Saturday, April 20, 2013

Counting with Abraham: Love, Justice, and Boston

I am constitutionally incapable of comprehending mass and massed hatred for one person. Still less am I capable of affectively binding to the state because it conducts these ugly affects and gives them a form of realization. This holds true no matter how terrible the object of hatred is. I’m not claiming this as a good quality; perhaps some things deserve hatred without reserve. I think this incapacity derives, in some bizarre way, from my Catholic upbringing. I don’t think of having been raised Catholic as being formative at all, really. But I do retain a distinct impression, from when I was eight or so, of listening to Genesis being read once during a service. Chapter 18. God wants to destroy a queer city or two; Abraham talks God down. Suppose there are fifty righteous men in the city, Abraham asks, will you still destroy it? No, God says, I won’t. Abraham keeps going, talking God all the way down to ten. The story cuts off: it’s unclear if ten is the threshold beyond which God will destroy the city, if ten is acceptable collateral damage, or if we—as readers and as ethical subjects—are supposed to keep up the line of thought and continue winnowing down the number.  But down to what? I think one is the number one is supposed to want to think. You know, like the “let a thousand guilty men go free rather than one innocent be punished” concept of liberal jurisprudence. But my childish ears or brain didn’t work too well: I always wanted the number to be zero, as if God would spare the city not for the sake of the one innocent man but for all of the guilty. I wanted the point of the story to be that all punishment is awful, terrible, even when inflicted upon the guilty, whoever they are, and that it is impossible to love those who think punishment could be righteous. What if we’re not supposed to read this story as an attempt to hammer out a mathesis of justice, I wonder, but rather as an incitement to detach oneself from transcendent structures of justice, structures that equate doing justice with doling retribution? I want to rewrite the old dictum: it’s better for a thousand guilty people to go free than to maintain a positive relation to the act of punishment.

I’m thinking of this now as I look at my Twitter feed, as I look at the stuff going up under the #Boston hashtag. It’s pretty conventional stuff, really: some Islamophobes here, some nationalists chanting “U.S.A.!” over there (there’s overlap in that population), and plenty of law-and-order liberals just hoping that justice is dealt and done. Desires for violent retribution are insistently expressed. If you’re a radical leftist, it’s pretty depressing to read. If you’re a kind of hybrid of autonomist Marxism and anarchism—that is, if you believe that every person is equipped with what it takes to live in a self-governing, democratic, and just fashion—it’s enough to cause despair. How can you love people who love punishment, who seem to relish in the possibility of a body coming apart? How can you love people who attach to the violent arm of law, who cheer on cops as Abraham might have—but I refuse to believe he would have—cheered on God when he eventually set about destroying those evil, guilty cities? Which is to say: how can I love these people? And I want to. Not just because I’m a fringe leftist, but because, like so many others since the bombs went off, I’ve tried getting in touch with the fear and the pain, with the loss, with the catastrophe. Like so many others, I texted friends in Boston, hoping they were okay—not just physically, but mentally. I’ve spent hours over the past few days doing nothing but reading Twitter, listening to the Boston PD scanner, and hoping that no one else would get hurt. But now I’m wondering how sympathetic acts of outreach convert so readily into fantasies of violent justice.

I have one hope to hang my hat on: I’m not certain that these announcements of attachment to the nation, to the police, to the strong arm of the law in fact express a positive binding to transcendent structures of authority.

I’ll reason this out in terms of Twitter's patterning of the catastrophe. Twitter is a strange form of encountering an event. It presents the event as an ongoing scenario; indeed, Twitter gives access to the event in the form of its unraveling. The temporality of the situation dilates: you’re with it for every beat, through every false detail, through every new revelation. One comes to inhabit the event as a kind of environment, one constituted by anxiety, by uncertainty, by possibility. This kind of being-in-contact with the ongoingness of an event is rare; we tend to encounter ongoing temporalities in and through the duration of the ordinary, the boring business of everyday life. And so I think that we have an extraordinarily limited repertoire of modes by which we can maintain and express a positive relation (care, fidelity, attachment) to being in the midst of its unfolding. I encountered this first with LiveStreams and Twitter feeds reporting on direct actions during the Occupy era: the only way to mark your geographically distant but existentially proximate being-with the political act was to offer a simple, “Solidarity #OWS!” Small tokens. They seem meaningless, but they aren’t—or, rather, the substantive relations such locutions mean to produce just haven’t yet found, and perhaps will never be able to find, a better or more adequate genre. I saw the same thing as the event marked “#BostonMarathon” catastrophically erupted: “I’m praying for you #Boston” and such like.  No doubt some prayers and well-wishers imagine that praying and wishing will have some kind of material efficacy. But I don’t think that the point of these speech-acts is to alter the ongoing event so much as to access it, to get in touch with it, to inhabit the space of its unfolding. And the desire to dwell within this uncertain space, to receive what-comes in order to stay-with, is an act of love.

We stayed with it, the event unfolded, the cops closed in. Then the discourse shifted. It became Islamophobic, it became nationalistic, it became saturated with retributive and punitive desires. A large part of the Twitterverse was divided on a simple question: should the cops shoot the kid dead in the boat or keep him alive so as to torturously delay the time of his inevitable death. Care seemed to transform into callousness, all in the name of doing justice. And I just wanted Abraham—my childhood Abraham—to appear, to try getting everyone to detach from violence, from fantasies of force routed through the idiom of legal process.

So here’s my hope, my own prayer to and for Boston. Events constitute thick affective environments—saturated with care, with concern, with love—that we don’t want to let go of but don’t know how to stick close to. The devolution to these aggressive languages is an effect of a desire to stay with and in proximity to the event in the absence of a robust grammar for maintaining fidelity to it—especially as the event comes to a close, as the care we shared and experienced is poised to be swallowed, once more, into the humdrum durative time of ordinary life. People tweeted out “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” not necessarily because they’re silly nationalists without a thought in their brains but because the nation provides a to-hand idiom for containing and preserving the truth of the event. It’s a sad admission, really: the nation will endure and live on in a way that the care and concern staged throughout the event will not. So too the fantasmatic staging of violent justice: the temporality of the legal process ensures not that the case will be brought to closure but, rather, that the event will remain ongoing and open, even if diminished in intensity. Love and care need to encrypt themselves in the to-hand idioms of the nation and violent justice because, well, we suck at loving and caring, because our everyday worlds bound the spacing of our attachments. Catastrophic events show us how to love (there’s nothing else to do with and within an event). We don’t know how to articulate this love but we know we don’t want to leave its scene. And so love survives the closure of the event by clothing itself in the form of its opposite; we go from donating blood to drawing it, at least imaginatively.

The idioms of violence are standing in for the intensities of our love. To access this love, to set it loose in the aftermath of this event, we need to unbind our thoughts and feelings from legal processes of punishment. The necessity of doing so is pressing. In the wake of the bombings, U.S. Muslims have already been harassed (once again) as proto-terrorists—that is, as subjects proleptically available for just retribution. The public obsession with punishing the guilty means that some innocents will be harmed, as Ibrahim made clear. But he meant more than that, I think, when he quietly but surely set more rigorous limits to just punishment. The accumulative force of his questions conveys a meaning irreducible to the questions of math, of numbers, of collateral damage, questions that might be summarized as, “At what point, God, would you be comfortable doing this?” If you follow my eight-year-old self in embracing the great unasked question of Genesis—“If there are zero righteous men in the city, God, will you spare it?”—Abraham is really asking God if he wishes to punish at all, if he wants to maintain an attachment to violence, even if in the name of justice. (The God of Genesis, of course, needed insistent reminders to stop killing everyone.) Abraham is, I hope, encouraging us to think justice beyond punishment, to free justice from the violent idioms that always seem to capture it. Is loving justice worth it when our investment in its violence perverts our capacities to love? When the violence of justice comes to stand in for the positivity of love itself?

I’m not saying that Dzhokar Tsarnaev should not be brought to justice, whatever that means; that is inevitable. My point, rather, is that loving justice cannot possibly be worth it when our investment in its violent realization transforms love for others into hate for one, when the violence of justice becomes love’s idiom. I don’t know what will happen to Tsarnaev, but I do know that we—you and me—will have to live through a world in which this event happened, in which we strive to assemble its meanings, and in which we constitute ourselves through the meanings we assign it. Do we wish the truth of this event to consist in the fact of violent justice having been done, or in the modes of care that obtained in and through this catastrophe? Do we wish to imagine ourselves as donors of blood or drawers? (And here, I think, it is an either/or.)

It’s better for a thousand guilty people to go free than for us to relish in one act of punishment.


Anonymous said...

That’s certainly an interesting sermon, but how does it work out in practical affairs of life? That is to say, what does this retribution free utopia look like, and how would it function? Its not even so much a matter of ‘Lex Tailonis’, as it is in the application of public coercion and maintaining order. The general public is not interested in these fundamental issues, or the metaphysical questions associated with the task of jurisprudence. They want cheap, relatively meaningless, blood-sacrifice, one that can appease Socratic daimon of instant gratification.

Chris Taylor said...

See, but I think my point is that the general public is in fact not simply or positively desirous of "cheap, relatively meaningless, blood-sacrifice" but that such desires stand in for an experience with modes of caring sociality for which we don't yet have proper genres. I want to hold onto the desire to care while interfering with the violent form this care ends up assuming. So, I'd say that what I'm describing is *not* utopian but rather a quite realist account of a structure of being in the world and being near an event that doesn't yet have an idiom. What does a retribution free polity look like? I don't know. My point is that we need to generate an awareness that we don't want retribution in the first place, that it's standing in for something.

pH said...

An excellent post. I am reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's thoughts on "the fascism that causes us to love power."

Chris Taylor said...

thanks, pH. and definitely.

Anonymous said...

Well, I’ll give your credence for your honesty, and I’d like to believe that ‘modes of caring sociality’ are consistent from individual to individual. However, it is my sacer morbus to assume that a functional society might require the very act of “bloody constraint" to be operative. As a rule, we might require the presence of violence as a means of expression, when no other means will be suffice. How else does a society express its own neurotic condition but through the act of internal violence itself? What else is more clearly understood, or more primal for that matter, than threatening behavior? It might appear as the desperate, superficial act of a few philistines; but it is their own attempt to elocute the severity of their position. For that matter, I should say that I would also like to live in a world without the presence of violence; but at the same time, I assume it to be a necessary evil within the body politic, one that might very well “slay the righteous with the wicked”.