‘5 Theses on the Politics of Cruelty’ – Hostis: A Journal of Incivility

cross-chair- josef svoboda

(A preview from the forthcoming Issue of Hostis: A Journal of Incivility)

I). The politics that seduces us is not ethical, it is cruel.

We contrast the politics of cruelty to the politics of ethics. Ethics goes all the way back to the Greeks, whose ethics was the study of ‘the good life.’ Our interests do not lie in being better than our enemies.There is only cheap satisfaction in telling yourself that you have more exciting sex, stronger friendships, or fiercer personal convictions. The point is not to be better, but to win. Perhaps this leaves a bad taste in some mouths. However, we ask: is ethics not just a last resort for the impotent? Are ethical people what is left after struggles collapse into impossibility, futility, or counterproductivity

If abandoning ethics leaves one disturbed, it is because ethics is a wholly personal affair. To be ethical today is not even reformist – it is politics rendered as fantasy, a live action role play of those who ‘mean well.’ The sphere of ethical life is a world of braggarts and bullies looking for others to affirm that they have made the right personal choices. Ethics valorizes the virtue of activist intentions while leaving the systemic destruction of globally-integrated capital intact. In other words, it is fueled by the elitism of ‘being better than everyone else.’ And the problem with elitism is that it plunges us back into the milieu.

Cruelty has no truck with the individualism of ethics. It does not guide political action with virtue or best intentions. We are not looking to win the respect of those we wish to defeat. Ethics is the trap laid for those who walk the earth searching for respite from the destruction and violence of capital and the state. There is no use in making peace with an enemy whose realized interests entail your subjugation. There was nothing ‘ethical’ about the colonial world. And as Fanon reminds us, it could only be destroyed by giving up on an ‘ethical’ method. It is in this sense that a politics of cruelty picks up the old adage that one must ‘destroy what destroys you’.

II). Few emotions burn like cruelty.

It is already old wisdom that emotions are at stake when we talk about becoming ‘politicized.’ Emotions are what render the speculative and abstract into a lived reality. Winning is not simply a question of having the right ideas or right principles, this is why we define politics as the transformation of ideas into a whole mode of existence where one’s principles are at the same time one’s impulsion toward the world. If the politics of cruelty follows from the belief that we must destroy what destroys us, the emotion of cruelty is revenge. Only this taste for revenge offers resistance to the voices of this world that tell us to put up with the daily violence done to us. To feel cruel is to know that we deserve better than this world; that our bodies are not for us to hate or to look upon with disgust; that our desires are not disastrous pathologies. To feel the burning passion of cruelty, then, is to reclaim refusal. We refuse to compromising ourselves and the million tiny compromises of patriarchy, capitalism, white-supremacy, heter/homo-normativity, and so on. As such, the subject of cruelty no longer convinces themselves to love the world or to find something in the world that redeems the whole. Simply put: the subject of cruelty learns to hate the world. The feeling of cruelty is the necessary correlate to the politics of cruelty; learning to hate the world is what correlates to the political task of destroying what destroys us all. And as we already noted, it is because these two principles have a long history behind them that a politics of cruelty does not posit itself as a novelty: The Women’s Liberation movements are correct in saying: We are not castrated, so you get fucked.

III). Those motivated by cruelty are neither fair nor impartial.

Fairness is the correlate to the ‘ethics-as-politics’ paradigm. Why? Because fairness suggests that we relate to everyone in the same way. There is nothing about this world that encourages universal fairness or acting according to mutual support of any and all interests. Rather, we live in a world where everyone is pitted against each other – we have a structurally determined interest to be mean and to succeed at the expense of others. Fairness, as it currently exists, is the fairness of neoliberal competition; a state sponsored ‘state of nature’. Impartiality is the counter-tendency to the subject of cruelty. Unlike the cruel subject who understands that there can be no agreement made between capital and its dispossessed, the impartial subject furthers the myth that agreements can and should be found between the two parties. Impartiality is the idea that power is symmetrical and that a social contract can give this symmetry its proper force through law.

We know that we are in the midst of a civil war. We act as partisans. And as in any war, we have friends and enemies. For our enemies, we have nothing but disdain, hatred, and cruelty. Our only engagement with them is when it strategically advances our side in the conflict. For our friends, we extend care, support, and solidarity.

Some say that capital and the state operate through cruelty; and contrary to their cruelty, our struggle is to take the higher ground. This is to misunderstand what few things are unique to our position. Our enemies must reproduce their bases of power, which is takes a costly investment in corrupt political systems, crumbling industrial infrastructure, and expensive wars of ideology. As anarchists, we do not need to reproduce much  – we do not need to justify our actions, we do not need to be consistent in our activities, and we need not defend any of the institutions of this world. To limit ourselves even more than our enemies by following the narrow path of ethics is to give up our only advantage.

IV). Their actions speak with an intensity that does not desire permission, let alone seek it.

There is a qualitative difference between the cruelty exercised by us and the cruelty of capital and its State(s). In the United States, there is the idea that the 18th amendment guarantees the protection of citizens from ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ This was to juridically curtail the power of the State over and against its citizenry. But due to the explicitly bourgeois heritage from which it emerges, this guarantee against State-cruelty only goes as far as the eyes of the State can see; that is, only insofar as two isolated individuals are coming into conflict with one another, and where the State intervenes impartially as the mediating third term. It is in this way that the curtailing of State-cruelty remains within the logic of recognition: metrics of intelligibility only pertain to situations of isolated actions. State recognition ignores situations of collective antagonism. What is more, is what we gain via the channels of State recognition (e.g., desegregation in the 1950’s) was already being eroded through other State sanctioned economic mechanisms (e.g., redlining as early as the 1930’s). The conclusion should be obvious by now: State-recognition is nothing more than the continuation of war by other means.

Thus, if our politics of cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us coupled to its subjective correlate of revenge – which means our learning to hate the world while staving off the internalization of those norms which teach us to hate ourselves – then it is clear that our political-cruelty cannot treat the state and capital as reliable sources for recognition since what we want and need cannot be tolerated by globally integrated capital and thus pre-emptively renders us all variations of pathological, trouble-making, hysterical, killjoys alike.

V). While social anarchism sings lullabies of altruism, there are those who play with the hot flames of cruelty.

Altruism comes in at least two variants. The first is already well known; the emphasis on collectivist ethics that diffuses any antagonism through its criteria of absolute horizontalism. The second, more insidious, is a zealous altruism; here the emphasis is placed on the absolute destruction of the individual put in the service of actualizing an Idea. These are not the actions of the dispossessed. Rather, it is the altruism of an anarchists crucifixion. If the latter at least agrees that struggle is an ineluctable fact of politics, the zealous altruists weakness still lies in his belief that to engage in civil war means to burn out in the process. For every form of communal horizontalism that defers the moment of attack there is a correlating tendency to collapse heroism and martyrdom. Additionally, it is true that we have said that our political-cruelty seeks to destroy what destroys us. However, this does not necessitate the assertion that real transformation means our own self-destruction. There is a world of difference between converting structural oppression into a fight for abolition and identifying existential abolition as the proper means toward the abolition of capital as such. In a word: “Even if we had the power to blow it [the State] up, could we succeed in doing so without destroying ourselves, since it is so much a part of the conditions of life, including our organism and our very reason? The prudence with which we must manipulate that line, the precautions we must take to soften it, to suspend it, to divert it, to undermine it, testify to a long labor which is not merely aimed against the State and the powers that be, but directly at ourselves.”

That said, the first iteration of altruism should not be given scant attention precisely because of its prevalence. In place of weaponizing our feelings of cruelty, social anarchism substitutes a straight forward Habermasianism sutured to the mantra of ‘returning to a class based analysis’. This helps some sleep at night. Contra these political sedatives, we again confront the history and cruelty of our politics. What is at stake is the feminist lesson we must never forget: that the personal is political; that few emotions burn and catalyze collective insubordination like those of pain, vengeance, and cruelty. The lesson is that the efficacy of political-cruelty lies not in the never ending reflections and discussions on what pains us; rather, that emotions such as cruelty are what constitute the armature of our collective antagonism.

Frankenstein Revenge Poster

A Brief Note For Enemies And Allies:

We could care less about those whose politics amounts to being a good ‘friend’ to those who struggle, or being a good ‘ally’ by reading up on the history of people of color, queers, and so on. A politics of cruelty is not a politics of friendship; since we do not see a softer world here because sociability has its cruelties, friendship has its rivalries, and opinion has its antagonisms and bloody reversals.

Friendship is already too Greek, too philosophical, and too European for our politics of cruelty. In its place, we should reinvigorate the politics of the Guayaki in Paraguay or the many tribes in that territory known as Zoma. That is, political cruelty does not seek to be included into the universality proposed by the history of Western capitalism and instead seeks to find the means of escaping from a universality that was never ours from the start. For those who would prefer reductive formulations, we could say that while the West continues its process of inclusion and expansion, our political-cruelty maintains its relation to the Outside. To our enemies who get off on finding contradictions that abound in this politics of cruelty we say to them ‘all the better!’ For them, whose desire is to be the intelligible subjects of globally integrated capital, these contradictions are mere impasses on their road to being exceptions to the rule. To our allies, who opt for a politics of cruelty, we say ‘savor these supposed contradictions!’ From the point of view of political-cruelty a contradiction simply means that we have a weapon with more than one side.

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Towards a Feminist “Axiomatics”

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The title of this post, Feminist ‘Axiomatics,’ is a term I will use to explain and articulate a specific gesture within feminist theory – mainly found in the work of Elizabeth Grosz and Sara Ahmed. This gesture consists in this: to understand that there is something specific and distinct about feminist theory – where for Grosz it is understanding the historical specificity of feminist theory as a body of work that stands apart from other competing theories (Marxism, structuralism, etc.), and for Ahmed it is a certain preoccupation with the future and the attempt to not repeat the past. Based on this initial claim, Grosz and Ahmed then make the following move: feminist theory takes as its object of critique every theoretical project claiming for itself the path toward emancipation in order to understand and deconstruct every patriarchal, sexist, and misogynistic assumption which help found the very project in question. It is in the combination of these two claims that we can come to understand the axiomatic quality of feminist theory and its relationship with other, and sometimes seen as competing, thinkers and ideas.

From Equality to Autonomy

For Grosz, this move begins in the 1960’s; specifically with the rise of Feminist Theory in universities as distinct from Feminism as a political movement. “In the sixties, feminists began to question various images, representations, ideas, and presumptions traditional theories developed about women and the feminine” (Grosz, 1986). Given the already established presence of the struggle for women’s emancipation, what was specific about this time period was the rise of what Grosz calls a ‘politics of autonomy’ as opposed to a ‘politics of equality.’ A politics of equality was based on two basic ideas: the inclusion of women into the intellectual concerns of theorists and the intellectual treatment of women as legitimate objects of inquiry as being equal to the way in which intellectuals have long since treated men as objects of study. Against these two claims, a politics of autonomy understood that equality does not go far enough since equality would only grant women and the feminine equal treatment insofar as certain aspects of the lives of women and feminine lives were like the lives of men: “The project of women’s equal inclusion meant that only women’s sameness to men, only women’s humanity and not their womanliness could be discussed” (Grosz, 1986).
The politics of autonomy, means not undertaking an emancipatory project on the basis of women’s sameness to men. Rather, “struggle for autonomy…imply the right to reject such standards and create new ones”(Grosz, 1986). It is this politics of autonomy that constituted the heart of Feminist Theory as a distinct and specific intellectual movement. By understanding that equality is the attempt to grant women the privileges enjoyed by men as long as they emulated men/masculine lives, the politics of autonomy attempt to not only reject this move but also posit the idea that the dogmatic assumption of the equivalence of maleness with rationality and womanliness with irrationality was too a bankrupt framework. Feminist Theory, understood through the lens of autonomy, then means 4 things:

  • 1). Women are both the subjects and objects of knowledge – they ought to be granted the same standing as men and the lives of men in terms of theoretical inquiry as well as granting the idea that one cannot easily separate reason from desire.
    2). Due to the first point, there is undertaken by Feminist Theorists a radical questioning of all methods, theory’s, and ideas in the attempt to bring under critical analysis each of their main axioms and tenants. This critical attitude which constitutes the heart of Feminist Theory brings under close scrutiny commonly held beliefs of intellectual’s of the left in order to show how even the most liberatory projects can still reinforce and perpetuate anti-feminist ideas and practices.
    3). The politics of autonomy feminists ‘work through’ all objects of study, sometimes in order to subvert and detourn them.
    4). All of this, plus the alternatives developed through Feminist analysis, constitutes what Grosz calls Feminist Theory.

Thus, as Grosz says, the goal of Feminist Theory is to render patriarchical theories and institutions incapable of exercising domination and power over women and the feminine. Ultimately, for Grosz, Feminist Theory as a politics of autonomy is an attempt to counter patriarchical paradigms as well as establish alternative theories and institutions based on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.

Feeling Differently

Extending Grosz’s insights into the question ‘What is Feminist Theory?’ and concluding with a politics of autonomy that takes up a critical attitude toward all ideas, theories, and intellectual projects which present themselves as emancipatory, Ahmed’s essay ‘Feminist Futures’ acts as a further reflection on the status of Feminist Theory itself. For Ahmed, writing after Butler’s Gender Trouble which brought to the attention of Feminist Theory the crisis in the category of Woman, acknowledges the differences which separate feminists of all stripes while also acknowledging that what all feminists share is a “concern with the future; that is, a desire that the future should not simply be a repetition of the past, given that feminism comes into being as a critique of, and resistance to, the ways in which the world has already taken shape” (Ahmed, 2008).

To be concerned with the future and to avoid repeating the past, Ahmed highlights the way in which she, as a feminist, can write her coming into being a feminist through various emotions: anger, pain, love, joy, wonder, and hope. Briefly, in this section, I want to reconstruct Ahmed’s main argument regarding the relationship between emotion and feminist theory/politics since I believe it is an extension of Grosz’s prior claims about the emergence and foundation of Feminist Theory as a theory in its own right. Ahmed’s main argument is as follows:

  • 1). Gender permeates all aspects of social life, hence it is constitutive of our being-in-the-world in a fundamental way.
    2). Feminist anger is directed towards an object that has gone by various names (patriarchy, sexism, misogyny, sexual division of labor) but shares the same quality of pain and oppression constituting women’s everyday lives.
    3). Anger already implies a reading of the world, thus it begins with a reading of a specific object and moves on toward the world itself (due to point 1).
    4). When Feminist anger becomes a critique of “what is,” it becomes “a critique that loses an object.” Through this loss of an object, Feminism opens up the potentials that are not found in the present organization of society.

It is from these four main claims, and read in relation to Elizabeth Grosz’s definition of Feminist Theory, that we come to understand the concept of a Feminist AxiomaticsThrough the reading of Grosz and Ahmed, we can come to a set of conclusions as to what constitutes Feminist Theory as Theory and why is Feminist Theory, in this line of thinking, understood to be “axiomatic.” Simply stated: when Feminism becomes a critique without an object, a critique waged against the world as such, it becomes once again a Theory a la Grosz; that is to say, when one aims at a critique of the world as such, the task is not to name, describe, and diagnose the world (although this may be done along the way). Rather, the project of a feminist axiomatics becomes the creation and establishment of a world where gender and sexuality no longer operate as oppressive relations, no longer perpetuate and continuously solidify stratified and socialized inequality, where this project is founded on the principles of Feminist Theory itself.

Towards a Feminist Axiomatics

So, what is ‘axiomatic’ about this understanding of Feminist Theory and “Feminist” about ‘axiomatics’? The term axiomatics, indebted to the concept of the axiom, is borrowed from Alain Badiou’s own understanding of the relationship between politics and justice – where politics is the collective and voluntaristic decision making of the body politic and justice does not signify a unity or stability, but an instability, a rupture, with the current state of affairs. For Badiou, the status of the axiom in his ontology, just as it is with the status of choice in politics and metapolitics, is not something taken for granted or assumed to be true prior to investigation. Rather, axioms are only ‘true,’ or gain the status of intelligible through their application in the process of which they are a part. That is to say, the intelligibility of an axiom cannot be separated from the demonstration of its Truth: “choice has its intelligibility neither in the objective collective nor in a subjectivity of opinion. Its intelligibility is internal, in the sequential process of action, just as an axiom is intelligible only through the application of the theory that it supports” (Badiou, 2005).

In regards to Feminism and Feminist Theory, what makes Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism a feminist axiomatics is due to their shared investment in the idea that what is axiomatic and foundational for theory and politics does precede the process of politics itself. As Grosz writes, a feminist axiomatics is not simply one method among others. It is the search for a new method where theory is sexual, political, gender infused, and understood as historically and politically produced – that there is, at bottom, not simply truth but a ‘politics of truth:’ “feminist theory is involved in continuing explorations of and experimentation with new forms of writing, new methods of analysis, new positions of enunciation, new kinds of discourse…Instead of attempting to establish a new theoretical norm, feminist theory seeks a new discursive space, a space where women can write, read and think as women” (Grosz, 1986). In a similar sentiment, Ahmed writes at the end of her essay: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,’ even when the meaning of the word is not decided in advance, indeed because it is not decided and because it has effects that are, as yet, not lived. So we say it, and we say it with a certain kind of love, a love that is impure, and not easy, but one that might give us life, a life that has all the vitality of the living, even if it is a life that has yet to take form” (Ahmed, 2008).

It is this idea, of a feminism that remains faithful to all the ways in which it is yet to be decided what it means to be a feminist at this specific historical, political, social, and economic situation that constitutes the axiomatics of Grosz’s and Ahmed’s feminism. For each show us, in their own way, that what is most important about “being a feminist” is the relationship between the lived experience of women and the feminine and the coupling of that experience with intellectual work. To be clear, feminists (political and/or intellectual) do not need Badiou to educate them on the various ways being a feminist constitutes a yet to be decided position with regards to the world as such. The bringing together of Badiou and Feminist Theory is an attempt to show how a thinker such as Badiou has the potential to be brought into conversation with feminist intellectuals and activists, and for this reason, must take into account the claims and method of feminist theory itself. Hence the “towards” in the title of this post: bringing together Badiou with Grosz and Ahmed is a first attempt to move toward a conversation where each can benefit, intellectually and politically, from their shared commitments to the axiomatic quality of their thought. Each thinker, in their own way, is a subject of a truth (where they are faithful to an Event – be it May ’68, the birth of Feminist Theory as a necessary counter part to feminist politics, or the commitment to a future that does not replicate the past) that aims to derive its Truth, as a subject, immanently from the situation itself. Thus, we say once more and along with Ahmed: “And so, everyday, we might be compelled to declare “I am/we are feminists,” even when it has effects that are, as yet, not lived” (Ahmed, 2008).