contradictory idea. A formal execution of Louis XVI would embody precisely this idea. Thus it is impossible. Therefore, says Kant, the only conclusion that we can derive is that the king was killed for the very pathological reasons, out of fear, but the actors disguised their actions as an act of law. ‘As far as we can see, it is impossible for a human being to commit a crime of this kind, a formal diabolically evil (wholly pointless) crime; and yet it is not to be ignored in a system of morals.’20

Thus we see the stakes of the whole discussion and realize the true content of the event – the self-destructive moment of subjectivity. This content is the fantasy of self-foundation, which quite logically coincides with self-annulment. The new man kills the old man, that is, himself. The ‘ambivalence’ with which Kant reacts to the revolution is explained by the contradictory nature of the impossible idea of revolution: as self-annulment, it is an inexpiable crime, as self-foundation, it is an eternal promise.

Now let us pass to the third division of The Conflict of Faculties. This section does not speak about politics at all. However, it is this text that most vividly describes the terrorist constitution of subjectivity – not from the point of view of the event that affects the subject but from the point of view which actively constructs its own destruction and only thus is able to achieve self-mastery.

The third Conflict, which is dedicated to medicine, namely to the force of the subject ‘to become a master over his morbid feelings merely by a firm resolution’. Although the title emphasizes positive self-mastery, the essay is dedicated, primarily, to the negative version of it: to the self-inflicted diseases (hypochondria and insomnia) that the subject is able to inflict upon itself via the force of imagination (Einbildungskraft). A person subject to this state ‘finds in himself every disease he reads about in books’.21 The disease appears therefore as that of reading, or of imagination induced by signs. This imagination presents something fearful and catastrophic – an imaginary foe that the organism has to resist – and thus actualizes the disease. The indeterminacy of the symptoms drives the subject into a compulsive probing activity. Thus, through the medium of imagination, the mind manages to work upon itself (inflicting damage to itself), but in a manner diametrically opposed to the self-mastery of the autonomous will.

The opposite of the mind’s self-mastery, in other words, is faint-hearted brooding about the ills that could befall one, and that one would not be able to withstand if they should come. It is a kind of insanity; for though some sort of unhealthy condition … may be the source of it, this state is not felt immediately, as it affects the senses, but is projected back [vorgespiegelt

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