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In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

Larvel Subjects emerges from his coccon to spread his wet-wings in a new sun. In this thought-post , he objects to what he calls “kumbaya politics”, specific it seems to the humanism of the some from the academic Left. While I have no idea what events he is responding to (a post, a book read, a professor he quarreled with?), and thus cannot trace the real target of his thinking, there is an important thought in his semi-argument which inspires thoughts on abstractions of opposition (While I use Larvel Subject’s declamations here, my thoughts are directed beyond whatever political position he holds. In so doing I approach not only aspects of his argument, but the way that they connect to the Revolutionary, Marxist politics we here recently have been discussing: concepts necessary of radical breaks. They are the platform for ruminations.):

Here it is not a question of being tolerant or recognizing that “everyone is human”. Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests. However, no matter how nice these people are, when faced with a system that causes so much human misery and such disproportionate privilege, certainly it follows that the friend/enemy distinction is entirely operative. In fact, what is disgusting is not the operation of the friend/enemy distinction, but those who would deny its presence, treating the field of struggle as if it were flat and everyone were in the same position.

To my ear this supposed dichotomy betweeen the “tender-hearted” human (which is co-operative and communal) and the “animal” (which is driven by warring self-interest) is one of the most enduring and naive projections around. It is founded upon the largely Christian message that there are divine and animal parts of the human being: the selfishness of primative, animal, affective, emotional interests, versus the angelic, other-worldly “human” state. Its jarring that intellectuals still think this way. What is animal in us (all of us being animal) is not particularly some kind of naturalized “prey upon each other” penchant for “cruelty on one another”, but all of our behaviors. Not only do animals attack and kill one another, but they also commune with great intimacy and sacrifice, negotiate boundaries, modify their environments and any number of complexly related interactions. Larval Subjects seems to feel that because we are not just human beings but animals, and animals naturally “pursue their own interests” there is an inherent contradiction between human pursuits of interests, and our animal ones. While it is certainly admitted that the “friend/enemy distinction” is “operative” (who would deny this, I have no idea), they question is, what place does such a distinction have in politics? What good does it serve? (It is a mistake to make of the friend/enemy distinction some kind of naturalized Good animal expression: all our expressions are animal ones.)

The Traps of Oppositional Thinking

What is at stake here, in praise of academics who suppose the friend/enemy distinction not only to be operative, but essential, is what I read to be Oppositional Thinking: my thoughts become most clear to me, and others, to the degree that they are in opposition to something other (to some principle, or more readly, some persons who are the enemy). The difficulty with Oppositional Thinking, in particular that of the political realm, is that when one thinks consistently in this way and begins to identify oneself within an essential opposition, a curious thing seems to happen. Your personal investment is no longer in the defeat of the very thing that have declared yourself in opposition to, but rather in the perpetuation of very state of opposition itself. In just this way one actually works to preserve the very thing you have declared you wish to overcome. The enemy gives you purpose.

It is precisely this kind of projective imagination that seems in play when nostalgia-ridden academics require only the complete end to Capitalism as proof that justice has been achieved (or even substantially pursued). The cry is “Yes, a lot of things have changed, but that is still Capitalism!” It is that we must invent newer and newer forms of Capitalism, just as a fundamentalist Christian has to invent newer and newer manifestations of the Devil, in order to maintain the authority of our protest voice, and really the coherence of our own identities as protesters.

Living In the Land of the Enemy

Beyond this descriptive insistence in which the enemy continually has to be recreated, I believe that one also invents a strange sort of detachment from one’s own investments in the world, one’s day to day connections to lived lives. Like born-agains, one is living-in-enemy-territory, painfully partaking in the very forms of supposed universal cruelty of the System, losing track of the complexities of local violences (how deleterious, I have often thought, is even a frown worn throughout the day, or a person habitually ignored, as it spreads its ripples across attendant faces.) Further, this detachment actually allows one to actively invest in the very systematic structures that one theoretically objects to. For instance a professor argues against heirarchial knowledge systems in a way that in practice manifestly performs and trains them, inculcating her or his students in the classroom. The abuses and cruelties of human relations can often be clearly evident in professor feifdom mentalities of knowledge-as-jargon power that make up professor/student exchanges. By and large, projections of wholesale and systematic friend/enemy distinctions promote detachments from real relations (lived) such that war is imagined by academics to be only something that can be accomplished in the Heavens of ontological disputes. “Yes, I am guilty of Capitalist Relations, but I fight the good fight up there in the Ethersphere!” is the confession.

I believe something of this kind of thinking/detachment can also be seen in Larval Subject’s notion of “objective guilt”. It is interesting, if not an outright confusion, that he qualifies his participation on Capitalism as “non-intentional” instead of simply “animal” self-interest:

Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.

It is not without coincidence that it is immediately following this self-confession that the myth of the non-tender-hearted animal is presented, to bookend the justification of one’s course in life. I am not too-guilty of the crimes of Capitalism because a) Explicitly, I do not intend to be, and b) Implicitly, I am an animal and just naturally pursuant of self-interest. This seems precisely the kind of internal contradiction and self-justification that is generated in Oppositional Thinking: an under-grounding myth of naturalized forces, and detachment from real-world, lived relations under the category of (entirely human) “intentionality”.

It is not just that such enemy-making thought leads to a kind of performative self-contradiction, an identity entrapment for the loyal believers, but it also leads to a practical restriction on where people look for real-world solutions to problems of injusitice. To take a small example. If one is a priori committed to the view that something called “Capitalism” is inherently evil, some kind of pervading monstrous, crushing influence, the very notion that one might turn to Capitalism itself for solutions becomes foreclosed. Microcredit with its power to transform societies of poverty through the lending of money to the most impoverished and disempowered in small increments can become simply the perceived infiltration of an insideous force, the enemy creeping within. One’s fantasy-space of premises shapes the very models of our freedoms, a fantasy-space that can seldom come under review for those who have memorized the founding tenets of analysis.

The Animal Within

To return to the picture of the “animal” within. There is a mistaken conception of the Animal that presumes that “war of all against all” is somehow the most natural and essential of states, and that we all must be soberly loyal, as animals to this fact. This requires some form of non-animal abstract social contract (Hobbes), or sublimation of primitive parts (Freud), but also a rightful embrace of what is deeper: pure “self-interest”. Self-interest is in my view necessarily other-interest. Not only in human beings, but in the “lower” animals as well. Yes, the friend/enemy distinction is operative, but it is not essential. It is context dependent and something often best overcome. One is never naturally my enemy. The myth of an essentially segregated “self-interest” buried in the animal is one that has paid very little attention to real animals in the world, a myth that requires essentialized kinds presumed to be in essential opposition. Oppositional Thinking in the same way often requires the imaginary projection of an enemy that one works to perpetuate both in the imaginary and material sense, so as to maintain one’s meaningful position in the world, seeing the hand of the Devil everywhere, so that one can fight it (and with far-cast eyes fail to see what one is actively invested in).

[Addendum: Anodynelite has a wonderful post up which also has some connection to the friend/enemy distinction:

I am more than happy to make friend/enemy distinctions, to draw lines in the political sand. But from here, it does not follow that I believe “radical breaks” are possible, or that friend/enemy distinctions are always productive intellectually. I do not believe that because friend/enemy distinctions exist within a political economy that we have carte blanche when it comes to “revolutionary violence” as a means to our political ends. I do not believe that modes of non-violent resistance necessarily preclude friend/enemy distinctions; quite the contrary, I believe that the most effective and ruthlessly efficient methods of resistance at our disposal are non-violent.

Here: Latour has Answers ]