File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0111, message 48

Date: Sat, 10 Nov 2001 05:53:08 -0600
Subject: Postmodernism as Terrorism


I thought your post was very eloquently stated and I must say I am in
agreement with you.  

I believe Badiou makes a valuable criticism of the negative ways ethics
is used today. Ethics as an abstract system of rights and universal
humanity is often misapplied to underwrite a system of material
relations that becomes veiled by this very discourse.  However, this is
not the summation of ethics itself and one can certainly argue that both
Lyotard and Derrida have made similar criticisms of this use of ethics
as well in their writings.

I want to focus on the recent incident you described where a student in
your class described postmodernism as terrorism. I think I can sense
what the basic argument was.  To the extent that postmodernism is seen
as a kind of relativistic thinking, the feeling that anything goes, it
lacks the kind of categorical morality that can condemn terrorism as a
absolute wrong. Thus, it ends by becoming itself a kind of fifth column
for terrorism and a philosophy whose basic frivolousness has been
refuted by the seriousness of the new era we have entered into today.

What I find somewhat ironic about this position is that it simply
illustrates what it condemns.  In the first place, the current wave of
terrorism seems to have been created by fundamentalists who no one can
accuse of being ethically wish-washy. They know absolutely where the
evil lies and act to circumvent it with both resoluteness and firm moral

The problem with terrorism really seems to be about exactly this kind of
certitude.  A system is created that has its own autonomous ends and any
people who stand in its way must simply be neutralized or eliminated.

But wait.  Isn't this exactly the kind of analysis Lyotard made in his
book "The Postmodern Condition?" There he described how the current
trends towards continuing innovation in the dynamic system of both
capitalism and knowledge acquisition have made performativity the new
imperative, replacing the older, more universal norms.

Furthermore, he went on to describe the various ways this system was
capable of fostering a kind of terror in its social relations long
before the concept of terrorism had its current vogue.  

So, far from being a form of terrorism, perhaps the postmodern is
exactly where we need to begin if we truly want to understand the role
of terrorism today.  Perhaps, it can even shed light on the role ethics
should play in this, beyond abstract ideology.

In his book "The Inhuman" Lyotard points to the fact that complexity and
development have become the driving forces in the world today and that
their ends are no longer the human, but the needs of the system itself. 
He writes: "what else remains as politics except resistance to this
inhuman?  And what else is left to resist with but the debt which each
soul has contracted with the miserable and admirable indetermination
from which it was born and does not cease to be born? - which is to say,
with the other inhuman?"

"This debt to childhood is one which we never pay off. But it is enough
not to forget it in order to resist it and perhaps, not to be unjust. 
It is the task of writing, thinking, literature, arts, to venture to
bear witness to it."

Today, in the face of terrorism, whether it is the terror of Bin Laden
and the Taliban or the economic and financial terrorism of the WTO and
IMF, politics is necessary, but politics is also insufficient.  For I
suspect no political movement will arise to counteract the accumulation
of terror that has taken place until a prior change emerges at the level
of the social bond.  

Ethics is not merely an abstract system that rationality formulates the
universal rights of this paradoxical animal named humanity.  Ultimately,
ethics is the judgement each one of us is capable of making, with or
without concepts, that says: "This is wrong", "I will no longer tolerate
this",  "I will not be an accomplice to this any longer".

For these judgements to occur, it is not moral certitude that is
necessary, but a kind of emptiness.  Lyotard writes: "If you think
you're describing thought when you describe a selecting and tabulating
of data, you're silencing truth. Because data aren't given, but givable
and selection isn't choice.  Thinking, like writing or painting, is
almost no more than letting a givable come towards you.  In the
discussion we had last year at Siegen, in this regard, emphasis was put
on the sort of emptiness that has to be obtained from mind and body by a
Japanese warrior-artist doing calligraphy, by an actor when acting: the
kind of suspension of ordinary intentions of the mind associated with
habitus, or arrangements of the body.  It's at this cost...that a brush
encounters the 'right' shapes, that a voice and a theatrical gesture are
endowed with the 'right' tone and look.  This soliciting of emptiness,
this evacuation - very much the opposite of overweening, selective,
identificatory activity, doesn't take place without suffering.  I won't
claim that the grace Kleist talked about (a grace of stroke, tone or
volume) has to be merited; that would be presumptuous of me.  But it has
to be called forth, evoked.  The body and the mind have to be free of
burdens for grace to touch us.  That doesn't happen without suffering."

In other words, what we call ethics today must be linked to our bodily
feeling and bodily awareness in face to face encounters with the other,
whether this other happens to be a person, a canvas, a musical
instrument or an empty computer screen.  I am also struck by how closely
this formulation resembles the concept of the void to which Badiou often

Badiou writes as if his fourfold classification scheme of science, art,
politics and love exhausted the scope of philosophy.  But the ethics I
am arguing for must take place somewhere in the no man's land between
politics and love; and it must incorporate both art and science.  It
takes place in the body, in feelings of pleasure and pain in relation to
all the others who surround us; the others who are like the air we

Today perhaps the best defense against terrorism of all kinds lies in
this very ethical response that, suspicious of the battery of cultural
inscriptions that attempt to define who we are, bears witness to
something else instead. Call it the body, childhood, suffering, pain,
the other.  It is the lost wilderness inside ourselves that still must
be reclaimed.  

This ethics of the body attempts to remake the body of the world by
jettisoning all those "big words for which so many have perished" and,
in their place, to re-inscribe new words, colors, tones, scents, tastes
and touches upon our tattooed flesh, to make indelible neon marks upon
our mortal soul.  



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