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History, Sublime, Terror: Notes on the Politics of Fear

"The new powers of violence that are out of the box after 1945 belong to the state. They are properties and prerogatives of the modern nation-state."
Gene Ray (LinksNet.de)

History, Sublime, Terror:

Notes on the Politics of Fear

(12.11.2007) Six years into a so-called war against terrorism it seems timely enough to ask whether the category of the sublime is relevant to our political understanding of the world we live in today.

In his 1757 book on aesthetics - very chic, in fact, when it was published two years after the Lisbon earthquake - the young Edmund Burke proposed that anything connected to terror is potentially a source of the feeling of the sublime.1 Six years into a so-called war against terrorism - a "war on terror," as the US president prefers to say - it seems timely enough to ask whether the eighteenth-century aesthetic category of the sublime is relevant to our political understanding of the world we live in today. I will argue that it could be, so long as we grasp how history has changed the sublime - how this traditional category has been profoundly transformed. The sublime is sometimes characterized as a response to the terror of the French Revolution, or else as a theorizing premonition of it. According to this kind of interpretation, the sublime was already then a projection into aesthetics of collective experiences of political violence. I'm not at all rejecting this kind of materialist reading, but I want to suggest that the crucial shift in the category occurs in the twentieth century, after 1945, in the wake of events of massive and traumatic violence. In this essay, I'll try to summarize this shift, and to draw the implications for the possible relevance of the sublime for an artistic response to the wars, atrocities and disasters that threaten us at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

From First to Second Nature

The category of the sublime as it emerges, or reemerges, in European aesthetic discourse - and especially following its codification by Burke and Immanuel Kant - is above all a response to the power or size of nature. The sublime names an aesthetic response to nature's capacity to strike us with fear, terror, awe, and astonishment. Terror is indeed key. As Burke put it: "Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime."2 Terror and the sublime go together, and are even inseparable. For Burke, there can be no sublime without terror, and wherever there is terror, there is also, at least potentially, the feeling of the sublime. In Kant's formulations in The Critique of Judgment, this terror is specified as the power of raw nature to overwhelm and render helpless our faculty of imagination.3 So the exemplary figures of the sublime that come down to us through this tradition remained, at least through the nineteenth century, raging storms, earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, avalanches, and the like - what we now call natural disasters - or else the vast desolation of mountains, deserts or ice fields, the starry sky or the high seas.

In any of these instances, a direct encounter with the violence or size of nature - actually to be in the landscape, that is - could precipitate a plunge into undiluted terror. But to contemplate such scenes from a position of relative safety renders the feeling of terror somehow delightful and fascinating. ("Delight" is Burke's term4; we might find "enjoyment" or "jouissance" more fitting.) The sublime always has to do with terror, then, but is not identical with pure, immediate terror: it is rather terror mediated by a certain distance and compounded with enjoyment and fascination - a strange and singular mix of pleasure and pain. In Kant's words, the feeling of the sublime is an "indirect" or "negative pleasure."5

In the twentieth century, however, the unprecedented scale and intensity of two World Wars radically transformed the traditional category. Over the course of this bloody century, eruptions of human violence came to displace nature as the exemplary object or trigger of the sublime. In short, the catastrophic violence humans inflict on other humans became more terrible and terrifying than the power and size of nature. To inflect Georg Lukács's Marxist-Hegelian idiom, we could say that the sublime begins as an attribute or effect of first nature - raw nature beyond the human, nature as the non-human that sometimes threatens humanity but nevertheless is a material condition for its existence. But in the twentieth century these complex feelings become associated more with the self-made disasters of society, or second nature. Society hardens into a second nature because the fact that social relations are historically constituted - and thus transformable - is concealed from everyday experience: social relations become reified or naturalized.6 This shift in the object of the sublime - from first to second nature - is a long time taking hold in critical discourses but is consolidated in the decades following 1945.

The trauma of the Second World War was decisive. By most estimates, this global bloodletting took between 50 and 60 million lives, although some recent accounts put the number as high as 70 million.7 Of these dead, something like two-thirds were civilian. But I want to suggest that it was two events of violence in particular that compelled this displacement of first nature within the category of the sublime. It's more or less customary at this point to refer to these events by their exemplary place-names: Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Each realizes a qualitative leap in human potentiality, in the human power and capacity for organized violence. I'm far from being the first to claim this: I'm merely synthesizing and working with certain strands in critical theory and scholarship arguably first opened up by Theodor Adorno and pursued since by many others.8

Very schematically: Auschwitz realizes the qualitatively new potential for systematic genocide inherent in the technics and logics of Fordist production, when these are put at the disposal of the state and directed toward the aim of mass murder. Hiroshima realizes the qualitatively new potential for genocidal destruction inherent in the project of modernist science itself, when all the state-directed resources of research and development and rationalized production are mobilized for the war machine. The extermination camp or factory, then, and the all-too-real doomsday weapon - the so-called weapon of mass destruction or WMD - set the new standards for terror and sublimity. The shift, again, is from the power, violence and size of first nature to the violent potentialities of second nature, or society itself. Viewed in this way, Auschwitz and Hiroshima are shorthand for qualitatively new powers of violence gained by the nation-state - beyond all the obvious differences in their specific historical character and in the political forms and aims of the governments that realized them. These qualitative historical events are the demonstration that such powers are real and can be deployed. This knowledge, this new social and historical fact quite properly should terrify us far more than the random natural disasters of old.

This shift is indeed a radical transformation of the category of the sublime. In the traditional sublime - above all as formulated by Kant - the encounter with the power or size of first nature was ultimately the occasion for reaffirming human freedom and dignity. The helpless distress of the imagination before the power and violence of raw nature in the end was merely the trigger for a reassertion of the faculty of reason and for a reflection on man's supersensible dignity and destination.9 As the basis for moral freedom and human autonomy, reason is the capacity that ostensibly raises humanity above mere sensible nature and the blind play of forces, drives and instincts. So humans need not be in terror of expressions of natural power, for they are reassured of their superiority over it: reason and freedom to the rescue.10

After 1945, however, this compensatory pleasure of self-admiration within the feeling of the sublime becomes highly improbable: these events are nothing less than devastating to human dignity. In "After Auschwitz," the first of the powerful "Meditations on Metaphysics" that end Negative Dialectics, Adorno argues that Auschwitz was a kind of irreversible liquidation of metaphysical optimism.11 But for the reasons I've already indicated, we have to include Hiroshima to properly grasp what has changed here. For these two events together accomplish a terrible and deep-reaching ruination that shakes - or should shake - human self-confidence and optimism to the core. In the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, the meliorism and Enlightenment notion of progress that inform Kant's sublime become naïve, when not obscene. For these staggering events seem rather to establish that society, in its capacities for violence, has escaped rational control and has committed atrocities that cannot be folded back into any redemptive narrative of progress.

State Terror and Capitalist Modernity

It's important to note that the new powers of violence that are out of the box after 1945 belong to the state. They are properties and prerogatives of the modern nation-state, with its monopoly on violence and its power to declare the state of emergency or exception - that is, as the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt famously put it, the sovereign power to declare the existence of an absolute and intolerable enemy.12 It is the declared state of emergency, of course, which self-authorizes the state to take control of whole sectors of science and the economy and to mobilize all techno-instrumental capacities toward political ends, including the end of terror.

Whatever we're officially told today, terror remains above all the prerogative of the nation-state. So-called non-state actors may get hold of a WMD, but only the state has the power and capacity to develop, produce, and deploy them as a matter of strategy and policy. And we know that state strategy and policy ultimately and necessarily aim at preserving the status quo of power - the given system of social relations. Objectively, as it were, we have far more to fear from the state than from its challenging others, however brutal and excessive certain of those others - al-Qaeda and such - may be. The contemporary sublime is linked irreducibly to state terror and violence, and events since 2001 and the so-called "war on terror" don't change that a whit.

In the end, these terrible, sublime potentialities the state holds in reserve have to be grasped systemically. They are products of capitalist modernity itself. That is: of techno-productive power and instrumental reason developed within the frame of the modern nation-state and capitalist economy and under the globally dominant logic of capitalist social relations. This is to say that second nature is capitalist: it is the society and world system that capitalist modernity produced. And so to speak of the sublime today is to speak of the terror of wars and genocidal eruptions, but also, necessarily, the terror and violence of the social system as a global totality. It's no secret that the global logic of this totality is war: an unceasing and unforgiving war of all against all. With nation-states as with individuals and corporations, each must tirelessly exploit and dominate the others, so as not to be exploited and dominated out of existence. This would be the structural barbarism Adorno famously called "perennial catastrophe."13

One challenge for critical thought today is to grasp the current wars and occupations not merely as resource wars or imperialist adventures - they certainly are those - but more fundamentally as wars of systemic enforcement.

In other words, we need to understand - though this kind of analysis fell out of fashion during the "po-mo" decades - how violence is the inevitable product of the very same social relations and logics that seemed to provide us with - or at least promise - material security and prosperity based on a superabundance of commodities. And more than that, we need to grasp how the brutal atrocities that strike us with fear today in fact function as means by which the global status quo maintains its power and hold over us - declaring and at the same time continuously generating the absolute enemy.

Clearly we need a more differentiated and periodized account of capitalism here. The post-Fordist and neo-liberal forms of capitalism that became globally dominant beginning in the early 1970s are more intensive and violent modes of exploitation than the capitalism of Keynesianism and the welfare state. This has to be analyzed and taken into account, and of course the debates about the contemporary form of capitalism are well underway. But it's worth remembering that the underlying "logic of logics" of capitalist social relations - a logic of war - remains unchanged. It may be that capitalism as we know it today simply follows that logic more directly than did the form that preceded it. In retrospect it appears that the relatively more moderate and constrained form of the welfare state was a concession gained by the working class through struggle - a concession that was cancelled from above as soon as working class power was no longer robust enough to resist the underlying logic of the law of value. The reorganization of the global labor regime - the shift from Fordist to post-Fordist modes of production - could then be understood as a major counter-offensive against working class power launched in response to labor militancy in the 1950s and 60s.14

There can be little doubt that this offensive, which is ongoing today, has been largely successful in "decomposing" traditionally organized working class struggles. The so-called movement of movements that was largely inspired and catalyzed by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and that erupted into global visibility in Seattle in 1999 represents the beginnings of an attempt to build a new internationalist class composition around global anti-capitalist social movements and struggles. Suspicions that the "war on terror" has from the beginning had this attempt at class re-composition in its sights, in addition to Jihadist and other networks that could more justifiably be called "terrorist," seems confirmed by the uses to which the new emergency powers everywhere have been put to use: in the context of a general militarization of everyday life, an unprecedented expansion and perhaps qualitative intensification of official surveillance, and an erosion of habeas corpus and other basic civil and democratic rights, there is a clear tendency among states, almost without exception, to criminalize established forms of dissent and protest and to re-categorize forms of civil disobedience and direct action as "terrorism."15

In a kind of post-Fordist refinement of the old dirty war tactic of "disappearing" those deemed enemies, state security agencies and private contractors have collaborated in building a planetary network of off-record snatch teams and "rendition" planes, bases and transit camps, and secret prisons for interrogation and torture - into which, it is now well known, not a few innocent victims have already been abducted and cast.16 Given the well-known dubious quality of "intelligence" gained by such means, one suspects the real intent is the intimidation and terror of "enemies" and would-be enemies. If so, this aim seems ultimately doomed to failure, most fundamentally because it merely exposes the state's inability to define terror in a way that excludes the categorical priority of state terror. And in the long run, the need to use state terror, rather than hold it in reserve as a guarantee of sovereignty, marks a crisis of governance, a political failure to manage social contradictions becoming acute: that a global hegemon like the US is reactivating the apparatus of terror and assuming all the risks of manifold "blowback" indicates, at the very least, a crisis of global hegemony. However, the declared planetary state of emergency has had, at least in the short term, a chilling and disorienting effect on legitimate and progressive movements and struggles for social justice and systemic transformation. More hopefully, there are some signs that this period of disorientation is coming to an end now and that a new cycle of social struggles is gathering. Meanwhile, the security industries are thriving and massive resources are being poured into devising new weapons and tactics for quelling urban unrest - clear indications that the ruling classes, too, are deeply anxious about the future.

(Of course, not every state endorses and participates in the US-led "war on terror," or cooperates with it to the same degree; a comprehensive analysis would need to distinguish between kinds of state formation and to take into account differences in national history, traditions of repression or democratic responsiveness, position in the global hierarchy of nation-states, the character of national ruling classes, and so forth. It would also need to acknowledge those areas in which state power and national sovereignty seem to be tendentially in decline. Here I'm just indicating cursorily the logics shared by states in general, within a capitalist world system being contested from below in various ways.)

And if to begin with we misrecognized neo-liberalism, or were slow to see it for what it is, tending at first to accept it at the face-value of its own triumphalist self-advertisements following the collapse of bureaucratic communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, few of us can remain deceived today. The phase - if that's what it was - of soft power and market expansions and enticements that apparently used to suffice, in general, to secure global consent and hegemony just a decade or two ago, is clearly over: continuous interventions and repressive applications of state violence are now necessary to preserve the current global order. We see this every day, if we bother to look: it is the unacknowledged meaning of the "global war against terrorism." Whether consciously conceived in this way or not, permanent emergency and war and continuous military interventions clearly have a social basis and reflect a systemic logic and imperative. This being the case, all the violence held in reserve by the dominant nation-states - up to and including the new capacities to inflict practically unlimited genocide and destruction - is again mobilized as active threat and terror.

In this light, the "war on terror" is at least an efficient way of generating fear and maintaining the conditions of emergency that justify in advance new applications of state terror in defense of a world system going into crisis - or which perhaps has turned permanent war and crisis into a modus operandi and new normality. In any case, it was the strategic calculation of the militarists of the "full spectrum dominance" school that the US has a better chance of maintaining its top position against rival nation-states and emerging blocs in a situation of generalized fear and terror and continuous emergency than in one characterized by a relative absence of war, in which democratic aspirations from below could hope and work for their global realization. The obvious assumption - impeccably capitalist after all - is that the aspirations of the global majority will not coincide with US national interests. It is the attempt to understand this new situation in terms of a logic of systemic enforcement that I admire about Retort's analysis of what they call "military neo-liberalism" and the functions of failed states and weak citizenship.17

And to bring this right up to date, I would argue that global climate change, rogue storms and tsunamis, and all the other extreme "weather events" and ecological disasters now looming over the horizon hardly change this inescapability of the social. For if these new disasters are the result of cumulative human impacts, then they don't represent any simple return of the old first nature. They would be the product of a dialectic between first and second nature: in short a third nature. The cumulative human impacts that shape and transform this third, socialized nature would be nothing other than cumulative capitalist impacts. Long ago, Max Horkheimer insisted that anyone who wants to talk about fascism had better be ready to talk about capitalism.18 Today, if we want to talk about climate change or, indeed, the sublime, we'd better be ready to talk about capitalism and the urgent problem of finding a passage beyond it.

Reinventing Revolution

From these critical propositions I draw three conclusions:

(1) Unlike the sublime terror of first or raw, unmediated nature, that of second nature is social in origin and should in theory bear the openings for a social solution. It should be possible after all to de-reify and reorganize social relations in such a way that these capacities for terror and violence are socially contained. However, since these capacities are the products of capitalist modernity and its inexorable logics, they cannot be durably contained without altering those logics themselves. In other words, only system change - only social transformation based on a non-capitalist logic: in short, a revolutionary process - could get us out of this vicious circle. Undeniably, the history of anti-capitalist revolution has so far been one of terrible defeat. This is not to be denied or glibly dismissed. And yet the blockages and impasses of traditional revolutionary theory and practice - the problems of state power, agency and organizational form, and the dilemma of revolutionary violence, to name a few - remain burning urgencies and, like it or not, still mark the current limit of social progress.19

In the twentieth century, humanity made a qualitative leap in the "progress toward hell," as Adorno bitterly put it.20 Capitalism itself cannot stop this undesired regress, for it continues to be the result of a rigorous law of profit - the law, as it were, of capitalist selection. No mere techno-fix will help us here; imagining that the market can address or manage global climate change, for example, would merely be one more failure of the imagination. Nor is it merely a matter of checking this contemporary phase of aggressive class war we call neo-liberalism - however especially urgent that task is today.

If there is a way out for us, it can only be through a revolutionary passage to a different social logic and order: a system of human relations not based on domination and exploitation. "Capitalism," Walter Benjamin warned us, "will not die a natural death" - though it may deliver us up to common ruin.21 And so we're thrown back on the need to reinvent revolution: that is, to work collectively and carefully on those blockages and strategic impasses holding back the revolutionary process. And Benjamin has left us a startling metaphor for thinking about this: revolution as a way of pulling the emergency break on a runaway train.22

(2) Ultimately, the real terror is the threat that system change is no longer possible - the threat that there is no way out of this capitalist thing, this race to the bottom. This is of course a claim, not a certain fact: it's the threatening claim of established power that history has ended, having realized itself in the current status quo. "There is no alternative," as Margaret Thatcher pompously put it: capitalism and the nation-state are all there is or ever will be. This I think would be the most threatening terror of all, a paralyzing terror that robs us at once of history and a future. History has ended, there is nothing else than this - this systemic given. "Therefore, resistance is futile": This is indeed the terrifying, sublime, spectacular message continuously repeated by the voice of power as such today. And if you do resist, here's what we'll do to you...

(3) As far as the power of art to respond to this predicament goes, we had better abandon all illusions before entering through the gallery gates. This is not to say, abandon all hope, however. The promise of art to improve us and raise us out of barbarism was always overblown. Adorno in any case insisted that Auschwitz was the end of any such claims for the power of culture; not even art's "right to exist" can be taken for granted today.23 Adorno, of course, circled the wagons around the remnant autonomy of the modernist artwork. I've argued elsewhere that this kind of retreat - a familiar enough symptom of "leftwing melancholy" - is an abandonment of the socially revolutionary impulses of the artistic avant-gardes. The cultural avant-gardes can contribute to keeping a revolutionary process alive and moving - not by making artworks but by inventively supporting and participating in anti-capitalist social movements and struggles.24 (I trust it goes without saying that what is meant here are the progressive and internationalist forms of anti-capitalism still more or less associated with the political left, and not the virulently regressive forms of reaction of which al-Qaeda is a current exemplar.)

But even within the paradigm of the institutionalized and administered bourgeois artwork, Adorno's call for a sublime art of negative presentation on the model of Samuel Beckett's Endgame is a gambit whose time is past. By the mid-1990s at the latest, negative strategies of sublimity and indirection had become the dominant mode of institutionalized memorial art. At that point, even by their own logic, they lost their capacity to deliver sublime hits capable of jolting spectators into critical reflection and social and political wakefulness. Where spectators are conditioned to expect it, no hit is possible, and the negative way begins it slow slide into convention and formula.25 Moreover, we have to acknowledge that the dialectic of public remembering and forgetting has to a very large extent been instrumentalized by power today. No memorial art that merely looks back to past disasters, genocidal or otherwise, without vividly linking them to the wars, atrocities, occupations and seizures unfolding continuously around us can be of much help. Mourning as a retrospective posture is merely an arrested process of enlightenment and emancipation. Where it is not arrested, the processing of genocidal trauma digs all the way down to the social basis and merges with the revolutionary process itself.26

Certainly there are sublime counter-images to the images of state terror. The leaked images of Abu Ghraib are in this sense an answer to the officially disseminated images of the "shock and awe" night bombardment of Baghdad. This kind of image war is real enough: counter-images can produce real material effects and, as Retort has suggested, can initiate at least momentary shifts in the balance of forces.27 And what Benjamin called "dialectical images" can generate energies for reigniting the social struggles we inherit as the unpaid debts of history.28 But I doubt that art is the privileged site for the production and circulation of such imagery. To be sure, the art system is one place where it can be introduced and circulated, and in the present situation the more sites and counter-images the better. But the Internet would seem to be a far more important global medium for this today. It's not my intention to discourage artists from critical interventions in the galleries and art institutions - again, the more the better, and defending the remnants of artistic autonomy is much preferable to resignation and disengagement. I'm only insisting that the decisive moves must be elsewhere. The fact is that art - even this kind of critical art - cannot in itself be the solution to our problem.

Only a revolutionary passage beyond capitalist social relations - only the real social rupture of a "good" qualitative event - can break this pattern of terror. That, it seems to me, is where the problem lies and where our energies need to go. There, in other words, is where critical and affective pressure for a collective leap needs to build up and be lived as an urgency. Work that focuses - or refocuses - us on these historical impasses and blockages is to my mind helpful and responsible. Nor will these blockages be overcome by theory or critical reflection alone; they will be solved, if they are at all, by still unforeseeable leaps and practical inventions made collectively in new cycles of social struggle. And this very perilous passage would need to avoid the temptations to regressive nationalism and mutations of fascism activated and mobilized by the security-surveillance state and its politics of fear. In the end, this is merely to say that terror will remain a central part of our reality unless and until we break its hold over us.

This essay is forthcoming in Seamus Kealy, ed., 'Signals in the Dark: Art in the Shadow of War' (Blackwood Gallery/University of Toronto, 2008).


1 This essay began as a talk given in London in October 2007, at "The Sublime Now," a symposium on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Burke's Philosophical Enquiry co-organized by Tate Britain, Middlesex University and the London Consortium. The talk was for a session, co-presented with Iain Boal, entitled "The Sublime and the Politics of Terror."

2 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [1757] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 54, my italics.

3 In what Kant calls the mathematically sublime, the imagination, confronted by the magnitude of nature, strives toward an idea of infinity that is beyond its capacity; in the dynamically sublime, observation of the might of nature leads the imagination to grasp the physical impotence of the natural human body. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment [1790/3], trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), pp. 106, 120-1.

4 Burke, Philosophical Enquiry, pp. 36-7.

5 Kant, Critique of Judgment, p. 98.

6 Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness [1923], trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), p. 128.

7 For a decent introductory discussion of estimates, with citations, see  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_II_casualties

8 For a fuller account of this tradition and my work on it, see my Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), of which this section is largely a summary.

9 "The sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense." And this sublime proof "keeps the humanity in our person from being degraded, even though a human being would have to succumb to that dominance [of nature.]" Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 106 (Kant's italics) and 121, respectively.

10 This leads Kant to insist that, strictly speaking, the sublime is an attribute, not of nature or any artefact, but of the feeling that accompanies the mind in its own movements of self-reflexivity: "Hence sublimity is contained not in any thing of nature, but only in our mind, insofar as we can become conscious of our superiority to nature within us, and thereby also to nature outside us (as far as it influences us). Whatever arouses this feeling is us, and this includes the might of nature that challenges our forces, is then (although improperly) called sublime." Ibid., p. 123.

11 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics [1966], trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1995), pp. 361-5.

12 Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political [1932], trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 27-45. On the state's monopoly of violence (Gewaltmonopol), see Max Weber's classic 1919 essay "Politics as Vocation" in Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, trans. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 77-128.

13 Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," in Prisms [1955], trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), p. 25.

14 This would be one way to acknowledge the insights of Antonio Negri and other Italian Autonomist or Operaist Marxists regarding the primacy of struggle, without however giving up Marx's law of value. For an excellent orienting discussion of these issues, see Ben Trott, "Immaterial Labour and World Order: An Evaluation of a Thesis," in Ephemera, vol. 7, no. 1, Special Issue on Immaterial and Affective Labour, pp. 203-32.

15 This tendency is pronounced in the United States, where it predictably follows from the arsenal of emergency powers asserted in legislation from the USA Patriot Act of 2001 to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, as well as from the tone set by the White House and Justice Department; it can be seen at work in the treatment of demonstrators and activists opposed to the occupation of Iraq, in the reactivation of domestic surveillance programs (targeting, among others, antiwar protestors and Quaker peace groups), and in the so-called "Green Scare" targeting ecological and animal rights activists with the "enhanced sentencing" provisions reserved for terrorists. The trend is hardly limited to the US, however; in Germany in 2007, section 129a of the federal Criminal Code, a 1970s-era provision reserving exceptional powers for combating "terrorist organizations," was used to justify widespread surveillance, legal harassment, and selective detention of activists before, during, and after the G-8 Summit in Heiligendamm.

16 The existence of a US-run, globally-dispersed network of so-called "black sites" was at first denied, but finally officially admitted by the US president on September 6, 2006, after vigilant citizens and journalists had uncovered "rendition aircraft" registered to CIA front companies and tracked their movements to airports in Romania, Poland, Morocco and Guantánamo Bay. While the US administration defends its use of "extraordinary rendition," "ghost detainees," and "enhanced interrogation techniques" - all these extraordinary euphemisms betray a systematic attempt at obfuscation - it refuses to confirm or release detailed information with respect to specific sites or individual detainees. While the US government bears the primary responsibility for this network for "torture by proxy," it is obviously a collaborative joint venture in which the security agencies of many states function de facto as sub-contractors, alongside private sector firms providing the needed logistics and support services. A 2007 report published jointly by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Center for Constitutional Rights and three other human rights NGOs concludes that at least 39 people held in secret CIA detention centers remain "disappeared." Among the known victims of this network are Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr (an Egyptian cleric granted asylum by Italy who was abducted by a CIA snatch team in Milan in 2003 and "rendered" to Egypt, where he was held and tortured before being released in 2007) and Marwan Jabour (a Palestinian arrested in Pakistan in 2004 and flown to a CIA "black site" in Afghanistan, where he was tortured during a two-year detention). Similar and now well-publicized cases include those of Maher Arar (an engineer of Canadian-Syrian citizenship detained in New York in 2002 and deported to Syria, where he was held and tortured for nearly a year) and Khalid El Masri (a German citizen detained in Macedonia in 2003 and flown to a CIA site in Afghanistan, where he was held and tortured for several months). See Off the Record: US Responsibility for Enforced Disappearances in the "War on Terror" (Amnesty International, et al., June, 2007); Ghost Prisoner: Two Years in Secret CIA Detention (Human Rights Watch, February, 2007); and Dick Marty's 22 January 2006 "Memorandum on Alleged Secret Detentions" prepared for the Council of Europe Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.

17 Retort (Iain Boal, T.J. Clark, Joseph Matthews, and Michael Watts), Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (London: Verso, 2005). And here's the place for a warm thanks to Iain Boal for his stimulating reflections and provocations in the "House of Tate."

18 Max Horkheimer, "The Jews and Europe" [1939], in Stephen Bronner and Douglas Kellner, eds., Critical Theory and Society: A Reader (New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 77.

19 By "revolutionary process," I mean the struggle-driven movement to supersede capitalist social relations - to imagine collectively and realize practically and materially a society based on mutual support, care and cooperation rather than exploitation and domination. "Struggle" here is not limited to or primarily intended to invoke forms of violent or armed struggle; I mean rather the whole spectrum of organized, contestational collective action. Today it is not self-evident that revolution in this sense must aim at a direct and decisive combat with the state or must be led by a party organized along Marxist-Leninist lines. Nor is it self-evident that a socialist state and command economy must be seen as the exemplary determinate negation of capitalism; it is certain, however, that the twentieth-century regimes of "really existing socialism" did not abolish class society or supersede relations of domination and exploitation. All this is to say that revolution is an inherited problem whose solution will require leaps of collective imagination going beyond past defeats and traditional revolutionary theory and practice. But this problem consists of concrete strategic blockages and dilemmas, and focusing and working on them - and linking them to the experiences of active social struggles - is the condition for keeping the revolutionary process alive and moving.

20 Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life [1951], trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 1974), p. 134.

21 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 667.

22 Benjamin, "Paralipomena to 'On the Concept of History'," in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938-1940, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings and trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 402.

23 Adorno, Aesthetic Theory [1970], trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 1; and Negative Dialectics, pp. 365-8.

24 The Situationist International in the 1950s and 60s and certain tactical media groups, such as the Yes Men, the Überflüssigen and the Grupo de Arte Callejero, today would be exemplary of the cultural avant-garde I am thinking of. See my "Critical Theory and Critical Art Theory," Links.net.de, July 2007, online at ; and "Avant-Gardes as Anti-Capitalist Vector," Third Text 86, vol. 22, no. 3: 241-55.

25 The history of negative presentation as a visual strategy for representing historical trauma begins with Yves Klein and Arman and reaches a peak around 1985, a year that saw the realization of Joseph Beuys's felt environment Plight and Claude Lanzmann's negative documentary Shoa. Daniel Liebeskind's design for a memorial structure on the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan confirms for me that this strategy has achieved institutional dominance and has become formulaic. Readers can glean their own examples from any recent issue of the art magazines.

26 The need for a radically politicized conception of mourning is a major contention of my Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory. For a recapitulation of the thesis, as well as further exposition of the history of negative presentation in the visual arts after 1945, see my "Mourning and Cosmopolitics: With and Beyond Beuys," forthcoming in Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes, ed., Beuysian Legacies: Art, Culture and Politics in Ireland, Europe and the US (Berlin: LIT).

27 See Retort, "All Quiet on the Eastern Front," New Left Review 41 (September/October 2006), pp. 88-91; and my "Revolution in the Post-Fordist Revolution?: Notes on the Internet as a Weapon of the Multitude," Third Text 84, vol. 21, no. 1: 1-8.

28 Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," in Selected Writings, vol. 4, pp. 390-1; and Arcades Project, pp. 463-4.


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