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.

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