portrait of barbarism

Regina Silveira, One Thousand and One Days and Other Enigmas.


Commentary on the book Riptide: The Best of New Left Review

“For you there is no middle ground. Do not be deceived". This warning, taken from Stendhal's novelistic universe and updated by Franco Moretti in an essay on literary theory that integrates countercurrent, is the thread that defines the color of all the political essays in the book. But it is not a question here, as can be seen, of illustrating political texts with literary references. Rather, it is a matter of suggesting what might be a good starting point for reading this collection: the internal nexus between different subjects and genres, in a range that encompasses literature, politics and economics.

And I am not just referring to the attempt by some of its authors to permeate the relations between culture and politics with elements that come from economics (as is the case, for example, with Fredric Jameson, and also with Moretti's bifocal scheme, which simultaneously analyzes forms and the market). What makes the set even more interesting, beyond these fundamentally important individual attempts, is the strong impression that, instead of mere parallelism between the various articles, there is perhaps a way sui generis overlap between all of them, as if the literary, political and economic aspects of the book converged to a common vanishing point.

Taking a risk, it can be said that a delicate line at the same time delimits and unifies the various genres and subjects of the collection, articulating them in a single (but not uniform) movement. Culture? Policy? Economy? A little (or a lot) of all of this, depending on the angle from which the multiple materials offered by the book are apprehended. When you look at the set, the articles are there, distinct from each other, but as if challenging the reader to put them together. If we face the challenge, we will see that, from the perspective of the whole, things form a system, allowing unthinkable analogies at first sight (but no less complicated for that reason at second sight). And we will also see the main thing: the central element of the various specific subjects is a broader perspective of resistance (to use the term with which Jameson, in one of the essays of countercurrent, designates the platform of an anti-systemic opposition). There lies the hard core of the collection, which highlights what the New Left Review has the best: the attempt to recover, in times of so little resistance, the historical sense of a truly oppositional intelligentsia.

What does the book tell us about the political present? In this test of nine is a substantive reason to read it, as recent events have made it even more current. Subjected to the test of the immediate political-economic reality, several articles in the collection, written about a year before the attacks in the USA and the bombings in Afghanistan, proved to be prophetic – and this because they provided elements that allow us to reach the logic that permeates the relations of political power in an age governed by the law of capital "one world".

Indeed, the reader who had gathered material dispersed in different articles of countercurrent he would have an arsenal capable of freeing him from the surprise of someone who saw the events of September 11th like lightning in a morning with a blue sky over the island of Manhattan and Washington. The counterproof would be the opposite movement, that is, trying to see these events not with eyes still clouded by the dust of the World Trade Center, but facing a broader historical horizon in which this tragic outcome (or threshold) is nothing more than a moment, more precisely, a crucial point of intersection of several lines of force that cross the contemporary scene.

One of them, whose conclusion took place at the time of the Clinton-Blair binomial, goes by the name of Terceira Via and its radiography is stamped right at the beginning of the collection, in the article by Perry Anderson: ideological vehicle of the neoliberal consensus, this “winning formula to seal the victory of the market”. What was exchanged in giblets throughout the book, particularly by Jameson, for whom the “new version of what used to be called imperialism” boils down to “the subordination of the other nation-states to the American, either by consent and collaboration, or by by the use of brute force and economic threat.”

Seen from the perspective of the logic of this (forcibly) unified world system, the bombing of Afghanistan is just the continuation of a one-way street in which the empire is now trying to destroy one of its last encumbrances: Islamic fundamentalism. It should be remembered that this scorched earth policy is being sold – thanks to a domesticated media and the generalized decrease in the capacity for intellectual reaction – with the label of “freedom”, “democracy” and “modernity”. Which implies a double operation: the construction of the myth of militant Islam (with a function analogous to that of the Indians in the myth of the Wild West, constructed by the cinema, and that of the communists in the period of the Cold War), and the dehumanization of the Damned of the Earth.[I]

Once this double operation is concluded, the ground is set for a stereotyped opposition between “liberal” societies and people alien to democratic values. But here we are simply at the same thing, that is, facing the basic structure of all ideology: separating what is gathered and transforming particular interests into universal ones. Long before the empire's counterattack, Jameson's article on countercurrent already denounced the “pretensions of American universalism”, which serve to justify “police-style military interventions” – “the US wants us to consider American interests as universal”.[ii] behind the character naive from the so-called “struggle of Good against Evil” moves the cunning of “instrumental reason”.

Here, finally, is the knot that the reader may come across if he is putting together the various materials offered by this collection: the structural link between all events in globalized society. What the irrationality of megaterror acts has highlighted is the irrationality of the system itself – particularly in the new figure of globalized capital, whose irrational core is only exposed in moments of acute crisis,[iii] but whose destructive nature is felt in the daily lives of the millions who suffer its blows. Therefore, fanaticism and irrationality on all sides, symptoms of a broader social pathology, an exasperated form of “civilization and malaise”. The outbreak of religious terror is the other aspect of the outbreak of economic terror.

From this perspective – the one that tries to unwrap the intricate network of mediations between the two conflicting sides, because now, even more than before, the formula that Adorno extracted from Hegel is valid: “there is nothing between heaven and earth that is not mediated” –, it becomes inevitable to recognize that there is much more between “civilization” and “barbarism” than the fallacious theme “clash of civilizations” allows us to perceive. As Edward Said has been insisting, Islam has already been “entered” in the West. It should be added: the mode of this insertion, as well as that of other Third World peoples, is (without paradox) exclusion. Nothing is “out” anymore, but the real face of “globalization” is the same one that was starkly exposed on September 11th. As if confirming the “collapse of modernization”, the “external” element that denies the dominant order could only emerge from within the contradictions of that same order.

These contradictions were already emerging where least expected: Hollywood, the “nerve center of American ideology”, in Slavoj Zizek's definition. It has become commonplace to point out the kinship between the Hollywood imaginary and the terrorist “spectacle”, but to get to the fundamentals of anticipating the new type of mega-terror in the old clichés of disaster movies, it would be necessary to reach the heart of the system. This anticipation was only possible because aspects of the ongoing social process itself ended up erupting through a kind of “crack” in the cinematographic form, something like a “gap” running between the world and the vision of the world (freely adapted to the fictional form of cinema an idea developed by F. Moretti, from Roberto Schwarz, for the literary form). By unintentionally incorporating events that were sedimented in the country's collective memory, but repressed, Hollywood ended up, ironically, anticipating the terrifying vision of the attacks. It is as if the cinema allowed its repressed Other to sprout through the gaps in fiction. The condition of ostensible exposure of the eternally beautiful and youthful side of the world cultivated in Hollywood fantasies is the hideous real portrait hidden. What was seen on September 11, live and without retouching, was the secret portrait of the “civilization of money” – barbarism. The result of the modernization process was condensed in the tragic act of the terrorists: the subject buried by the avalanche of capital.

From this terrible lesson of things remains, to the left, the warning made in Zizek's article on countercurrent, and which echoes throughout the collection, about the high price to pay when one renounces a “radical political project” and accepts “market capitalism as the only game in progress”. The critique of the terror of Islamic fundamentalism cannot do without the critique of the terror of economic fundamentalism. This is the necessary condition for the work of mourning to fulfill its function, culminating in a liberation. O World Trade Center it will only be a “true ruin” (to speak in Hegel's language) if it is able to awaken the “sleeping conscience”, transforming it into a critical conscience – a radical critique of globalized capitalism. Here, too, there is no middle ground.

*Cristina Diniz Mendonca She holds a PhD in Philosophy from USP.

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, number 84, Folha de São Paulo, April 13, 2002.


Riptide – The Best of New LeftReview. Emir Sader (org.). Record, 322 pages.


[I]) In an article that also includes countercurrent, Edward Said showed this dehumanization in the specific case of the Palestinians.

[ii]) In what were promptly answered by countless intellectuals, Habermas at the forefront, declaring, still in the heat of the moment, that September 11th meant an attack against “the whole of Western civilization”, that is, against the universalist foundations of Western reason and modernity. Illustrated cynicism aside, if only to remind you that, for a long time now, entirely “enlightened” liberal states shine “under the sign of a triumphal calamity”.

[iii]) When, for example, the financial “bubble” was already threatening to burst, Greenspan was forced to make public his famous warning against what he called, suggestively, the “irrational exuberance” of the market. Cf. regarding the article by Robert Brenner in countercurrent, "O tree and the bubble”.

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