Literature is an assemblage. It has nothing to do with ideology. There is no ideology and there never has been.
(Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 4)
A number of years ago, I was with the philosopher Arthur Gibson and James Bergeron, then EU/NATO Policy Advisor on the Staff of the Commander, US Naval Forces Europe in London, on the Undergound. We were on our way to the Naval and Military Club before heading to another club where we would be guests of the Rector of Roehampton University for a dinner that Gibson had arranged, where we would be discussing human rights with a group of distinguished academics and thinkers.
It was early in 2001, and the world was about to begin coming to terms with a new reality of global terror, or at least with the fact that the world’s long-standing experience of ‘terror’ had reached the continental United States.
* * *
Last week, more than a decade since that dinner, the world woke to news from Nigeria that 29 students and a teacher were killed at a boarding school by members of a group called Boko Haram, whose name means ‘Western education is sacrilege’. Students were executed in their beds by gunshot, and then a dormitory was doused with petrol and set alight, immolating those sleeping within.
The vast majority of people reading the news of that event will, no doubt, have little to no understanding of the structure of the conflict that has displaced nearly 20,000 people to neighbouring Cameroon, but will react with disgust at the news that ‘The militants have increasingly targeted civilians, including health workers on vaccination campaigns, traders, teachers and government workers’ (as reported by Adamu Adamu and Michelle Faul, AP).
* * *
The dinner in 2001 is one to which I’ve thought back many times since. The notion of ‘human rights’ is increasingly problematic in public logic. Though it has been a popular reason given by western governments to engage in armed conflicts, it is now clear to most how vacuous such justifications have been, and how easy and common it is for the apparent champions of human rights to become, even in the eyes of their own citizens, horrible violators thereof.
A term that was being thrown around a lot at the time was ‘asymmetric warfare’—a catch-all to cover any and all conflicts between forces that are not considered militarily equal. Armed conflicts that have had this character in recent history include the struggle of the Mujahideen against conventional Russian military in Afghanistan, and the Viet Cong fighting the American military in Vietnam.
For some reason, this is what the three of us were discussing on the tube that night, and I was struck, suddenly, with the fact that the term evoked an aesthetic judgement to categorize military conflict. What’s more, this appeal to aesthetic value—or, at best, a geometric one—was an attempt to play up the failure to achieve binary symmetry, despite the fact that the entire goal of armed conflict is to achieve asymmetry at the earliest possible moment.
In the wake of the 9/11 hijackings, that aesthetic judgement was ported to a whole new category of public reasoning, as the terminology of ‘asymmetric warfare‘ turned, nearly overnight, into a discussion of ‘asymmetric threats‘. The translation of this concept to the now ubiquitous marketing of the ‘war on terror’ brought with it not merely the recognition that the shape of conflict was weighted unevenly, but also the implicit moral approbation for the tactics employed by the less powerful ‘side’ in such a conflict.
* * *
Discourse concerning ‘asymmetric threats’ is carried out on the basis of fear: fear that, though we wouldn’t think or act like that (though this premise is rarely explicitly stated, or even necessarily thought out), others would. The 9/11 hijackers came to embody the asymmetric threat, for they undertook something that had never been undertaken before. It had, of course, been imagined—the popular American spy-thriller author Tom Clancy had an airplane crash into the Capitol building at the end of his 1996 book, The Sum of All Fears. It didn’t take a genius to look for this strategy, but it took a great deal of planning and a willingness to die on the part of a substantial number of men to carry it out in as effective a fashion as the September 11th hijackers did.
This particular attack, from one perspective, was ‘asymmetric’ in the same way that the technological surprise of the state-of-WW 1-art Maginot Line being quickly bypassed by the new technology of the tank when the Germans invaded France in the opening stages of WW 2 was. It was asymmetric from probabilistic analysis of the absence of earlier attacks of this kind. From another point-of-view, it was asymmetric with regard to the willingness to attack (primarily) ‘civilian’ populations, using ‘civilian’ aircraft, without a declaration of war.
From the attackers’ points-of-view, though, one might imagine that this analysis of asymmetry is deformed, for, if one does not conceive of the differences between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ in the way that we are fond of in the ‘west’, then this is no asymmetry. ‘We’, who can easily understand that this may not be a distinction that ‘our’ ‘enemies’ may acknowledge, can act in a fashion that would take this into account, but to act in such a fashion would change ‘our’ identity, producing an ‘asymmetry’ within the identity that we claim for ourselves as a nation or culture. And, as it turns out, this is precisely the way that the ‘west’ has responded to these ‘asymmetric threats’. Wars, drone attacks, massive surveillance and curtailment of freedoms, ‘renditions’, secret prisons, Guantanamo detentions—all of these characterize the public face of the ‘west’s’ response to ‘terrorism’ in the last decade.
Of course, the notion of a ‘declaration of war’ is intensely problematic, for only nations can declare war, and one must consider oneself to be governed by international law (or some moral or military code upon which inter-national law is based or to which it is related) to act in such a manner. Another asymmetry here is that a non-national group attacked a nation, in the name of a religion. None of the ‘rules’ or expectations that have ‘governed’ the for-the-most-part treaty-limited warfare of the past century or so can, by self-definition, ‘govern’ such asymmetric conflict. Of course, the asymmetry between the mightiest nation in the history of the earth being attacked by people with no more than cutlery and will at their disposal should suggest that ‘symmetry’ as a qualitative measure in predicting or ‘governing’ armed conflict is a misguided way of conceiving of ‘threats’.
Has the response been ‘symmetrical’? Of course it has not, and no amount of propagandizing will convince any thinking person otherwise.
Nevertheless, despite the ability of even a casual observer of the geopolitical manipulations by the imperial powers over the last century or so to see that the moral approbation for acts of ‘terror’ is incredibly special pleading, a powerful discourse has emerged that depends upon a level of disgust with the moral judgement of asymmetry, even though asymmetry is the precise goal of those geopolitical manipulations.
* * *
At dinner that night, short months before September 11, 2001, I was the most junior member of an assemblage that brought a number of perspectives to the table: artists, academics, lawyers—our guest of honour was Lady Helena Kennedy, whose work in the area of human rights was already well-known, and has continued unabated in the decade since. I mostly listened, but, as the conversation wore on, I realized that I had a fundamental objection to the concept of ‘human rights’ as we were discussing it, namely the concept of ‘right’. Such a notion is parasitic on the theistic world-view that the discourse of ‘rights’ typically wishes to leave behind, metaphorizing the concept of a ‘right’ that is granted; porting the metaphysics of ‘ought’ into a situation apparently deprived of external authority.
I recognize that there are other ways of thinking about human rights, but I fear that alternative approaches do not adequately address the assumptive basis of the concept of a ‘right’. It’s the typical problem of ‘international law’—law without a sovereignty to underscore it becomes a metaphor for law, but one that encodes its metaphoric layer at the substratum of the application of the metaphor itself, erasing (or at least concealing) the fundamental differences that obtain in conceptualizing what it would be to be a kind of law that ‘governs’ beyond governance.
In the state of play that obtains in the world we have inherited, the control of ‘ought’ in a set of public logics across peoples scattered throughout the world is of much greater importance than the admittedly horrific existence of chemical or biological weapons.
With both the discourse of ‘terror’ and that of ‘human rights’, there are significant submerged assumptive bases for their logics that have serious implications for public reasoning. What Jacques Derrida would call an ‘undecidable’—an irreducible binary pair—apparent forces a decision into that binary, without recognition of the possibility of multiplicity. The largest power a human can exercise over other humans is to get them all pointing the same direction, especially if that process appears to be the ‘natural outcome’ of another decision making process, with whom no one would (or can) take issue.
* * *
The actions of the Boko Haram in Nigeria are not horrific because they are a violation of human rights. They are horrific because they are violent. They are no more or less horrific than the antiseptic distanced drone killings of ‘targets’ and their inevitable ‘collateral damage’ by the American military. In fact, the actions in question have a close similarity, in that the use of violence is aimed at the destruction of command and control structures viewed to be inimical to a way of being—to a culture as a whole.
When we focus on questions of ‘ought’, we become enmired in competing metaphors. Value systems are asymmetrical to each other in a way that, on a broad scale, we are rarely capable of seeing. It’s not terribly helpful simply to assert that one side is worse than the other side, particularly when, even to judge the notion of ‘worse’, we are stuck with a process of encoding that does not fully disclose its dependence upon systems of value, or those systems’ histories.
Instead, it is imperative, if we are to avoid simply replicating codes of ‘ought’ whose bases we neither understand nor necessarily wish to uphold, that we work both to recognize the asymmetries that obtain between different systems of thought on our planet—between different ways of being in the world—and to resist homogenizing discourses that obfuscate reasons for actions.
…when one writes, the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.
(Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 4)