Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you stare long into the abyss, the abyss will stare back into you.
In addition to being anarchic what best characterises power—any power—is its natural capacity to turn human bodies into objects.
—Pier Paolo Pasolini
There is an old French saying that there is no love; only evidence of love. Deeds are the embodiment of feeling; they prove its existence, as nothing else can. For our feelings of hatred, rage, revulsion, attraction or love to take more than notional form, we must act upon them, we must put our bodies and our being at stake in the world.
In Ireland, as in some other countries, the lack of a popular response to the elite sadism of the austerity era raises the question of the presence or absence of the empathetic feeling. No matter how deep the cut, no matter how grievous the wounds of austerity are to the social body, no matter how much pain the elite inflict on the mass, for their own good, the dominated and abused majority seem so far to be unable or unwilling to offer a serious response, one with any intent or hope of undermining the systemic power dynamics at work. We keep our heads down, getting on with things, hoping to get by. Never mind what happens to our neighbours, our workmates, or on the council estate down the road. We seem to have individually committed ourselves to being socially unconcerned.
Empathy is a defining characteristic of the post-enlightenment conception of what it means to be human. Therefore this numbness-to-my-neighbour in turn poses the question of existence and non-existence, of human being and non-being. How can we be real if we do not feel for each other?
Notwithstanding the militant exceptions, distant wars hardly seem to move us either, except for the parts which are selected by the masters of war for us to be moved by. When Afghans or Palestinians are slaughtered in droves, a few carefully manipulated images accompanied by the droll narration of a press release from the murderers flash across our screens. Thereafter a kind of prophetic silence closes over the fate of the victims, the embalming silence of a frozen planet in the void.
The fake-neutrality of the newsreader as he or she narrates imperialist aggression—echoed in the fake-neutral narration of the feminicides in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—is a sonic abstract of this uncaring world. It is numbness, the soul of stone, in acoustic form.
Conversely, when Bin Laden was shot down Rambo-style by agents of the terror which gave birth to him, there was an outbreak of glee in the newsrooms, voices going up a peppy octave over images of gloating in all the palaces, and of sanctioned popular whooping in the Great Capital, a kind of mass collective ejaculation. The death of the hunted gives great satisfaction.
Even if we do not celebrate the blood-rites of the victor, and to be fair most of us do not, we still remain remarkably unaffected by events which, if conscience is any more than the illusory construct of theologians and philosophers, would surely send us into shock and provoke some kind of a collective shock response.
But perhaps we are in profound shock. Our numbness may not be the opposite of shock but a development of it, a deeper symptom of a shock response. Shock is the condition a body or system (body of bodies) enters into when external stimuli threaten to overwhelm it, putting its continuing existence into doubt. Numbness is a strategy of survival in extremis. It is the last condition before death, as indeed it is, epidurally so, before many a birth. Whether it is one of dying or of being born, we may numb our way through a crisis, but what if there is nothing but crisis? Do we eventually become nothing but numbness?
Let’s try and get an answer for these questions from Freddy Kruger and then land the same ones on the Medusa, by way of Swift, De Sade, and, crucially, Roberto Bolaño. Approaching brute and naked horror, we may come into the presence of the oracular.
I was thirty-five before I encountered the Medusa, but Freddy touched down in my neighbourhood, waving his girl-slicing finger blades, much sooner than that. He arrived in 1986 in a Trireme from hell we called the vidjo. Along with Freddy, out filed John Rambo, Paul Kersey, Michael Myers and all the other infernal argonauts of the nineteen-eighties’ culture industry.
I conceive of the arrival of these heroes of the western lands in Clonakilty in their space-time vidjo-machine as the final phase in the reconquering of the rebel west. It allowed the empire to attempt to regulate our minds in the way that it had been able to do to our bodies for centuries.
But we didn’t experience the discipline of the vidjo as mental occupation, we experienced it perversely, as liberation. It was not our loss, we thought, but our gain. Not only did the vidjo introduce a bewitching element of choice to our cultural habits—strictly within the limits imposed by the film industry of course—but it also allowed us to examine in detail what we had previously not even been allowed to imagine—the naked body of the female, in motion.
There was straightforward video-porn doing the rounds of course, but twelve year olds rarely caught a gander at that. The female body we were allowed to see as children, seated in front of the TV in our family groups, was either one being repetitively torn apart by a serial killer, or one being voluntarily offered as a spoil of victory to the all-glorious slaughterer of Asian and communist hordes. Flesh was rarely served without blood to follow for dessert, or vice versa, depending on the genre. Sex and murder were getting mixed up in our heads. This is the potency of empire; its sex-death magic. The empire lives on by killing the other, creates by destroying alternatives. We were being mindfucked by Moloch.
What we were exposed to in those first few enchanted months of the vidjo was essentially a pedagogy of domination. We were taught what groups held absolute power, and what groups were subject to it. We were taught the various zones of encounter and enforcement—sites of conflict and incarceration—between the powerful and the weak: the Asian jungle, the inner city, the prison, the bedroom, the desiring body. We were inculcated in the catechistic narratives constructed around these fault-lines and within which power constantly reinscribes and renews its legitimacy, which is the legitimacy of permanent and inevitable victory, the strongest of all possible legitimacies. In the words of Thatcher: There is no Alternative. The nineteen-eighties were programmed as the end of history.
Solidarity with the oppressed, empathy in concrete and socially progressive form, in this frame, is nothing but idiot suicide. But if you stick to the winners, little man, doing what they do, saying what they say, thinking what they want you to think, they can make you invincible and ten foot tall. With a self-reloading mega-dick that blasts away all enemies, a sexual and military genie you will be.
We were being instructed to despise and to mock the weak. We were being taught not only to admire, to applaud, and to identify with the serial killers of ‘gooks’ and the serial dismemberers of young women but also, at some unconscious and deeply rooted neurobiological level, to desire these horrors and to feel a libidinous kind of relief when they occurred.
It does not matter whether the individual directors, actors and so on involved in these films are or are not aware of their organic function within the body of Moloch. Cells do not have to be conscious to be capable of carrying out their instructions. Nor does Moloch have to be conscious of what allows it to survive. A body is a set of adaptive organic reflexes found to be systemically useful over long periods of time. These mostly function unconsciously, though surgical or medical interventions can be made to refine, improve, repair, or indeed to concentrate their functionality. Video
nasties and war-narratives are part of the unconscious health of imperialism. If they didn’t work for it, they wouldn’t be there.
Ours is obviously not the first society to be organised around insensitivity. Numbness to the suffering of others has been organically fundamental to the survival and the sustenance of all hierarchical societies. Hierarchies are always built on division, exclusion and mass suffering, and consequently on numbness. Hacking away this numbness-at-the-root has always been a motive force in radical philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Because so much is revealed at the sites of shock—i.e. at shocked and shocking bodies—writers have often used the representation of shock to develop a concentrated image of the social totality they want to critique.
Witness the Christian humanist Jonathan Swift in A Modest Proposal satirically calling to account the landlords and burghers of early modern Dublin for the woeful condition of the poor:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.
This is a bitter parodic attack on social hierarchy and injustice; an attack which contains the hope of a victory. The notion of the wealthy cannibalising the children of the poor allegorises the reality of the economic ruthlessness of class relations in Swift’s Dublin. Swift’s Christian humanism may have allowed him to hope that, by launching such an extreme assault from within the citadel of his own class, he could convince at least some of them to become more charitable to the poor.
Secondly, and no less crucially, Swift’s furious satire is a challenge, even a taunt, perhaps unconsciously, to the victims themselves for being able to do nothing about their abasement. The shock satirist does not so much pity the weak as expose their pitiful image for cold-blooded examination:
it is very well known that they are every day dying and rotting by cold and famine, and filth and vermin, as fast as can be reasonably expected. And as to the young laborers, they are now in as hopeful a condition; they cannot get work, and consequently pine away for want of nourishment, to a degree that if at any time they are accidentally hired to common labor, they have not strength to perform it
This is not a lovable object being described, but a despicable one. Swift feels for the poor, but he also feels against them.
De Sade, on the other hand, has Feeling-Against-Everything. It is the entire ruthless cosmic order which must be ritually mocked, undermined and overthrown in favour of an infinitely free individual. But the freedom of the individual libido turns out in De Sade to be an obviously fake one. It is in the end only a freedom to repeatedly enter a trap in order to retrieve an instinctual treat, like a rat in a behaviourist experiment. Ritual sexual extremism follows routines which are ultimately as deadening as those followed by any prisoner.
De Sade is Machiavelli on cocaine and Viagra: the very existence of power justifies everything. Like electricity, the current of power will naturally and inevitably seek outage and transfer at its furthest limits. Nothing can exist outside of—or contradict—the always-already-inscribed power relations, which are cosmically predetermined by a nature interested in nothing but self-expansion and perpetuation.
As there is no outside to power, and no internal contradiction to it, all the rebel can do is hopelessly imitate the routines and indeed the pomp of power in their individual existences, turning the bedroom into a perfect fractal of the aristocratic social hierarchy and of the cosmically inscribed division of nature into strong and weak forces.
The only real option for the weak—the vast mass of the world that is—is mute and willing submission. This is what makes De Sade’s writings embody, at one and the same time, a metaphysics of infinite individual revolt and a metaphysics of infinite political despair. His anti-heroes seek to exhaust experience in order to destroy it. Inflicting pain and humiliation on others, ritually, is a ritual means of erasing the self. It’s all a kind of aristocratic suicide, a Götterdämmerung of the brothel-keepers, turning the self-hatred of the decadent and declining aristocracy back upon life itself.
De Sade’s frenzy is to shut the universe right back in its zero-box, right back in its bang. He is the nihilist par excellence. His works show a world in which there is no possible escape from relations of domination and submission. There only remains for the powerful to grow ever greater and more barbaric and for the weak to suffer ever more mutely and horribly. Imagination, in this picture, is only oppression’s baroque. The intelligentsia, artists included, if they are not consciously opposing power, are serving it, whatever their grand illusions or their ceremonial posting.
For all of these reasons, De Sade’s works are among the key political allegories of our times. In fact, no writer I know of has come closer to a narrative distillation of the operations of power in modern societies. In Justine, the eponymous heroine is passed into the keeping of a string of representatives of the ruling class: clerics, noblemen, statesmen, businessmen. Each one poses as her saviour. Each one then goes on to be an even more barbarous abuser than the last. I trust that the contemporary relevance of this is obvious.
120 Days Of Sodom is set in a remote medieval castle, the Château de Silling, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, detached from the rest of the world and not set at any specific point in time. Four wealthy Libertines lock themselves away along with a number of victims and accomplices. They listen to various tales of depravity from four veteran prostitutes, which inspire them to engage in similar activities with their victims. These activities include the anal and vaginal gang-rape of children, and forced coprophagia.
It is easy to see the Château de Silling as prefiguring Abu Ghraib or Guantanomo, but it also stands for any impenetrable domain of absolute power protected not only by deployment of brute force, but also by the conspiracy known as consent. Nothing is done in Château De Silling that didn’t happen a hundred times over in the industrial schools and Magdalene laundries of the Irish church-state child-abuse system, with very nearly all but the victims’ consent.
The daughters of the globalised Maquiladora poor, close to the bottom of the new world order, are the victims of a terminal barbarism stalking the pages of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which is 120 Days of Sodom come back to life.
The twentieth century has passed, and things have turned out much worse than De Sade could have guessed. The closer we get to contemporary reality the more shocking—ostensibly—things become. Bolaño’s subject matter is not allegorical but documentary. In ‘the part about the crimes,’ the fourth part out of five in a long and complex masterpiece, Bolaño narrates in the neutral tone of a police report the forensic details of the seemingly endless series of feminicides taking place in the northern Mexican border town of St Teresa, his novelistic pseudonym for Ciudad Juárez. The accounts of the murders are barely fictionalised at all except for the nominal changes necessary to take account of the feelings of the surviving relatives. Everything that is allegorical fantasy in De Sade is inflicted for real on the sexually tortured, gang-raped prostitutes, sweat-shop mothers and child-labourers of Mexico.
All the evidence suggests that it is the Ciudad Juárez elite—a crossbreed of narco-gangster and police bureaucrat, corporate jet-set and local oligarch—who are kidnapping and killing these hundreds upon hundreds of women. No one is ever caught because no one is really investigating, though of course police rituals are performed. In Mexico, as elsewhere, the police protect the vampires. As Officer Epifanio Galindo tells us in 2666, there is no such thing as modern criminal investigation.
Bolaño’s textual performance of neutrality—the numbness of the official narrator—is several orders more terrifying and abyssal than the allegorical exaggerations of Swift the humanist or the libidinal frenzy of De Sade, the atheist anti-humanist. It is the embodiment of a post-humanist perspective which is perhaps more properly thought of as the absence of hope rather than the presence of despair.
The concrete form of hope in history is political and cultural opposition. In Swift social hierarchy is countered by the liberal conscience, which flowered into enlightenment and bourgeois revolt. In De Sade power is countered by the illiberal plenitude of desire, a foretaste perhaps of the sexual revolt of the nineteen-sixties and seventies. In Bolaño’s carefully documented neo-liberal hell there is no counter-power, no dream of change. The social movements that Bolaño refers to in 2666 are so weak, degraded, and insignificant as to serve to reinforce the hopelessness.
The bodies of the poor and the working class in 2666 are absolutely dominated by the rich, inside the factory and beyond it. Their deadly sexual objectification is the logical and inevitable extension of their commodification as low-paid labour units in the Maquiladoras. But the relationship between economic commodification and physical objectification is not the true subject of 2666. This has been adequately covered elsewhere. Everyone already knows that the rich can choose according to their whim whether to fuck the poor or put them to other work.
Bolaño’s subject is more abyssal still; it is the metaphysical and even biophysical consequences for humanity of the fact that nobody anywhere seems to care or to be willing to do anything about the Ciudad Juárez feminicides. Isn’t being human, post enlightenment, supposed to be about empathy, the capacity to feel for others and, based on this, the desire and the willingness to work along with them to improve the lot of all? Is this conscious collective progressive effort not what distinguishes us from the Darwinian ruthlessness of the animal order?
So Bolanó’s inquiry is not into feeling for or feeling against the poor but into not feeling for them at all. 2666 suggests that even if we were to try to feel we would not be able to. It’s too late. In Bolaño’s vision of a creeping spiritual apocalypse, we cannot recover the capacity for feeling, nor the illusion that a just human order may be emergent in our residual empathethic capacity. Images of human insubstantiality abound in 2666—the parodied establishment Mexican writers have no shadows!—signaling that the erosion of the empathetic faculty is also the substantial loss of our species-being. The end of empathy snuffs out the humanising drive to revolt. Bolaño suggests that inside the ever-hardening and ever-deepening shell of human unbeing under neo-liberal imperialism, a new creature is emerging, a creature made of stone.
Here is the abyssal stare of Inspector Juan De Dios Martinez thinking about the four heart attacks Hermina Noriega suffered before she died (Noriega, thirteen years old, was gang-tortured-raped-murdered over a period of days in a house in a middle-class housing estate):
he turned on the TV and watched late night shows broadcast across the desert from the four cardinal points, at that late hour he could get Mexican channels and American channels, channels with crippled madmen who galloped under the stars and uttered unintelligible greetings, in Spanish or English or Spanglish, every last fucking word unintelligible, and then Juan De Dios Martinez set his coffee cup on the table and covered his face with his hands and a faint and precise sob escaped his lips, as if he were weeping or trying to weep, but when finally he removed his hands, all that appeared, lit by the TV screen, was his old face, his old skin, stripped and dry, and not the slightest trace of a tear.
It was between the pages of 2666, sitting in front of the TV screen along with Inspector Martinez and the rest of my family, watching video nasties, that I finally understood the Medusa. I understood that the longer we go on without confronting the congenital barbarism of our rulers, the more we prove we do not feel for each other at all, the less substantial and the more meaningless and—as Swift among others foresaw—the more repulsive the figure of the human becomes. I understood that the emergent, potential, historically contingent species I belonged to and be-longed for—one of empathy, consciousness, justice, solidarity, and love—could only be created and sustained by actions that substantiated those ideals. This means revolt, and nothing but revolt, continuous and uncompromising, against all the forces and the processes of class rule.
In general this involves simply getting active on an equal basis with others in the exploited majority, from all walks of life, and forcing a change, a la the Egyptians. Their recent epochal revolt smithereened, for one thing, the widespread racist myth of Arab passivity. The Irish revolution will be just as unexpected as the Egyptian one was. As the scouts say, Be Prepared.
But what does revolt mean in a writerly sense? It means, I think, to follow the passion of Harold Pinter, who, in his Nobel acceptance speech—a speech the fake-neutrals at the BBC refused to broadcast because of its anti-imperialist content—advised writers to smash the mirror. I take this to mean a committed refusal to be taken in by the pomp of queens and presidents, of generals and cardinals, of economic ‘experts’ and of chief execs. I take it to mean not turning your gaze away from the ruthless means by which the ruling class maintain their power, no matter what the bribe is. I take it to mean actively taking the side of the oppressed in your work and ignoring any absurd anti-political literary taboos. I take it to mean working in words to capture unflinchingly the shocking image of power and, shocking back, to break it up, to weaken it, to reveal it to the other, to disenchant the world for your neighbour, and to change the dead stone back into living human flesh.