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William Haver

The Ontological Priority of Violence

On Several Really Smart Things About Violence in Jean Genet's Work


Through a consideration of the later texts of Jean Genet, this paper attempts to think the consequences, for thinking, of any thought of violence or terror insofar as it exceeds its instrumentality. It proceeds through a thought of singularity, a concomitant thought of multiplicity, and a reflection on the immanence of the senses, to a thought of violence as an ontologically constitutive articulation. 1



The Thought of Violence


Jean Genet
(1910 – 1986)
was a prominent, sometimes infamous, French writer, exponent of the theatre of the absurd and later political activist. Abandoned at birth, early in his life he was a vagabond, male prostitute, and thief, who had spent most of his youth in prison. He has written novels, plays, poems, and essays. In his works, he has described an underworld of male prostitutes, pimps, convicts and social outcasts.

external linkBiography
1 The first really smart thing Jean Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence, in The Thief's Journal, is this: »Too many people think, I said to myself, who don't have the right to. They have not paid for it by the kind of undertaking which makes thinking indispensable to your salvation.« (Genet 1964, 84) More than twenty years later, in conversation with Tahar Ben Jelloun, he was to say this:
2 Insofar as [the Left] perpetuates Judeo-Christian kinds of reasoning and morality, I find myself incapable of identifying with it; it is more idealist than political, more annoying than rational. As for Sartre, I've understood for a long time that his political thought is pseudo-thought. To my mind, what is called Sartrean thought no longer exists. His position-taking is only the hasty judgment of an intellectual too pusillanimous to confront anything but his own fantasms. (Quoted by Ben Jelloun 1992, 94-95)
3 Or, again, in an interview with Michèle Manceaux à propos the Black Panthers, Genet said: »The non-violent stance of the Whites belongs to a moral dilettantism. Nothing else.« (Genet 1991b, 59)
4 The questions I am trying to approach in my current work concern the situation of thinking with regard to violence insofar as it exceeds its instrumentality, insofar as it is also something other than negativity. What is at stake for thinking when it is a question of non-instrumental, or perhaps more accurately para-instrumental, violence? Can we think consequently when what is at stake is terror? Or must we, insofar as we think we are thinking, resign ourselves to the philosophical tragedies of aporia? Can we think terror, violence in its non- or para-instrumentality, as also something other than aporia?
5 The thought of terror always exceeds its concept; that is, the thought of terror cannot be deduced from any principle of modern political thought – just as neither radical evil nor the sublime can be deduced from reason or any theology; just as trauma cannot be deduced from psychoanalysis. For what still counts as reason, for theology, for psychoanalysis, the sublime, radical evil, or trauma constitute the points at which philosophy, theology, and psychoanalysis can no longer think philosophically, theologically, or psychoanalytically. Here, thinking stammers, or rather, thinking becomes nothing but a certain stammering; here, thinking can no longer think the fact as such of its thinking; here, thinking can only reflect upon itself as tragic aporia; here, thinking is sustained by no image of itself. It is in elaborating concepts of evil, the sublime, and trauma that modern thought has, sometimes in spite of itself, acknowledged the irreducibility of terror, but has necessarily been unable to think violence and terror in their irreducible positivity. And this because modern political philosophy (in what I take to be a broad sense of the term) has always aspired to a thinking experience of the political, to the subjectivity that the fact of thinking about an epistemological object called the political putatively constitutes.
6 I proceed from the hypothesis (which I am certainly far from the first to put forward) that any consequent thinking with regard to what is at stake in terror must submit itself, perhaps impossibly, not to a thinking experience of the political, but to a political experience of thinking, a historical experience of thinking. Is this possible? And what would a political-historical experience of thinking be? Can we not do more than merely state that thought does not cause itself, and that thinking is nevertheless unavoidable, but think from the fact of the experience of that provocation? Can we think not merely about our non-transcendence, our non-neutrality, our finitude, but from, and as, the experience of the non-transcendence, the non-neutrality, the finitude that we are? Can we think from the ontological priority of the political, from the experience of a violence that is no metaphor?
7 I am aware that these are very fuzzy articulations of the questions. What, for example, might the term »experience« mean here? But it seems to me that any question about the meaning of the experience of the political, of non-transcendence, non-neutrality, or terror immediately recuperates the question for philosophy, albeit under the sign of aporia; such experiences are neither meaningful nor meaningless, but precisely that which exceeds the question of meaning altogether. I proceed on the hypothesis that semantic and conceptual rigor is not the only intellectually rigorous approach to these questions. It is for this reason, and because I think he is one of the few to attempt to imagine violence in its positivity, that I take Genet to be my guide here. My itinerary goes something like this: from a thought of singularity (finitude, non-neutrality, historicity), to a thought of multiplicity (a sociality that is something other, and frankly something more, than what has long counted as public), to an »immanent« seeing which neither establishes nor conserves subjectivity in and as seeing; to a kind of »historiographical« practice as the art of disappearance, the embrace of history, the affirmation that violence as such is.

On the Solitude of Things

»I felt I was perceiving things with blinding lucidity. Even the most trivial of them had lost their usual meaning, and I reached the point of wondering whether it was true that one drank from a glass or put on a shoe. As I discovered the particular meaning of each thing, the idea of number deserted me.«

Jean Genet
(1964, 129)
8 The second really smart thing Jean Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence consists of a constant meditation, traversing all his work, on the solitude of things. Of the hundreds of possible citations, let me select, to begin, just this, from The Thief's Journal:
9 [T]he mere appearance of things must have caused me that anxiety which at first was born of fear. Then the anxiety disappeared. I felt I was perceiving things with blinding lucidity. Even the most trivial of them had lost their usual meaning, and I reached the point of wondering whether it was true that one drank from a glass or put on a shoe. As I discovered the particular meaning of each thing, the idea of number deserted me. […]
10 I think I remember having the revelation of an absolute perception as I considered, in the state of luxurious detachment of which I have been speaking, a clothespin left behind on a line. The elegance and oddness of this familiar little object appeared before me without astonishing me. I perceived events themselves in their autonomy. The reader can imagine how dangerous such an attitude must have been in the life I was leading [as a thief], when I had to be wide-awake every minute and ran the risk of being caught if I lost sight of the usual meaning of objects. (Genet 1964, 129-130)
11 Commentary on this and nearly identical passages in Genet could go on forever; I will limit myself to four observations. First, that in the blinding lucidity of this seeing, things exceed their instrumentality, and to the extent that they do so, they lose their meaning (signification) as well as – but it is the same thing – their relation to other things; in this »absolute perception« (connaisance absolue, rather than any savoir), in this revelation, the disposition of things is entropic, coming to rest in the solitude of an absolute luminescence. In their singularity, things cannot be subsumed within any generality or universality; they therefore cannot be counted, and thus render the very idea of number incomprehensible (for, with Borges, Nancy, Deleuze and Guattari, and quite a number of others, we could only »count« singularities as »1, 1, 1, 1…« but then »one« could no longer be a number [for what is one without 2, 3, 4?]).
12 In their singularity, things are neither individual nor particular; they are incommensurable in their entropic solitude, and thus never coalesce into what might be called a »world.« Which threatens, in an essential way, the comportments, practices, and gestures that constitute the thief's subjectivity; this seeing is not the faculty of a subject. As Genet was to tell Hubert Fichte years later à propos works of art, »I more and more lose the feeling of being ›me‹ [moi], the feeling of ›I‹ [je] as anything other than the perception of a work of art.« (Genet 1991a, 146) Finally, the solitude of things is neither a matter of astonishment nor of enchantment; this is neither enlightenment nor magical realism. And if this constitutes a fetishism, it is quite contradictorily a disenchanted fetishism (sometimes called materialism, of course).
13 The luminescent entropy of the solitude of things, the disenchanted fetishism of this materiality – in short, this singularity – is at once always already accomplished at the same time that it is always yet to come, and yet neither precedes nor survives its articulation. It is always a process of disenchantment, of an approach to absolute solitude, of a tendency toward entropy, a process (which perhaps amounts to a practice) of becoming-singular, becoming-nothing-but-thing, of becoming-nontranscendent. It is a kind of k_nosis (a kind of becoming-stupid, as Ronell has recently reminded us; Ronell 2002, 178-185) in a certain abjectification, a becoming-destitute or desperate, constant themes of Genet's writing. Indeed, the quotation with which I began is preceded by a passage that is not merely existential psychology:
»Too many people think, I said to myself, who don't have the right to. They have not paid for it by the kind of undertaking which makes thinking indispensable to your salvation.«

Jean Genet
(1964, 84)
14 In short, the greater my guilt in your eyes, the more whole, the more totally assumed, the greater will be my freedom. The more perfect my solitude and uniqueness. By my guilt I further gained the right to intelligence. Too many people think, I said to myself, who don't have the right to. They have not paid for it by the kind of undertaking which makes thinking indispensable to your salvation. (Genet 1964, 84)
15 Here, guilt is the figure of that non-transcendence, non-neutrality, which alone vouchsafes the right to think. Evil, betrayal, crime, treason, the themes of more than the novels and plays, are all becomings, all trajectories of separation, passages of dissociation, flights from relationality, acts of more than metaphysical violence. All of these negations of relation, these non-relations, these anti-relations, are themselves relations. The constitutive – creative – relation in Genet is the violence of separation. At Mettray, the reformatory where Genet spent much of his adolescence and which preoccupies him throughout Miracle of the Rose, the only relation among the inmates are violent, erotic, and therefore social relations. And in his last, avowedly post-literary work, Prisoner of Love, he recalls attending mass at the abbey of Monserrat:
16 Then came the famous kiss of peace: after the elevation the Abbot kissed each of the acolytes on both cheeks, and they conveyed the salutation to each of the monks sitting in the choir. Then two choristers opened the screen doors and his reverence came down among the congregation, kissing some of us. I was one of those who received a kiss, but I broke the chain of fraternity by not passing it on. (Genet 1992, 33)
17 This thought of violent separation in betrayal, treason, crime, k_nosis, abjection, guilt, evil, desperation, and disenchanted fetishism is a thought of becoming-thing, of entropy: in short, at once an empiricism and a materialism. And let me repeat that this violent becoming is neither the realization of a possibility (because it is always already realized), nor is it ever accomplished in any teleology; it is a becoming with neither ground nor telos, which nevertheless happens. If this thought of singularity is important for Genet, it is because it bears with it, equiprimordially as it were, a thought of multiplicity, a thought of sociality as the infinite proliferation of differences. But I have oversimplified; things are essentially more complicated than that.

Jean Genet's Bachelor Machines

enlarge »Jean Genet«
by Alberto Giacometti
18 So here is the third really smart thing Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence. It takes the form of an exchange with Nigel Williams for the BBC in 1985:
19 NW [Nigel Williams] – You have spoken in your books of love at the Colony [the reformatory at Mettray].
G [Genet] — You said ›l'amour‹? I heard ›la mort.‹
NW — Love, I don't want to talk about death, but of love.
G — Oh, yeah. What was the question?
NW — For you, I think, love began not with the family, but with a boy…
G — No, not with a boy, with two hundred! What are you saying?!
NW — With two hundred?
G — Well, one after another, after all…

(Genet 1991c, 299)
20 But perhaps the strongest, and certainly most succinct of Genet's meditations on the equiprimordiality (as it were) of singularity and multiplicity comes in a story he tells at least twice, once in his essay on Giacometti and again, in a somewhat more rigorous articulation, in the remarkable essay What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces and Flushed Down the Toilet. After an important introductory paragraph, which I will have to ignore here, Genet begins his anecdote:
21 Something which seemed to resemble decay was in the process of cankering my former view of the world. One day, while riding in a train, I experienced a revelation: as I looked at the passenger sitting opposite me, I realized that every man has the same value as every other. I did not suspect (or rather, I did, I was obscurely aware of it, for suddenly a wave of sadness welled up within me and, more or less bearable, but substantial, remained with me) that this knowledge would entail such a methodical disintegration. Behind what was visible in this man, or further – further and at the same time miraculously and distressingly close – I discovered in him (graceless body and face, ugly in certain details, even vile: dirty moustache, which in itself would have been unimportant but which was also hard and stiff, with the hairs almost horizontal above the tiny mouth, a decayed mouth; gobs which he spate between his knees on the floor of the carriage that was already filthy with cigarette stubs, paper, bits of bread, in short, the filth of a third-class carriage in those days), I discovered with a shock, as a result of the gaze that butted against mine, a kind of universal identity of all men.
22 No, it didn't happen so quickly, and not in that order. The fact is that my gaze butted (not crossed, butted) that of the other passenger, or rather melted into it. The man had just raised his eyes from a newspaper and quite simply turned them, no doubt unintentionally, on mine, which, in the same accidental way, were looking into his. Did he then and there, experience the same emotion and confusion as I? His gaze was not someone else's: it was my own that I was meeting in a mirror, inadvertently and in a state of solitude and self-oblivion. (Genet 1988, 10-13)
23 You will already have recognized something of what interests me in this anecdote: that it is a matter of decay, disintegration, decomposition, disenchantment; that the eyes of the other, far from being windows on the soul, repel and obstruct, they separate but also melt into each other in identity rather than resemblance; that therefore, for Genet as for Rancière's ignorant schoolmaster or Clastres's savages, equality is not equivalence; that what is at stake here is therefore no intersubjective recognition, no ground for any humanism; that, as Genet later says, »[n]o man was my brother: every man was myself« (Genet 1988, 22); that the absolute discrimination of abject singularity and the no less absolute non-discrimination of multiplicity are exactly the same thing. Anonymous singularity, promiscuous multiplicity, this is the logic of a disenchanted – ultimately Buddhist – cruising, a logic of the clone. It is also a kind of vagabond or nomad thievery that is more subversive than any mere affront to bourgeois property and sensibility. As Didier Eribon and Scott Durham have both seen, what is at stake in this multiplicity is a radically other sense of sociality (Eribon 2001; Durham 1998, 117-185). In what is perhaps Genet's most profoundly Spinozist moment, he writes at the end of his life of his time with the fedayeen:
24 A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at the sight of a cornflower, at a rock, at the touch of a rough hand – all the millions of emotions of which I'm made – they won't disappear even though I shall. Other men will experience them, and they'll still be there because of them. More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions flowing through all creation. The happiness my hand knows in a boy's hair will be known by another hand, is already known. And although I shall die, that happiness will live on. ›I‹ may die, but what made that ›I‹ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me. (Genet 1992, 314)
25 Which changes nothing, except everything.
»And although I shall die, that happiness will live on. ›I‹ may die, but what made that ›I‹ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will make the joy of being live on without me.«

Jean Genet
(1992, 314)
26 That one is at the same time singular and identical to everyone else (something rather different than a concrete universal, by the way) is not an analytic deduction or knowing; rather, it is an absolute certitude grasped in what Genet called a »sudden intuition.« The possession of this certitude does not constitute a knowledge that would certify the subjectivity of the one who knows. On the contrary, this intuition in its certainty deprives whoever intuits, by virtue of that intuiting, of the transcendence with which epistemological subjectivity presumptively endows us. It is not merely what is intuited, but the fact of intuiting that wrecks any transcendental aspiration; this intuiting itself belongs to the work of disenchantment and becoming. Recall that the glance Genet encounters communicates nothing except identity (which is, of course, incommunicable); this seeing is at once absolute separation, or non-understanding, as well as the equally absolute irrelevance of understanding or communication for identity. Here, seeing is not the opportunity for interpretation, understanding, or judgment: seeing bypasses cognition, what you see is what you see. In the immanence of that intuition or seeing, what is seen overtakes the one who intuits or sees. The seeing is absorbed within what is seen; seeing becomes submission.

What You See Is What You See

27 What you see is what you see. I would like to emphasize two aspects of this sensuous empiricism. The first aspect is embedded in this fourth really smart thing Jean Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence:
28 Every fedayee felt free ranging over this area [the Ajloun hills] on foot or by car, never letting go of the surface. It was the surface that concerned us, and we learned its contours as we moved over them. Each fedayee's horizon was taught him by his eyes and feet. He had only to look in front of him to see where he was going, and behind him to see where he'd come from. (Genet 1992, 105)
29 This first seeing, this nearly empirical seeing, is first of all a practical and interested intuition of what is given; given not a priori or as essential possibility, but given in and as its utter contingency. What is seen in practical or interested intuition is not a landscape, but hiding places, escape routes, obstacles and possibilities. It is not simply that seeing all of this is contingent, but that seeing itself belongs to contingency itself, seeing is of contingency; this is the seeing of the glimpse rather than the gaze, illumination as fulguration rather than enlightenment. Calculation there is, but it is paradoxically an instantaneous calculation, or what is too easily termed »instinctive« calculation, a canine or feline calculation. Seeing here is not the path to transcendence; on the contrary, it is a kind of haptic seeing, where seeing becomes touch. This haptic seeing is first of all, as Genet says, a matter of surfaces – and nothing but surfaces, surfaces that are not shells that surround and protect any substantiality, but surfaces that constitute what Deleuze and Guattari called »smooth space,« a space that is not the emptiness of a plane, field, or volume, but the infinite empirical congestion of contingent being (Deleuze/Guattari 1987, 474-500; see also Ricco 2002). This is the seeing required by guerrilla warfare, as Genet says, of »that ›little war‹ in which you had to find allies in fog, damp and the height of rivers, in the rainy season, the long grass, the owl's cry, and the phases of the sun and moon« (Genet 1992, 108).
»When so many things are there to be seen, just seen, there are no words to describe them.«

Jean Genet
(1992, 55)
30 Thus, this guerrilla seeing belongs to the situation or opportunity; it is essentially and thoroughly opportunistic, as Massimo De Carolis has said (1996, 37-51); that is, what is seen determines the fact of seeing; haptic seeing, guerrilla seeing, is neither an instinct nor a faculty, but an accident, an opportunity. It is, as it were, a phenomenology without the essential reflection that makes phenomenology what it presumptively is. That is, it is a situating of oneself without a cartographic or perspectival reflection, because haptic, guerrilla seeing exceeds, essentially and at every point, every possible cartography or perspectivism. And therefore is something other, something more, than the reflective subjectivity of every transcendental cartography. Haptic, guerrilla seeing never puts things in perspective. It is the very experience of non-transcendence, of non-neutrality.
31 What you see is what you see. The second, and I think consequent, aspect of this immanent seeing is a question of witnessing. Here, then, is the fifth really smart thing Jean Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence: »When so many things are there to be seen, just seen, there are no words to describe them.« (Genet 1992, 55) »Just seen«: Genet insisted over and again – in the first pages of Prisoner of Love, in his commentary on a Paris exhibition of photos of the Palestinians, in his essay on the massacre at Chatila, for example – on the heteronymy of seeing and understanding, on the fact that seeing does more than download a world for interpretation's hard drive; he insists on the essential stupidity of the senses (and this is also the case, by the way, when what is seen is words). And yet this just seeing, this radical empiricism, does not go unremarked; indeed, the fact that it marks the limit of the possibility of description does not thereby augur the end of description or of representation altogether. What is at stake, I want to suggest, is a certain becoming: becoming non-transcendent, becoming non-neutral in a haptic witnessing, a guerrilla historicism. This is a going-under, what Genet calls a drowning, an art of disappearance with neither preservation nor conservation.
enlarge »Jean Genet«
by Alberto Giacometti
32 Over and again in his texts on the Palestinians and the Black Panthers, Genet insisted upon the uncommunicable distance between the transcendence of geopolitical perspective, the neutrality of what he called Europe on the one hand, and the haptic existence of Black and Palestinian guerrillas on the other. These texts bear witness to that existence and that distance. They do not translate that existence which Genet shared for a time; rather, in saying what he has seen – dead bodies in their empirical singularity and multiplicity, just for example – he bears witness to the fact of just seeing, to the stupidity of the senses in their heterogeneity (what Lyotard, à propos the sublime, called a »negative presentation«), but as »negative presentation« is specifically historicist; or rather, belongs to what Foucault called »political historicism,« a guerrilla historicism, the work of becoming non-transcendent, non-neutral. Genet's writing is not witness to the feeling of the post-Burkean, post-Kantian sublime, but testimony to the failure of the sublime to sustain subjectivity.
33 In all of Genet's political texts on the Black Panthers, the RAF, and on the Palestinians, he will offer a historical narrative, to suggest how it is things came to be the way they are. Yet these stories are in every case interrupted and fragmented by descriptive episodes, testimony to guerrilla phenomenology, testimony to catastrophe, negative presentations of what remains unrepresentable, everything that cannot be overcome and preserved in any story. These interruptions, »political historicism« on Foucault's account, constitute a work of dis-integration, dis-appearance, an affirmation, precisely, of non-transcendence, non-neutrality.
34 But let us not be lulled into historiographical slumber here. The work of dis-integration or dis-appearance, the affirmation of finitude and non-neutrality, are never peaceable processes or procedures; they are violent, the very fact of a violence that is never metaphorical. Nevertheless, they are not negative.

Finitude Now!

»You have to understand that the people you call terrorists know without needing to be told that they, their persons and their ideas, will only be brief flashes against a world wrapped up in its own smartness.«

Jean Genet
(1992, 179)
35 The sixth really smart thing Jean Genet said regarding the ontological priority of violence comes during a discussion with Rüdiger Wischenbart and Layla Shahid Barrada in December of 1983: »Listen,« Genet said, »the day the Palestinians become an institution, I will no longer be at their side. The day the Palestinians become a nation like any other nation, I will no longer be there.« (Genet 1991d, 282) Later in the same discussion, he worried that life in the Palestinian camps was settling into the routines, structures, and institutions of Palestinian villages before 1948, but nevertheless affirms his support, for the moment, of »la Palestine révoltée.« It is beginning with the organization of the Palestinian revolt against the conservative Arab states (King Hussein's Jordan, in particular) and against the state of Israel, that there occurred for the Palestinians what Genet called a »physical transformation«: »First, they expelled local armies (Jordanian, Lebanese, etc.) and organized themselves. From this moment, they felt they existed. Without national territory. But they existed all the same. And I think it was that, it was that, that was most important for them. To continue to feel that they exist. … But no Palestinian has a Palestinian passport. Such a thing doesn't exist.« (Genet 1991d, 291) And Genet conceived the actions of the Black Panthers to be »a poetical revolt, an ›act‹,« (Genet 1992, 149) rather than a program; and so »the Panthers' most definite achievement was to spotlight that the Blacks really existed.« (Genet 1992, 42)
36 Clearly, violence is positive for Genet only insofar as it is non-instrumental or para-instrumental. Revolt is not revolution. Violence is positive only insofar as ends and means are identical in existence. For Genet, the Panthers and the Palestinians have no possibility for existence outside of their violence; they cannot »choose« whatever might count as non-violence, because their very existence in the world is violence. Concomitantly, the violence of existence in its positivity is never to be conflated with institutionalized brutality: should the Palestinians or the Panthers ever have a territory or state, Genet will no longer be there. In a short essay that first appeared in Le Monde in 1977, and which occasioned a major furor in the press, Genet supported the actions of the RAF precisely as a creative violence that sought the destruction of state brutality (Genet 1991e, 199-206). Not unlike Georges Sorel, Frantz Fanon, and others before him, Genet saw the positivity of violence to belong to the practical constitution of being, in the affirmation that is potentia rather than the affirmation of potestas; that is, in existence as the actualization of a possibility that did not exist before its actualization, and which does not survive the happening of that actualization, rather than in the brutality of institutionalized power. For Genet, the affirmation of violence as the actualized potential of existence depends not only upon its non- or para-instrumentality, but upon what one might call its »immediate finitude,« that fact that survival, continuity, institution, conservation, preservation, and salvation are quite beside the point. Genet wrote:
37 You have to understand that the people you call terrorists know without needing to be told that they, their persons and their ideas, will only be brief flashes against a world wrapped up in its own smartness. Saint-Just was dazzling, and knew his own brightness. The Black Panthers knew their own brilliance, and that they would disappear. Baader and his friends heralded the death of the Shah of Iran. And the fedayeen, too, are tracer bullets, knowing their traces vanish in the twinkling of an eye.
38 I mention these truncated lives because I see in them a joy I think I also see in the final rush of Nasser's funeral, in the ever more complicated and lively transports of the hands that drummed on the coffins, in the almost joyful passage in the ›Kyrie‹ of Mozart's Requiem. (Genet 1992, 179)
39 The only possibility for existence is, as Genet quoted an old Palestinian woman, »to have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second.« (Genet 1992, 239)
40 One might argue, rather wearily perhaps, that all this is nothing more than a Romantic vitalism, which may well be true. But I think it important to bear in mind, first, that Genet only ever spoke of, and from, the place of those who have nothing left to lose, from where one has no choice and is therefore, as Janis Joplin once told us, caught up in an affirmation she called »freedom.« And, second, that this violence, in and as its »immediate finitude,« is the very edge of becoming, of metamorphosis.
»If I take leave of this book, I take leave of what can be related. The rest is unsayable. I say no more and walk barefoot.«

Jean Genet
(1966, 291)
41 It is first of all a question of borders and frontiers, the lines that separate the here from the there, the this from the that, but are themselves both the here and the there, the this and the that, and yet are neither here nor there, this nor that. Were he to have been born other than who he was, and had he a choice in the matter, Genet mused, he would have been born in Alsace-Lorraine, because »[w]hatever they may say, anyone approaching a frontier stops being a Jacobin and becomes a Machiavelli« (Genet 1992, 147); one forsakes a war of position in favor of guerrilla phenomenology. But borders and frontiers, geopolitical and metaphorical, are always the place of a decidedly non-metaphorical violence.
42 The figure that most forcibly expresses the violence of metamorphosis in Prisoner of Love is that of the post-op transsexual. The transsexual is the figure of the no longer male, but not yet female, but also the still male and the already female, who is absolutely fearful, but also knows »a joy close to madness,« the joy, Genet says, of the fedayeen, the kamikaze, and the Mozart Requiem as well (Genet 1992, 52-53); for Genet, the transsexual, caught up in the violence of metamorphosis, is the heroine of becoming, with an essentially uncertain destination. So too, twilight is the time of a dangerous, violent passage, a time – or rather, a space according to Genet – when »every being becomes his own shadow, and thus something other than himself. The hour of metamorphosis, when people half hope, half fear that a dog will become a wolf. The hour that comes down to us from at least as far back as the early Middle Ages, when country people believed that transformation might happen at any moment.« And thus, »[f]or me in particular, in that particular place, the expression ›between dog and wolf,‹ entre chien et loup, instead of connoting twilight, described any, perhaps all, of the moments of a fedayee's life.« (Genet 1992, 220-221)
43 Transition, movement, metamorphosis, with neither a goal nor an origin: this is the very openness of violence to futurity as such; without the affirmation of that violence, the future is only an ahistorical – anti-historical – continuation of the present, or (but it is the same thing) the telos of a revolutionary project. It is perhaps for this reason that Genet repeatedly insisted that he was a vagabond, not a revolutionary. Genet might well have said of himself what he said of the fedayeen – that he is »light on the earth« (Genet 1992, 210). Forty years earlier, he had concluded Miracle of the Rose with these lines: »If I take leave of this book, I take leave of what can be related. The rest is unsayable. I say no more and walk barefoot.« (Genet 1966, 291)

Zen Vampires Rule!

enlarge »Jean Genet«
by Alberto Giacometti
44 I, on the other hand, have a few more words. I will not pretend to have come close to saying what a political experience of thinking might be; I have only hoped today to have made any approach to that experience a bit more difficult. But I do want to say by way of conclusion that of all that Genet gives us to think regarding the ontological priority of violence, several consequences desperately need to be thought with whatever sobriety and rigor we can muster in the current situation, if the word »history« is to signify anything other than a meretricious justification for the exercise of rationalized state brutality.
45 First, that witnessing, historiography in the largest sense of the term, in its obsession with singularity, is not – all appearances to the contrary – the work of preservation or conservation, least of all of restoration. In its consuming attention to the infinite empirical congestion of the proper, testimony and historiography constitute a work of dis-integration, the work of a disenchanted fetishism. The work of history is the art of an infinite fragmentation, of decay, and of disappearance, the work of entropy: this I have seen, and it cannot be preserved in the museum of its concept.
46 Second, and therefore, there is no such thing as violence or terror in the abstract generality of the concept; the words or concepts of violence and terror denote that impossibility of abstraction. This is of course the aporetic case with all singularities; what I have been trying to say, however, is that singularity as such is violence, and that violence is never anything other than singular and incomparable, at the same time that it is multiple and ontologically promiscuous.
47 Third, in other words, violence is the constitutive relation. Which means that violence is the first relation, and that violence constitutes relationality as such. Relation is violence. There is no outside of violence. That being said, however, I would emphasize that it is possible nevertheless to substitute a caress for a murder. When Genet was asked why he had never committed murder, he replied, »probably because I wrote my books« (Genet 1991a, 160). In any case, if we cannot think the ontologically constitutive nature of violence, we cannot possibly think the desperation of those for whom, by force of historical, existential circumstance, relation can only be expressed in what is called terror. Such desperation is not, or at least not merely, a psychological condition.
48 Fourth, Herakleitos was right: violence causes thinking. Violence is not merely given to thought as an object or aporia, but is the very possibility of thinking. Were peace, or the One, primordial, we would never have occasion to think. Thinking is bound to the violence of an original multiplicity; thinking is one articulation of that violent multiplicity. Thinking is not merely a weapon, and to the extent that it does not think its thinking, to the extent that thinking thinks without reflecting upon its thinking – that is to say, insofar as thinking is the work of Zen vampires – thinking is violent. What is at stake here is not merely a question of disagreement or the différend, but an essential interruption of our constitutive existential comportments, the risk of madness, physical anguish, and death.
49 Fifth, the fact that thinking is bound to an original ontological violence forces us to acknowledge, I think, that there are no good guys, no innocents, in our histories. The good is not a historical concept, for there is no thought of the good, even as the »undeconstructibility of justice,« that does not bring with it at least the possibility of a transcendental, presumptively non-violent, subjectivity. We – however that »we« is construed – are not necessarily on the side of the good, nor even necessarily on the side of an aporetic thought of the good. As long as morality, whatever its sophistications, is the touchstone of thought, we are not yet thinking. It seems to me that we have yet seriously to think the consequences of this for thinking. Let me hasten to add, if only parenthetically, that this does not mean we cannot take sides, for we have always already taken sides; the problem – the historical, political problem – is not which side to take (the liberal version of the problem), but to invent sides we are not yet able to imagine. For the problem today is not which politics to profess, but to bring the very possibility of the political into being, a possibility which neither precedes nor survives its happening. The anti-war demonstrations, in and as their interestedness, are thereby attempts to make the political happen, not merely in the face of a particular regime, but an entire liberal disposition (or dispositif) that has no other purpose than to obviate the possibility of the political altogether.
50 What, finally, Genet gives us to think – as if we could avoid the thought these days – is this: that our histories will have no happy endings. I do not mean to suggest here that existing critiques of the happy ending, or of teleologies in general, are somehow insufficient. Nor do I mean to suggest, with Sorel, that pessimism is the only possibility for thinking. What I do mean to say is that hope and despair, like good and evil, are not historical or political concepts, because they necessarily assume the possibility of making sense; the are predicated on the assumption that the world can make sense. But that possibility, today, is not self-evident, and to the extent we might assume that self-evidence, we are not yet thinking. I will stop here.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/5/fhw-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.



This text was first delivered as a lecture at the invitation of the Department of East Asian Studies and the Center for the Study of Genders and Sexuality at New York University on 10 March 2003. I have not revised the text in the light of subsequent events. A further meditation might well begin with a consideration of an uncannily prescient passage from Deleuze and Guattari: »Doubtless, the present situation is highly discouraging. We have watched the war machine grow stronger and stronger, as in a science fiction story; we have seen it assign as its objective a peace still more terrifying than fascist death; we have seen it maintain or instigate the most terrible of local wars as parts of itself; we have seen it set its sights on a new type of enemy, no longer another State, or even another regime, but the ›unspecified enemy‹; we have seen it put its counterguerrilla elements into place, so that it can be caught by surprise once, but not twice.« (Deleuze/Guattari 1987, 422) go back


William Haver (*1947) is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Binghamton University, USA. He received his B.A. in History in 1981 from the State University of New York at Buffalo, his M.A. in History in 1982 and his Ph.D. in History in 1987, both from the University of Chicago. His research interests are Japanese history, East Asia, contemporary theory, queer studies, and AIDS. His current work, in philosophy and comparative literature as well as in history, continues to center upon the irrecusable exigencies of the AIDS pandemic, the status of and prospects for queer thought and culture, and twentieth century Japanese intellectual history. He tries to think about the status, practices, and thought of those whom social science can only conceptualize in a merely negative relation to cultural production: homosexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts, the homeless, the ›Lumpenproletariat‹. Among his numerous publications is the book The Body of This Death: Historicity and Sociality in the Time of AIDS (1996).
Prof. Dr. William Haver
Department of Comparative Literature
Binghamton University
P.O. Box 6000
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000
Fax +1 (607) 777-2892
external linkhttp://complit.binghamton.edu/haver.html
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