The following text was written in France in the wake of the terrorist attacks that took place on 13 November 2015 in Paris. Anticipating a ferocious social clampdown on the part of the government, including unprecedented emergency measures, preemptive detentions, and a ban on protests and demonstrations, the text aims to cut through the nationalistic hysteria and recover the meaning of the "real war" that grips Western countries.
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What we have undertaken must not be confused with anything else and cannot be limited to the expression of certain ideas or even less to what is rightly considered art. It is necessary to produce and to eat: many things are necessary that are still nothing, and so it is with political agitation. Who imagines, before fighting to the end, leaving one’s place to men one cannot look at without feeling the urge to destroy them? But if nothing could be found beyond political activity, human avidity would only encounter the void. WE ARE FIERCELY RELIGIOUS and, inasmuch as our existence is the condemnation of everything that is recognized today, an inner exigency demands that we be equally imperious. What we are undertaking is a war. — Georges Bataille, "The Sacred Conspiracy," Acéphale #1
Communicators and governing authorities, who can no longer sell the “security” which they are manifestly incapable of delivering to any of their subjects, have thus pounced on the latest Parisian massacres in order to recast their rhetoric. “We are at war,” they tirelessly repeat, with the slight giddiness that always accompanies the manipulation of a new toy.
So they have a rhetorical device they can try out, for sure, but not really use, as Arnauld and Nicole would have said. Because if “we” are at war, then what could be more normal than enemy commandos coming and attacking the country’s cities? What could be more normal than civilians being struck down? What could be more normal than asymmetrical bloodbaths? Isn’t that what “war” is since 1939 and perhaps since 1914? If so, then how can one reproach the enemy for barbarism when he’s only practicing the contemporary art of war — which prescribes, for example, slaughtering a presumed enemy military commander along with his family from a drone, when the occasion presents itself? But more importantly, if in Algeria there had only been “events” such as the bombs at the Milk Bar and La Corniche Casino, which were answered with “police operations” that also involved massacres, bombs, forced relocations, camps, and torture — if these were just “events” and not a war, what does it mean that “war” is spoken of now? It’s a good bet that when poor François Hollande, with his popularity down in the basement, decided to intervene in Mali, then in Iraq, one of his military advisers whispered in his ear, worried: “But Mr. President, you do realize that such an engagement greatly increases the risks of attacks on our soil?” and that our general advisor, in his role as commander-in-chief, gravely and laconically replied: “Oui.” Because the fact is, for a long time antiterrorism has shown its miraculous effects for leaders suffering total discredit and that these days it is preferable to be judged on the basis of one’s enemies rather than on the basis of one’s results.
We’re not sure why, but the massacres claimed by the I.S. seem to have the virtue of triggering bouts of extreme confusion in response, and, for many, unusual crises of hypocrisy. As if the effective reign of hypocrisy in nearly every domain of Western societies could only be countered by an added dose of the same drug — which in the long run will surely lead to a fatal overdose. Thus, it can’t be attributed to a lack of information that a cartoonist in vogue reacted to the attacks with a speech balloon saying: “The people who died this evening were out to enjoy life, to drink and to sing. They didn’t know that someone had declared war on them.” In the age of social networking, one has to be strangely intoxicated to pretend not to know that the French armed forces are projected over a good half-dozen theaters of foreign operations, and that certain interventions, particularly in Mali, in Syria, in Iraq, and also in Afghanistan, have rather incensed certain bombarded minds. We won’t talk here about the militarization of law enforcement, the death of protesters hit by offensive grenades and others blinded in one eye by police flashballs — what would be left of the cartoonist’s comfort if he became aware that every government basically conducts a continuous war for control of its population? And what would be left of his avowed casualness if it occurred to him that his “champagne,” his “joy,” and his “kisses” are somewhat situated sociologically, culturally, ethically — in a word: that his “freedom” is that of the winners? And it needs to be said, all this business about “freedom” that’s been tweeted back and forth and hashed over in articles and speeches for the past three days doesn’t ring at all true. As a matter of fact, it sounds like a crude instance of mutual flattery. Because, to start with, we’re not the first here to defend the ancient thesis that freedom begins with the fact of not fearing death, and in that regard it appears that last Friday’s attackers may have been a bit freer than “we” are. Moreover, because the freedom that one has on the sexual, professional, cultural, or simply social market is so tightly structured by the ferocious competition that prevails there that this freedom could just as well be called “terrible servitude” instead. Lastly, because the freedom of “I do what I like with my hair/ with my ass/with my dick/with my tongue, etc.” looks quite pathetic, really, in the sober light of the morning after. The bourgeois adage which, from the Middle Ages to Michelet, endlessly proclaimed that “city air is liberating” (Stadluft macht frei ) lapsed into uselessness like just about everything else the bourgeoisie invented: work won’t set you free any more either, and hasn’t for a very long time. So on the contrary, the air of the metropolis makes you lonely, connected, depressed, miserable, self-centered, sociable, competitive, hard, opportunistic, fuckable or fucked…whatever, but not free.
The doxa of the moment has it that what came under attack was “our way of life,” as represented on Friday nights by football, trendy bars, and rock concerts — a way of life that’s uninhibited, liberal, libertine, atheist, transgressive, urban, festive, and so forth. This is what France, civilization, democracy, and “values” would be: the possibility of living, without believing in anything, a life after the “death of God,” a life which is precisely what His zealots would like to destroy. The only problem is that all the characterizations given of that “way of life” by so many of its enthusiastic or melancholy believers pretty much coincide with what Western thinkers, recognized in other circumstances as being extraordinarily lucid, have consistently denounced. Read some of the opinion pieces and editorials of the past few days and then have a look at part five of the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra concerning the Last Men. Consider Bataille’s “Sacred Conspiracy.” Skim through Michelstaedter’s Persuasion and Rhetoric. Read Kojève’s notes on the end of History in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel:
In point of fact, the end of human Time or History — that is, the definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called or of the free and historical Individual — means quite simply the cessation of Action in the full sense of the term. Practically, this means: the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions. And also the disappearance of Philosophy; for since Man himself no longer changes essentially, there is no longer any reason to change the (true) principles which are at the basis of his understanding of the World and of himself. But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc.; in short, everything that makes Man happy (…) If Man becomes an animal again, his arts, his loves, and his play must also become purely ‘natural’ again. Hence it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as birds build their nests and spiders spin their webs, would perform musical concerts after the fashion of frogs and cicadas, would play like young animals, and would indulge in love like adult beasts. But one cannot then say that all this ‘makes Man happy.’ One would have to say that post-historical animals of the species Homo sapiens (which will live amidst abundance and complete security) will be ‘content’ as a result of their artistic, erotic, and playful behavior, inasmuch as, by definition, they will be contented with it.
If one wished to be more cruel, and draw from an even more indisputable heritage, one would have to say rather that Friday’s attacks — against a stadium, bistros, a concert venue — were a bloody and pitiless offensive against entertainment, in which case it would be Pascal, no doubt, who would be found in the camp of the “terrorists.”
The stupidest thing to do when something or someone is attacked is to defend them because they are attacked. It’s a well-known Christian vice. It makes little sense to defend “France” — which is what, exactly, “France”? — Paris, the hipsters, football, or rock because they were assaulted. Libération’s front page about the attacks doesn’t erase what was announced initially, which had to do, curiously, with the social and human ulcer that hipsters constitute in the heart of the metropolises, and more particularly in Paris. The kind of emotional coup d’État that attempted, last January, to make Charlie Hebdo into “France” won’t succeed this time in imposing identification with a certain form of metropolitan life. The cognitive-communicational petty bourgeoisie, the party highs, the hit-on and hook-up routine, the hip salary bros, the hedonism of the cool thirty-something, will never manage to pass for “our way of life,” “our values,” or even for “culture.” It’s a certain form of life, like there are so many of in these times, in this country, and which don’t always only inspire good feelings. The instrumentalization of the attacks by certain propagandists in order to ensure the moral hegemony of that particular form of life can only contribute to making it loathsome.
The situation is the following. We are faced with two fundamentalisms: the economic fundamentalism of the governments, be they right-wing, left-wing, extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing — all across the political spectrum there are only believers in economy, calculation, work, measurement, accounting, and social engineering — and the ideological fundamentalism of the partisans of the Caliphate. Neither group is open to discussing the least of its articles of faith, even though their religions are both defunct, surviving only by dint of voluntarism, absurd massacres, endless crises, and therapeutic doggedness. There is an obvious fanaticism in the fact of responding to the crisis of neoliberalism by unleashing it on the world. While few are ready to die for the economy, no one, in the West, has ever had any scruples about killing, or letting die, in its name. Each day of life in France offers sufficient confirmation of that. Moreover, the stupefaction effect produced by Friday’s attacks is due precisely to their spectacularly anti-economic character: is there a more enigmatic, inexplicable act for the rational calculator trying to maximize his usefulness and his satisfaction, than this gang of guys wasting human lives right and left and finally killing themselves — pure human, cultural, social capital, patiently accumulated through daily efforts, having reached the age of its maximum productivity, and sacrificed for nothing, the economist would say, appalled. What have they gained by that? Haven’t they lost everything, for no good reason? Those who speak of the “mystery of terrorism” in this instance neglect to point out that the mystery exists as such only from the point of view of economy. They don’t see that this is done on purpose: the pleasure of the suicidal attacker firing into the crowd lies precisely in bringing the arrogant Western economic creature down to the level of a rat stepping over its moaning fellow creatures to survive, in shattering the superiority of his false transcendence, facing the miserable immanence of the struggle for life. If there’s an attack against a certain happiness in what has transpired, it resides both in the massacre and in the reflex, after the carnage, to defend that happiness — for a happiness that needs defending never takes long to become a lie.
May last Friday’s attacks, and those that are bound to follow given the spiral which the governing authorities have deliberately set in motion, make us truer and less distracted, deeper and less hypocritical, more serious and more communist. For us, this is the real war, the one that, in the West, merits the risking of one’s life: the war to have done with economy. But it’s a war, let it be said, that’s not pursued via spectacular massacres, however anti-economic they may be. The warfare in our case is essentially indirect. It is through lived communism that the terrain of economy will be diminished, which doesn’t rule out bold actions when they’re appropriate to the situation. More clearly than ever, the construction of a sensitive communism is the only thing capable of punching through the historical nightmare from which we’re trying to wake up.
Translated by Robert Hurley