......• Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters •
Etienne Balibar 1 proposed the notion of excessive, non-functional cruelty as a feature of contemporary life: a cruelty whose figures range from "fundamentalist" racist and/or religious slaughter to the "senseless" outbursts of violence performed by adolescents and the homeless in our megalopolises, a violence one is tempted to call "Id-Evil" (referring to the Freudian Id (das Es, le Ça), a violence grounded in no utilitarian or ideological reasons. All the talk about foreigners stealing work from us or about the threat they represent to our Western values should not deceive us: under closer examination, it soon becomes clear that this talk provides a rather superficial secondary rationalization. The answer we ultimately obtain from a skinhead is that it makes him feel good to beat foreigners, that their presence disturbs him. What we encounter here is indeed Id-Evil, the Evil structured and motivated by the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between the Ego and jouissance, by the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance in the very heart of it. Id-Evil thus stages the most elementary "short-circuit" in the relationship of the subject to the primordially missing object-cause of his desire: what "bothers" us in the "other" (Jew, Japanese, African, Turk) is that he appears to entertain a privileged relationship to the object - the other either possesses the object-treasure, having snatched it away from us (which is why we don't have it), or he poses a threat to our possession of the object.
What one should propose here, again, is the Hegelian 'infinite judgement' asserting the speculative identity of these "useless" and "excessive" outbursts of violence, which display nothing but a pure and naked ("non-sublimated") hatred of the Otherness, with the post-political multiculturalist universe of tolerance for difference in which nobody is excluded. Of course, we just used the term "non-sublimated" in its common meaning which, in this case, stands for the exact opposite of its strict psychoanalytic meaning - in short, what takes place in the focusing of our hatred on some representative of the (officially tolerated) Other is the very mechanism of sublimation at its most elementary: the all-encompassing nature of the post-political Concrete Universality which accounts for everybody at the level of symbolic inclusion, this multiculturalist vision-and-practice of "unity in difference" ("all equal, all different"), leaves open, as the only way to mark the Difference, the proto-sublimatory gesture of elevating a contingent Other (of race, sex, religion...) into the "absolute Otherness" of the impossible Thing, the ultimate threat to our identity - this Thing which must be annihilated if we are to survive. Therein resides the properly Hegelian paradox: the final arrival of the truly rational "concrete universality" - the abolition of antagonisms, the "mature" universe of negotiated co-existence of different groups - coincides with its radical opposite, with thoroughly contingent outbursts of violence.
Hegel's fundamental rule is that "objective" excess (the direct reign of abstract universality which imposes its law "mechanically", with utter disregard for the concerned subject caught in its web) is always supplemented by the "subjective" excess (the irregular, arbitrary exercise of whims). An exemplary case of this interdependence is provided by Balibar, who distinguishes two opposite but complementary modes of excessive violence: the "ultra-objective" ("structural") violence that is inherent in the social conditions of global capitalism (the "automatic" creation of excluded and dispensable individuals, from the homeless to the unemployed), and the "ultra-subjective" violence of newly emerging ethnic and/or religious (in short: racist) "fundamentalisms." This "excessive" and "groundless" violence involves its own mode of knowledge, that of impotent cynical reflection - back to our example of Id-Evil, of a skinhead beating up foreigners: when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, and if capable of minimal theoretical reflection, he will suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood... in short, he will provide a more or less precise psycho-sociological account of his acts so dear to enlightened liberals eager to "understand" the violent youth as a tragic victim of their social and familial conditions. The standard enlightened formula of the efficiency of the "critique of ideology" from Plato onwards ("they are doing it, because they do not know what they are doing," i.e. knowledge is in itself liberating, when the erring subject reflects upon what he is doing, he will no longer be doing it) is here turned around: the violent skinhead "knows very well what he is doing, but he is nonetheless doing it." The symbolically efficient knowledge embedded in the subject's effective social praxis disintegrates into, on the one hand, excessive "irrational" violence with no ideologico-political foundation and, on the other hand, impotent external reflection that leaves the subject's acts intact. In the guise of this cynicallly-impotent reflecting skinhead who, with an ironic smile, explains to the perplexed journalist the roots of his senselessly violent behavior, the enlightened tolerant multiculturalist bent on "understanding" forms of excessive violence gets his own message in its inverted, true form - in short, as Lacan would have put it, at this point, the communication between him and the "object" of his study, the intolerant skinhead, is thoroughly successful.
What have these outbursts to do with the fact we live in a "risk society" of permanent choices? Everything: these "useless" and "excessive" outbursts of violence, which display nothing but a pure and naked ("non-sublimated") hatred of the Otherness, are the obverse of the "reflexivization" of our daily lives. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fate of psychoanalytic interpretation. Today, the formations of the Unconscious (from dreams to hysterical symptoms) have definitely lost their innocence and are thoroughly reflexivized: the "free associations" of a typical educated analysand consist for the most part of attempts to provide a psychoanalytic explanation of their disturbances, so that one is quite justified in saying that we have not only Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian... interpretations of the symptoms, but symptoms themselves which are Jungian, Kleinian, Lacanian..., i.e. whose reality involves implicit reference to some psychoanalytic theory. The unfortunate result of this global reflexivization of the interpretation (everything becomes interpretation, the Unconscious interprets itself) is that the analyst's interpretation itself loses its performative "symbolic efficiency" and leaves the symptom intact in the immediacy of its idiotic jouissance.
What happens in psychoanalytic treatment is strictly homologous to the response of neo-Nazi skinhead who, when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, suddenly starts to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood - the unity of practice and its inherent ideological legitimization disintegrates into raw violence and its impotent, inefficient interpretation. The reemergence of the brute Real of "irrational" violence, impermeable and insensitive to reflexive interpretation, is the necessary obverse of the universalized reflexivity hailed by the risk-society-theorists. So the more today's social theory proclaims the end of Nature and/or Tradition and the rise of the "risk society," the more the implicit reference to "nature" pervades our daily discourse: even when we do not speak of the "end of history," do we not put forward the same message when we claim that we are entering a "post-ideological" pragmatic era, which is another way of claiming that we are entering a post-political order in which the only legitimate conflicts are ethnic/cultural conflicts?
Typically, in today's critical and political discourse, the term "worker" disappeared from the vocabulary, substituted and/or obliterated by "immigrants /immigrant workers: Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Mexicans in the USA/" - in this way, the class problematic of workers' exploitation is transformed into the multiculturalist problematic of the "intolerance of the Otherness," etc., and the excessive investment of the multiculturalist liberals in protecting immigrants's ethnic rights clearly draws its energy from the "repressed" class dimension. Although Francis Fukuyama's thesis on the "end of history" quickly fell into disrepute, we still silently presume that the liberal-democratic capitalist global order is somehow the finally-found "natural" social regime, we still implicitly conceive conflicts in the Third World countries as a subspecies of natural catastrophes, as outbursts of quasi-natural violent passions, or as conflicts based on the fanatic identification to one's ethnic roots - and what is "the ethnic" here if not again a codeword for nature?
There is a well-known anecdote about Picasso during the World War II: a German officer visited his studio, saw there Guernica and, shocked at the modernist confusion of the painting, asked him: "Did you do this?" Picasso calmly replied: "No, YOU did this!" Today, many liberals, when faced with violent outbursts like the looting in Paris suburbs, ask us, the few remaining Leftists who still count on a radical social transformation: "Did YOU not do it? Is THIS what you want?" And we should reply like Picasso: "No, YOU did this! This is the true result of YOUR politics!"
1. Etienne Balibar, "La violence: idealité et cruauté," in La crainte des masses, Paris: Editions Galilée, 1997.