The Story of High School

Imperial Stormtrooper with two high school girls

Photo by Danny Choo / CC BY-SA 2.0

I just started watching an anime series titled Beyond the Boundary. Yes, another one. This particular series is about a high school boy teaming up with his classmate to hunt down monsters. The animation is good, though the story’s a bit clichéd on the relationship front. In the end, I like it well enough as something to decompress with after a long day.

What strikes me, though, is the realization that there are a hell of a lot of anime series set in high school. Thinking about it some more, though, I have to admit that there are actually a lot of stories – anime and otherwise – set in high school.

The Japanese high school story is distinct from the American high school story, but both versions largely elide what takes up the majority of an actual high school student’s life: academics. We are shown scenes from before class, after class, whispered conversations during class, and interruptions during homework and study after school, but simply going from what is depicted we could not appreciate that these scenes are tiny particles of a student’s personal life snatched from the all-devouring temporal maw of the modern educational system. The state desires citizens and it will keep children in a totalizing and regulated environment until something more compliant comes out. Or until something not quite fitting into the system jumps out, but that’s mostly okay too, since modern society also needs poor people to exploit.

But we move away from the central topic. Like Don Quixote’s romantic tales of chivalry, which never mention knights-errant packing clean shirts or budgeting their travelling expenses, the high school story takes it for granted that the audience understands that the dull banalities of everyday life are being handled by the characters offscreen while the interesting stuff happens front and centre.

Inherently, then, the high school story is a fantasy story, for what is modern life but a collection of dull banalities, and what is fiction but an escape from those banalities? Here is what matters, says the high school story. Here, romance blossoms and ends, friends come and tearfully go, rivals clash and compete, adventure strikes, life is lived. Here is something better than reality – here is truth.

But this truth can only be found in fiction. Who has time to investigate a mystery or sabotage a date or spy on a committee meeting or do any one of the thousand clichés found in fiction? Who has time when ever more minutes of ever more days are increasingly scheduled and regulated and penciled in? And when one has free time, one must be preparing for the period when one does not. Get enough sleep, study, wash your school and work clothes, prepare your lunch for the next day, shop for groceries to make lunch with, and so on everyday over and over.

This explains the prevalence of the high school story. High school is essentially the last period in a middle class person’s life where they’re old enough to have grown-up wishes but young enough to have free time. Not as much as in previous generations, but certainly more then they would as young adults. And unlike undergrads, should things get too bad for a high school student then they still have the psychological safety blanket of running to mom and dad for help.

We fantasize about what we do not have, and what we fantasize about is doing anything else besides what we’re supposed to. Our secret yearnings are for some rose-coloured and nonexistent past when there were enough rules to protect us but not enough to constrict us.

Most of us don’t want to do what we’re currently doing. Why else does procrastination take place, and why else should so many Youtube videos be watched in the middle of the work day? People who lived outside of the strictures and constraints of the state did not all live happy and fulfilling lives, but they certainly spent a lot less time doing things they loathed. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen” is a guiding principle for them, not an insult. If I’m hungry I eat, if I’m sleepy I go to bed, and if I’m unhappy doing something I find something else to do.

From the problem, we come to the solution. But what solution? What could a better world look like? I think it would involve less regulation, less constriction, less hierarchy. In other worlds, less of the state and more anarchism. But whatever this better world looks like, I think we can all agree that it won’t look like the one we have right now.

A closing thought to ponder on – if alien archaeologists were to find the remains of extinct humanity millions of years hence, they might erect this epitaph: “Here lies the human race. They spent most of their time grinning and bearing it.”

I accidentally wrote a Cormac McCarthy fanfic

Lately I’ve been considering the moral underpinnings of the nut shot and how it relates to the debate on the existence of God.

I’ve asked around and found that most guys have taken multiple blows to the testicles over the course of their lives. This result was surprising to me since I figured that the crippling pain of the experience would discourage the possibility of repeats, but life throws us curve balls occasionally.

So, long story short, I wrote a pastiche in the style of Cormac McCarthy pontificating majestically about nut shots. Think of it as the opening for a magisterial work examining the experience of suffering.

I’ve titled this piece “So You’ve Been Kicked in the Testicles”.

So You’ve Been Kicked in the Testicles

The pain of being kicked in the testicles is not merely a physical pain but an existential one, which is to say that the pain is not contained in one part of the body but rather located throughout the entirety of one’s existence. When crippled by a blow to the groin, time loses all meaning and it feels as if one’s entire life has been spent with stabbing pains on the crotch.

Better and worse is the experience of seeing others receive a blow to the groin. It’s a sight uniquely tinged with both sympathy and hilarity in equal measure. There’s a recognition of pain, an empathetic understanding of living with the savage terror of existence in our uncaring universe, but there’s also the joy born of relief that the one so bedevilled is not oneself. The blow to the testicles lays bare the fiction of a just world, for there is no fairness in the disproportionate anguish caused by a random testicular blow. Faced with this fundamental injustice, how else can one react but with laughter?

Feminist horror films

Horror films and feminism don’t tend to go together. There’s nothing inherently misogynistic about horror if you simply go by its technical description: a film genre seeking to elicit a negative emotional reaction from viewers by playing on the audience’s primal fears. What’s misogynistic about scary things happening? However, in practice horror films reinforce gender stereotypes and punish nonconformity.

But why should this be so? Why are horror films full of sexually licentious women being murdered as karmic punishment for their sins? Why is emasculation and violence such a large part of horror movies? Why do horror movies inevitably begin with a stereotypically peaceful and content nuclear family as a representation of the normal before having this singular perfection disordered by outsiders? Because at their core, most horror movies are based on what horrifies men.

I could go into a long screed about how Hollywood is male-dominated and how the male perspective is the default and unmarked viewpoint in most mainstream cinema. However, you should already know this, and if you don’t, then I’m telling you now that this is how it is. That isn’t what interests me right now.

Instead, I simply want to assert that this hegemony cannot apply everywhere. Surely there must be horror films where women are not mere victims. Surely there are horror films which a feminist can watch.

Of course, to have redeeming value it’s not enough for a horror film to simply have Strong Female Characters. They’re everywhere nowadays, which is rather tiresome. More importantly, they’re all the same. So what if a woman is good at violence? Is this something that’s necessarily positive? They’re not so much characters as stereotypes, and boring ones as well.

So what follows herewith is my own attempt at making a list of feminist horror, omitting those with Strong Female Characters. In no particular order:

  1. Ginger Snaps
    • The first example that springs to mind because it was specifically made to meet the challenge of making a horror film that wasn’t misogynistic. It succeeded, in spades. Briefly, it’s a werewolf movie that explicitly compares the monthly cycle to menstruation, a premise which in retrospect seems rather obvious.
  2. The Descent
    • An all-female group of spelunkers encounters monsters underground. The characters are strong and female, but they’re not Strong Female Characters. They have private griefs and unvoiced guilt and burning drives and passions. In short, they have inner universes and human feelings. I liked how subtle the movie is regarding the motivations of the women.
  3. The Company of Wolves
    • The movie is about the Little Red Riding Hood story but foregrounding the sexual terror, which to be fair is so prominent in the original that it’s barely subtext. The film ends with an admonishment towards girls to beware of men, just to remind the audience exactly what the whole thing was about.
      • Little girls, this seems to say
      • Never stop upon your way,
      • Never trust a stranger friend,
      • No-one knows how it will end,
      • As you’re pretty, so be wise,
      • Wolves may lurk in every guise.
      • Now, as then, ’tis simple truth:
      • Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.”
  4. Byzantium
    • A mother and daughter pair of immortal vampires in hiding make their way to a small English town on the beach. Like the previous movie, this one was also directed by Neil Jordan, though it has a more straightforward narrative and is less in the camp of magical realism. Sadly, the movie sunk into nowhere when it was released, but hopefully it’ll be discovered by more people over time.
  5. Jennifer’s Body
    • A girl is murdered by a rock band and comes back to take her revenge. It wasn’t the greatest thing ever but it wasn’t as terrible as the online consensus was saying. Probably it’s some kind of latent nerd antipathy toward Megan Fox’s presence in the cast. I’d say the movie was solid enough.
  6. Alien
    • This has an actual strong female character but is otherwise a monster movie about an alien stalking the working class crew of a starship. It doesn’t have any specific examination of feminist concerns but Ellen Ripley is now a classic character as far as female horror protagonists go so this movie gets a pass.
  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    • A stereotypically vain and vapid cheerleader becomes a champion against the supernatural. The movie is explicitly about female empowerment but of a specifically white and middle class type of female empowerment. Still, the attempt was made, so here it is on the list.
  8. Carrie
    • This last example I’m iffy on because I haven’t seen the original or the remake. However, I feel it would be remiss of me not to at least mention this movie. I even know the gist of the story: bullied girl with psychic powers takes a bloody revenge on her tormentors. Thinking on it now, the story doesn’t seem to address specifically feminist concerns. I’ll have to make this listing provisional until I’ve actually seen the movie.

Anyway, this list should be a good starting point for a marathon. One of these days I’ll try watching these all back-to-back and see how I am come out on the other end.

Superheroes and the American Dream

Peter Parker and the fateful spider bite

From Slog:

I do drug research for a biotech company. One day, when I was taking blood samples from some rats that had been dosed with a radiolabeled (Indium 111) MS drug, the little son of a bitch bit me (not that I really blame her, we fuck them up pretty good). So, I am proud to say that I have been bitten by a radioactive rat.

I have as of yet developed no superpowers. If I do, I will let you know.

The classic superhero origin is a story of blind luck: the protagonist – still mortal, still mundane – stumbles upon a mysterious MacGuffin that transforms him (and it’s mostly “him”) into a protector of conventional morality.1 Perhaps he finds a dying alien who grants him a weapon of unimaginable power. Perhaps he discovers he was always different and that he has powers beyond the abilities of mortal men. Perhaps he is bitten by a radioactive spider and has gained the consequent abilities of arachnids. Whatever the specifics, in most superhero origins, the hero merely has his powers handed to him.

If you think about it, it’s a paradoxical idea. Are not superhero comics one of the most quintessentially American of media? Is not the pursuit of the American Dream a vital part of the American cultural narrative? Does not the very idea of reward without sacrifice go against the dour Protestant work ethic that informs American society?

And yet there exists the superhero.

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Real-Life SuperHeroes

This essay was originally posted to the No Scans Daily LiveJournal community.
The face of the superhero in real life

Following the post about which superhero universe is better to live in and the ensuing discussion on the psychology of the superhero, I thought it would be interesting to talk about the self-styled “Real-Life Superheroes” or Reals.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Anyway, these are real people who dress up in costume and go out to fight crime. Perhaps you’ve heard about them before, but if not, perhaps you might care to peruse a few articles about them.

There’s apparently even a documentary about one real-life Justice League – they call themselves Superheroes Anonymous. Okay, it’s actually an annual conference for real life superheroes, not a team.

What’s fascinating is finding out about how these Reals act and what ostensibly motivates them, and also reading between the lines and speculating about them. This is not Watchmen, Nite Owl never had a poster of Captain America in his living room. I think this is the biggest difference between our world and any comic book universe, since none of them have 80 years’ worth of superhero comics establishing what superheroes are before anyone ever tried putting on costumes and fighting crime.

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Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

For history-minded people who are also China watchers, it’s fascinating to see how China’s current drive towards accelerated industrialization resembles the historical trajectory of European industrialization.  There is, of course, the massive pile of Chinese migrant labourer bodies stacking up from various coal mine accidents, sweatshop fires, and worker riots.  All of this recalls “Western” experiences, and if you squint at the headlines in the right way you can even imagine you’re reading a news article from the 19th century.  The wealthier Chinese are even aware of this:

But an odd change has come about in some [Chinese] shoppers’ minds. As members of China’s business and political elite, they have come to believe that the world is a huge jungle of Darwinian competition, where connections and smarts mean everything, and quaint notions of fairness count for little.

I noticed this attitude on my most recent trip to China from the United States, where I moved nine years ago. So I asked a relative who lives rather comfortably to explain. “Is it fair that the household maids make 65 cents an hour while the well-connected real estate developers become millionaires or billionaires in just a few years?” I asked. He was caught off guard. After a few seconds of silence, he settled on an answer he had read in a popular magazine.

“Look at England, look at America,” he said. “The Industrial Revolution was very cruel. When the English capitalists needed land, sheep ate people.” (Chinese history books use the phrase “sheep ate people” to describe what happened in the 19th century, when tenant farmers in Britain were thrown off their land to starve so that sheep could graze and produce wool for new mills.)

“Since England and America went through that pain, shouldn’t we try to avoid the same pain, now that we have history as our guide?” I asked.

“If we want to proceed to a full market economy, some people have to make sacrifices,” my relative said solemnly. “To get to where we want to get, we must go through the ‘sheep eating people’ stage too.”

In other words, while most Chinese have privately dumped the economic prescriptions of Marx, two pillars of the way he saw the world have remained. First is the inexorable procession of history to a goal. The goal used to be the Communist utopia; now the destination is a market economy of material abundance.

Second, just as before, the welfare of some people must be sacrificed so the community can march toward its destiny. Many well-to-do Chinese readily endorse those views, so long as neither they nor their relatives are placed on the altar of history. In the end, Marx is used to justify ignoring the pain of the poor.

Certainly it’s a mealy-mouthed excuse for an excuse: It’s okay for Chinese to exploit their fellow human beings because the British did the same 150 years ago.  The British also forced the Chinese to buy British opium at gunpoint and cede Hong Kong in the Opium Wars, so my inner cynic wonders if the Chinese are also planning on doing the same thing to other countries.  Then again, the march of progress means that often the new capitalists are welcomed with open arms.

Of course, this pattern of worker abuse is not just a simple reiteration of Western history being played out by people with darker skin.  For example, no witches were ever burned in England because manufacturing jobs were scarce.  The present isn’t the past and the (cough, ahem) Third World isn’t the farcical Napoleon III to the First World’s l’Empereur, Marx’s witticism notwithstanding.

For one thing, while it may be tempting to think of all of this “stuff” as happening in foreign countries or in the past, the resurgence of Taylorism and “scientific management” (a discredited management philosophy organized around getting the most productivity out of workers and damn their health and comfort), the introduction of flexible labour and contingent work (in rural as well as in urban areas), the migration of capital and jobs, and the shrinking of the working class labour market in the “West” means that things are getting crappier where white people live too.  Some economists are even admitting this, despite the fact that most of them seem to be propagandists of global capitalism.

In fact, the globalist project has been so dismal in its rewards that it’s been traded in for straight-up nationalism in some quarters (e.g., the US, Russia, Pakistan, Japan, and so many other countries).  “Here we go again,” say the historians, though in this sequel the Indians sometimes fight off the cowboys successfully — note, though, that it’s not the absolutely downtrodden countries that are resisting successfully, but the ones that already have some power.  Lest anyone forget, remember also that the elites of those countries are hard at work exploiting their paisanos, so what we’re seeing is more like one group of elites fighting off another group of elites than the underdogs beating the five-time league champion.

All of these thoughts were triggered in me when I read about the recent fashionability of skin tanning among wealthier Chinese (via Boas Blog’s shoutout to Racialicious).  Note that light skin was previously the in-thing to have to signify one’s wealth since it’s a sign that one isn’t a common labourer working outdoors, just like in Britain before the Industrial Revolution and just like it is today in many developing countries (and let’s not forget that skin whitening creams are used by many black people in the US, UK, and the Caribbean, though they’re used for slightly different reasons than mere signifiers of wealth).  With the expansion of the airline industry, the drop in ticket prices thanks to cut-throat competition, and the greater number of vacationing middle class people created by industrialization, tanned skin has become a sign that the possessor has been to an expensive holiday overseas — again, like the way tanned skin became fashionable in Britain as a sign that the person has been to the Mediterranean, most likely during their Grand Tour of Europe, such holidaying becoming only possible by the building of railways to criss-cross the continent.

So there you have it: The more things change, the more they stay the same (barring the odd witch-burning and war on Islam here and there).

Treasures of the past

The Eternals

I have a dorky hobby.  Actually, I have several, but the one relevant to today is my hobby involving anthropology.  You see, for the last few years I’ve been compiling a list of all works of fiction where anthropologists appear as characters.  I’ve got almost three hundred books, movies, and tv shows, as well as a handful of comic books and video games and one play.  I plan on eventually putting them all on a wiki so that anyone can contribute, but for now, I want to highlight a forty year old comic book from this list: The Eternals, volume 1, issue 6, from sometime in the sixties.  I tried not to make fun of the campiness of the comic since it’s pretty much shooting fish in a barrell, but I couldn’t contain myself in a few places.

Thena of the Eternals

Anyway, there are apparently three different species of humans — regular Homo sapiens sapiens, plus the Eternals and the Deviants, antediluvian superhuman peoples living in hiding for millenia.  Which is nice and all, but apparently the space gods are coming, and, well . . .





Continue reading “Treasures of the past”

So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.

Invasion America, or Texas Hearts Part 2

Max Weber’s definition of the state is of “a relation of men dominating men [sic], a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence” (Rassmussen). Put more simply, a state is an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence over a certain group of people. Note the use of the word “legitimate.” Both of the passages I discuss in yesterday’s post examine how it is that violence is made acceptable and legitimate in modern democracies. How can modern democracies break their promises of peace and still appear peaceful? Both Comay and Povinelli, then, seek an emic understanding of this democratic violence.

Comay says that “[w]ith the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been.” She’s referring to one of the major events marking the beginning of the French Revolution, when the Third Estate (the French commoners) vowed to establish a new constitution for France based on their authority as representatives of the majority of the French population. The French revolutionaries were treasonous rebels according to the laws that existed at the time of their revolution. However, according to the revolutionaries themselves, it was the French government that was illegitimate, since it did not represent the will of most of France. Therefore, the revolutionaries were the ones enacting legitimate violence, while it was the royalists that had no authority. Or as Sir John Harrington observed,

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.

Therefore, where the authority of the king made the violence of the royalists legitimate, the authority of the people — or rather, the authority conferred by claiming to represent the people — made the violence of the revolutionaries legitimate. Which is a pretty story, but wasn’t it actually the might of the royalists that conferred authority, and wasn’t it the greater might of the revolutionaries that made them legitimate in place of the royalists? Didn’t their political power grow out of the barrels of their guns?

Yes and no. Ideology isn’t just a justification for violence. It’s also a reason for it. The Third Estate rebelled because they wanted more power (to put it crassly), but they wanted more power because they thought they had the greater legitimacy.

In the passage from Povinelli, she examines how violence and liberal democracies can coexist, how violence is made acceptable in a liberal democracy. While Hegel, by way of Comay, says that democracies by their very nature demand violence, Povinelli describes the twists and turns in logic liberal democracies take to make their violence seem reasonable and rational.

It seems to me, though, that asking why democracies are violent isn’t the right question. Rather, I think it’s more interesting to ask why democracies shouldn’t be violent. All democracies are states and all states are violent, so why should democracies be an exception?

There are many theories of state formation that are empirically supported by archaeological and historical evidence. In truth, states probably formed for different reasons and for combinations of reasons. However, one of these reasons was for the organization of people for the purposes of violence — in other words, for war. In this theory, the ultimate cause of state warfare is the development of agriculture. Hunter-gatherer societies can’t accumulate material surpluses, since the resources they depend on cannot be stored for long periods. The domestication of plants, however, means that grain be stored, and more crucially, that it can be stolen. Therefore comes raiding parties to capture that grain, and therefore states are needed to both organize for and defend against the seizure of resources. Or so goes the simplified evolutionary schema taught in undergrad anthropology courses.

Just as with the birth of the French Republic, so the birth of states was also fraught with violence. State formation is not simply marked by violence; rather, it was for purposes of violence that states were formed. All states are violent and all democracies are states; therefore, all democracies are violent. Individual states may be extinguished by the violent actions of other states, or even by the violent reactions of their own citizens, but despite this, states still act out in violence. So how could one expect a democracy to act in any other way?

Asked the frog of the scorpion, “Why did you sting me in the back as I was carrying us both across the river? Now we will surely drown.” “I couldn’t help it,” replied the scorpion. “It was my nature.”

Deep in the heart of not-Texas

This post is going to be heavier than my normal writing. I can’t help it, I found something last night that tickled my fancy. I just had to write about this issue, especially since it will never appear in my thesis, even though I find it absolutely fascinating. Very well, then, onwards!

While reading s0metim3s’ blog (chock full of theory and Battlestar Galactica — two great tastes that taste great together), I came across her post about an article by Rebecca Comay [NB: link is now defunct] on Hegel’s analysis of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. This quote in particular is interesting:

For Hegel, unlike for Kant, the revolution is a block: the terror cannot be surgically excised as a local anomaly, deformation, or betrayal of its founding principles, the revolution does not splinter into essential and inessential, structural and incidental. Indeed any attempt to define the chronological boundaries of the terror — to confine it to a sixteen-month interval as a temporary deviation from the revolution — arguably only prolongs the persecutory logic that is contained (a paradox exemplified by the Thermidorian counterterrorist reaction and the virulent culture of denunciation it perpetuated: Thermidor is itself the prototype of every war on terrorism).

For Hegel, therefore, the terror proper begins not with the law of 22 Prairial, not with the law of suspects, not with the regicide in January 1793, not with the king’s arrest and trial, not with the September massacres of 1792, not with the riots at the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, not with the suspensive veto of the 1791 Constitution, and not with the storming of the Bastille. Hegel backdates the terror to the very onset of the revolution, if not before—June 17, 1789, the day the États Généraux spontaneously and virtually unanimously recreated itself as the Assemblée Nationale as sole agent and embodiment of the nation’s will.

With the tennis-court oath, the ex nihilo transition of the tiers état from “nothing” to “everything” is announced and performatively accomplished: the oath both marks and makes the people’s transition from political nullity to the “complete nation” that it will retroactively determine itself always already to have been. As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge (Comay 2004:386-387).

Just a quick explanation of the historical context. There you are, king of France, living high on the hog in the late 18th century, when suddenly a bunch of dirty pantsless frogs* start demanding republican representation or something. You, Louis XVI, are captured by the revolutionaries and forced to stop claiming your will is divine. You escape and almost make it to your loyal army but are recaptured and executed. Then, from your zombie afterlife, you watch as the revolutionaries start turning on each other, accusing each other of not being revolutionary enough. A campaign of Terror erupts where people are being guillotined left and right on suspicions of treason. Eventually this ends and the French Revolution keeps marching on. You, however, remain a zombie.

The French Revolution was supposed to bring an age of justice, but it soon turned into a bloodbath. Some historians say that this was just a temporary anomaly, or perhaps growing pains on the road to democracy. However, for Hegel, the violence of the Terror was an essential part of the French Revolution. The seeds for the Terror were planted in the beginning. “As structurally complete, the nation must eliminate what falls outside it as an excrescence whose existence is a contradiction: the founding act of revolutionary democracy is thus the purge.” The French Revolution was perhaps the event that heralded the coming of the age of nationalism in Europe. Having created itself, what was the first thing that the new French nation-state did? Violently eliminate people it saw as outsiders (i.e., those who didn’t believe in the ideals of revolutionary democracy).

This ties into my previous post about nationalism, and it’s certainly nice how things converge. Nationalism and nation-states are violent things, even or especially those nation-states that are democratic. Reading the above reminded me of a similar passage in a paper I’d read by Elizabeth Povinelli:

The temporalizing function of the horizon of successful self-correction seems an essential part of the means by which the practice of social violence is made to appear and to be experienced as the unfurling of the peaceful public use of reason. Characterizations of liberal governmentality as always already stretching to the future horizon of apologetic self-correction figure contemporary real-time contradictions, gaps, and incommensurabilities in liberal democratic discourses and institutions as in the process of closure and commensuration. Any analysis of real-time violence is deflected to the horizon of good intentions, and more immediately, as a welcomed part of the very process of liberal self-correction itself (Povinelli 2001:328).

I know, that’s some dense verbiage there. Luckily, I’ve already written a translation:

Liberal democracies present themselves as always peaceful, always good, and always right. How then is the use of violence reconciled in a liberal democracy, since using violence is never peaceful, and which many would say is never good and never right? Liberal democracies rationalize their use of violence as a necessary part of goodness and rightness: violence is always enacted in the name of peace and for the greater good of all. This of course comes up against the contradictory fact that violence is not always enacted for the greater good in liberal democracies, nor does it address the issue that what is good for the majority is not always good for the minority. Liberal democracies gloss over these contradictions in their logic by saying that yes, there are failures in the system, but everyday in every way liberal democracy is getting better and better, and by pointing out these inconsistencies you have made liberal democracy even stronger. Liberal democracy is a utopian ideology; like all utopias, the perfect liberal democracy exists somewhere else, in an unreachable future. This then deflects criticism that the ideals of liberal democracy and the practice of it do not mesh together, since eventually (but don’t ask for a timetable), liberal democracy will be peaceful in fact as well as in name. But until then, try to understand that we’re beating these protesters and arresting these coloureds and exploiting these illegal immigrants because we love peace so much. Thus is violence made rational and good in a liberal democracy.

Neither of the two papers are really about nationalism and nation-states, they’re more about violence and democracies. But I think they do a very good job of explaining how it is that a peace-loving democracy can be violent. Modern democracies are also nation-states, and nation-states are inherently violent entities. Well, to be fair, states are inherently violent in themselves. Weber, after all, defined a state as being an organization with a monopoly on legitimate violence. The difference between a state and a nation-state, though, is that while a state like the Roman Empire was content with having different people such as Greeks and Spaniards for its citizens, the nation-state of Italy can’t stand to have non-Italians such as Ethiopians and Kenyans in Italy walking around being non-Italian (though there is also a racial dimension to this discrimation). So I suppose I am disagreeing about the ultimate source of violence within modern democracies, at least those that don’t espouse multicultural ideology, which is still not a fully-established norm anyway.

You know what, this is interesting. I need to come back to this. I hate to be a tease, but I don’t have any more time to hang around the library today, so tune in tomorrow for Part 2.

And by the way, I’ve almost finished doing my interviews, so either this week or next I’ll start posting some of my preliminary findings on Filipino bloggers.

* Here I’m referring to the sans-culottes. I know, they weren’t actually pantsless frogs, I was being facetious. It was actually knee breeches that they didn’t have.


Comay, Rebecca (2004). “Dead Right: Hegel and the Terror.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 103(2,3):375-395.

Povinelli, Elizabeth (2001). “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:319-334.