Operation Plumbbob, 1957 (LR: Lassen 6/5/57, Galileo 9/2/57, Owens 7/25/57, Franklin Prime 8/30/57. Image source here.)

what’s in a name — that is no part of thee

Death on the screens. Death on our plates. Death on the streets. Death in our dreams. “Keep calm and carry on.” 

The absurd is paradoxically disempowered as a mode of agitation when it is replicated and magnified to surpass the forms that preceded it, adjusting the horizon of what is experienced as the grotesque. Such is the case with the permeation of images of destruction and grief into our daily routines and rituals of identity. An “institutionalized reproducibility” can refer to the modes of viewing and sharing these images through social media, based on an algorithmic popularity. The weight of violence is known through hierarchies of shock and novelty; violence is made known by aestheticizing the abuse and slaughter of life — to understand something as violent when it conforms to the logic of harmony. The danger is where even the revolutionary act must rely on the tactics and language of the militant state, and the grotesque must self-replicate, where it is possible to speak calmly in a lecture of a series of videos, “I watched the pilot being beheaded, I watched Aleppo burning…”

“There are rarely good reasons for looking at images of mutilated victims. It is part of the nature of the thing that the images of a terrible event that are taken from a distance also allude to the lack of distance, indeed even by presenting themselves as their opposites. It cannot be avoided that in the attempt to be philanthropic, barbarism occurs.”

Harun Farocki, War Always Finds a Way.

The well-learned words — vocabularies replicated here — and the studied revolutions, are temperate waters that allure with warmth and security, awash over the contradiction of regulated rebellion. The entanglement of developing personal and collective identity through the performance of protest can help normalize the conditions for protest, and rationalize the ubiquity of  state violence. And, much like the system of fetishized accumulation of ‘battle experience’ for military honours, the violence endured at the hands of the oppressor become a part of the performance. So, when enduring violence becomes a sign of the legitimacy of resistance, space is created for the permission of further violence where it will continue to inform expressions of resistance. Performing protest, and integrating this relationship to state violence, becomes a way to communicate identity, with its own codes and iconographies — the negative catharsis, the carnival folds inward.

“You come today to see killed

killed, killed

as if it were a conclusion

–a conclusion!

a convincing strewing of corpses

–to move the mind

–as tho’ the mind

can be moved, the mind, I said

by an array of hacked corpses:


a poverty of resource       .      .     “

William Carlos Williams, Paterson, 1946.

“There will be no peace. At any given moment for the rest of our lifetimes, there will be multiple conflicts in mutating forms around the globe. Violent conflict will dominate the headlines, but cultural and economic struggles will be steadier and ultimately more decisive. The de facto role of the US armed forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”

“Constant Conflict”, Ralph Peters, Parameters, Summer 1997, pp. 4-14 (US Army War College Quarterly).

Usurping a governmental weapon and reinterpreting its value and use, art group UBERMORGEN’S KILLLISTE statement invokes a suggestive proposal that threatens and unsettles for the sake of enflaming a sense of urgency. Inspired by the US secret service and the highly error-prone kill lists executed by military, the artist statement suggests the selective assassination of psychopathic “terrorists” – key state and financial figureheads, or as artist Jamie Hidler wrote in the introduction to the exhibition Not Sheep: New Urban Enclosures and Commons (2006), “where the money lies”:

“But the poetics of astonishment should be careful not to decay into a poetics of complaint. The work produced can neither be cathartic nor palliative, nor can it be satisfied with its contribution to a wider discourse. It must imagine and implement a bricolage beyond the rootless, postmodern meaning of the word, back to its context in Paris in 1871, where the term described a method of constructing barricades against the forces of Versailles out of any and all available material: a poetics of and through resistance. But unlike the Communards, who attacked and toppled the symbolic Vendôme Column while leaving Notre Dame Cathedral and the Bank of France untouched, let’s not forget where the money lives.”

Jamie Hidler on Not Sheep: New Urban Enclosures and Commons (PDF here), 2006.

Even though the KILLISTE, and its manteaux-platform of Ziron, resides in the passive grey area, the political terms appropriated by the artists claim “a virtually legitimate invocation to action”. Action is made possible out of the suggestive grey-zone of interpreting ‘real’ threats, rather than the discourse of the institutions that operate on abstractions and obscurantism, where there is a deference towards ‘ontologies’ that allow ‘boundlessness’ to permit the compromise of principle.

The seduction of the grotesque is that it resuscitates existence out of the humiliation of what seems to be an insurmountable system. Iskandar notes that the base needs and desires of our bodies are manipulated in ways that cause humiliation, and thereby subject one desperately to authority. A domestic, institutional terrorism is one that permeates quietly, invisibly, always threatening, but in a way that is barely perceptible. That we remain calm and forget the absurdity of our pacification — later, “the preconditions for civil war are here, they exist” — where the war is not raised against the bombs and chemicals, not against ammunition and the materials of death, but against the friction of our intentions and the desperation that inspires act. The terrorism of the state is the implicit criminalization of  individual and collective rejection of conformity to systems of institutional violence — to resist is to submit to a fundamental uncertainty of survival. How will you live? Where will you sleep? How will you eat? Where will you hide? The greater terror than the state is the participation within the humiliation of complete compromise, of the betrayal of principles and of each other — that even the possibility of peace is drenched in blood. As Patchen writes, “Beware when the righteous prepare for the practice of evil.”

“The point here is not to make an apology for terrorism, but to recognize it as an action – a most pathetic yet noble action – which is capable of sabotaging and exposing the self-regulating mechanisms of the hierarchical social community. […] Let ten people meet who are resolved on the lightning of violence rather than the agony of survival; from this moment, despair ends and tactics begin. Despair is the infantile disorder of the revolutionaries of daily life.”

Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, 1967.

“The surrealist activity was revolutionary on condition that all be reinvented without any longer obeying any point of any notion brought by science, religion, medicine, cosmography, etc.

And there remains on this point a revolution to be made on condition that man does not think himself revolutionary merely on a social level, but that he believe he must still and particularly be revolutionary on a physical, physiological, anatomic, functional, circulatory, respiratory, dynamic, atomic and electrical level. […]

For me that is the only revolution that can interest me but, it is a U T O P I A, is it not, which fails to realize that such a revolution cannot, any more than any other, assert itself without bombs and machetes, without iron and without blood.

Letter to André Breton by Antonin Artaud, 1947.

“…homicidal outrages have, from time immemorial, been the reply of goaded and desperate classes, and goaded and desperate individuals, to wrongs from their fellowmen, which they felt to be intolerable. Such acts are the violent recoil from violence, whether aggressive or repressive; they are the last desperate struggle of outraged and exasperated human nature for breathing space and life.”

Emma Goldman, The Psychology of Political Violence, 1911.

. . .

War and Conflict, World War Two, pic: September 1939, Great Britain, A poster on a London street giving encouragement towards final victory (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

(Motivation poster, London, September 1939. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

. . .

“The time will come again when man, having put war behind him, must at all costs convince himself it need not necessarily reappear in front of him. There will be no such thing as being too energetic in repressing the schemes of fatalism and skepticism, not to mention cynicism…”

André Breton, Arcanum 17, 1944.

. . .

This is part of a series of reflections on the first lecture given at the VISR free lecture series, “On Civil War and Resistance“. They are open to everyone, Monday nights at 7 pm, at Or Gallery, 555 Hamilton Street, Vancouver.