June 21, 2006

Humanism and Terror

Against the pious excuse of ends On Philosophy by tim @ 3/8/2006 10:31 pm
There’s a great deal to like in the Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror. I found particularly interesting the distinction he makes among different ways in which violence can be deployed. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of the opposition to violence from the “beautiful soul” is similar to the one Zizek has been advancing recently, but I think Merleau-Ponty is clearer about a number of points on which Zizek is disappointingly vague.
Merleau-Ponty begins by emphasizing the omnipresence of violence: “communism does not invent violence but finds it already institutionalized” (1), in the institutions he will later identify as “colonization, unemployment, and wages” (103). Already, he marks a space between his own position and that which would simply identify violence as necessary to achieve certain goals. For Merleau-Ponty, it is not even possible to decide whether or not a certain goal justifies or does not jutify the use of violence, as we are implicated in violence right from the start, and cannot simply choose not to use it. He identifies the danger in believing that violence might be simply instrumental:
The most serious threat to civilization is not to kill a man because of his ideas … but to do so without recognizing it or saying so, and to hide revolutionary justice behind the mask of the penal code. For, by hiding violence one grows accustomed to it and makes an institution of it. On the other hand, if one gives violence its name and if one uses it, as the revolutionaries always did, without pleasure, there remains a chance of driving it out of history. (34)
Merleau-Ponty’s reference here is to the Stalinist use of violence, but his characterization also seems relevant to the contemporary use of Just War Theory (particularly in reference to humanitarian intervention). Today’s wars are justified using a kind of counterfactual logic that hides violence behind the mask of good intentions: a just war would be one which did not target civilians, for example, and this is then held to justify actual wars, despite the fact that there has never been a war in which civilians were not targetted.
Still, at this point Merleau-Ponty comes close to endorsing another form in which violence can be masked, when he tells us that revolutionaries used violence “without pleasure,” and, he implies, they did so for the purpose of “driving it out of history.” The problem here comes if the lack of pleasure in violence is taken to be a justification in itself for the use of violence. When the use of violence is treated as an unpleasant but necessary means to a good end, this very unpleasantness tends to be taken as in index to the justness of the end.

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