quarta-feira, 14 de março de 2012
The 'Balkanised' Subject: Enzensberger, Zizek and the Ecstasy of Violence by Tom Morton
Q. What is the difference between Sarajevo and Auschwitz? A. In Auschwitz at least they had gas.
This 'Bosnian joke', told to a journalist on assignment in Sarajevo, appeared in a report in Der Spiegel about the same time as Enzensberger's essay Civil War was published in condensed form in that magazine. Like the essay, the joke draws a connection between the atrocities of the Nazi period in Germany and those occuring in the former Yugoslavia as Enzensberger wrote. Moreover, in its mordant tastelessness, it underlines the particular obscenity of the violence which permeates the everyday reality of the citizens of Sarajevo.
The unholy marriage of technological rationality and racist ideology which gave birth to Auschwitz - a place where the human machinery of death operates as smoothly as the opening of a gas tap - is contrasted with a world in which the basic infrastructure of modern urban existence has broken down. Auschwitz belongs to modernity, while Sarajevo, the Olympic city and intellectual metropolis in the heart of Central Europe, plainly does not.
The same contrasts and contradictions run through much of the argument of Civil War. Enzensberger's text is unimaginable without the war in former Yugoslavia. Again and again he returns to the bloody events there and the moral questions which they pose; it is this civil war in the heart of Europe which is the paradigm for all the others of which he speaks. Sarajevo, and the murder, rape and torture carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing for which the city itself has become emblematic, exposes an excess of violence at the heart of modernity; indeed, Enzensberger suggests, this excess may itself be a product of modernity.
This paper sets out to read Enzensberger's essay in conjunction with another text which has emerged from within the former Yugoslavia itself, and one which is deeply imbued with the physical and moral effects of the war there, namely, the recent collection of essays from the Slovenian cultural theorist Slavo Zizek, entitled The Metastases of Enjoyment (1).
From very different perspectives, and in very different ways, both Enzensberger and Zizek confront the same questions about the nature of violence, whether on the battlefields of Bosnia or in the molecular civil wars which Enzensberger sees as endemic to the affluent, developed societies of the European Community or the United States.
This comparison has three aims; to examine the ways in which both Enzensberger and Zizek explore a certain kind of complicity between the spectators and the perpetrators of violence; to explore what this might tell us about the nature of violence itself;
and finally to advance a modest hypothesis about the inadequacy of contemporary cultural and political discourse on the subject of violence.
First, though, a brief word in defence of Enzensberger himself seems in order. It is very easy to pick up Civil War and come to the conclusion by the time one is half-way through reading it that the publishers have made a bizarre mistake and published under the name Enzensberger a tract by some choleric right-wing cultural pessimist.
Once we have reassured ourselves that the essay is indeed the work of Enzensberger, it is even more tempting to take him to task for the way in which he lumps together civil wars and communal violence from the Caucasus to Sri Lanka to the Horn of Africa, without any regard for historical context or cultural difference.
There is however, however, a strong argument in favour of Enzensberger's strategy, namely that it locates all of these conflicts and their causes fairly and squarely in the arena of modernity.
It has become a commonplace in the commentaries of the international media that the conflict in Bosnia is the product of ancient ethnic hatreds which were successfully repressed by Tito and Communism, only to burst forth with renewed vigour once the communist lid was removed.
This, of course, is nonsense. In the pithy formulation of the Polish intellectual Adam Michnik, 'nationalism is the last gasp of communism, struggling to create a new social basis for dictatorship'. In other words, the current 'ethnic' conflict in former Yugoslavia, though it has roots in certain historical traditions, is very much a creation and invention of the power elites in Serbia - and Croatia.
It is an invention enthusiastically and unquestioningly reproduced by most of the world's media. In refusing to repeat this shibboleth, Enzensberger asks us to see the war in Yugoslavia for what it is: a product of modernity, indeed of a specifically European modernity. Or as Zizek puts it:
In ex-Yugoslavia, we are lost not because of our primitive dreams and myths preventing us from speaking the enlightened language of Europe, but because we pay in flesh the price of being the stuff or others' dreams. The fantasy which organized the perception of ex-Yugoslavia is that of Balkan as the Other of the West:
the place of savage ethnic conflicts long since overcome by civilised Europe, a place where nothing is forgotten and nothing learned...Far from being the Other of Europe, ex-Yugoslavia was, rather, Europe itself in its Otherness, the screen on to which Europe projected its own repressed reverse. (ME, 212)
It's in trying to break down this distinction between the West and its Other, to reveal this particular 'fantasy' for what it is, that both Civil War and The Metastases of Enjoyment are most productive and illuminating.
About half way through Civil War, Enzensberger quotes at some length from Among the Thugs, a book about football hooligans by the American writer Bill Buford. Buford decided that the only way to really understand the destructive behaviour of the hooligans was to become one himself. In the passage quoted by Enzensberger he describes a scene in which six hooligans have got a boy down on the ground and are kicking him.
He reflects that he could have stopped the kicking, but chose not to. There is a sensation of time slowing down, of the group of them crossing some kind of threshold; then, he writes,
There was an immense energy about it; it was impossible not to feel some of the thrill...It was excitement that verged on being something greater, an emotion more transcendent - joy at the very least, but more like ecstasy...Somebody near me said that he was happy, very happy, that he could not ever remember being so happy. (CW, 48)
Interestingly, Enzensberger links this passage from Among the Thugs with a reference to Yugoslavia. He's reflecting on the infectious nature of civil war, and he quotes onces again:
'We don't know what has happened to us'. That is the most common phrase we hear from the survivors of Sarajevo. (CW, 47)
We can read this phrase - 'we don't know what has happened to us' -in two ways. At face value, it is a simple declaration: 'we don't understand what has befallen us'.
But the juxtaposition with Buford's story lends it a darker meaning: namely that we don't know how it has come about that we have reached the point where we too are capable of acts of senseless -violence and brutal retribution, acts of which we wouldn't have believed ourselves capable.
The force of this recognition becomes clearer if we go on to the next section of Civil War - which bears the subtitle 'Assumptions of Innocence, Moral Minefields'.
Enzensberger recalls his youthful experience of air raids during the Second World War, 'crouching in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket' (CW, 49), listening to the bark of flak and the screaming of aerial bombs. With him in the bomb shelters were other 'innocent civilians' - 'the majority of the population', he tells us, 'who never wanted it to happen...These people aren't gunmen or torturers. Their faces aren't scarred by hate for their neighbours.
They are grey with exhaustion' (CW, 50).
But, Enzensberger reminds us in the next breath, these are the same innocent civilians whose 'eyes lit up every time the Führer spoke...who stood by and watched while the synagogues burned to the ground. Without their enthusiastic support the Nazis could never have come to power' (CW, 50). And he goes on:
Anyone who thinks that this applies only to the Germans is an idiot. Neither the molecular civil war on our own doorstep nor the inferno beyond our national borders can ignite without the 'Piercing energy', the 'joy', the 'ecstasy' Bill Buford speaks of.
It always starts with hysterical jubilation, whether it is on the football terraces or on the streets of Rostock or Brixton, Baghdad or Belgrade. (CW, 51)
It's precisely this ecstasy, excess, violence out of all proportion to any conceivable cause, which both Enzensberger and Zizek are trying to understand. To this end, Enzensberger stresses the need for a kind of moral 'self-experimentation'; to renounce the privileged position of the spectator of violence, to acknowledge that we too are not only capable of participating in this ecstasy, but in a certain sense do so every time we watch a report on Bosnia on the news.
The difficulty with this position, however, is that in attempting to break down the distinction between spectators and perpetrators, Enzensberger sometimes comes dangerously close to fudging the difference between perpetrators and victims. When he tells us that the 'innocent civilians' who sat with him in the bomb shelter were themselves spectators at the burning of synagogues, his rhetorical purpose is clear.
In the civil war, today's victim may be yesterday's perpetrator. But the generalizing tone of Enzensberger's argument veers towards suggesting a kind of moral equivalence between perpetrators and victims; a suggestion which is particularly pernicious if it is applied to the war in Bosnia, as it is all too often by Western diplomats and in the international press.
Yet it is precisely this question of the relationship between victims and perpetrators of violence which Zizek explores in The Metastases of Enjoyment. He begins the book with a scene not unlike that described by Buford at the football stadium:
A famous photo from the time of Nazi anti-Semitic pogroms shows a frightened Jewish boy driven into a comer and surrounded by a group of Germans.
This group is extremely interesting in so far as the facial expressions of its members render the entire scale of possible reactions: one of them 'enjoys it' in an immediate, idiotic way; another is clearly scared...the feigned indifference of the third conceals a freshly awakened curiosity;
and so on, up to the unique expression of a young man who is obviously embarrassed, even disgusted by the entire affair, unable to yield wholeheartedly to it, yet at the same time fascinated by it, enjoying it with an intensity that surpasses by far the idiocy of immediate pleasure. He is the most dangerous; his quavering indecision exactly corresponds to the unique expression of the Rat Man's face noticed by Freud when the Rat Man was relating the story of the rat torture:
'At all the more important moments while he was telling his story his face took on a very strange, composite expression. I could only interpret it as one of horror at pleasure of his own of which he himself was unaware. (ME, 1)
Once again, it is a kind of pleasure which for Zizek is the driving energy behind the various forms of violence in late capitalism, whether in Sarajevo or anywhere within what Zizek calls 'the common warfare' (ME, 2).
This common warfare includes attacks by skinheads and neoNazis, a subject which Enzensberger also takes up; and Zizek, like Enzensberger, is at pains to stress the primarily non-ideological nature of these attacks. The ultimate answer we obtain from the skinhead as to why he beats up foreigners is that it makes him feel good. And where does this pleasure come from? From 'the most elementary imbalance in the relationship between Ich and jouissance, the tension between pleasure and the foreign body of jouissance at the very heart of it' (ME, 71).
Zizek is arguing here on two levels. Firstly, he follows on from his earlier work in postulating that racism and racist forms of nationalism arise out of a particular kind of fantasy, a fantasy that they - the foreigners, whether within or without - pose a threat to our 'enjoyment', to those particular forms of desire and its gratification which make us who we are. Indeed, by their very existence, by their possession and practice of an enjoyment which is not our own, they must in some sense have stolen a part of ours.
Yet - and here is the second level of Zizek's argument - this simple structure is itself deeply ambiguous. In the Lacanian universe, wherever our desire is, the Other is already there; the Other is the 'foreign body of jouissance at the very heart of...our pleasure' (ME, 71). When we attempt to destroy the Other, we are attempting to gain access to our own pleasure - and to destroy it at the same time.
What does this rather abstract psychodrama tell us about Sarajevo and Hoyerswerda? In Zizek's view, a similar kind of ambiguity pervaded the ideological structures of Yugoslav communism. On the one hand, State and Party preached the equality of all forms of national 'enjoyment'. But this equality is, according to Zizek, by its very nature inimical to national enjoyment, which 'resists universalization' (ME, 71).
Not everyone, by definition, can be Australian, Croatian or German. Or to put it another way: any suggestion that other forms of enjoyment can make the same claims to legitimacy as my own, and enjoy the same rights, in a sense calls into question the primacy and uniqueness of my 'national' enjoyment as Australian, Croatian, or German.
Thus, the state ideology of socialist Yugoslavia - which Zizek sometimes chooses to equate with the Law in Lacan's cosmology - sent out two contradictory messages: all forms of national enjoyment are legitimate, yet none which abides by this Law can truly be legitimate in its own terms. All nations were equal - but the essence of the nation was denied.
Thus true 'national enjoyment' became associated with what Zizek calls the 'obscene underside' of the Law; with fatal consequences:
Once the public Law casts off its direct patriarchal dress and presents itself as neutral-egalitarian, the character of its obscene double also undergoes a radical shift: what now erupts in the carnivalesque suspension of the egalitarian public Law is precisely the authoritarian-patriarchal logic that continues to determine our attitudes, although its direct public expression is no longer permitted.
'Carnival' thus becomes the outlet for the repressed social jouissance: Jew baiting, riots, gang rapes. (ME, 56)
The battlefields of Bosnia, in Zizek's terms, represent carnival gone mad, a permanent carnival of obscene revolt against the desideratum of equality, liberty and fraternity. What gives this carnival its own ghastly irony is its pointlessness, in the purely formal sense of the world. The more we try to recover our true, pure enjoyment by destroying the 'Other' who has deprived us of it, the more doomed we are to failure, since the Other is already at the heart of that enjoyment.
Moreover, this very intransigence of the Other provokes ever more desperate attempts at eradication. Thus, as Zizek says of the Muslims in Bosnia, 'the more they are slaughtered and starved out, the more powerful is the danger of "Muslim fundamentalism" in Serbian eyes' (ME, 78).
One might argue that Zizek's analysis is too specific to the particular conditions pertaining in former Yugoslavia to be of much general use.
Yet it seems to me that there are fruitful parallels to be drawn with the situation in contemporary Germany, where, in different ways in East and West, any form of German national self-identification was consigned to the 'obscene underside' of the Law. And in many ways, Zizek raises questions about the true nature and viability of multiculturalism - and its limits.
We may not want to go all or even part of the way with Zizek's Lacanian approach; yet even if we don't, it does at very least open up some possibilities for understanding the 'ecstatic' nature of acts of violence. Moreover, Zizek takes us a little further than Enzensberger in suggesting that all of us, as spectators, are guilty of participating in that ecstasy:
What we have in mind here is rape as 'weapon', used especially by Serbs against Muslims. The form it takes - the raping of a girl...in the presence of her father, forced to witness the affair - is bound to set in motion the vicious cycle of guilt: the father, the representative of the big Other - is exposed in his utter impotence, which makes him guilty in his own eyes as well as in those of his daughter: the daughter is guilty for causing her father's humiliation, and so on. The rape thus entails, beside the girl's physical and psychic suffering, the disintegration of the entire familial socio-symbolic network. (ME, 74)
Zizek has a lot more to say about the guilty gaze of the observer, divided between fascination and revulsion, which need not concern us here. There is, however, one further parallel which arises out of the passage just quoted which is worth noting. "The vicious cycle of guilt' which Zizek describes might apply equally accurately to the West's attitude to Bosnia, which, in the course of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, has increasingly become informed by a tendency to blame the victim.
The present peace agreement merely enshrines this tendency in fact. Humiliated by its failure to avert the slaughter of ethnic cleansing, Western Europe in particular has blamed the raped daughter - in this case, multi-ethnic Bosnia - for its own impotence (a humiliation compounded by the fact that only intervention by the United States ultimately forced the signing of the peace agreement).
The war in Bosnia, to paraphrase Zizek, has become the necessary 'obscene underside' of European unification and the New World Order.
Zizek's characterization of the 'impotent gaze' of the spectator, and the psychopathology of the relationship between spectator and victim of violence, confronts the same dilemma to which Enzensberger returns in the closing pages of Civil War. what he terms 'the agonizing hopelessness involved in every ethic of responsibility today' (CW, 68). His argument that we, the citizens of the developed Western world, need to place limits on our responsibility is driven largely by a critique of Western universalist notions of human rights, a critique discussed in a number of other contributions to this volume. Yet it also grows out of a concern about the spectator's reaction to the spectacle of violence in which he or she is totally unable to intervene:
When the moral demands made on an individual are consistently out of proportion to his scope for action, he will eventually go on strike and deny all responsibility. Here lie the seeds of brutalization, which may escalate to raging aggression. (CW, 61)
What Enzensberger describes here is not at all dissimilar to the 'vicious cycle of guilt' induced by the spectator's impotence in Zizek's text.
It is this recognition, moreover, which seems to me to point to what is most useful and interesting about Civil War, since it is linked to the notions of violence as excess and ecstasy. Enzensberger rigorously rejects existing sociological and philosophical discourses which claim to tell us something about the origins and causes of violence. He pillories both the conservative commentators who invoke an imaginary golden age when 'common decency and discipline were supposedly the order of the day' (CW, 32), and their counterparts on the Left whose response to acts of violence is to recite the social worker's catechism of disadvantage:
Mum didn't want me.
My teachers were far too authoritarian/liberal;
Dad came home drunk/never came home at all;
The bank gave me too much credit/closed my account...
So there was nothing else for me to do but arson/robbery/murder. (CW,33)
Although this may seem little more than a rather crude pastiche of the left/liberal welfarist approach to social conflict and violence, Enzensberger is no less scathing about ostensibly 'scientific' social Darwinist perspectives which see violence as an inescapable product of over-population and competition for resources. (2) At one point he invokes the 'Hobbesian ur-myth of the war of everyone against everyone else' (CW, 31), but unlike the proponents of these biologistic explanations of violence, Enzensberger does not see the civil war as an irruption of the
Hobbesian state of nature into a weakened social order. Rather, the civil war is in its essence a product of the social order in the conditions of modernity: it is a social, not a natural phenomenon. (3)
It is this dilemma which Enzensberger exhorts us to confront in Civil War. What is missing, perhaps, from his account of civil war, is a notion of the symbolic and representational functions of violence in linking the individual's 'ecstatic' experience with broader social meanings. These have been extensively discussed and investigated in contemporary social anthropology, which offers perspectives in some ways complementary to the psychoanalytical framework proposed by Zizek.
(4) Yet it is not, I would argue, Enzensberger's primary intention to explain the ecstasy of violence, but rather to expose the poverty of existing explanations. His critique of the redemptive social theology of the Enlightenment, its powerlessness in the face of the ecstatic act of 'collective self-mutilation' (CW, 28) is by no means new.
However, previous critiques, most notably those of the Frankfurt School, have tended to focus on ideologically motivated mass violence of the Right and Left and the failure of Enlightenment values to withstand such violence. In asking us to consider the meaning of violence which is 'about nothing at all', Enzensberger invites us to begin struggling towards an ethic of responsibility beyond the totalizing discourses of human nature', on the one hand, and human perfectibility on the other.
The gaze of the Enlightenment witnessing the civil war, he argues, is forced in so doing to experience its own impotence, with the danger that this experience itself produces 'brutalization' and 'raging aggression', in Enzensberger's terms, a kind of moral self-mutilation which results in the violent rejection of precisely those values which the enlightened subject is powerless to defend.
In Zizek's terms, this would amount to the triumph of the 'obscene underside' of Enlightenment, a triumph which, until recently, was rehearsed at a safe distance every evening on television screens in lounge-rooms around the world in the reporting of the war in Bosnia. (5)
Enzensberger's answer to this may strike us as a kind of moral damage-control, an attempt to quarantine the West from the savagery of the war in Bosnia and salvage what can be salvaged from the Enlightenment.
Yet I would argue that it is also possible to read Civil War as a plea to open up a new kind of ethical discourse about violence, one that attempts to re-connect personal and social responsibility with actions in the world, and allows space for the excessive, ecstatic quality of violence in our conception of the human, without resort to essentialism or redemptionism.
1. Slavo Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Woman and Causality, London, 1994. References to this edition are given in the text as ME followed by page number.
2. See Civil War, p. 41: 'Biology adds nothing to our understanding of civil war.
3. An interesting re-reading of Hobbes in the light of contemporary ethnographic research on the role of war in primitive societies can be found in Pierre Clastres, Archeology of Violence, trans. Jeanine Herman, Semiotext, N.Y., 1994.
4. See for example Allen Feldman, Formations of Violence. The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland, Chicago, 1991.
5. Cf Zizek, p. 212: 'How, then, can we not recall, apropos of this European gaze on the Balkans, Hegel's dictum that true evil resides not in the object perceived as bad, but in the innocent gaze which perceives Evil all around? The principal obstacle to peace in ex-Yugoslavia is not "archaic ethnic passions" but the very innocent gaze of Europe fascinated by the spectacle of these passions'.
In: "Enzensberger, Zizek and the Ecxtasy of Violence", Debating Enzensberger - Great Migration and Civil War i G. Fischer (red.). Tubingen 2009: Stauttenberg Verlag, pp. 93-101.