On the Genealogy of Horror
Review of: Adriana Cavarero, Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence. Translated by William McCuaig (Columbia University Press, 2009), 168 pages
In her new book, Adriana Cavarero bravely engages in the risky and possibly annoying task, as she puts it, of coining a neologism, horrorism, in order to give a name to the character and effect of contemporary violence, as well as the emotional response it engenders. Horrorism-naming contemporary violence is thus the etymological, and genealogical, grounding of her neologism. The premise behind her book is that contemporary society lacks the linguistic tools with which to parse its own violence. Horrorism is thus not only the phenomenon of contemporary violence but also the means by which we can conceive of and speak about it. Thus, we can say that horrorism, as a conceptual tool, gives thinkers a means with which to link together diverse manifestations of violence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In her book, Cavarero draws from sources both mythological and historical in order to sketch horrorism as the phenomenon of contemporary violence par excellence, distinguishing itself from other such phenomena, most notably from terrorism. Horrorism, as a phenomenon, has two main characteristics hinging on the emotional effect horror creates in its victims, namely that unlike terror, that from which one flees, horror freezes its forged victim in place. First, in horrorism, the unidirectional force of violence targeting the victim destroys more than its physical life, horrorism dismembers its being both physically and ontologically. Second, for Cavarero horrorism co-opts the woman's body from its traditional role as a life-giving vessel and morphs it into a carrier of death. The profound violation of the essence of being coupled with the appropriation of the woman's body is what sets horrorism apart from other phenomena and thus necessitates the creation of a word that will allow us to speak about the nature of contemporary violence.
However, while Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence is rich with pertinent, interesting, challenging, and even surprisingly enough, given the title, beautiful points, I found that I struggled with the theoretical and metaphysical implications of Cavarero's argument. In short, the main problematic tension inherent in this book orbits around the notion whereby in developing a genealogy that rests upon a mythological and etymological base, it becomes unclear as to whether or not the phenomena being developed is in fact new. Do we need a neologism? Even more importantly, does the creation of the neologism rip contemporary violence out of the temporal and historical continuum, thus cutting it off from its own generating history?
While clearly this was not Cavarero's intention, the argument in her book seems to necessitate the delineation of two ontologies: the mythological/etymological on the one hand, and the historical on the other. While the gap between history and mythology can be bridged (see Adorno's concept of second nature or Benjamin's Urgeschichte to name several examples), the trouble with Cavarero's horrorism is that it does not. Mythological and historical violence are of two utterly different and opposing natures. The violence of Achilles and Hector can only be placed in dialogue with the violence of suicide bombers and Auschwitz if it is used as a counterpoint. Furthermore, the emotions occasioned by these two different kinds of violence, the mythological and the historical, are at utter odds. Characters in mythology or epic narratives emote in the prescribed archetypal manner, whereas citizens of contemporary history emote in less pre-ordained ways. Thus, the horrorism of the ancient world clashes dramatically with the horrorism of contemporary society. While Cavarero makes these distinctions clear, I do not think that she uses this complete juxtaposition in its most powerful way. It is, in fact, the profundity of this distinction, the shift from myth to history, and moreover the emergence of modernity, that lends contemporary violence its horrorist character.
I found that because Cavarero did not sufficiently explore the implications of this distinction, the poignancy and particularity of contemporary violence conceived as horrorism was diluted. For example, and this example conveys both the violation of essence and the body of the woman aspects of horrorism, Cavarero attempts to draw a line from Medusa and Medea to Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman (the two American soldiers immortalized proudly posing for the camera while torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib). Given Cavarero's project, the reader must pose the question: Are these women the contemporary faces of Medusa and Medea? Though Cavarero states that the line between them is not straight, and that "all that remain[s] of Medusa today . . . a dull repugnance" (115), she does not engage sufficiently with why this is the case. Even if Medusa and Medea are the patron saints of horrorism (and according to Cavarero, horrorism has always had the face of a woman), they are neither the precursors to the "pornographic" torturers of Abu Ghraib, nor the symbolic mothers of the female suicide bombers.
This example conveys the hole in Cavarero's exegesis. What is missing is an exploration of the reasons for which we cannot draw a straight line between the mythological figures and the historical female torturer or suicide bomber: What is responsible for this dull repugnance, this, as she cites from Arendt, banality of evil? Cavarero misses this crucial step in delineating the particularity of horrorism as the phenomenon of contemporary violence; it is contemporary because it is not mythological. In other words, because the modern hero is not Perseus with his mirror, contemporary violence can be described as horrorist. Horrorism's contemporary victims are frozen in place in ways mythology could never have conceived.
Furthermore, while Cavarero convinces the reader that the applied concept of horrorism is a contemporary phenomenon, she does not give a sufficient historical and contextual account for her neologism. Horrorism could not be possible without the socio-economic constellation that was the twentieth century. Nowhere does Cavarero's book overtly examine how issues of advanced capitalism, industrialization, and technology relate to the phenomenon she describes. While she comes closest to a critique of contemporary society in her discussion of the fetishism inherent in the reproduction/mimicry of consumable pornographic imagery by the female torturers at Abu Ghraib, she misses the opportunity to use horrorism to name and deduce the violence-generating elements in contemporary culture.
In order to understand this missed opportunity, we need only return to Cavarero's principal example of Medusa and Medea. This example conveys the unremarked-upon schism between the mythological and the historical. Read through the lens of the socio-historical constellation, Medusa, who froze people in place, may very well be the patron saint of the frozen social relations and coldness that pervade every aspect of contemporary life, warfare and violence in particular (see for example as depicted in Adorno's Minima Moralia). However, Medea, who looked her children in the eyes as she murdered them one by one, has no relevance in the sphere of contemporary violence. A mythological general could never have come up with a weapon that would eliminate the process of looking an opponent in the eye before/as they died. Hiroshima, Auschwitz, the suicide bomb in the supermarket, the hooded prisoner-all of the historical examples that Cavarero gives of contemporary horrorism-are linked by a process of subjective dissociation from the victim. Though she does acknowledge the idea of this argument, the idea whereby Medea is a problematic emblem of horrorism in the contemporary world, I did not sense that she delved sufficiently into the profundity of the horrifying reasons why this is in fact the case. In short, the cold looming ability to destroy all life on earth by the remote push of a button is a thoroughly modern and historical phenomenon.
The question thus becomes: Given the stark distinctions between the mythology and etymology in which Cavarero grounds her exegesis of horrorism, and the contemporary examples in which horrorism manifests, how can the bridge between the origin and the actuality be crossed? Perhaps Cavarero would answer that while horrorism, as a phenomenon, is not new, its central place within the canon of violence is contemporary. I only wish that this had been clearer throughout reading the text.
How then ought one link a contemporary structure to an ancient constellation? I think that Arendt's rediscovery of the vita activa and vita contemplativa in The Human Condition, a work that seeks to re-awaken something buried within our collective sedimented historical consciousness, is an example of a successful model. While the vita activa is something that has lurked unnoticed and unnamed for a long time, it has always been in the shadows of the human experience. There is an unbroken continuity, where the vita activa is concerned, between the ancient world and now. By philosophically highlighting the socio-political history in her analysis of labor, work, and action, Arendt is able to unveil the ancient phenomenon as it manifests in our midst. Conversely, Cavarero's horrorism is a neologism coined to express a contemporary phenomenon. Because she neither shows how it has always been there (historically), nor explains how it becomes activated, horrorism appears as an orphaned phenomenon. I believe this to be the principal weakness of the study.
In sum, even though I am not convinced by the case Cavarero makes for the concept of horrorism, I am utterly convinced by the concept itself. I think that where Cavarero's book succeeds is that it gives us new tools with which to contend with contemporary violence. That the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries changed the nature and character of violence is beyond certain. I find Cavarero's attempt to forge a term with which we could not only name this violence but contemplate it out of its overtly charged political agenda very admirable. The word "horrorism" allows us to circumvent the political implications of invoking the word "terrorism" and focus on the victims of violence and those vulnerable to it. Moreover, I agree with the notion whereby horrorism is the pervasive, frozen-in-place quality that characterizes our relation to contemporary violence.
In fact, I was so moved by Cavarero's depiction of turning to stone under the horrorist gaze that I wish that Cavarero had pushed her investigation one final step and turned the critique on the social mechanisms and its collective and guilty minions. It is here where the idea of horrorism relates overtly to the idea of the emotions. I would like to argue that it is not those frozen in place by the instances of contemporary violence who are the real statues. Rather, it is those far away who, connected to the violence of the contemporary world by the stream of selected imagery and commentary, are the greatest casualties of the horrorist gaze: they are frozen in implacable immovability. In a sense, these disconnected, affluent statues are the most horrifying aspect of the violence in contemporary society, because they comprise those who push buttons and form the human extension of violent machinery without even looking into the eyes of those affected by it to those who consume the evening news. Those who live in relative peace and prosperity increasingly cannot see their reflections in the mirror of contemporary violence. If all members of contemporary society are frozen in place, then complacency, collaboration, and implication by lack of resistance are the ultimate expressions of this frozenness. Lulled and hypnotized by the very horrifying institutions that are responsible for contemporary violence, we wait for contemporary Perseus to slay our own Medusas. However, the historical context that brought us contemporary violence necessitates a different kind of historical heroism. Waiting for Perseus is symptomatic of the horrorist project itself. What is actually needed is the realization that the stone statue is really an ice sculpture that can only be melted by the active confrontation of Medusa head-on. Though this notion does not figure directly in Cavarero's text, perhaps it is possible to say that forging this thought becomes the role of the reader when looking straight into the eyes of the horror Cavarero conveys in her book.