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Further Reflections on Violence By Oscar Guardiola-Rivera

When confronted by the usual line of questioning about the ‘totalitarian’ potential of universal truths, I’m often reminded of the following joke: a group of tourists go on holidays to some exotic location. First they’re taken to the museum where local guides explain the significance of ruined temples, golden idols, and menacing fetishes. Then the tourists are taken to the main cathedral; while the locals engage in prayer, they attend to a lecture about the great pyramid that lies directly bellow the monumental colonial construction. In true global capitalist form, the tour ends up with a visit to the market, where local vendors pester the tourists into buying their cheap copies of idols, fetishes and small pyramids with alleged curative powers. At that point, one of the tourists protests: ‘I’ve seen the ruins, the idols, the golden necklaces and even bought one for my wife back home in the local market. That’s all very well … but, where are the Indians?’ I’ve heard versions of the same joke told by an Afrikaan in Cape Town, and by a mestizo doctor friend of mine in Colombia. Whether it is about South African Blacks or Latin American Indians, there may be something quite general about the ubiquitous punchline. This is my modest example of a universal truth.

W. E. B. du Bois famously explained that the imaginary violence involved in the process of negrification allows blacks to appear only as a ‘white problem’, and much the same can be said of Indians and others who only make their appearance at the end of a line –often a critical, liberal line- concerning the perils of ‘Eurocentrism’ or the ethical need to care for ‘the Other’. The problem with these liberal, self-critical attempts is that in their field of vision Blacks, Indians and others appear as embodied ‘otherness’ or the very concretion of white, western bias. That is to say, as a problem, to put it in Du Bois’ terms, rather than as people carrying on with their daily lives. As Drucilla Cornell, who also evokes the aforementioned joke, put it recently; ‘Here we also have an example of a distorted vision held by whites who cannot see their fellow Africans as human beings’ (2008: 105). She directly references the philosophical work of Du Bois, Frantz Fanon and Lewis R. Gordon, among others, who keep reminding us of the double consciousness imposed upon the colonised person, regardless of whether or not the colonial situation persists as such, in that ‘they cannot only see themselves being looked at but also develop a second sight where they, too, can envision how the whites are seeing them as less than human’ (ibid.). To sum up, the only presence of the colonised person is as a fixed absence of humanity.

Frantz Fanon used terms such as ‘overdetermination’ and ‘invisibility’, to explain why there can be no coherent imago (black, Indian, and so on) during colonialism. Some of his most worthy contemporary inheritors like the Caribbean phenomenologist Lewis R. Gordon, or the American feminist critical theorist Drucilla Cornell, use the term ‘anonymity’, with a nod to Alfred Schutz, and I suspect also, albeit more indirectly, to Hans Jonas, in order to tie up this account of oppression during colonialism, post-colonialism, apartheid and post-segregation, to an ethics and politics of liberation in our day and age. Crucially, they both warn us that in the face of such situations, which have become the rule rather than the exception during the globalist era –from Berlusconi’s Italy to Uribe’s Colombia- ‘even those who still hold on to the hope of radical transformation that does not involve armed struggle must face a fundamental truth’ (Cornell, 2008: 121). That truth is put by Gordon in the following terms: ‘Nonviolent transformation boils down to none at all. Violence is broader than bullets, knives, and stones’ or, if I may add to these stupendous enumeration of political objects, AK-47’s. Gordon continues: ‘Violence, fundamentally, is a form of taking that which has been or will not be willingly surrendered. Regardless of the perceived justice or injustice of the matter, regardless of the place of power in the matter, as long as someone is losing something that he currently has and wants to keep, there is violence’ (Gordon, 1995: 79).

This is the ultimate truth that those who, like Critchley in the pages of this journal (2009), still hold on to the hope of radical political transformation that does not involve violence must face. One must not confuse the call to struggle (including violence) and the attitude of refusal, with paralysis and avenging fantasy. On the one hand, the first step is to recognize that objective forces like racism, coloniality, or capitalism limit so seriously the range of available options, that to act entails to radically expand the set of available options, and this calls for a leap from the realm of the possible to that of the improbable or the impossible. True political action takes place in the latter, that is, as a form of taking that which will not be willingly surrendered, because the will and/or the act of surrender is simply unthinkable or impossible. Second comes what Fanon called ‘the cry’, the declaration or prescription: since s/he (the black colonised person) is not welcomed in the world ‘he attempts to build his own dwelling. Confronting a radical lack of hospitality, he aims to have the means that will allow him to be hospitable’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2008: 138). Moving within and beyond the confines of the Hegelian dialectic, Fanon postulates a moment in which self-affirmation (including the affirmation of oneself as a victim, as disposable or exchangeable) faces its limit and turns into refusal (Fanon, 1968: 140).

The ‘I refuse’ denotes two things: in the first place, the transformation of a subject (Maldonado-Torres prefers to speak of ‘transubstantiation’) who now ‘has substituted himself for the other’ (Maldonado-Torres, 2008: 140). That is to say, someone who no longer cries for his life but decides to live for the other (ibid.) and as Maldonado-Torres observes here ‘the problem, to be sure, is not about the rescue of authenticity in the face of an alienating totality’ but rather ‘about the very possibility of being in love with others while confronting a homicidal System’ (ibid.). In the second place, ‘refusal’ is about the taking over the means that will allow one to be hospitable, and since, specifically under conditions of mercantilism and capitalism, those means are produced ‘in common’ and then expropriated, thereby producing the illusion of the self-sufficiency of production, one takes over, first and foremost, one’s own labour power, which is, from the outset, a power in common. This is the stance exemplified by the scribe Bartleby, who would ‘rather not’ follow the commands of his line-manager in the production circuit and thus re-takes his labour power, thereby short-circuiting the self-sufficiency of the point of production. By the way, this is precisely the point of the notion of ‘parallax view’ introduced by Zizek on the basis of the reading of value theory attempted by Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani (Zizek, 2006: 50-58; Karatani, 2003; Blackburn, 2009: 129). To the best of my knowledge, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, a Latino teaching in California (via Puerto Rico and North Carolina) does not have much sympathy for Zizek’s hyperbolic calls for a Eurocentric stance, and to be sure, Slavoj, an Eastern lecturing in London (via Buenos Aires and Paris) might not find Nelson’s Levinasian leanings conducive or enabling, and yet, on this point they undoubtedly agree: the problem is not to rescue some identity-essence from totalitarian universalities, the very identification between ‘universality’ and ‘totalitarianism’ may be nonsense, as much as the reduction of ‘love’ (being-together) to logical argument (for instance, neoclassical choice theory), but rather, being-together against a world radically lacking hospitality, or a place for those who find themselves out of place, not worth counting, who never actually counted and were thus anonymous and invisible. In fact, they both use the term ‘love’ and quote Guevara on the linkage between love and revolution to similar effect.

Importantly, this being-together, in love, in confrontation, is also the (double) breaking point in/with the system of oppression, and one that Fanon, among others, identified with armed struggle, without apologies: on the one side, what was seen as a hopeless dilemma –either choose to be white and fail or accept colour the way war veterans accept their stump- can now be overcome. On the other side, there is a break with the condition of exchangeability brought about by anonymity, a leap from exchange to substitution (Guardiola-Rivera, 2009). The third step follows form the second: the call for struggle must be understood as a universal and self-reflective appeal to engage on a real leap, whereby the anonymous slum dweller in South Africa, Italy, Colombia or the U.S., reminds herself that she is not a prisoner of history and that ‘the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence’ (Fanon, 1991: 229); a wilful creation of oneself and the world anew, as improbable as such a tireless leap of action may seem.

At the heart of this struggle is not the devaluation of whites, the wealthy, or the sovereign, by exposing the obvious fact of their ultimate impotence and vulnerability at the point of a pistol or an AK-47 (Cornell, 2008: 122) but rather, that ‘the struggle itself is transformative of those who participate in it’ (ibid.). This is perhaps the insight of Fanon’s much misunderstood ‘violence is a cleansing force’ argument in The Wretched of the Earth (1963: 94-5). The motif of such violence is not resentment. On the contrary, if on the one the one hand, one must recognize objective violence as limiting the set of available options, on the other hand one must act (including acting violently) so as to become a limit to the presentation of such a set of available options as impositive, as all there is and must be. The latter is not reactive, in the Nietzschean sense, but active. Violence does not justify violence, just as violence cannot be really contained by violence. Without an aspiration for justice that relates externally to violence, the latter ‘falls flatly into vengeance’ (Cornell, 2008: 121) and vengeance is simply reactive not valuable or trans-valorizing. It is through joining together and belonging together with others, and facing the trauma collectively, that the colonised find a way to meaningfully assert themselves as an epistemic limit to the imposition of white fantasy on who they can be in the world’ (ibid.).

I have emphasised the term ‘epistemic’ only to accent the fact that what makes the struggle valuable is a transformation at the level of intellect/psyche and being, which in accordance to the terms of refusal may be formulated as ‘I am not a substance, a thing, a commodity’ and ‘I do not think, in contrast with your science that thinks visions of future profit which may or may not take place, ultimately in the heads of different types of traders’. The point is not just to undermine the illusion of co-relation and overlapping between thinking and being, but rather, to point towards their negative overlapping. This coincidence of what is (I as substance, science as that which thinks) with the void of being, entails not only a confrontation with absolute contingency (so that actors are not always background-dependent, and their actions not always mere rule-following, with ‘law’ being understood as the ultimate set of options or as the highest common good) but also the real possibility of moves and actions that not only play with the available options but actively transform the background of available options. This is the fourth and crucial move, the surprising result of the struggle. Let us call it, after Fanon and Cornell, but also Benjamin, ‘separation’.

Famously, in Critique of Violence Benjamin develops a notion of violence as radically distinct from all law-related violence, which he defined as ‘pure means’ or mediality without end. If Benjamin’s correspondence with his friend Gershom Scholem serves as guide, his notion of ‘purity’ or Reinheit has nothing to do with the Aristotelian scheme of efficient or automatic causality, since ‘the purity of each (finite) being never depends upon it itself’ (Benjamin, cited by Weber, 2008: 196). Thus, in the case of violence ‘purity’ should be sought not in violence itself but in its relation to something external. How is this not a ‘means to an end’ type of relation? The answer is that Benjamin explicitly excludes ‘Law’ (conceived as fixed background for the dynamics of stasis and change in a given society and a given system of positive laws) as the ‘end’ of violence. Put otherwise, he rejects the traditional determination of the political as concerned with the necessary desirability of group survival vis-à-vis the necessarily undesirable nature of conflict. This determination is the premise of most mainstream construction of the monopoly of the means of force in the hands of the state, a problematic that occupied Benjamin earlier on, in an essay concerning the constitutional wisdom on the right to use force. Violence as ‘pure means’ must be understood in the context of this constitutional question, which is also the subject of a long-term preoccupation with the work of people like Sorel and, infamously, Carl Schmitt. That is to say, as a violence that does serve law as its aim, as the protector of the available set of options as the only game in town, as the relatively fixed background of our actions. The alternative would always be more difficult to describe, and, as Weber and others point out some readers of Benjamin seem to get lost here, in the possible relationship that one may establish between the purity of violence and the purity of language as related to communicability pure and simple or Mitteilbarkeit (Weber, 2008: 196-7; Cornell, 2008: 137-149). The latter term may also be rendered as ‘separation’, a movement that separates from itself and yet, in so doing ‘establishes a relation to itself as other’ (Weber, 2008: 197; Cornell, 2008: 140-141). If we cling on to this sense of purity in relation, we may perhaps be able to understand Benjaminian ‘pure violence’ in a way that may allow us to associate this notion to others that feature prominently in his work such as Erfahrung and the Benjaminian passageway that ‘lights up the tireless leap of action’ (Benjamin cited by Cornell, 2008: 141). As Cornell points out, Benjamin forever held to this idea of the tireless leap of action, the willing separation from oneself that results in the establishment of a relation to oneself as other, or with the other in responsible proximity (i.e. love) as ‘the truth of revolutionary courage’. But we have also learned that a similar insight can be obtained via Fanon’s engagement with the question of violence. This simple truth, for it is a truth, maybe more conducive that any baroque series of conceptual distinctions, peppered with equivocal denunciations of Bartlebian inertia and other seemingly ad hominem criticisms. At least, I hope, it may be more conducive to the struggle for the recognition of two other important truths in our time: the truth of sociality and the truth of the common.


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