What’s so funny about Infinite Justice?

Chapter 11
What’s so funny about Infinite Justice?

Janne Porttikivi

‘Infinite Justice’ was the name initially given to the Bush government’s offensive launched against that multifaced enemy called ‘terrorism’. And as we know, this name was quickly abandoned and replaced by the more descriptive and perhaps more neutral term ‘war against terrorism’. There are, of course, several good reasons for the change, but I think the name ‘Infinite Justice’ is a better expression for the Bush government’s spontaneous reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center towers: international terrorism is the absolute evil, and so in Bush’s idealistic rhetoric the only way to fight back at the same level is ‘Infinite Justice’. In this light it was only consistent that Bush also declared that Osama Bin Laden was wanted ‘dead or alive’ in the good old spirit of the wild west.

Why the new name? I think there were important and essential strategic reasons for this. Justice, which is indifferent to human life, or justice, which has absolute power over human life or over life in general, refers more to divine law than to human law. Although there is a powerful truth in Carl Schmitt’s thesis that all political and juridical concepts are secularized theological concepts,1 it wasn’t politically wise in that sensitive political-religious situation to declare or bring forth openly that there is an intimate connection between politics and theology.

The aim of the US government was to form the largest possible coalition, to form allied forces against international terrorism and the states which are supporting it, so called rogue states or the ‘axis of evil’. There was a fear that reference to God would not only alienate the secularized Western countries but also those Islamic countries which also condemned terrorist attacks, rather than get them to join the coalition. There is a consensus for one thing, perhaps for different reasons but a consensus anyway, between the secularized Western countries and the not so secularized Islamic countries: only the divine law is eternal and thus infinite; human law is linked to place and time and thus finite. Perhaps Infinite Justice happens at the end of time, if God will, in some sort of messianic time, but at least one thing is certain: the Last Judgement is not the business of any earthly courtroom, not even that of the US Supreme Court, and George W Bush was surely not directly expressing God’s will.

The problem with the Infinite Justice is then, as Jacques Rancière has pointed out,2 that it means justice without limits. It’s justice that ignores all the distinctions by which its practice is traditionally delimited: it is impossible to distinguish any more legal punishment from the vengeance of individuals, when all the barriers which were separating the law from politics, ethics or religion have been erased.

That’s why, for Rancière, there was no language excess: ‘“Infinite justice” states exactly what’s at stake: the assertion of a right identical to the omnipotence hitherto reserved for the vindictive God. All traditional distinctions end up being abolished with the erasure of international forms of law.’3 Of course this erasure is already the principle of terrorist action itself, but fighting back in the same terrain as your enemy as it has already been determined, leads easily to the vicious circle in which you are beginning to look more and more like your enemy.

This current international political situation is characterized by what Rancière calls ‘the excess of ethics over law and politics’.4 For some time now this rise of ethics to the detriment of justice has characterized the forms by which the Western powers have intervened abroad. This blurring of the limits between ethics and politics has taken on the form of the humanitarian military intervention. The principle behind this is revealed by the figure of the absolute victim, a victim of infinite evil. Not only are there nowadays suffering victims everywhere – ‘everybody is somebody’s victim’ is a good motto for our politically correct time – but there has to be also the absolute victim of infinite evil which grounds this whole edifice and legitimizes every military action taking place in any corner of the world:

The obligation of attending to the victims of absolute Evil has become identical to the fight without limits against this evil. And this is identified with deploying unlimited military power, acting like a global police force in charge of restoring order to every part of the world where Evil can find shelter.5

In this weird ‘coincidence of oppositions’ any military action is always presented as a means to guarantee the peace or safe delivery of humanitarian aid. As Slavoj Žižek says, the fundamental irony of this situation is that we are living in a world where the old Orwellian motto ‘War is peace’ has finally become reality:

[A]s Tony Blair said, perhaps we will have to bomb the Taliban in order to secure food transportation and distribution … Thus we no longer have the opposition between war and humanitarian aid: [when] an American plane is flying above us one never knows what it will drop, bombs or food parcels.6

In this situation the denunciation of communist crimes and the Nazi Holocaust has also acquired a whole new meaning. Not only have the crimes been transformed into the monstrous effects of regimes that have to be fought against (because then we would be still in the political field), but into the forms whereby an infinite, unthinkable and unforgivable crime was made manifest: the work of an Evil power exceeding all legal and political measures. As Rancière says, ‘[e]thics has become the way to think this infinite or absolute evil, which has created an irremediable break in history’.7

The ultimate consequence of this contemporary ethical ideology is the paradoxical constitution of an individual’s absolute right whose rights have, in fact, been absolutely negated. These individuals actually appear as the victims of ‘an infinite Evil against which the fight is itself infinite. This is the point at which the one defending the victims’ rights inherits absolute right.’8 And this absolute or sovereign power creates a zone of indistinction where law and non-law are absolutely inseparable, because the absolute right is the same as the non-right.9 This is the reason for the total indeterminacy of the law as it deals with the prisoners held captive at Guantanamo Bay. In this zone of indistinction or juridical and political black hole, victims and culprits alike fall into the abyss of ‘infinite justice’.

As Rancière says, Hegel already ridiculed such a night of the absolute or the abstract and immediate infinite in which ‘all cows are grey’. That’s because for Hegel the one who wants to find himself beyond and immediately within the absolute has before himself nothing but that of the empty negative, the abstract infinite.10 The lack of ethical distinctions or, rather, the excess of ethics over the law and politics has transformed the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay into captives of this type of infinite, the only difference being for Rancière that now in this night all cows are not grey but orange.11

Is it possible to find some way out of these political and ethical deadlocks? Surely it is; it only needs firm (axiomatic and universal) political decision and courage to make this decision actual through meticulous transformation of the current situation point by point.12 (And the first step has been already taken: almost right away at the beginning of his presidency Barack Obama announced that Guantanamo Bay will be closed in the near future.)

But of course on the level of thought one can ask many questions concerning these universals and how to make them concrete. For example, it is clear that this type of infinity which Rancière speaks of refers to something which Hegel called ‘bad infinity’, which is mired with abstract universals and empty rhetorics (although the consequences of this infinity have been nearly catastrophic). In my chapter there is a kind of parallax view which is focused on two kinds of thinking of ethics and politics. There are two divergent lines which I try to follow: Hegel, comedy and politics, and Kant, tragedy and ethics. But as was expected there occurs some kind of short-circuit between these divergent lines of thought, and both thinkers are read closely together from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis.13

But the Hegelian question is, concerning infinite or finite justice, what would the justice be if it had limits which are external to it? Finite and limited justice, precisely. Against this limited and finite conception of justice (and of politics and ethics) I will argue that the true Hegelian infinite refers, as Alenka Zupančič says, to the very contradiction at the heart of human being which can precisely not be qualified as finite.14 In the Hegelian perspective you cannot get around the fact that, if there’s going be any kind of justice or valid concept of universal human rights in this world, it has to, of course, concern our limited and finite being but in such a way that it is still attending the infinite. Only infinite justice can be truly universal, and in the same way human rights have to be the rights of the infinite. If this justice has its limits, these limits are not external but internal to this justice itself. But this means also that if this justice and these rights are going to be truly universal, they have to be made concrete, because, as we shall see, for Hegel, the abstract and empty universals are not truly universal at all.

One can argue that the whole Hegelian speculative philosophical edifice, his infamous ‘system’, is directed against the basic premises of Kantian philosophy. Kant is very much the philosopher of ‘bad infinity’, and Kantian ethics seems to be overwhelmed with goals and ideals (moral law, for example) which we are bound to seek but can never realize. And it is this Kantian horizon of thinking which Hegelian philosophy tries to transcend or leave behind. This is, of course, only partial truth, but it is instructive to see how the same kinds of arguments which Hegel marshals against Kant can be directly applied when we want to attack or go against our contemporary ethical ideology, whose dominant trait is, as Rancière said, ‘the excess of ethics over law and politics’.

First before I go on to Kant’s moral philosophy I will argue, following Zupančič’s analysis of Hegel’s thought that one way to attain this ‘true infinity’ and make it, as Hegel demands, the concrete universal is, perhaps surprisingly, through comedy. Through reading what Hegel and Lacanian psychoanalysis has to say about comedy and its paradoxical relation to the human finitude I try to argue that perhaps the answer to the impasses of international politics is not to refer our constitutive finitude as in tragedy but our paradoxical finitude that is revealed by the fundamental structure of the comedy to be actually infinite. It’s not a question of the finite being which encounters its tragic end in breaking its limits and will never reach its desired goal other than in infinite approximation, but the kind of immanent transcendence which breaks through every limitation and barrier to become truly infinite.

The tragic mode of representation

Hegel’s discussion of comedy in Phenomenology of Spirit is not exactly what we would today call an immanent approach to art.15 For Hegel art is not the immediate subject of discussion; it comes alive in the process of discussion of something else, namely religion and the relationship to the Absolute. The actual framework of this discussion is that of self-representation of Absolute Spirit through art and religion. But on the other hand Hegel does not, either, simply apply his pre-established concepts to different forms of art, he introduces the latter as cases of concretely existing moments of the concept, and this indirect approach allows him to propose some surprising insights about the nature of comedy. And as Zupančič argues these insights could function as a very productive starting point for a philosophical discussion of comedy and its relation to ongoing ethical and political problems.16

In the section called ‘The spiritual work of art’ Hegel is actually dealing with a very narrow and precise segment of (Greek) art, represented by the names of Homer (the epics), Aeschylus and Sophocles (tragedy), and Aristophanes (comedy). But Hegel is not here interested in some individual works of art and their authors, or even some all-encompassing theory of comedy. He is looking for something which could be called the movement of the comic spirit or the comic subjectivity, which is not tied to any specific work of art. If this comic subjectivity has any universal validity, we should be able to discern its movement not only in different works of art from different historical periods but also in the different forms of art.

How, then, does Hegel conceive of art in the Phenomenology? As Zupančič emphasizes, the representation is the key issue of the Hegelian analysis. The central question is how the spiritual work of art is representing the absolute. According to Hegel in the world of the spiritual work of art there exists a pre-established division or duality in which one term stands in immediate opposition to another:

We are thus dealing with a rather brutally divided world where such notions as essence, substance, necessity, universality (and the corresponding entities – gods) stand opposed to those of appearance, subjectivity, contingency, individuality (and the entities that correspond to these notions – human beings).17

And in Hegel’s analysis the gradual transformation of representation, i.e. different ways in which this duality is mediated, puts the three genres of epic, tragedy and comedy in a not only historical but also dialectical succession.

In the universe of the epic these two domains, that of human beings and that of the gods, are linked together in an external way, as a ‘mixture’ (Vermischung) of the universal and the individual. The epic representation is thus nothing but ‘a synthetic combination of the universal and the individual’.18 But the principle of this combination remains external. The weakness or the limitation of this kind of universal is for Hegel that it is not really limited by its own concrete individuality, but remains above it. The universal powers (gods) have in epic the form of individuality, and their actions are identical to those of men; they simply act like humans, but at the same time they actually withdraw from the connection with the concrete and remain unrestricted in their own specific characters.19 ‘As such,’ Zupančič writes, ‘this universal and its powers remain a “void of necessity” that floats above the heroes and everything else. ‘20

With tragedy Hegel moves forward in his attempt to conceptualize this constitutive division of the Greek world. In tragedy the language is no longer simply a universal medium of representation, that is a simple narrative: the heroes now speak for themselves. On the stage there are now standing conscious characters that exist as actual human beings. They impersonate the heroes and portray them in the actual speech and action of the actors themselves. The tragic performance displays to the audience ‘conscious human beings who know their rights and purposes, the power and the will of their specific nature and now know how to assert them’.21 Through actors, the universal itself now starts to speak. And, as Zupančič says, tragedy is indeed the form of art which (en)acts the universal.22

In this way we come to a new mode of representation, in which the actors put on their masks and thus represent the essence with the help of the mask. But then the actor is no longer himself, he only brings to life the (universal) essence he represents. ‘The mask as such has no content, it is more like the pure surface … that separates the self of the actor from his stage character as (represented) essence.’23 But, for Hegel, in this gap between the actor and the character lies also the flaw in the tragic mode of representation.

In tragedy ‘the essence ultimately exists only as the universal moment, separated by the mask from the concrete and actual self, and as such this essence is still not actual.’24 The supposed union of the actor and the character, the concrete individual and the universal essence, remains thus external, and, in fact, hypocritical: ‘the hero who appears before the onlookers splits up into his mask and the actor, into the person in the play and the actual self’.25 For the tragic mode of representation this split between actor and character is unbridgeable, and in the end the actor, who is there to represent the essence, tries in vain to make us forget his actual self, and to see through his mask only the sublime character as the universal essence.

In the tragic mode of representation the actor thus tries to reach through his mask the universal essence which is represented by his character, but ends up in failure, and this failure is also now reflected in the content of the tragedy. Usually in tragedy its hero or heroine is longing for some supersensible, universal essence – this is his hubris – but is violently thrown against his own limits, his ineradicable human finitude, and is in this process himself destroyed. For the proof of his essential freedom – in willingly submitting to his fate, the hero is a negative proof of human freedom; in him necessity turns into subjective freedom – he has to pay a high price: for the tragic hero or heroine there is reserved only one place or end: that of death. For Zupančič, the ‘tragic paradigm’ means precisely that this endless movement of contradiction is directly subjectified or individualized: ‘By choice or play of circumstances, the tragic hero comes to embody and to be the playground of this endless contradiction, which cannot but tear him or her apart, destroy him or her (as an individual).’26 This tragic movement is essentially negative, and the metaphysical ‘grandeur’ of tragedy consists precisely of the fact that only through its failure can it be successful.

This means that tragedy has exactly the same structure as the Kantian sublime: only at the price of his or her material destruction can the subject represent the non-representable, ‘infinite’, which in this process turns or becomes visible and is elevated into a sublime figure through which some super-sensible, eternal idea shines. In tragedy ‘the acting subject, via the various ordeals that befall her, has to let – often at the price of her own death – some universal idea, principle or destiny shine through her’.27 In tragedy representation succeeds only by its very failure: an individual tries to become universal, but ends up being only a sublime character with a particular end, death.28

In this way opens up also the Lacanian perspective to the tragedy. For Lacan every tragedy is ultimately tragedy of desire. In tragedy there is always some kind of difference or gap between demand and its satisfaction, and desire inhabits this gap. And as Zupančič says, ‘tragedy is the pain of this difference’.29 Through the relation between the objective circumstances (chance or fate) and the subjective singularity (which is constitutive to hero or heroine) tragedy explores the domain of this dialectics of desire. But this gap between the different levels of being is not that which separates tragedy and comedy from each other or makes them different genres. On the contrary, it is their common trait.30 Lacan remarks in Seminar VII that although ethics, as properly conceived, always implies that dimension of life that can be called tragic, we must not forget that in the comic ‘too, it is question of the relationship between action and desire, and of the former’s fundamental failure to catch up with latter’.31 Comedy has also its dialectics of desire, but it is also something else, and there must be at least minimal difference between the comic and tragic failure.32

Comedy at work

There is a powerful tradition which sees in comedy the emphasis on the human side of representation. This other side of representation is a remainder of the physical residue that the symbolic mask can never completely sublimate or absorb, an irreducible remainder of the symbolic representation.33 From this perspective comedy is a genre that strongly emphasizes our essential humanity, its joys and limitations. It forces us to recognize and accept the fact that we are finite beings. And the lesson of comedy is that ‘we are only human, with all our faults, imperfections and weaknesses, and it helps us to deal affirmatively and joyfully with the burden of human finitude’.34

As Zupančič remarks, this kind of conception of comedy is both simplistic and ideologically problematic. For example, from this perspective the comic characters are often opposed to tragic heroes and heroines, who are then considered as ‘extremists’ seeking to transcend the human limitations and realize the impossible at any costs, which cannot but end up in (political or ethical) catastrophe.35 There is indeed the same sort of politics or ethics of human finitude, whose corollary is, as Žižek points out, ‘that the ultimate source of totalitarian and other catastrophes is man’s presumption that he can overcome this condition of finitude, lack and displacement, and “act like God”, in a total transparency, surpassing his constitutive division’.36

Although one could argue that Hegel goes rather a long way in this same direction in his analysis of comedy, he however makes an essential qualification. Unlike those who see comedy as giving voice only to the human side of representation, Hegel goes further and introduces an important shift of perspective, which Zupančič formulates as follows: ‘the comic character is not the physical remainder of the symbolic representation of essence; it is this very essence as physical’.37 How is that possible? In tragedy abstract universality and fate was opposed to its other, the individual self that represented this fate as a stage character, but in comedy, Hegel says, ‘the actual self of the actor coincides with what he impersonates (with his stage character), just as the spectator is completely at home in the drama performed before him and sees himself playing in it’.38 In other words, unlike tragedy it does not try to go beyond the representation, to reach some transcendent beyond, but, on the contrary, it eliminates from its world this supposed transcendental realm altogether and returns to this side of representation. In this sense, for Hegel, the comic work of art indeed does away with (a tragic mode of) representation. More precisely, a theatrical performance is still, of course, a performance, but what loses the form of representation (the form of being separated from the actual self) is universal powers, gods, fate and essence.39 In comedy, ‘the individual self is the negative power through which and in which the gods, as also their moment … vanish’.40 Through this disappearance the individual self is now the sole actuality and the universal powers have lost their form of something (re)presented to consciousness, something altogether separate from consciousness and utterly alien to it (as was still the case in the epic and tragedy).41

In other words, in comedy absolute powers lose their form of representation by appearing themselves as subjects or as concrete beings. This is according to Zupančič the crux of the Hegelian comedy, and she comments on it as follows:

When comedy exposes to laughter, one after another, all the figures of the universal essence and its powers (gods, morals, state institutions, universal ideas, and so on) it does so, of course, from the standpoint of the concrete and the subjective; and, on the face of it, we can indeed get the impression that in comedy the individual, the concrete, the contingent, and the subjective are opposing and undermining the universal, the necessary, the substantial (as their other) … Hegel’s point, however, is that in this very ‘work of negative’ (through which comic subjectivity appears) comedy produces its own necessity, universality, and substantiality (it is itself the only ‘absolute power’), and it does so by revealing the figures of the ‘universal in itself’ [i.e. abstract universal – J.P.] as something that is, in the end, utterly empty and contingent.42

And consequently comedy is not the undermining of the universal, but its own reversal into the concrete, the labour or work of the universal itself. For Zupančič, ‘comedy is the universal at work’.43

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