Monday, October 16, 2017

Scenes of Violence: Between Ultraobjective and Ultrasubjective Forms of Violence

How to make sense of the daily brutality that seems to surround us? Balibar's Violence and Civility can be seen as offering a sort of solution to this problem. Balibar's solution is framed in terms of three moves. First, he dubs inconvertible violence cruelty, the name suggests an excess, or in Balibar's terms inconvertible form of violence; it is violence that cannot be placed on any trajectory of progress, even the cunning of reason. Second, cruelty is differentiated in terms of ultraobjective violence, the violence of populations that are exposed to natural disasters, wars, or the effects of the market. This is violence without a face or name.  Ultraobjective is contrasted to the cruelty of ultrasubjective violence, violence that is not only intended, with a face and name, but often is aimed a particular group. Third, and this is the most important point, there is the question of the relation between these two forms of violence, unified under the same name, but differentiated.  As Balibar writes,

"One of our main reasons for using the word cruelty is not just at it connotes extremity…It is also the fact that we need a term in which the ambivalence of the relationship between the two forms, the superposition and “logical” heterogeneity, immediately makes itself heard. This ambivalence always haunts the idea of cruelty, since we can never say whether cruelty is “all too human” or “inhuman,” personal or impersonal, endowed with a “face” or not. If we must, as I firmly believe, maintain that the forms of ultraobjective and ultrasubjective violence cannot be conflated either conceptually or practically, and that neither, in that sense, is the reason for or ultimate cause of the other, “determinant in the last instance,” it must nevertheless be admitted that a whole range of phenomena in our historical experience, particularly racism whenever it coincides with an outbreak of inconvertible violence, superpose the two forms or circulate between the two."

As I mentioned elsewhere, Balibar's particular contribution to contemporary Marxist (or even dialectical thought) is replacing Althusser's "last instance" with the "other scene," the displacement of economic struggles onto political struggles, and vice versa. What Balibar proposes here with respect to the two scenes of cruelty is similar, but distinct. Balibar turns to Lacan's use of the Möbius strip, in which, to simplify somewhat, the object of desire passes over into reality, and vice versa. (I should note that I am less inclined to turn to Lacan on this point. It seems to me that the famous Proposition Seven of Part Two of the Ethics offers a similar structure of ideas and things) As Balibar writes.

"Returning to the problem raised earlier, I would like to suggest that the Möbius strip provides a way of illustrating the idea that the manifestations or phenomena of “ultrasubjective” violence (commanded by an obsession with identity or introducing this obsession “into the real”) can at any moment turn into those of “ultraobjective” violence (resulting from the reduction of human beings to the status of useless and, therefore, superfluous or redundant objects), and the other way around, although the “ultrasubjective” and “ultraobjective” nevertheless remain fundamentally heterogeneous. “Inconvertible,” each in its own register, the excess of sovereignty and those of commodification (or the reversals of the constitution of communities and those of commerce and the generalization of commodity exchange) or perhaps still more inconvertible in that each constantly overdetermines the other."

It is worth noting that these are lectures, albeit twenty year old ones, and Balibar's thought here has a provisional exploration, and this is not even the last word on this relation. Having said all of that, however, I still think this idea of the Möbius strip is provocative, albeit incomplete. In order to think through that provocation, I would like to frame with respect to two examples. First, and I am sorry about this, there is Donald Trump. Much of what is written about Trump today is split between alarmist warnings about fascism and sober reminders that much of what Trump is pursuing at the level of politics with respect to immigration, war, etc., is really just the continuation of past policies. The same ultraobjective violence continues. Or, more to the point, Trump often crosses the from the objective to the subjective side of violence--flipping to the other side of the strip Case in point, his series of statements regarding Puerto Rico and the cost, debt, and limits of FEMA. It is quite possible that Puerto Rico would have received inadequate care and assistance under other presidents, and in some sense Trump's statements only explicitly name the objective conditions of logistics and budgets. What Trump adds, however, is a "subjective spin" on those objective conditions, fitting them into racist logics and fantasies.

Racism, as Balibar presents it, is always the intersection of both forms of violence, with their corresponding fantasies: the one which reduces individuals to numbers, populations, and things and the other which subjectivizes individuals and groups, seeing intentions between every actions. Of course the latter has, at least in recent history, been subject to a series of elisions and distortions. The ultraobjective logic of exploitation, domination, and exclusion was left in place, but to the extent that it was subject to a supplement of fantasy or ideology it was the ideology of objective conditions themselves, racism, poverty, etc., were effectively naturalized as the way of the world. Trump, or the forces leading to his election, have flipped the strip on this, placing these objective conditions in a subjective field populated by bad hombres, sons of bitches, and bad people on both sides.

As much as these subjective excesses must be criticized it is important to not lose sight of their connection to the more invisible forms of objective violence. As Balibar writes,  "To think antiviolence as political innovation is to take up a position at a point in the analysis where ultrasubjectivity comes close to ultraobjectivity." Critiques of violence risk collapsing into reaction celebrations of the existing social order unless they are capable of perceiving and rendering explicit the violence that passes as daily life. Hence the importance of Marx for any such project. As Balibar writes, making a bold claim for Marx in any theory of violence, "There was, however, no theory of structural violence before Marx because there was no theory of domination as an element in a structure capable of being “reproduced” as a result of the play of its own contradictions or the conflict immanent in it, not the action of arbitrary forces or an external ill will." 

To take another example, "ripped from the headlines," the news of Harvey Weinstein has drawn attention to another instance of ultrasubjectivity cruelty, although sadly one more commonplace and recognizable. However, the violence here can only be opposed, only become intelligible if it is understood against the general violence of the labor relation, and more specifically the structural violence of sexism, especially as it is part of the spectacle of Hollywood. 

This is not to discount the actions and words of reprehensible individuals, they are dense nodal points in the perpetuation and escalation of violence, but to see the structural conditions of these actions. The former can only be the object of moral denunciations, the latter are the objects political transformations. 

Post-Script Added 10/29/2017
It occurred to me after posting this that the Möbius strip of ultraobjective and ultrasubjective violence could also be approached from a fundamentally different angle, that of horror films. This is something that I already wrote about zombie films, or, more specifically, the para-zombie films of the 28 series. At this point I would be tempted to say many horror films have a combination of ultraobjective and ultrasubjective violence. To take a few examples, in Alien  the objective condition of the exploitation of the Nostromo, their expendability at the hand of the company, intersects with the malevolent xenomorph; or, in the case of Jaws, the shark's attacks are continually framed against the economic imperative of the small island to make it through tourist season. I would also add that the case of Alien, the violence crosses the Möbius strip, the corporation becomes more frightening than the alien because it is more hostile in its intentions. This is also why the Jaws sequels fail miserably, without some reason, some rational to keep people in the water, the films come with even more ridiculous reasons to put people in contact with the shark (something post-Jaws movies have brought to ludicrous extremes). So, to conclude this aside, as much as horror seems to be about ultrasubjective violence, the cruelty of monsters, slashers, and demons, it is most frightening when it returns to the ultraobjective violence of contemporary life. 

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