Social Text 20.3 (2002) 189-199
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The New International of Decent Feelings
In 1946, in the shadow of the last century's most widely acknowledged versions of catastrophe, Louis Althusser described the formation of another International:
This "International" of humane protest against destiny rests on a growing awareness that humanity is threatened, and has become, in the face of the threat, a kind of "proletariat" of terror. Whereas the laboring proletariat is defined by sociological, economic, and historical conditions, this latter-day "proletariat" would seem to be defined by a psychological state: intimidation and fear. And, just as there is proletarian equality in the poverty and alienation of the workers, so too this implicit proletariat is said to experience equality, but in death and suffering. 1
This new "equality" is perhaps more precisely understood as a new homogenization that now is manifest not only as the liquidation of dissent or of whatever marks the possibility of another way of being political, but even as the suppression of alternative tones or modes of phrasing as well.
In describing what he calls "the international of decent feelings," Althusser takes care both to imply and assert something outside of it, something on the other side of the limits within which this new equality operates. Recently, in response to the horrible events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, Geoffrey Galt Harpham—much like Albert Camus, André Malraux, and Arthur Koestler, the writers Althusser critically examined more than half a century ago—takes upon himself the task of resetting those limits, and, just as in the work of Camus, Malraux, and Koestler (which embodies the angst-ridden and exclusionary leveling of a certain existentialism), the limit of the new international of decent feelings that now emerges is terror. According to Harpham, terror now constitutes the fundamental "feature of the symbolic order, the vast mesh of representations and narratives both official and unofficial, public and private, in which a culture works out its sense of itself." 2 This is to say that terror now defines "our" collective identity. As it turns out, however, such a definition is nothing more than an intensified recalibration of the American exception. Intensified, now, because the U.S. response to terror is figured as the geopolitical reconstitution of the natural habitat—what Althusser might have referred to as the fatherland—of the human. The [End Page 189] achievement of the human will now be understood as the adherence to "our" national interest. Humanity is equivalent to membership in "our" coalition though it is provisional, contingent upon a nation's or a people's willingness to do something to "help us." Harpham would seem to question this new configuration of the human, but only reifies it by way of a thinly veiled romance with uncertainty, terror's primary manifestation, or with a supposed difficulty in "describ[ing] the most elemental of facts in a way that makes sense." 3 For Harpham, it is emblematic of such uncertainty that U.S. officials and their private policy adjuncts make charges of Iraqi complicity with the attacks of September 11 on the basis of no evidence save their feelings. 4 It is significant that Harpham's critique of such an appeal to feelings will ultimately align itself against evidence and analysis, as if proper thought will have taken place only in the obsessive oscillation between false alternatives. We'll return to this later. For the time being, note that the abstract human equality that lies at the foundation of this new international has been revealed in all its exclusiveness with increasing intensity over the last few decades, and many of us who identify ourselves as Left intellectuals have perhaps grown too confident in its apparent eclipse. But it reappears in Harpham's formulation and it has the same old features, features more insidious after the fact of their ongoing exposure and critique. The condition of possibility of the contemporary new international is the exclusionary nature of its concept of the human that is defined now by terror as limit-function. This is the essence of...