- Formless Form:Elias Khoury's City Gates and the Poetics of Trauma
In Refractions of Violence, Martin Jay contends that "we ... live in such a finite economy" that "utter redemption from violence is as utopian as redemption through it."1 Violence, in Jay's chilling idiom, has become a constitutive function of today's world, structuring and sustaining our ways of existence and sociopolitical and transnational intelligibility. It is "a closed circuit" in which "there is no complete outside," no penumbra of redemption, nor balmy elsewhere or brief reprieve.2 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri similarly argue that contemporary warfare and violence have become "a permanent condition," "the primary organizing principle of society" and "the general matrix for all relations of power and techniques of domination"—in short, violence and warfare have become a "form of rule aimed not only at controlling the population but producing and reproducing all aspects of social life."3 Michel Foucault likewise points out that subjectivity—all forms of sociopolitical intelligibility and, indeed, all relations—are but the product and therefore the extension of the joined-up apparatuses of power and war, of objective and subjective violence. All relations, that is, are born in "the blood and mud of battles."4 Small wonder, then, that "the old joke about outbreaks of peace is now a sobering social fact"—that genocides, exterminations, and massacres have in turn become, in Jean-Luc Nancy's bleak aphorism, "if not names properly speaking, at least semantemes of modernity."5
I by no means wish here to utterly contradict these pertinent observations, but I do think that they have—however daring their perspicuity and realistic their rhetorical gloom might seem at first sight—grave political implications and need therefore to be brought under critical scrutiny. For one thing, they are largely statements about war, not against it. For another, they are hardly expressive of the viewpoints of those who have been or who [End Page 504] still are at the receiving end of war and violence—those who have (yet to learn) to survive (let alone to live) in the midst of everyday violence or in the aftermath of atrocity. To argue that warfare and violence structure our contemporary world is therefore to encourage, however unintentionally, the acceptability of these normally exceptional measures. What is worse, moreover, is the underlying assumption that the current wave of warfare and violence, particularly in the Middle East, is discontinuous with the decolonial moment of the early and mid-twentieth century and as such has to do more with the structure of the contemporary world than with the histories of imperial violence around which the contemporary world of global capital continues—strategically so—to structure and perpetuate itself.
While it may be true, then, that warfare and violence are compelling and foundational forces of our contemporaneity, it is incumbent on us nonetheless to probe and pinpoint the nuances—and to discriminate carefully and if possible conclusively—between the structural currency of violence, on the one hand, and the historical grievances it produces and of which it is oftentimes the product, on the other. The rigorous task of exposing the entangled (foundational, objective, ideological, or symbolic) domains of violence in contemporary societies ought not at all to override or discredit the still necessary critique of the more contingent and concrete forms of violence and their particular historical origins or precipitating causes; otherwise, the very experience of human pain and suffering might no longer be recognizable and witnessable, let alone sharable or communicable. What is at stake in the structural banalization of everyday violence is not only the foreclosure of human loss—and therefore the institutionalization of ungrievability, disposability and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSDs) as ineluctable conditions of human existence—but also the attenuation and marginalization of the very notions of justice, political redress, and forgiveness, without which no meaningful sense of subjectivity, community, and transnational solidarity, however precarious, could be instilled and nurtured in the survivors of extreme violence and in the generations to come, their descendants and ours, the inheritors of histories of violence, inflicted and incurred.
Insofar as every war "is also a war for the meaning of war...