Violence and Translation

My writing on the events of September 11th is on two registers the public event of spectacular destruction in New York and the private events made up of countless stories of grief, fear, and anticipation. 1 I hope I can speak responsibly to both, neither trivializing the suffering of the victims of the September 11th attack and those in mourning for them, as in the rhetoric of “deserved suffering” (as if nations and individuals were painlessly substitutable) nor obscuring the unspeakable suffering of wars and genocides in other parts of the world that framed these events. A recasting of these events into conflicting genealogies by the politics of mourning in the public sphere raises the issue of translation between different formulations through which these events were interpreted and indeed, experienced.

There are two opposed perspectives on cultural difference that we can discern today one that emphasizes the antagonism of human cultures as in some version of the thesis on “clash of civilizations” and the second that underlines the production of identities through circulation and hence the blurring of boundaries. Both, however, are based on the assumption that human cultures are translatable. Indeed, without some power of self-translatability that makes it possible for one to imagine oneself using the categories of the other, human cultures would not be able to live on any register of the imaginary. The stark denial of this translatability on both sides of the present conflict concerns me most, though I note that this is not to espouse a vision of justice that is somehow even-handed in distributing blame. My concern is of a different kind I fear that classical concepts in anthropological and sociological theory provide scaffolding to this picture of untranslatability despite our commitment to the understanding of diversity. There are obviously specific issues at stake in this particular event of destruction, its time and its space, and the response casting it as a matter of war rather than, say, one concerning crime. But it seems to me that there is a deeper grammar that is at work here that invites us to investigate the conditions of possibility for this kind of declaration of war as a genre of speech to take place.

One of the tenets of postmodern theorization is that the concrete and finite expressions of multiplicity cannot be referred back to a transcendental center the grounds for judgment cannot be located in either the faculty of reason or in common corporeal experience. Although postmodern theory does not suggest that diversity must be valued for itself indeed, it is part of its struggle to provide for conversation and recognition of otherness without any predetermined criteria for the evaluation of divergent claims it does raise important questions about the withdrawal of recognition to the other. I have suggested elsewhere that difference, when it is cast as non-criterial, becomes untranslatable precisely because it ceases to allow for a mutual future in language. The shadowing of this into skepticism in which trust in categories is completely destroyed and our access to context is removed transforms forms of life into forms of death. Some such issue is at stake here in the Taliban’s brutality against women on behalf of a pure Islam on the one hand, and a war waged on behalf of “Western civilization” on the other. After all it is the United States that spawned the very forces it is fighting as a defence against communism the then enemy of freedom and values of Western democracy. There are no innocents in the present war at the level of collectivities despite the powerful deployment of the figure of the “innocent” killed on both sides of the divide.

Elsewhere I have questioned the purity of the concepts that are put in play when claims are made on behalf of tradition, religious autonomy, modernity, or human rights. The translation of these concepts is not a matter of something external to culture but something internal to it. It is when a particular vision both refuses pluralism as internal to its culture and claims finality for itself in some avatar of an end of history that a struggle for cultural rights and the necessity to protect “our way of life” turns into violence and oppression.

Allow me to take the pronouncements on events of September 11th that the attack on the World Trade Center in New York was an attack on civilization or on values of freedom. I take these as statements in ordinary language propelled into a global public sphere from which there is no flight for they function, it seems to me, as anthropological language. What these statements conjure is the idea of the United States (herewith America, not illegitimately I think) as embodying these values not contingently, not as a horizon in relation to struggles within its borders against, say, slavery, racism, or the destruction of native American populations, but as if a teleology has particularly privileged it to embody these values. This is why the issues cannot be framed by the bearer of these utterances in terms of American interests but as of values that America embodies (not merely expresses) in its nation state. So the point of view of totality exists in these utterances not in the divine whose reason is not accessible to us, but in the body of the American nation in which the gap between the particular and the universal, the contingent and the necessary is indeed sought to be cancelled. 2 Now it may surprise one that in the country that has given so much political and public space to multiculturalism, and when much effort has gone into signaling that this conflict is not a modern replay of the crusades (despite slips of tongue) political language slides into the idea of America as the privileged site of universal values. It is from this perspective that one can speculate why the talk is not of the many terrorisms with which several countries have lived now for more than thirty years, but with one grand terrorism Islamic terrorism. In the same vein the world is said to have changed after September 11th. What could this mean except that while terrorist forms of warfare in other spaces in Africa, Asia, or Middle East were against forms of particularism, the attack on America is seen as an attack on humanity itself.

The point about many terrorisms versus a single grand terrorism that threatens American values that are seen to embody the force of history teleology and eschatology is indeed significant. As is well known, the last three decades have seen a transformation in the idea of war. While there is a monopoly over high technology of destruction, the low technologies have proliferated freely, encouraged and abetted by geopolitical interests. The social actors engaged in this warfare in Africa, or in parts of the Middle East or Asia are neither modern states, nor traditional polities but new kinds of actors (sometimes called warlords) created by the configuration of global and local forces. 3 Further it is the very length of these wars, some lasting for more than thirty years, that allows for the constantly changing formations slippage between the categories of warlords, terrorists, insurgents, and freedom fighters reflects the uncertainty around these social actors. It is thus the reconfiguration of terrorism as a grand single global force Islamic terrorism that simultaneously cancels out other forms of terrorism and creates the enemy as a totality that has to be vanquished in the interests of a universalism that is embodied in the American nation. There is a mirroring of this discourse in the Taliban who also reconfigure themselves as historically destined to embody (not only represent) Islamic destiny. Ironically the clash of civilization thesis is repeated in the pronouncements of the Taliban leadership.

The tremendous loss of life and the style of killing in the present wars call them terrorism (including state terrorism), call them insurgency, call them wars of liberation, all raise the issue of theodicy. Yet, while in many other countries the wounds inflicted through such violence are acknowledged as attesting to the vulnerability of human life in the case of American society there is an inability to acknowledge this vulnerability. Or rather the vulnerability to which we, as embodied beings are subject, the powerlessness, is recast in terms of strength. And thereby the representations of the American nation manage to obscure from view the experiences of those within its body politics who were never safe even before September 11th. While many have heard arrogance in these statements to my ears they are signs of the inability to address pain. Consider the following passage in Nietzsche on the moment of the production of ressentiment:

to deaden, by means of a more violent emotion of any kind, a tormenting secret pain that is becoming unendurable, and to drive it out of consciousness at least for the moment: for that one requires an affect, as savage an affect as possible, and, in order to excite that any pretext at all. 4

I am obviously not suggesting any conspiracy theory, or that a pretext was needed for subsequent bombing of Afghanistan but pointing to the deep need to show the tattered body of the “enemy” as a rational response to the September 11th attacks. In the first instance, it seemed to me that this was the site of punishment as spectacle. Michel Foucault claimed that “justice no longer takes public responsibility for that violence that is bound up with its practice”, 5 but here we find an emphasis on visible intensity through which justice is to be theatrically displayed pointing to the ways in which Foucault might have overstated the case for disciplinary power as the dominant mode for production of normality under the regime of modernity. On further reflection though, it appears to me that theatrical display of sovereign power is only part of the story. It is the further need to replace the pain of the nagging questions posed to American citizens about what relation their pain bears to the pain of the others – what kind of responsibility is theirs when successive regimes elected by them have supported military regimes, brutal dictatorships and warlords mired in corruption with no space for the exercise of critical monitoring of politics in the Middle East? If violence has replaced politics in the present globalized spaces in this regions, then surely it is only by acknowledging that pain as “ours” that a global civil society could respond. Instead of replacing the pain with another more violent and savage affect, it would have to engage in a different way with the pain inflicted on it.

What are the obstacles in acknowledging this pain? Collective identities are not only a product of desires for recognition they are equally forged by our relation to death. Yet it is in the classical theories of society that we learn that the “other” is not part of human society because she has a totally different relation to death. Consider the contrast between altruistic suicide and egoistic suicide in Emile Durkheim’s classic analysis I suggest that this is the site at which a radical untranslatability of other cultures seeps into sociological analysis. It is no accident that it is in defining the subject’s relation to death that Durkheim finds himself positing the kind of subjectivity to the other that domesticates the threat of their forms of dying to the self-understanding of the modern subject. Consider the following passage in which he spells out the distinction between altruistic suicide and egoistic suicide:

The weight of society is thus brought to bear upon him to lead him to destroy himself. To be sure society intervenes in egotistic suicide as well, but its intervention differs in the two cases. In one case it speaks the sentence of death; in the other it forbids the choice of death. In the case of egotistic suicide it suggests or counsels at most; in the other case it compels and it is the author of conditions and circumstances making this obligation coercive (emphasis supplied). 6

India was the classic soil for this kind of suicide for Durkheim. But he makes a broader contrast between the “crude morality” and the “refined ethics” of societies with altruistic and egoistic suicide the former sets no value on human life while the latter sets human personality on so high a pedestal that it can no longer be subordinated to anything. As he says, “Where altruistic suicide is prevalent, man is always ready to give his life; however, at the same time, he sets no more value on that of another.” In contrast, “A broader sympathy for human suffering succeeds the fanatical devotions of primitive times.” 7

Now I am not going to argue that the making of the subject whose mode of dying is to kill him or herself in the service of killing others for a greater cause is transparent. I will suggest though that the way language is deployed to render some forms of dying as fanatical (e.g. by terrorists) and others as representing the supreme value of sacrificing oneself (e.g. as in values of patriotism) blocks any road to understanding when and under what circumstances individual life ceases to hold value. It is not that in one case society compels where as in the other case it counsels, but that by recasting desperate acts as those which close all conversations, there is an invitation to violence that raises the stakes it leaves no other way of giving recognition except in the negativities through which more violence is created. It is not accidental that even a language of war is not sustained in the political pronouncements of American leaders for war has become transformed into a hunt thereby using the rhetoric strategy of animalizing the other. Hence there is the preponderance of such verbs as “smoking them out” or “getting them out of their holes.”

Instead of Manichean battles between good and evil, there would be greater room for a tolerable peace if it was possible to attend to the violences of everyday life, to acknowledge the fallibility and the vulnerability to which we are all subject, and to acknowledge that the conflict is over interests, and further that these need to be renegotiated. It is not over uncompromising values. Most people in the world learn to live as vulnerable beings to the dangers that human cultures pose to each other. Between that vulnerability 8 and the desperation that seeks to annihilate the other, there is a terrible gap. In other words it is to the picture of transfiguration of violence rather than to its elimination or eradication in a war- like mode, that I draw attention. Different, even new ways of being Muslim are tied up to the creation of democratic spaces just as modern democracies would be deepened by the full participation of those who have been excluded from the public spheres in the West. Might we be able to mourn with the survivors of September 11th without the necessity of appropriating their grief for other grander projects? Whether conditions for this possibility exist when the languages of division are so virulent in the public sphere I am pessimistic, but I pray that I am wrong.

  1. I am very grateful to Talal Asad and Gautam Ghosh for their critical reading of earlier drafts of this essay. I warmly thank the editors of Anthropological Quarterly for permitting the Social Science Research Council to carry the essay on their website on this theme. It is scheduled to appear in the special section on War and Terror in Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 75, no.1, 2002.
  2. There is an important tension in the pronouncements that assume that teleology has been completed in the body of the American nation and the idea of the “promise” of America. I do not have the space to develop the argument here but I believe this tension slips into the idea of the promissory notes of America for its new immigrants and the completed teleology for the assimilated.
  3. As an aside I note that these modes of engaging warfare were not only tolerated but also even admired as techniques to be used in the new global economies in which training was not the training to obey rules but to push the body to its limit and to learn to deploy guerrilla techniques in business.
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Vintage Books, New York, 1969, P.127
  5. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Vintage Books, New York, 1979, p. 9.
  6. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, The Free Press, New York, 1951, pp. 219-20
  7. Ibid, p.240.
  8. I simply note that to be vulnerable is not to be a victim hence my appeal is not gesturing towards a fatalistic submission in the face of violence and death but towards a leashing in of reason gone demonic.