However one may evaluate the ambivalent reception of the new terror by its Western addressees, it would never have advanced beyond the level of an irritating marginal phenomenon if it had not become an interesting asset in the recalculation of the costs for social peace in Western societies. While the communist threat led to a significant increase in the social costs of peace, the threat of Islamist terror brings with it, at the bottom line, effects that help lower the costs. By exerting imaginary stressful pressure on the attacked collective, it contributes to a feeling of belonging to a real community, a belonging based on solidarity, a survival unit wrestling for its own future in spite of recently severely deepened social differences. Additionally, the new terror creates, because of its undifferentiated hostility against Western forms of life, a climate of diffuse intimidation in which questions of political and existential security enjoy high priority over those of social justice—quod erat operandum.

Rage and Time by Peter Sloterdijk, tr. by Mario Wenning, New York: Columbia University Press, [2006]2010, p. 218.

Sloterdijk continues:

With the exaggeration of the securitarian imperative to the level of being the omnipotent theme of contemporary media democracies, the zeitgeist readjusted itself after September 11, 2001, to a new ecosystem of threats and defense mechanisms—while, this time, as frivolously as it might sound, the threat tendencies of Islamist terror in general point “in the right direction” when seen from the perspective of radicalized capitalism. To feel threatened by the Middle Eastern sources now means to see reasons why one could perhaps be ready to make peace with the drifting away of Western political culture into postdemocratic conditions. The “war on terror” possesses the ideal quality of not being able to be won—and thus never having to be ended. These prospects suggest that the postdemocratic trends will enjoy a long life. They create the preconditions with which democratically elected leaders can get away with presenting themselves as commanders in chief. If political thinking limits itself to advising the commander in chief, concepts such as democracy and independent judiciary cultures are only chips in a strategic game.

Sloterdijk’s analysis somehow resonates with some of the ideas shared by Brian Massumi in a video excerpt recently published online under the title “Hair-trigger action replaced deliberation in the Bush era” (previously featured here). Here’s an unofficial transcription I made of a portion of this video:

What threat does is shift mode of political decision from the objective to the conditional: the could-have-would-have, and treat the conditional as certainty. And it is a certainty, affectively speaking, because Bush certainly felt that Saddam Hussein would have if he could have. But this certainty is not an informed judgment about a set a objective conditions, it’s a gut feeling that there is a potential for something to happen. The thing is it’s impossible to disprove a potential. Even if nothing is happened years later, nothing is disproven because something might still happen years after that. There’s nothing to say it couldn’t: no one can know. The only certainty is that you have to act now to do everything possible to preempt the potential. In the vocabulary of Bush’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the only thing certain is that you have to “go kinetic” even if you don’t really know, and can’t know and know you don’t know. There’re known knowns, Rumsfeld famously said, and there’re known unknowns, but in the post 9/11 era of threat and terror what we’re dealing with and have to act on are the unknown unknowns. As Bush put it in a quote I mentioned earlier, the only path to safety is the path to action against threats that have not yet emerged. And what has not yet emerged can be nothing other than an unknown unknown. The best way to act when faced with the unknown unknown of a felt threat vaguely looming is quickly, otherwise you may have acted to late. We would have waited to long, Bush warned. The only way to act quickly on a unknown unknown is to act intuitively, using the same gut feeling you use to feel the threatened reality. Bush, it is well known, prided himself with deciding with its guts. He once actually said he uses his advisors mainly as mood rings. So not only does preemption locates our actions in the realm of affect, not only does it politically legitimate actions affectively, it makes affect what makes them. All of this short-circuits objective assessment where evidence based reasoning. Hair-triggered action replace deliberation, rapid response tactical capability replace considered strategy. Remember the outrage when members of the Bush inner circle were quoted by investigative journalist Ron Suskind ridiculing what they call the “reality-based community”. While you’re off deliberating all nice and civil about what’s really real, they said, we’re busy making reality, in our gutsy-preemptive way. The phrase “reality-based” was sarcastic. It’s the high of illusion, they were saying, to treat a looming threat as if it were a clear and present danger that could be responded to in the old fashion way, as if the world was still orderly and linear. No, what’s realistic is to go kinetic with the utmost urgency. And when you do that you’re not sitting back reflecting on reality, you’re making it, you’re producing it.

Brian Massumi’s video was produced by the Histories of Violence initiative and published by The Guardian on September 2, 2011. It’s a 5 minutes excerpt of an hour long intervention that should soon be published in its entirety on the Histories of Violence website (see “Full Lectures” in the “Symposia” tab). Some of those thoughts (about threats, terror and the 9/11) are analyzed by Brian Massumi in a paper published in 2005: “Fear (The Spectrum Said)” (positions, Duke University Press, vol. 1, no. 13, pp. 31-48). The paper focuses on the color-coded terror alert system:

The necessity for a pragmatics of uncertainty to which the color system alerts us is related to a change in the nature of the object of power. The formlessness and contentlessness of its exercise in no way means that power no longer has an object. It means that the object of power is correspondingly formless and contentless: post 9/11, governmentality has molded itself to threat. A threat is unknowable. If it were known in its specifics, it wouldn’t be a threat. It would be a situation—as when they say on television police shows, “we have a situation”—and a situation can be handled. A threat is only a threat if it retains an indeterminacy. If it has a form, it is not a substantial form, but a time form: a futurity. The threat as such is nothing yet—just a looming. It is a form of futurity yet has the capacity to fill the present without presenting itself. Its future looming casts a present shadow, and that shadow is fear. (p. 35)

• • •

“Reality-based community” (read Suskind article here) and “threat-driven community” (as one may call them) could be understood as two descriptions (among others) of different ways by which we live together today. In that perspective, I wonder what it means in regard to Agamben’s “coming community” announced more than 20 years ago? How do they compare?

Also, when it comes to what may brings a community together (in certain circumstances), Massumi speaks of affects, Sloterdijk writes about feelings and Nancy points to passions, needs, desire and anxiety (previously here). What then, one may asks, is the role of reason today in the theater of our democracies? How does the actual conditions of this problem relate to the ways by which is was approached before (for example by some members of the Frankfurt School)?


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