Maintaining an enemy is the easiest way to get people to look in the same direction. Magicians do it all the time.
It’s even easier if the enemy doesn’t appear when the audience turns where directed. An audience in fear is so much easier to manipulate.
Vague fear is like an open fifth. Unresolved, unresolvable, haunting. How much power to the musician who can provide a major chord. Emotions under control.
Magicians, musicians. Manipulations and manoeuvring. We’re so used to it now, we miss it when the curtain goes up. (Just one more ‘Look, over there!’ pleeeze?)
Arachne is hereby given permission. The poet is free to write anything she wants. Martyrdom is an approach for the past. Gibbets are too hard to control, swinging in the wind like that. Better that we let you carry on. Better that you never stop. Better that you know that we will let you write forever, without ceasing. We will learn from your methods.
You brought yourself to our attention, and now we know what to do. The jackboot on your necks will only bring about perpetual revolution, and where is the profit in that? Far better that you pay for your temerity with the constant opportunity for more. Would you like a talk show? There’s a chair for you here at our table. Catherine Tekakwitha spilt the wine. We eventually made her our saint.
Majestic power and erotic love. Better that we have no shame than something to hide. Of course we inhaled. Of course we had sexual relations with that woman. Let’s all be adults.
How naive to imagine that we would be able to hide the naked rivers of will that collect your flow. So instead we’ve made you yearn for it. The Romans did too much, too fast. You can’t just replace the gods with a God like that. Too much, too fast. Too much. Too fast. We’ve learned from your methods now. We’ve written the reality that you beg us for every night. You helped us see how we could do it.
Arachne is hereby given permission. This poet may weave as she likes. Martyrdom is a tool we will no longer allow. Cages swing empty now. So much better for you to weave as you like, whenever you like. Gossamer strands, beautiful in the dew, ephemerally visible in the hoar frost. Easily swept away. Collecting dust. Only the occasional fly caught and sucked dry.
Raise a glass to the occasional fly.
…there was also the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.
(Roland Barthes, ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ from Mythologies)
This week, I was forced, twice, to reconsider perception.
The eyes, it seems, are considered to be the most important of our sensory organs, at least if pejorative terms are anything to go by. ‘Blindness’ is a metaphor for ignorance that outweighs ‘deafness’, and we don’t even have normally-used words in English to describe the loss of smell, taste, or touch.
So when the optometrist told me that she’d be putting drops in my eyes to dilate the pupils at 2 pm on a brutally sunny day (which I had described as pleasantly sunny before walking back out into the light with pupils looking like some early nocturnal mammal), I suddenly realized how dramatically dependent I am on my vision. Stumbling along the street to the coffee shop where I was meant to be marking papers, I had to close one eye and squint through the other (no I wasn’t going to wear the sunglasses in a bag the optometrist gave me. I may have been blinded by the sun, but I wasn’t about to look like an idiot while I did it).
Even through this, what I could see was amazing—an overexposure that beat anything I’ve ever seen through a camera lens—but ultimately unrecordable. Of course this also kept me from being able to mark, write, read, so it was remarkably welcome when a friend dropped by to join me for a while. She left when I was finally able to see ‘properly’ again, and I was relieved to be able to work, but left aware of the potential for my visual reality to be very different from my norm.
I hadn’t yet thought of Monet.
The next day, I couldn’t find my lightweight glasses that I use when I do hot yoga—light enough that I can keep them on for balancing postures, so that I can focus on myself in the mirror. No problem, I figured. I’ll just go without, and set up right by the mirror.
I couldn’t get close enough to the front mirror, so I spent the class looking in the vague direction of my blur in it, but two things happened that I didn’t expect. First, I was able to go deeper into some postures than I normally do—suddenly, I was going past visual boundaries that I had established for myself at some point, letting my muscles lead the way. On the other hand, I was also finding it remarkably hard to balance, and fell over a lot. My visual contact with my body was distorted in both positive and challenging ways.
Now I kept thinking of Monet.
Monet’s vision underwent a remarkable set of shifts throughout his later career. First diagnosed with cataracts in 1908, a series of gradual and then more dramatic changes through until 1922 saw him eventually threatening to give up painting altogether. Unable to distinguish many colours, and eventually shape, much of his work leading up to his cataract surgeries in 1923 became virtually unrecognizable as his own, and he began destroying canvasses, saying that he could ‘no longer make something of beauty’.
Even after the surgeries and his recovery, Monet had to become used first to glasses with cataract lenses, and then to the changed colour perception that was a result of the removal of the yellowed cataracts. It wasn’t until 1925 that he found a suitable shade of tinted glasses to restore his colour perception to what felt normal to him.
Monet’s painting was directly connected to his vision, throughout his career. He was always dedicated to an attempt to reproduce what he saw, instead of what he had been trained to see. We hear this in his advice to a young artist: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you—a tree, a house, a field… Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape.’
Monet’s ‘Impressionism’ is, in a way, a visual thought-experiment—purposefully eschewing the pre-packaged interpretation even of our sensory data, Monet’s artistic style constantly problematized the conceptualization of sight. His struggle with cataracts in the years before his death in 1926 is simply the last chapter in an artistic life dedicated to unfiltered representation. (Of course, this is no call to some sort of Platonic aesthetics—there are complexities aplenty in the notion of ‘representation’ even here, but let’s leave those for another day.)
It boggles my imagination that the entire history of visual art—and the vast majority of aesthetic theory—simply assumes that eyes (and the rest of our senses) are functioning at the same baseline across all of humanity.
Altered perception is, of course, something that artists have long experimented with, and drug use of various kinds is an easy way to produce recognizable variations. The synaesthetic pianist Bryan Wallick has even tried to reproduce for audiences the display of colours that he sees as he plays. Much like Monet, with a little help from our friends, we are able to challenge our preconceptions of visual and other sensory data.
Yet. How ephemeral is our dedication to the human body as arbiter of meaning and sense. Our experience of our world is wondrous. But it is not universal.
My dilated pupils and naturally blurry vision ironically made this point very clear to me this week. Our tendency towards universalization, towards ignoring those pieces of information that are considered to be ‘irrelevant’—these speak to a generalized function of scripts in human culture that organize our experiences for us. Roland Barthes’ treatment of this in ‘Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature’ in his Mythologies speaks to this. Writing of the 1952 murder trial of Gaston Dominici, convicted of the murder of a family of three who had been camping near his land, he examines the way in which the octogenarian Dominici had been constructed as a character in a drama during the trial:
…the Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse…it depicts you as you should be, and not as you are.
Philosophers like Henri Bergson and Gilles Deleuze emphasize the function of philosophy in transforming our perceptions. The implications of such an approach to the world around us—whether that transformation take place through accident, intentional aesthetic manipulation or philosophical discourse—are far-reaching. The kind of power that accrues to accepted narratives is not often visible.
Sometimes it takes damage to our vision to make hidden things appear.
For straitened are the powers that are spread over their bodily parts, and many are the woes that burst in on them and blunt the edge of their careful thoughts! They behold but a brief span of a life that is no life, and, doomed to swift death, are borne up and fly off like smoke. Each is convinced of that alone which he had chanced upon as he is hurried every way, and idly boasts he has found the whole. So hardly can these things be seen by the eyes or heard by the ears of men, so hardly grasped by their mind! Howbeit, you, since you have found your way here, shall learn no more than mortal mind has power.
(Empedocles of Acragas, fr. 2)
When little Plato went to the sea shore, he loved to build little lands of sand. Buildings, walls, canals, cisterns. A god in charge of his own tiny world.
They were always the best lands, always perfectly designed. Attention to detail in every respect.
And then the tide washed each of them away, and all that was left was Plato. He would go back every day throughout the long, hot Summer. Starting again, building again. Watching them wash away, again.
And I shall tell you another thing. There is no substance of any of all the things that perish, nor any cessation for them of baneful death. They are only a mingling and interchange of what has been mingled. Substance is but a name given to these things by men.
(Empedocles, fr. 8)
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)