Ramblings on Todorov, de Sade, the Burqa and Communication

I had a conversation on the weekend that raised the connection between universalism and war. I attempted to explore the idea that there may be reasons why we, as a community, might wish to push our laws onto others, violently. That reason being that we believe that our laws are just and that therefore they are best. A ‘tolerant’ perspective is something that just seems ridiculous, either it falls back into the conflict around definitions of what level of tolerance is acceptable or becomes resignation to the inherent evil of people – a denial of the existence of justice and indeed argument and hence irrelevant. To put it another way: if we want to live under just laws this implies that there is a possibility of other laws being seen as unjust and given interaction between other polities is inevitable, or seems to be so, interaction with the laws of others appears to be inevitable and where such interaction does not result in mutually agreed accommodation does not then the prospect of a just war arise?

I never actually got to clarify that argument because as part of the attempt at doing so I put forward the hypothetical that it might be conceivable that we would enact laws against attempts to enforce people wearing a burqa in public on the basis that in order to have communication between people it is necessary to see their face due to a component of communication that may be denoted by the term body language. I suggested that it might be that we decided consequently that laws should be enacted that ban legal associations holding as a condition of membership that females must at all times in public cover their faces from view. This, I postulated, might lead to an act of war but was unable to arrive at that because of the controversy over the posited hypothetical and the amount of wine that had been consumed.
Whilst I am far from believing that the idea is worthy of being put forward as a justification for laws that would be enforced by force I do believe that the idea merits discussion. It is meritorious primarily because I have suspicions that there are differences between writing and speech. Such consideration could easily rule in favour of the irrelevancy of the Burqa for such laws, for instance if it is some natural differentiation that is key I am sure that the modulations of the human voice cold perform that task – if not body odour.

I believe the merit of the idea was born out in the discussion by the fact that the course of the discourse was not directed by logical structure, as is the case in prose. Rather the discourse was directed by such considerations as, what people immediately would find most interesting, tactical decisions in conversation in order to bring it towards the conclusion that I had had in mind as well as the vicissitudes of desire in both exploring particular ideas raised and in other symbolic associations derived from the idea itself or the person enunciating it.

Despite the failure of the conversation to procure me the opportunity to present the argument that I had hoped to a number of particular points regarding the relationship between universalism and war were encountered.

First and foremost was the idea that evil, that is, war, is actually anti-thetical to what is right. That where evil exists right does not exist. This was expressed by an anarchist in the suggestion that law as such should be avoided because the enforcement of law is in actually fact evil, that is, war, in the sense that one must not confuse the operations of the police and the military as differing in any way other than on the basis of tactical considerations.

These were not the exact words used, nor are they an accurate paraphrase, rather they are the interpretation of the idea that the just community is the one in which people just get along (a better rendering of the statement put forward). It is in fact the same position Plato expressed through the mouth of Socrates in his The Republic where he stated: “justice consists in minding your own business and not interfering with other people.” That is, the position expressed by the anarchist is that there should be no laws because there should be no differentiation between the unjust and the just in the just society since such laws accord with what might be called the natural laws of the human species.

This idea is challenged by Todorov as a distortion of the enlightenment. It is a distortion that rests on the assumption that totality is knowable and which he denotes by the term scientism. Here is what he has to say about its manifestation:

“It was manifested, for instance, in Diderot’s moral philosophy, which set up the laws of ‘nature’ as the only laws that we should have to obey. ‘Civil law ought only to be the enunciation of the laws of nature. […] what makes man as he is […] ought to be the basis of the morality suitable for him’. And what can help us know nature better than science? Some years later, Sade used this reasoning to legitimate his own distortion of the spirit of the Enlightenment. ‘Destruction being one of the chief laws of nature, nothing that destroys can be criminal.’ ‘For a bridle have nothing but you inclinations, for laws only your desires, for morality Nature’s alone.’ Diderot and Sade reasoned as if a human being lived alone, as if her acts had no effect on other human beings; they could consequently regard all civil or moral laws as superfluous.” P 84 In Defence of the Enlightenment Tzvetan Todorov

It is lamentable because its logic only rests on the natural law of entropy, that is, destruction. Whilst complexity exists in nature the odds are against its multiplication and hence over a long enough time frame must be discounted as insignificant. Thus the law of Plato’s republic seems rather vicious. “Just hurry up and die” is the most appropriate banner for the gates of such a city. The problem with scientism, of the anarchist or any other variety, is that in the face of the claim that illegitimate violence is undertaken under the banner of legitimacy the suggestion is made not to limit the rule of violence but to extend it. In so doing a paralysis of action is encountered since everything that is conforms to natural laws by the facticity of its existence one cannot act to institute anything just but rather must sit back and simply enjoy the ride, obey the natural law of entropy.

“Only a god can save us.” That is the ultimate conclusion of science.

Asked to defend the benefits of law without the help of Todorov I put forward the proposition that murder is bad. This indeed seems to be the assumption behind Todorov’s lamentation but I could not help but feel that my response was lacking, since indeed I had proposed that law was good, ie that evil, war and thus murder were good in some way. I was justifying murder by the prevention of murder. It was because of this that I modified my position to something more Hobbesian, ‘I want some guarantee that you wont kill me.’ This is not something that Todorov, seems to hold, at least not in his appropriation of Sade.
I was struck by the falsity of the line “…Sade reasoned as if a human being lived alone, as if his acts had no effect on other human beings…” It was abstract universality that Sade disliked, his evil was centrally concerned with the effect of his acts on other human beings. This is a fact brought out in the following passage from Simone de Beauvoir’s treatment of de Sade.

“Anyone who is surprised at Sade’s discrediting himself by his humaneness instead of seeking a governor’s post in the provinces, a post that would have enabled him to torture and kill to his heart’s content, does not really understand Sade. Does anyone suppose that he ‘liked blood’ the way one likes the mountains or the sea? ‘Shedding blood’ was an act whose meaning could, under certain conditions, excite him, but what he demanded, essentially, of cruelty was that it reveal to him particular individuals and his own existence as, on the one hand, consciousness and freedom and, on the other, as flesh. He refused to judge or condemn, or to witness anonymous death from afar. He had hated nothing so much in the old society as the claim to judge and punish, to which he himself had fallen victim; he could not excuse the Terror. When murder becomes constitutional, it becomes merely the hateful expression of abstract principles, something without content, inhuman. And this is why Sade as Grand Juror almost always dismissed the charges against the accused. Holding their fate in his hands, he refused to harm the family of Madame de Montreuil in the name of the law. He was even led to resign from his office of President of the Piques Section. He wrote to Gaufridy: ‘I considered myself obliged to leave the chair to the vice-president; they wanted me to put a horrible, an inhuman act to a vote. I never would.” In December, 1793, he was imprisoned on charges of ‘moderatism.’ Released 375 days later, he wrote with disgust: “My government imprisonment, with the guillotine before my eyes, did me a hundred time more harm than all the Bastilles imaginable.” It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings…” p16

Todorov’s suggestion that Sade “could consequently regard all civil or moral laws as superfluous” is false, such laws were the very fabric of his pleasure. It was not destruction as a natural law that he enjoyed but destruction as a relation to human law. This is a relationship to law that, as was previously observed, has a relationship to individuality. In this way the Hobbesian position stands with some merit. Merit because in defending the law for my own egotistical reasons I am actually maintaining a relationship with other people as people. But Sade was not a politican, he was more of a priest, rather than pure goodness he was after pure evil, both of which are absent in this world in which the two always live side by side.

If one was to consider all this in some depth it might be possible to arrive at a position that suggests that justice and war demand each other. The role of the legislator, a type other than de Sade, is in providing some guarantee about your chances of being killed. A test of the righteousness of laws might then be made on the basis of the accuracy of such guarantees and their ease of communication. A point that brings issues such as what is communication to the fore of political concern.

It would also constitute the difference between police and military. The police are those that enforce the law as guarantee regarding communication and the military are those that pursue violent death without respect to such guarantees. War is just insofar as it opens up the gateway to communication, that is it is just in so far as it is a function of the police – police whose job it is to ensure that the society is composed of distinct individuals that can talk to each other. This is opposed to the more open definition of the business of politics ascribed by Todorov – namely anything, such as murder is bad, as long as it is viewed with respect to ones own particularity. It is an important differentiation because it places desire itself as something that is to be protected through politics and more effectively distances universality from its totalitarian consequences.

Todorov’s mistake seems then to lead him to consider universality as properly involving any aspect of life where as the consideration of the importance of individuality seems to imply more of a respect for the question of communication. In this way the just society might be described as the one in which its laws were most communicable. Politics therefore is indeed war pursued by other means by, these other means might be described as the continuation of war for what it is good at, realising individuality, whilst removing what is bad about it, the reduction of individuals to things – ie corpses. These another name for these means is communication or language.

By virtue of the fact that communication is a dynamic process that also involves miscommunication, since it must be between two different individuals, this just society is properly utopian. This however would not prevent it serving as an effective horizon for action. As a final point Grasping universal communication as such whilst unrealisable in the state except as a horizon of effort could be seen in those objects denoted by the name art. This would be a solution to the quandaries discussed here.


About barkingcoins
This author is just another fucking dickhead.

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