Heir to rationality

by Yule Heibel on May 10, 2004

This entry is a continuation and commentary of sorts on David Weinberger writing here and here, and Frank Paynter responding here and here. There’s a lot of interesting commenting going back and forth on those two blogs, which you can read for yourself. Although I got into the fray a little bit by commenting on Frank’s blog, I worry that what I just wrote now might choke the life out of the discussion there, so I decided to put these thoughts on my own blog instead. I tend to get a bit too abstract or esoteric or vague or just not to the point enough from time to time, and this is definitely too long for another blog’s comment board. So here goes – no other links to anything, but it’s too late in the evening now to root around for interesting stuff on google.

This started because I agreed with Frank’s position against torture.

My thinking about torture and violence is determined by a few insights I’ve had into the history of ideas, and by the fact that, as a per-default heir to Hitler Germany, I’m part of a culture which perfected “justifications” of torture and other systemic means of dehumanisation. I reject torture absolutely. Let me try to unpack that.

Would I, say, punch the shit out of someone I managed to catch whose accomplice had kidnapped my children? *That* is not I want to put up for discussion – although yes, of course I would. What’s up for discussion is how we institutionalise violence between people who don’t have a personal stake in something – people who are …following orders, say. After all, isn’t part of the mythology of military force, of police force, etc., the removal of the personal stake? Removal of the personal stake so that subordinates can unquestioningly follow orders without being harmed in their own integrity by their duties? Don’t we reject vigilantism, for eg., because it’s personal versus “detached” and “impartial,” and we fear the barbarism we’ll be contaminated by in the execution of vigilantism? This is why we still have taboos on certain kinds of violence. The taboo acts to prevent self-pollution and the pollution of the community.

“Our side” (Western civilisation) was supposed to have “progressed” past the tribal and into the institutional, the impersonal, the rational, which in turn also implies a steady elimination of taboo. The development of modern military structures, chains of command, rank, and so forth, is one way this progress is embodied. Hence also the conventions (Geneva), laws, and regulations that try to keep everything “rational” and “lawful.” This is not a natural state of affairs, it’s a social construct, supposedly one of the best, not least because it’s rational and modern, not fettered by tribal superstition or archaic laws supposedly based on nature or god.

If personnel (military, police) in the world’s leading proponent of institutional rationalism is now asked by the chain-of-command-higher-ups to commit acts that clearly veer off into the personal, then that’s a perversion of institutional force as we’ve tried to articulate it. Perhaps we’re witnessing the continued break-down of that articulation. And I think we all know that these acts are systemic, were orderered from higher up, and were not the actions of “rogue” soldiers. Then: a taboo is broken, perhaps one of the last that still lingered. But instead of the heavens opening up and punishing those who break the taboo, nothing happens. That’s what Sade and Nietzsche learned and made philosophy out of: if you look to nature, everything is permitted. Nothing is taboo. And there is no god who swoops from the firmament to dash the infidels (whatever your religion). If you can get away with it, you can do it. We’ve been jettisoned, rather painfully, into an enlightened false consciousness that’s oozing with cynicism.

Rumours of broken taboos in the institutions have been in circulation since …whenever. Vietnam. Elsewhere, earlier. And still, too many people naively believe that our modern institutions — military, in particular — hold to certain taboos, and so they’re shocked by the revelations of torture. On the other hand, look at your personal modern life: on that level, we “in the west” have been living in a post-Sadean world for so long now (many of us have learned to partake of taboo-breaking and a bit of personal torture as another offering in the King Consumerist Marketplace) that disclosure of broken taboos in the institutions comes as no surprise. If anything, we scramble to find a “rationale” for it, and barring that, we shrug cynically and impotently.

Beating, humiliating, stripping, and systematically degrading another person over whom one has total control: this strikes me as a complete reversal of modern militarism’s *ideology* of depersonalised combat, which is why many don’t want to believe it’s happening. A soldier who can do these things and not make it personal is either already alienated from himself (dissociating), or he lives completely in the post-Sadean/ quasi-Nietzschean world wherein taboo is at the willful disposal of the sovereign individual. In other words, he’s just like you and I.

Finally, a reorientation of institutional force is what has been going on across the board in Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere, and I don’t see this as being about the military at all. I think it’s about “intelligence” and its inexorable logic, which is bound to nothing but its own rationality. “Intelligence,” as the highest expression of a *rationality* defined as national integrity, dictates a goal-oriented environment in which the integrity of soldiers *and* prisoners can just go straight to hell. Its civilian counterpart is perhaps corporatism. Push it far enough and our rationality ends in barbarism, because inherent in the former is the famous dialectical flip described by Adorno & Horkheimer in their study, Dialectic of Enlightenment. If you give rationality free reign, if will turn around and bite you in the ass. “Rationality” doesn’t give a damn about you or me; nor does nature, nor the irrational non-existant things like taboos and divinities and all that.

As for me? I care about some people all of the time, and all people some of the time. If I were “personnel,” I think I’d rather shoot my commanding officer than carry out the directive to torture anyone, and maybe that means I’m not too rational. On the other hand, rationality means too much to me to betray it for a mess of potage, er, oil.


While I was rooting around earlier for additional items on Brandon Mayfield (see “Witch Hunt” entry, yesterday), I found this excellent editorial, Values for Sale, by Gersh Kuntzman.


fp May 11, 2004 at 10:02 am

Excellent. This thing is coming to a rolling boil… there is a lot about choice and awareness to discuss. Non-theism comes into play. For me, the rejection of post-modernism as sterile and uninformative again emarges, but I have to walk softly here since so many friends live in that neighborhood. Thanks for deepening the discussion Yule.

bmo May 11, 2004 at 1:14 pm

A self-sanctioned private war, beyond known and agreed upon laws, being fought on the hijacked sentimentalism of militarism, nationalism, and rationalism.

Yep. Good stuff, Yule.

GW Bush is the world’s first market endorsed war criminal. Commander Free Hand in a perpetual end game.

Betsy May 12, 2004 at 11:58 am

Today I had a long conversation with David (on meds I think) and he said what a much better world it would be if Michael Jackson had declared war on Iraq and Bush been caught interfering with children.

fp May 12, 2004 at 8:42 pm

I’ve been thinking more about the “only following orders” defence and it’s hogwash. One of the things we expect of our troops is the ability to discern illegal orders. Someone who follows an illegal order without strong protest is as culpable as someone who issues the order. And of course anyone whose chain of command suffers this kind of rot is compelled to eliminate it immediately or face consequence of complicity. Bush/Rumsfeld/the Joint Chiefs are all on the hook right now, and so are the troops whose behavior was so execrable.

fundelupa May 12, 2004 at 10:07 pm

Where did all the hoods come from? There seem to be an awful lot of them in Iraq just now, and they all look like the same standard issue. Is there some hood-making factory making them up in batches?

fp May 13, 2004 at 1:07 am

Joint Venture between Bechtel & Halliburton relying on cheap labor in Latin America.

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