What defense against the apprehension of loss is at work in the blithe way in which we accept deaths caused by military means with a shrug or with self-righteousness or with clear vindictiveness? To what extent have Arab peoples, predominantly practitioners of Islam, fallen outside the “human” as it has been naturalized in its “Western” mold by the contemporary workings of humanism? … After all, if someone is lost, and that person is not someone, then what and where is the loss, and how does mourning take place?
… If violence is done to those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated. But they have a strange way of remaining animated and so must be negated again (and again). …Violence renews itself in the face of the apparent inexhaustibility of its object.
Judith Butler, Precarious Life 32-33
Today being the day it is I decided that rather than participate in the public spectacle we seem intent on creating out of our inability to mourn whatever it was that we in the US think we lost ten years ago–although we may well have never had it to begin with –rather than go along with the ruse of our fallen, long-mythologized invulnerability to attack or even decay, that I was going to re-read Judith’s Precarious Life, since in it she addresses violence and mourning in direct response to the war that we imagine only began in 2001. I wanted to try to understand what it was exactly in our fetishization of the images of destruction that I find so frustrating to deal with, beyond even practical and political concerns over the extent to which we seem to be willing to give up every last shred of dignity and “freedom” (were we “free” before?), if it will help us to reestablish our illusion of security and safety from political violence.
I am also thinking a bit about death and the multiple, complex relations between life and death–not only in the realm of the human, but even in whatever cycle it is with which the forces of the whole universe are engaged: materialization out of potential, animation out of elementary energy, and any and all inevitable returns to entropy that we might also be undertaking as moments of complexity and approximate coherence in a system characterized by violent destruction in creation, and creation in destruction.
As is usual, I managed to get about thirty pages into my chosen reading before I felt compelled to begin writing. The questions that arise upon reading anything with nuance or subtlety are irresistible to me, and so I remain in interminable study, never able to finish much of anything but always starting again to reformulate this process in which I have, for most of my life, been chasing after ways to express the inexpressible and to narrate that which defies language. To put it all too neatly.
It is not a simple coincidence that the refusal to integrate our national experience into a humane course of action causes me to pause over this question of what it is to live in close proximity with death–even here in the US where death is sequestered and hidden away beneath neatly manicured lawns and behind antiseptic curtains. And it is not simple coincidence that this question occurs to me at the same time as does my perennial questions concerning the limits of language and sense, for death is one name for an ultimately senseless way of going along: it is the primary way in which I myself have been and will be related to all that is for all but the tiniest sliver of time that I claim as my uncertain lifespan. I do not mean by this that ultimately I will be dead, but rather that my being dead, or my not being, or something inexpressible that has to do with never having come to be to begin with despite my apparent sensible existence at the moment, constitutes the primary and primordial relations that ground this current state in which, for now, I seem to be here.
To put it in a Zen Buddhist sort of way, I am already dead and always have been. There are infinite other ways of putting it, for it will not be put, or it will not stay put, or in other words there are no other words and so there will always be an ongoing stream of other words. What we in the US seem unable to comprehend is that our ideal of individualism and consequence-free domination of whatever it is we damned well feel pleased to dominate has been bound from the time of its conception to meet, eventually, its limiting case, its moment of mortality realized, its susceptibility to destructive forces and its vulnerability to the violence that it so easily calculates as acceptable expenses for a political economy that will admit no peer. That is, empires are destined to fall. Are we falling now? Have we not already fallen?
To the degree that we must recognize the unrecognizable–that is, our “primary vulnerability” to that upon which our very being falters, even disastrously, in its attempt to circumscribe itself as independent and individualistic –in order to be able to mourn whatever is lost in a violent encounter, in a disaster, then to that degree, one who suffers loss might attempt to disavow one’s own vulnerability to loss by virtue of the fact that injury is instigated by an unrecognizable force. Thus is rendered impossible the question of any sort of narration of loss or resolution in sensible language of the insensibile moment of trauma. But rather than pausing to consider what might be the consequence of our all being exposed in this way, by virtue of our primary vulnerability, if we decline even to pause in the face of what undoes us in violence, if we attempt to master our vulnerability, we only manage to deny the very conditions of our existence and are immediately closed off from the possibility of our own future. With the unrecognizable other, we also die, or are discarded, or are disavowed, or are visited in the continuing cycles of violence that serve the interests of this denial of vulnerability, which is a denial of life itself.
We are thrown here on a sort of paradoxical demand: that the unrecognizable not be consigned to illegibility or, worse, to unreality, because we are not prepared to acknowledge that we might not be able to conceptualize, chart, categorize, or comprehend the nature of our own being exposed to an other. That is, this would be the ethical demand of living itself: not to deny the fact of our helplessness, not to foreclose the possibility of incursions from unpredictable sources–incursions which may cause us pain or pleasure or both, which may occasion the possibility of our being able to live in a more lively way, or which may frustrate our desire to keep our lives in order. One cannot predict which it will be, or whether all of these moments might be bound up together in such a way that pain is the precondition of pleasure and vice versa, or, more precisely, in such a way that the distinction between pleasure and pain is lost in the very potential of coming to life as terrestrial creatures.
Relegating to the unreal that which threatens the security of the self, denying conceptual meaning to that which breaks the bounds of conceptualization, is a form of impotence in the face of the other. This impotence is realized as the impossibility of negating that which, conceptually, one has already negated–as well as the impossibility of negating that which is not subject to the workings of negation! But although the workings of negation or exclusivity or ideation cannot bring this other into any sort of domesticated, enforced “peace”, this other remains naked and vulnerable in relation to the subject of the act of negation. Our impotence, or inability to erase what is not, to begin with, legible, visits upon the other a violence without end, a real violence that incurs real atrocities precisely because its mission is impossible, and thus must be repeated indefinitely, so long as the subject inflicting that violence seeks to immunize itself against what is crucial to the being of that very subject: its other, against which it attempts to define itself. And fails.
This is how, or one of the reasons why, totalitarian violence is in the last analysis suicidal: an attempt to destroy the other which faces me and makes my utterance of “self” possible in that primordial encounter, the effort to sever relations with that in which we are already entangled and always were, from a time prior to memory and thus prior to time, is, in a very real way, the destruction of ourselves. It is not only that the balance of an interconnected ecosystem can be fatally disrupted by exploitation to the point that exploiter and exploited both perish, although to conceive of the relations between living things in the universe in this way makes our fragility in the faceless face of our own exploitative appetites quite clear. But it is also that without those relations we are, quite simply, not. Or rather, not simply at all: those relations’ being the anteroom of history and discourse renders them both foreign to and constitutive of our ability to try to name them as such.
I have no idea how to end this, but it seems as though it might be worthwhile to pause at the point of our own suicidality as it emerges from militaristic efforts to secure our place in eternity. There is no such place to be had, of course, and we only hasten our own demise in struggling to erect for ourselves a line of defense against every possible enemy. Again, this is not only because we are happy to relinquish our ideals for the illusion of safety, but it is at least that and also our current relation to that which has, in the “West”, so long been designated as inadmissible: vulnerability itself, subjection itself, fallibility itself, interdependence and the possibility that our ideals themselves are inadequate and provisional.