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Terror and the law: law and transgression are two sides of the same coin.

It is sometimes forgotten that terrorism actually began as state terrorism. 'Terror' in the sense that we now use it--political terror--was born in the French Revolution and is therefore twinned at birth with modernity itself. It was originally meant not as a strike against the state by a small cabal of ideologically motivated fanatics, but a strike by a small cabal of ideological fanatics known as 'the state'--or, if you prefer, Jacobins. A great many states came and continue to come to birth in just this way. Most states are the result of invasion, usurpation, revolution or occupation.

This is the original sin of politics: the very source and fount of sovereignty was itself normally born in a certain violence. The coming of law and order was neither lawful nor orderly. However, if political authority is to survive and flourish, this originary trespass that is actually constitutive of state power, not just accidental to it, and that lurks continuously at its root--every now and then bursting violently through again--must be thrust firmly into the political unconscious. In Freudian jargon, it has to be repressed.

Extraordinarily, one Western philosopher after another, from Montaigne to Pascal, to David Hume and Schiller, Kant and Edmund Burke and Friedrich Nietzsche--Nietzsche for whom oblivion is what we live by; for whom, as for Freud, amnesia makes us what we are--urges us to do just this: to thrust this unspeakable originary trespass into the depths of the political unconscious so that the state can flower.

This whole tradition is neatly summarised by Pascal in the Pensees. He says: The truth about the original use of usurpation must not be made apparent. It came about originally without reason and has become reasonable. We must see that it is regarded as authentic and eternal and its origins must be hidden if we do not want it soon to end.

Like a hippie applying to law school, power must disown its transgressive past. It must pretend that it's buttoned-down and respectable. Legitimacy is really longevity. Nations that haven't survived long enough to legitimate themselves in this way--Israel and Northern Ireland, for example--are going to have a problem.

But, of course, the repressed returns and is returning at the moment. This repression is very hard to achieve because it's not as if the lawless, insurrectionary violence that founds the state just disappears once the state is established. On the contrary, it lingers on in the form of the law itself, in the form of the august and potentially violent authority associated with sovereignty and with law and order.

Just as for Freud the punitive superego--the law inside of each of us--has its roots in the Id and draws on the Id for its ferociously vindictive and sadistic death-dealing force, so the original terror at the foundation of the state doesn't just vanish but, in Freudian terms again, is sublimated into sovereignty, which has the monopoly of legitimate violence. It is sovereignty in its masked and cloaked form that is nearest to the lawless origins of the state. Sovereignty is the place where the revolutionary wrath, which brought society to birth, finally takes up its Olympian home. And, as Freud says, the Superego is closer to the Id than the Ego is. That's why sovereignty is so vindictive, that's why it punishes us far in excess of necessity and places crazily impossible demands upon the poor old Ego that the Ego couldn't possible fulfill.

The Double Life of the Law

In the ancient world, the hideously destructive furies, who are a kind of image of Thanatos or the Death Drive, are converted in Aeschylles' Orestia into the kindly Eumenides: tutelary deities are institutionalised, incorporated within the city, their unspeakably awful terror diverted and turned outwards to protect the city. Something similar will happen to Oedipus at Colonus. If you like, Thanatos, or the Death Drive, is tricked out of its nefarious activities--its obscene delight in destruction just for the hell of it--and is harnessed instead to the purposes of Eros: in Freud's sense, 'builder of cities, founder of civilisation'. The terror that founded civility now survives to protect it; what was once anarchic is now known as 'the Army'. This terror must, as it were, be customised and institutionalised: the criminal must become the cop.

If you simply try to repress the violence, which is what the stiff-necked Pentheus, the king in Euripides' play The Bacchae, tries to do with Dionysus--or as the White House is trying to do today--then you will simply succeed in fuelling this terror and you will turn what helped to found civilisation against civilisation itself. Like Pentheus before Dionysus, God of libidinal riot, you yourself, the political leader, will stand revealed as the grotesque mirror image of the very lawlessness that you seek violently to master.

Incidentally, this extraordinary doubleness is expressed throughout the Western cultural tradition of criminals--Holmes and Moriarty, Jekyll and Hyde--this splitting of the two who are both alien and intimate. Something of the same theme can be seen in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure with Angelo. Autocrat and anarchist merge into each other. It's very hard to know who is the law and who isn't in the case of Dionysus and Pentheus.

Of course, there is a collusion between those who operate the law, or embody it, and those who transgress it. In a sense, they both fall outside of it. The transgressor, obviously as a criminal, so too those who make and administrate the law are, in a sense, free of it. Oedipus is, then, both king and outlaw, insider and outsider, innocent and guilty, stranger and brother, sovereign and scapegoat--all of these contradictions together.

In Ancient Greek parlance, this makes him the pharmakos or scapegoat--that monstrously doubled creature who is sacred--that in its original sense means blessed and cursed at the same time. The powers that founded civilisation are sacred ones, not because they have to be kept in a glass case or worshipped, but because they have this dangerous, double-edged nature to them. The scapegoat is the living image of society's polluted and disfigured humanity, at once guilty and innocent: guilty because it subsumes to itself the crimes of society as a whole that are off-loaded onto it, but innocent because the more it does that, the more it frees society from guilt and therefore the more morally admirable it is.

This figure whom it is impossible to look upon and live--the figure of the monstrously distorted scapegoat who stands for everything that is structurally awry, alienated and exploitative in the polis, onto whom society projects and displaces and disavows its own crimes--this twisted creation is a reflection of the king, in that it is the authentic representation of this community. It is the inverted image of the monarch. You can, of course, find all of this in Shakespeare as you can everything in this article--apart from the words 'Donald Rumsfeld', unless they're coded into the first lines of King Lear, which they probably are.

The paradox here is that what makes for civilisation also potentially marrs it. In order to build civilisation, we need to press Thanatos--the aggressive drive--into the service of Eros, or life. We need this virulent aggression in order to free cities of floods, for example, to clean places up, to reduce places to order, to subdue nature, as opposed to the Romantic sentimentalists among us for whom this is just an awful kind of violence and it is better to be up to your neck in fetid water than to do any damage to nature. We need to wrest our cultures painfully, laboriously out of nature. And that involves, for the later Freud, turning this aggressive drive outward and harnessing it to the purposes of civility or life.

But the trouble is that Thanatos, the Death Drive, is a notoriously untrustworthy servant. Thanatos is always secretly wanting to scamper off and do its own thing. The very forces we employ to construct order are secretly in love with chaos. There is something self-marring, self-undoing, about this whole enterprise. Power is secretly in cahoots with what it subdues because power is never just power in the sense of being instrumental--just power for this end and no more. Power always has a secret self-delight or excess that wants to, for example, carry on beyond the task achieved and can then set up a well-nigh unstoppable momentum, which becomes very destructive--power for its own sake, if you like.

There is a hidden affinity in this theory between what founds the state and what threatens to scupper it: or, in more traditional language, culture and barbarism are interwoven, they are not just opposites.

Primal Terror and the Sublime

At the extreme, we call this negative 'evil'. In becoming sublimated into sovereignty, this primal terror must sweeten and soften itself. It must become beguiling, otherwise we would simply fear it rather than come to love it as well. What we are supposed to do with the law, as we are supposed to do with God, is fear and love it simultaneously--not an easy trick to pull off.

But there is, of course, a model for this and that is the father. The father is supposedly--stereotypically--evil: is feared and loved at the same time. Only if we love the law, and see ourselves as somehow in it, as well as being daunted and intimidated by it, is the law seen as sublime; only then will an authority of power successfully thrive. Brute power must become hegemony. Coercion must become tempered by a kind of loving consent or you end up, as Edmund Burke saw, breeding rebels, rather than putting them down.

Burke knew what he was talking about. As an Irishman, Burke was related by blood to Irish rebels; in fact, the English executed one of his cousins. To put it in Burke's language--in the language of his aesthetic treatise--the sublime and the beautiful must co-operate together. For Burke, the law is properly sublime. It is terrifying, beyond representation, like the old Testament Yaweh in its power to chasten and daunt and intimidate. But if this fearful phallic terror isn't simply to traumatise us--to reduce us to gibbering wrecks rather than docile citizens--then it must also work through what Burke would call the beautiful forms of civil society. It must temper and sweeten itself. It must align itself with our most intimate feelings and manners, inscribing itself gracefully in our conduct, not just be some authority, because if authority is external to us we can always rebel against it. It's much harder to rebel if the rebellion turns out to be against yourself.

Not surprisingly, for Burke the law is masculine. (Indeed he speaks of the need for its sublime 'stiffening' from time to time.) But--and this is the only part of this article that you'll remember in three weeks time--the law must also be a cross-dresser: it must deck itself out, it must tart itself up in the alluring arms of hegemony in order to soften its terror and steel its phallus, seduce us and woo us into loving it, not just frighten us to death.

For Burke, roughly speaking, men are sublime but women are beautiful. The ideal authority is a judicious mixture of the two. He even talks about the grandfather as a kind of softened and feminised version of masculinity. Burke is here desperately looking for a language and imagery with which he can capture this necessary mixture of the intimate and the alien, of the coercive and the consensual, of law and love. You can't simply dissolve terror away. In fact, Burke has nothing against terror. Every now and again he thinks that the law has to reveal its phallus and show itself as daunting. Even though he'd seen the English gibbet at work in his native country, he still believed that there must always be a kind of ugly bulge in the law's decorous garments.

Indeed Burke was also, not accidentally, our first theorist of sado-masochism. If you read his aesthetic treatise on the sublime and the beautiful, he talks about what we would call the delicious mingling of pleasure and pain because he understood that one reason why the law is successful is because we enjoy being frightened witless. This terror, like all sublime terror, is itself perversely agreeable. Long before the horror movie--our contemporary version of the sublime--where we take delight in being frightened to death because, as Burke saw it (not that he had seen any horror movies), we know that we can't be harmed. There's a delightful fantasy of immortality--it's happening to them and not to us--at the same time as we vicariously indulge our own deaths. We also perversely draw gratification from the Death Drive, knowing that this is all art or vicarious--it won't actually affect us.

For Burke, you can't simply do away with the terror of sovereignty. The horrors of it must be restrained and tempered and aestheticised. Burke argued those who disagreed with him hadn't been across the Channel to witness the horrors of the French Revolution. As he was writing, the full force of this crazed vindictive Super Ego that is the law had given slip to its gaolers and was on the rampage in the guise of Jacobin terror--no softening or sweetening there at all.

The problem with the French Revolution, as far as Burke is concerned, is not just that it's a total breakdown of hegemony, but it has let the ideological cat out of the bag. It has shown what terror's face is actually like when you tear the veils--such as the English constitution, or the House of Lords, or Common Law, or tradition--from it. Burke, who hailed himself from England's oldest colony and who, as a child, attended not some posh English prep school but an open air school in County Cork, understands that sovereignty as terror will simply spur on rebellion as terror. This is why he denounced the unhegemonic form of British rule as he saw it in Ireland, India and America and why, no doubt, he would have been utterly aghast at the invasion of Iraq.

The problem of lawless origins is in some sense common to all societies but is especially acute in middle class capitalist societies (or bourgeois societies, as we used to say in the days when men wore sideburns). There is a specific problem for middle-class capitalist societies, because such societies need a quiet life. They need to turn away from the barbarism, as they see it, of the erstwhile aristocracy. They need to cultivate the quieter, more docile, more domesticated virtues, as they need a stable political framework within which to carry on their business of amassing as much profit as they can.

Yet the turmoil of their origins lives on in the fact that--as Marx never ceased to point out--capitalism is also the most restless, innovatory, dynamic, revolutionary regime in the whole of human history. This was a fact that Marx had great admiration for in its own way, as capital dissolves everything before it, melts everything solid into air. Such social orders are trapped in a particular contradiction: they're angelic and demonic at the same time.

On the one hand, they're wedded to what Burke would have called beauty: a sedate, civilised, hierarchical, pacific set of foundational values. On the other hand, they themselves keep undermining and subverting those values by their sublimity--that is to say, by their furious and insatiable appetites, which leave no value standing for more than ten minutes. The stout bourgeois is simply the lawless entrepreneur at home or at prayer: the two are faces of one another.

There is, in a sense, a secret collusion between the criminal and the businessman insofar as both require more or less the same kinds of talents. This coupling runs all the way through literature where we often find two figures locked together who respectively embody these things but who are also, strangely, mirror images of each other: Othello and Iago, the God and Satan of Paradise Lost, Faust and Metistophles, Clarissa and Lovelace, Nelly Dean and Heathcliff, Ahab and Moby Dick, Fagin and Oliver, Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus.

Civilisation and Freedom

You can find this incongruous coupling throughout Western civilisation, as the following brief history--in which one or two details have been unavoidably omitted--shows. I've said that the ancient world was familiar with the idea of the scapegoat or the Pharmakos. This double-edged creature, which is both holy and monstrous, sacred and profane, polluted and blessed, is representative of what is structurally wrong with the Polis, of how the Polis survives only by virtue of certain structural exclusions. Yet just because of being a representative sign of our collective guilt, the scapegoat is potentially redemptive only if we look upon it and live. There is no need to try to understand all that very much, because you can read about it.

In the middle ages this double-edged creature was known as God. Essentially, God is terrifying in his ruthless and implacable and utterly unconditional love; a flaming fire that will burn you up with his infinite friendship. Satan, which in Hebrew means simply 'accuser' or 'judge', is the name of God for those who want their God to be some sort of ideological idol. In the Old Testament, God tries to persuade his stiff-necked people that he's a friend or counsel for the defence, but they'd far prefer--as we'd all prefer as good Pharisees--to set up some nice little idol that can then suitably terrify us.

Where God and humanity resemble each other most is their sublime nature: both of them slip through the net of figuration and representation. You can't make an image of God because the only image of God is humanity, or more specifically for the Old Testament, the destitute bit of it. You will know him, as the Old Testament keeps reminding us, not when you perform a successful religious ritual, but when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. As Thomas Aquinas taught, God is that wedge of otherness at the core of the self that actually makes us what we are, like the scapegoat, which is both alien and intimate.

Moving on to the Age of Enlightenment, this Janus-faced phenomenon, in the eighteenth century, takes the name of the sublime, as I noted above. The sublime is really a secularised version of God, as indeed almost every aesthetic tradition and aesthetic category is a kind of displaced theology, including, not least, the organic work of art itself.

The sublime is terrifying in the way that it daunts and diminishes us, shrivels us to nothing, in a Super-Egoic way rubs our noses in our own nothingness and yet, simultaneously, is utterly exuberant and exhilarating in the way it recalls to us the fact that, despite all that, there's a kind of creative abyss or bottomless infinity within ourselves. The name for it is the Self.

The Self is sublime because it can't be captured in a craven image and that is because the essence of the modern self--the very core, the very pith of subjectivity--is freedom that by definition can't be trapped or tamed in an image. What that means, in an astonishing irony, is that the very foundation of modern bourgeois society slips through the net of representation and cannot be figured within it. The very founding principle or fact of it can't put in an appearance within the society itself. The fact that you can't really have a sensuous image of freedom is a big problem for people like Hegel and Kant and so on. It means, for example, that at its very acme, the Self is also a kind of sublime nothingness that can only be defined negatively. It's hard to distinguish between it being everything and nothing.

For Hegel (which is always a good way to begin a sentence), it's this modern version of freedom that is the latest Pharmakos, indissociably creative and destructive at the same time. The French Revolution, he thought, was the triumph of what he scathingly called 'absolute freedom'--not that Hegel thought that it therefore shouldn't have happened (after all, for Hegel most major events are necessary)--but it was nevertheless the triumph of a kind of freedom, a new sort of freedom, which he considered to be utterly hubristic in its desire to become everything that was almost inseparable from nothingness because it then resists becoming anything in particular; it resists every specific definition.

Absolute freedom had the absolute negativity of death working inside it. Hegel thought, in the Phenomenology, that the nature of this bourgeois society pressed to an extreme and revealed in extremis as Jacobinism, was a kind of terror; a kind of death-dealing force. Of course, he also thought that it was a marvellously creative opportunity. That is the sort of freedom taken as a terrorist, because anything that is inherently unbound or unbridled is bound to prove an annihilating force in a creaturely world, that is, a world of finitude.

For Hegel, the absolute freedom of the Revolution will finally consume itself. The revolutionaries themselves will fill the carts leading to the guillotine. Absolute freedom--the God of the modern bourgeois individualist age--drives mad and destroys those that it afflicts until, like Pentheus or George Bush (if I can compare great things to small) they become terrorists themselves. They become pariahs of civilised societ--outsiders, like Oedipus, in the very communities which they're supposed to rule. They subvert the very order that they support.

Greek tragedy had already seen that fatal deflection by which an action turns into its opposite in this way. There is something potentially self-destructive or self-undoing, self-consuming about the modern conception of freedom, which from time to time will come bursting through the beautiful veils of civil society that for the most part are able to be constrained and tempered and to respect the freedom of others. I'm not saying that modern society is in its normal workings terroristic. What I'm suggesting is that it will occasionally come through and reveal the full horror of its sublime fury.

This explains why the United States--a nation that can't abide the stink of failure--is in the grip of a kind of crazed voluntarism that denies all limits (except for the sky, naturally) and is convinced that you can crack it if you try. The American word for a catastrophic and totally irreparable disaster is 'challenge'. When they heard this kind of hubristic and irreverent talk, the ancient Greeks trembled and looked fearfully to the skies, knowing that it would have its comeuppance.

What have the Americans learnt from this event? They're going to replace the World Trade Centre with the biggest building in the world. What is the dominant ideology of the most hard-nosed materialistic nation in history? Wide-eyed, rampant idealism. The two go together: the angelic and the demonic are faces of the same reality. This crass triumphalism that doesn't see that limits are what constitute us, rather than what obstruct us, announces the end of history--meaning the permanent victory of capitalism.

But it's exactly this that then stirs the Muslim masses of the world to revolt, thus, ironically, launching a whole new historical epoch in the very act of trying to close history down and possibly, if we're very unlucky and things go very badly, heralding the end of history in a rather less comfortably metaphorical sense of that phrase.

Let me just conclude by saying the paradox that I'm trying to get at here is that there is something anarchic and subversive and demonic and potentially out of control at the very heart of modern middle-class civilisation. I don't want to use that to distract attention from the moral obscenity of blowing people's heads off in the name of terror--people have to be restrained by force from doing that if necessary. But the immediate concern with preventing the next terrorist attack and all the talk about defending freedom has led us to ignore the wider question of what is being defended and that which constitutes us.

In a very direct sense, we have disavowed that which makes us what we are. Think, finally, of the image of Oedipus waiting at Colonus in the third of Sophocles' dramas to see whether Athens will take him in. Oedipus is the Pharmakos, he is king and beggar man, stranger and brother, native and exile, power and weakness at the same time.

Will the city be able to bring the intimate and the alien, the sublime and the friendly together? Will it identify with the suffering scapegoat, acknowledge this thing of darkness as its own, and so take the contaminated Oedipus into the city and thereby risk polluting the whole thing? Or will it treat the scapegoat as a mechanism of disavowal, unloading its crimes onto this inhumane representative of humanity and sending it packing?

If the stumbling block of the scapegoat is transformed into the cornerstone of the city, then in a classical tragic irony the city will itself transcend its own contaminated condition by the very power that permits it to acknowledge that condition. A recurrent irony in tragedy is that the very power that allows you to acknowledge your own nothingness, your own finitude, makes something of you. Lear is wrong: something will come of nothing in that respect.

The West, sunk in its Faustian fantasies, because the great myth of that infinite hubrisitic over-reaching is Faust--Faust against Oedipus--has so far failed to learn the lessons of tragedy and therefore can not acknowledge so far that the only cure for terror is justice, that terror breaks out where legitimacy breaks down. It can't discern an image of its own monstrous visage in the raging fury of its gait and so is capable only of fear rather than of pity.

Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester. This is an edited transcript of a talk he gave about his latest book, Holy Terror, at the London Review of Books Bookshop, London, 7 September 2005.
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Author:Eagleton, Terry
Publication:Arena Magazine
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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