Can Things get Worse?

Translation, or: Can things get any worse?


Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues. - Shaikh Abdullah Azzam

To end this talk, I ask all who find in it truth, from all Muslims and in particular those who work in the mass media and in Internet and in Media publication, and relevance to consider its publication and distribution -- in all languages and as widely as possible -- a trust on his shoulders. - Ayman al-Zawahiri (September 2005)

Early in No Man's Land, Danis Tanovic's bitterly funny film about the war in Bosnia, one Bosnian soldier asks another -- as they sit, immobilized in the fog, on what turns out to be a battlefield -- whether he knows the difference between a pessimist and an optimist.

The soldier shrugs.

The answer: "a pessimist thinks things can't get any worse. An optimist knows they can."

* * *

What sort of language is war, if it is one? Eyal Weizmann suggested in his Exergue that we need to understand war as a discourse, but more precisely as a threatened one, a selferasing one, a language endangered by its own capacity to destroy and hence to destroy itself. That condition, when language ceases, he called "total war." For him, the discursivity of less-than-total war is defined by its less-than-totality, its unfinished status, the gap that remains between the possibilities of destruction and what's actually done. The logic of this is counter-intuitive, but careful: as long as escalation is possible, as long as still more destruction remains to come, then so does the possibility of less, and hence there is an offer being made, a proposition, a move in a negotiation. So what would "total" conflict be? When does escalation become impossible? Is it when, as the French news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur describes the conflict in Lebanon on its cover (20-26 July 20006), it's become "La Guerre des Fous," when the war is crazy, crazed, delirious, out of control? What would that mean? Is this what happens when war is no longer a means but an end in itself, or when killing for the sake of killing -- rather than for a reason, and idea, a cause, a country -- takes over as the norm and not the exception? Or should the term total war be reserved for those events when a genocidal, eradicatory, annihilatory, cleansing logic governs the conduct of fighting, when the aim is simply to kill all of the others, to force them to surrender and submit unconditionally and absolutely, to make them disappear as subjects or speakers in a dialogue or an exchange? When the violence is not exercised in order to force others into a conversation, or to change the terms of a debate, but in order to end the debate, to remove the other party from the debate once and for all, when debate itself -- or politics, or language -- is itself the target of the violence .... is that the limit? Is that the moment when things actually can't get any worse?

* * *

Clausewitz argued famously in On War that "war is a true political instrument," a means and nothing more, "merely the continuation of policy by other means," (99) and went on to ask: "Do political relations between peoples and between their governments stop when diplomatic notes are no longer exchanged? Is not war just another expression of their thoughts, another form of speech or writing? Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic" (731).

The logic, the reason, of conflict is thus political ... for Clausewitz, politics is essentially logic, logos, discourse, people reasoning with one another, thinking and speaking, exchanging notes and other things. But there are different ways or forms of speaking, grammars and rhetorics which shift according to the aims of the speakers and the effects which they seek to produce in their interlocutors. He understands them as means, instruments, tools in the effective expression of thoughts ... and one of them is war, a grammar (among others) of politics.

This notion has today achieved the status of common sense -- political actors use violence, even wars, as moves in a game, as instruments in the service of other ends. On the other hand, the self-evidence of this position is challenged by another, equallycommon- sensical notion -- namely, that war in fact marks the breakdown of politics, its failure. When we can no longer have a reasonable conversation, where there is no possibility of further exchange, when the negotiations break down, there is fighting. One "resorts" to force when diplomacy has run its course. An elegant exemplar of this position is the phrase attributed to Colin Powell in David Hare's play about the American decision to go to war in Iraq, Stuff Happens:

Powell: Maybe because my whole life has been in the army I'm less impressed by the use of force. I see it for what it is.

Bush: What is it?

Powell: Failure. (49)

In this sense, the onset of war marks the limit at which politics ceases. Talking has failed, there is no longer any exchange, and rather than trying to persuade my opponents I now seek to kill them. Their agreement is not what I seek, but their surrender. So war or violence is pure coercion, the conversion of the other from subject to object. What if both positions were correct? War would be both the continuation of politics in violence, and its undoing, collapse, abandonment? War would then be a kind of discourse which constantly threatens, unpredictably, to become an assault on discourse itself -- and may already have become that.

There is something true about both of these claims, but they are quite irreconcilable. The limit between politics and violence, between language and war, seems at once necessary and impossible. This undecidability may in fact be the defining feature of the situation. In other words, we can never be quite sure whether things actually can get any worse ...

* * *

America and Europe consider the Mujahid groups in Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, and Afghanistan to be terrorist groups, so how can there possibly be dialogue and understanding with them without weapons? And the rulers of our region consider America and Europe to be friends and allies, and also consider the Mujahid groups fighting the Crusaders in Iraq and Afghanistan to be terrorist groups, so how can there possibly be dialogue and understanding with them without weapons? The essence of what these and those who deny us our right to defend our religion and ourselves all say is that we must surrender, abandon Jihad, and be their satisfied slaves, -- and this is impossible, with Allah's permission. - Osama Bin Laden, "Oh People of Islam," 23 April 2006

* * *

Writing in the Guardian, on the day after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Saskia Sassen called them (this was the title) "A Message From the Global South." She did not hesitate to interpret the events, to specify their meaning, and indeed to interpret them as primarily a semiotic or communicative project, a message or even a meta-message. But she was more precise. Using words which have since been widely quoted, she wrote that the attacks bore witness to a failure in communication or to a "translation problem," a problem which they had, in fact and in act, solved:

Part of the challenge is actually to recognize the interconnectedness of forms of violence that we do not view as being connected or even as forms of violence. We are suffering from a translation problem. The language of poverty and misery is unclear and uncomfortable. The language of yesterday's attacks is clear. [...] We may think that the debt and growing poverty in the south have nothing to do with the violence in New York and Washington. But they do. The attacks are a language of last resort: the oppressed and persecuted have used many languages to reach us so far, but we seem unable to translate the meaning. So a few have taken the personal responsibility to speak in a language that needs no translation. [emphasis added]

David Rieff called this claim "an exercise in depraved rationalization" (, and he was not entirely wrong. The leadership of al-Qaeda did not immediately take responsibility for September 11 -- nor for July 7 in London or March 11 in Madrid -- but they did later, and the terms in which they then explained the attacks put the emphasis on the re-establishment of the Islamic Caliphate rather than the overcoming of poverty and misery. But in the immediate aftermath, in the gap between act and declaration, statements like Sassen's, along with very different ones, proliferated. One of the different ones came from Michael Ignatieff, also in the Guardian, three weeks later, who wrote that the assaults could not be rightly placed in the realm of "politics. There were no demands, and there never will be. No one took political responsibility for the act, and no one ever will. This was a deed committed without any expectation of attaining a political objective. [...]

What we are up against is apocalyptic nihilism. The nihilism of their means -- the indifference to human costs -- takes their actions not only out of the realm of politics, but even out of the realm of war itself. The apocalyptic nature of their goals makes it absurd to believe they are making political demands at all. They are seeking the violent transformation of an irremediably sinful and unjust world. Terror does not express a politics, but a metaphysics, a desire to give ultimate meaning to time and history through ever-escalating acts of violence which culminate in a final battle between good and evil. People serving such exalted goals are not interested in mere politics.

Implicit here is an analysis of politics which sees it as a rational enterprise, a structured confrontation or conversation aimed at compromise or reconciliation, the exchange of demands and the negotiation of outcomes. There is something obviously appealing about such a definition, and I think something correct in the suggestion that the acts were in fact aimed at politics itself rather than being part of it. (That would make Sassen's position dangerously incorrect.) But there is also something wishful about the desire to protect politics from irrationality and persuasion, and to protect the state's monopoly on legitimate violence, a hint of a larger claim that violence can and ought to be strictly severed from politics, and indeed that the absolute values productive of irreconcilable or irremediable differences (what he calls metaphysics) might properly be excluded from politics.

After all, we could easily ask, and ought to: what do we have politics for, if not to deal with the irreconcilable, with metaphysics, with identities, identifications, values for which people are prepared to stake their lives, their liberties, and their honor? This, in fact, might be seen as the structuring or constitutive contradiction at the heart of human rights discourse. On the one hand, human rights signifies a world without God, without absolutes, without any external authority beyond us humans -- and thus the necessity of discourse, of talking with each other and deciding who counts as "us" or as "each other" and what it is to be one of us. Without declarations, claims, responses, exchanges, negotiations, there are no human rights. On the other hand, what are human rights if not the absolutely non-negotiable, given, fundamental core elements and vales which make us what we are, the claims on which we can make no compromises and for which we ought to be prepared to fight, for ourselves and others? We will not escape this dilemma...

In any case, to return to Sassen, the dream of a clear, universal, language, a language that evades or overcomes both the difference between languages and the internal opacities of mediation or signification, is an old one, and it takes a variety of forms. Sometimes they are banal -- film (or music, or flowers) is a universal language -- and sometimes they are sentimental -- everyone speaks the language of the heart. They are often theological, either the nostalgic desire to return to a moment before the dispersion of Babel or the millenarian dream of a final unification. But sometimes, and these are of course the more interesting times, they are violent.

Recall Roland Barthes' marvelous fable of the woodcutter, which has the virtue of defining a certain genre of language as "political":

If I am a woodcutter and I am led to name the tree which I am cutting down [j'abats], whatever the form of my sentence, I speak the tree, I do not speak about it. This means that my language is operative, linked to its object in a transitive way; between the tree and myself, there is nothing but my labor, that is to say, an act. This is a political language: it presents nature to me only to the extent that I am going to transform it, it is a language by which I act the object; the tree is not an image for me, it is simply the meaning of my action. But if I am not a woodcutter, I can no longer speak the tree, I can only speak of it, about it. (French 233)

To speak: a transitive verb, we might say ... if you are a woodcutter or some other agent of change. Then, language is an act, without mediation or image, operating an immediate transformation, and hence it is politics: that is Barthes' chain of reasoning. It is a little confusing: if I speak, and if my speech coincides with my action, if it "presents" (instead of representing, as "image" or as referent) the object of my action to me insofar as I act to transform that object, then it is "political" speech, which is to say "operative" language. Barthes effectively makes this definitional: what is political is what is operative, active, transformative, destructive.

He does not suggest that 'speaking the tree' actually cuts it down, nor that it is required in order to cut it down, but only that language used in a certain manner by certain agents can overcome the distance of representation. Others -- the theorists of performativity, from J.L. Austin through de Man and Derrida to today -- have thought about some forms of language itself as operative.

Nor is Barthes talking about a language that is like violence, about some figurative 'violence of language.' He is distinguishing between different kinds of language, different speakers and contexts, and isolating a particular form of speech which, when it coincides with an external action ("if ... I am led to name the tree which I am cutting down"), itself acts. And "action" means, in this case, the radical erasure of distance, mediation, reference, representation -- the collapse of any distance between language and object, the elimination of any hermeneutic or interpretive dimension.

Sassen shares with Barthes a certain fascination with overcoming the opacities or indirections or diversions of language, and like him imagines that violence or force can accomplish this labor of clarification and transparency.

This claim, or wish, bears more than a passing resemblance to a series of theorems on force as a language. It is often said that this or that enemy 'understands only the language of force,' and although the political targets and implications vary widely, the claim has a consistent logic: not that language is force, but that force is a (kind of) language, and not just any language. It is one which solves the problem that seems endemic to all things linguistic, namely: failure, indirection, misunderstanding, drift.

Generally, this claim testifies to what is presented as a problem in the reader, interpreter, or listener. He or she doesn't understand: 'no matter how patiently and repeatedly we've explained things, he or she still doesn't get it. Perhaps it's a problem with the language we are using. We want to convey a message, but it is not received.' This is a claim political leaders frequently make about their opponents.

Sometimes it means: 'we want to get your attention, so we are sending messages in missiles.' This is roughly how U.S. State Department official Strobe Talbott described the NATO air campaign over Kosovo in 1999, just as it was coming to an end: "I think Mr. Milosevic has made it clear in the way that he has inflicted four wars on the region in eight years that he both speaks in the language of force and understands the language of force, and NATO is now speaking to him very much in the language of force. But we believe that we can simultaneously proceed with diplomacy and that's what we are doing."

What the phrase seems to mean here is that this language -- unlike ordinary, diplomatic, political language -- can, indeed will, be understood by its receiver. One metaphor for this is the monolingual character of the hearer, as in this October 1998 editorial in the Chicago Tribune: "NATO military power must serve [a] diplomatic end. It cannot be an end in itself. Military force is always a last resort, but it definitely must be a resort. And especially in this case, since Milosevic, sadly, appears to be monolingual: Force is the only language he understands."

So what is at stake is something more than speaking the (only) language of the other. The phrase wants to say something stronger: that the language of force actively and successfully delivers its message, imposes its meaning, if it can be called that, its meaning or its effects, without mediation, analysis, interpretation, or any passage through coding and decoding. It is effective; it takes hold and transforms its listener, precisely by not speaking. It leaves no room for equivocation, confusion, misunderstanding; no room for any others at all, for any back and forth, for exchange, for the delays and relays of a dialogue or a conversation. It almost seems to leave no room for meaning itself. The hermeneutic or cognitive aspect of language would be effaced in the delivery, and only force -- or the delivery itself -- is left. In a sense, the figure leaves no room, pure and simple: no space for exchange, for any deviation, and no time, no unfolding and no delay; it aspires to a pure present, or presentation.

But sometimes it seems to mean: enough with talking -- there is no one to talk to -- there is only killing. Something of this seems to be at work in Osama Bin Laden's (reported) use of the phrase a few weeks after September 11, when he said in an interview: "Bush and Blair . . . don’t understand any language but the language of force. Every time they kill us, we will kill them, so the balance of terror can be achieved." Obviously, sometimes killing, or "military power," can become an end in itself. That would be another sort of monolinguism, a kind of language that aims to do away with its interlocutor ....

"To speak in a language that needs no translation" -- is this the project and the aim of political speech, the conversion of mere noise into articulate speech and the becomingaudible and -visible to the other? Or is it rather its opposite, an assault on the political itself, the dream of the end of politics masquerading as the liberated voice of the oppressed and persecuted.

If it is difficult to determine whether or in what sense war is (a) language, it is not at all difficult to answer these questions.

There is no language which needs no translation, not even the language of force. If it needs no translation, it is not a language. Jacques Ranciere suggests that translation -- a radical translation, an active relation between and within languages, not the attempt to overcome language altogether -- is the event for which the name politics ought to be reserved. Disagreement, misunderstanding, mésentente, discordant objects of reference between speakers, are for him different names for the political experience as such: not an enforced consensus, nor the destruction of the political stage, but its active deconstruction and transformation.

The telos of consensus, agreement, or perfect understanding, is shared by liberals and terrorists alike, as it turns out, and with it they secretly or not so secretly imagine a world in which both politics and language might be transcended -- whether in the universality of human rights, the unilateralism of an imposition, or the simple disappearance of opacity, delay, difference, disagreement, and misunderstanding, into the clarity and directness of a self-erasing speech. That would be a good definition of (at least some kinds of) war or violence. If there is indeed a 'personal responsibility' at stake here, then it would be to continue to speak, to disagree, to insist on translation, in as many languages as possible.

Bard College
Annandale-on-Hudson, NY