Thursday, July 11, 2013

Eagleton Reflects on Terrorism

As a recent post suggests, I'm enthralled with Terry Eagleton's take on the origins and meaning of terrorism.  In some ways, Eagleton helps us to understand something extremely important about Soviet history.  Sometimes, when you read Soviet history, you're rendered almost mute by the repetitive nature of the Soviet tragedy. But what sense can you make of that tragedy?  Why did it occur?  What does it mean?  Is it a peculiarity of Russian history?  I think sometimes it's important to look at the problem in multiple ways to get some perspective on it.  Terrorism can't be explained by political history alone.  In fact, terrorism is a philosophical question, and a literary one, and a psychoanalytic one.  I remember reading a bit of Foucault's The Order of Things, which taught me nothing so much as that different phases of history don't necessarily evolve or dissolve into one another.  Rather, whole epistemes emerge in which humankind's imaginative settings get fundamentally realigned.  This is surely the case with terrorism.  In the age of the Russian Revolution, something almost without precedent happened.  While the French Revolution isn't irrelevant to the Bolshevik experiment with power, the scale of French political murders doesn't look anything like the scale of the Russian catastrophe.  In the end, the Russian experiment was the fulfillment of the modern approach, or at least one particularly modern approach, to liberty.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks were philosophically committed to total liberty, freedom on a scale never hitherto taken seriously. In every age governments have been brutal and oppressive.  Even today, Russia callously passes laws to persecute sexual minorities and restricts basic civil rights and freedoms.  But in the Soviet age, the ruling party embraced a totalizing creed of absolute freedom which would transcend the rights of individuals, groups, classes, and religious identities.  In the name of a transcendent, universal goal, every form of violence was permitted. The fact that the Soviet state was one of the most articulate exponents of the twentieth century's most cherished beliefs, that nothing whatsoever should stand in the way of emancipating humankind, makes Soviet history so compelling. Of course, the death of the Soviet Empire doesn't signify the death of the mentalite that made it possible.  People today still regularly embrace terror--and Eagleton acknowledges that terror has some legitimate if restricted used--whether on behalf of the state or on behalf of stateless people or, most frequently, on behalf of religion.  It's an irony of the present that God is at forefront of both sides of the modern debate on terrorism.  On the one hand, belief in God sometimes acts as a break on the state's right to use violence to solve political problems. On the other hand, the boundlessness of God's claims on his followers is terrorism's chief inspiration today.

Some of Eagleton's quotes from Holy Terror:

"To be called a terrorist, then, is to be accused of being cleaned out of ideas, conjuring a grandiloquent doctrine instead of the simple act of butchery."

"History for Hegel is forged by a succession of mighty legislators who are forced to transgress the moral frontiers of their time simply because they are in the van of progress."

"Almost nothing in Freud's writing--certainly not the idea of infantile sexuality--is as offensive to common sense, as likely to leave the mind as outraged and incredulous, as the scandalous proposal that men and women unconsciously desire their own demise."

"Reason, faced with the libidinal riot, goes berserk, as one kind of excess (anarchy) provokes another (autocracy) into being. Pentheus, one might venture, reacts to the cult of Dionysus rather as the FBI reacted to the cultists at Waco."

"If you greet the violence of others simply with red-necked repression, you are likely to have your buildings blown to pieces, as Pentheus's palace is shattered by Dionysus, while crazed religious zealots (the Bacchic women) tear you to pieces and dabble elbow-deep in your blood in a grisly parody of the eucharist."

"I am sane and you are mad,' Dionysus coolly informs the incredulous king.  It is sane to acknowledge madness, and lunatic to imagine that such madness could ever simply be bulled into reason."

"Without resistance, power ceases to be present to itself and suffers an inward collapse;  with resistance, it can no longer dream of its own perfection."

"We are dealing here with a desire which provokes the very turbulence it seeks to quell."

"It is not in fact true that the dead cause no trouble:  the dead cause us an infinite amount of trouble."

"It is in our nature to be in excess of our natures.  There is a surplus to our biological needs and drives which we call culture, and it is this superfluity which makes us the peculiar animals that we are."

"Mercy in its superfluity must not look too uncomfortably like vengeance."

"Justice, then, can be quite as lunatic as revenge."

" the case of Judaeo-Christianity at least, Yahweh is boundless in his love and mercy, and all boundlessness is potentially a form of terror."

"Human bodies are comically interchangeable in an orgy, but tragically so in a terrorist bombing or concentration camp.  As far as both the predatory and the promiscuous go, any old body will do...In massacres as in mass orgies, everyone is just a stand-in for everyone else. Both kinds of event exemplify the abstract logic of modernity."

"The Bacchic revelers are positive slaves to emancipation, as driven in their pleasures as any compulsive or neurotic."

"The fundamentalist, whether Texan or Taliban, is the flip-side of the nihilist:  unless it is founded on cast-iron first principles.  It is just that the fundamentalist believes in such principles, whereas the nihilist does not."

"Anarchy and absolutism are the recto and verso of each other.  Both suspect that chaos is our natural condition."

"The command to live is a traumatic one because it is a universal imperative, and thus is bound to be implacably indifferent to the individual...We are commanded to love indiscriminately, which is why the paradigmatic case of such conduct is the love of strangers.  Anybody can love a friend."

"The New Testament is notably hostile to family values."

"As one who consorts amicably with whores, Jesus has strikingly little to say about sex..."

"The cosmos could quite easily never have happened.  Instead, God could have devoted his considerable talents to, say, figuring out how to create square circles."

"For St. Augustine, the fact that human beings are 'created' means that their being is shot through with non-being...Since this is a potentially debilitating condition, ideology exists among other things to convince us that we are needed."

"For this rather warped theology, God is a terrorist who demands the blood of his own son as the price for having been immortally offended.  Even two-legged terrorists can be less insanely excessive than that."

"For Thomas Aquinas, God is a kind of nothingness about whom nothing really intelligible can be said, even if Aquinas himself managed to say it at extraordinary length.  There is a sense in which he would have endorsed Lenin's scathing comment that theology is 'a subject without an object.'"

"The sublime is a glimpse of infinity which dissolves our identity and shakes us to our roots, but in an agreeable kind of way."

"...Nietzsche, as usual, presses the matter a stage further:  to see others suffer, he gleefully suggests in the Genealogy of Morals, is a joy inferior only to making them suffer."

"For Kant, sublime eruptions like the French Revolution could be admired as long as they were aetheticized, contemplated from a secure distance."

"The truly terrible sublime, however, is the lawless revolt which established the political order in the first place..."

"...insanity can be a surfeit of reason, not such a shortage of it."

"Terrorism is among other things a reaction to a politics which has grown vacuously managerial."

"The defusing of politics is countered by the denial of it, as too little passion yields ground to a monstrous excess of it."

"As Bertolt Brecht once inquired:  what's robbing a bank compared to founding one?"

"Bourgeois morality spells the death of the imagination."

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