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Telos 141: Nature and Terror

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Classical figures of thought endure. A long-standing image of the health of nature contrasts the bucolic landscape with the corruption of the city, where violence abounds. The only security is a natural way of life, far from the brutal metropolis—until nature turns out to be a threat, and we succumb to the uncontrollable fear named for that destructive god: panic. The state of nature is the homeland of violence, its only law the law of the jungle, as we scurry back to the city to find security—until it morphs into the security state. Critical Theory described this dynamic as a sometimes too narrow narrative of domination: the human mastery of nature, in the interest of self-preservation, turns into the mastery of humanity by an encompassing machinery of control. This is an old story, but it comes to us anew in this political season, in which nature and terror—the anxieties about the environment and fear of terrorism, as well as the reaction to it—haunt us, in public and in private.

The essays collected here trace an orbit around these focal points, beginning with two accounts of contemporary environmentalism. Tim Luke opens with a profile of Edward Abbey, icon of the ecology movement, but whom Luke defends against his supporters: Abbey’s work is too complex and theoretically important, even or especially as literature, to be shoehorned into a party line. “Cactus Ed” emerges as a figure of resistance and negativity, and therefore all the more productive. Eileen Crist turns to the broader movement to demonstrate how the focus on anthropogenic climate change, while no longer merely hypothetical, may in fact exacerbate the planetary predicament through a narrow focus on a single issue which attracts technological and administrative solutions—precisely the source of the problem. The climate change discourse eclipses the ongoing loss of biodiversity, and this dynamic that pushes toward technocratic management, including greater state control, is compounded by the fatalism and apocalyptic imagery that abound around mainstream environmentalism.

Nature and Terror are twins in Dan Edelstein’s investigation of the definition of the enemy in the legal and political categories of the French Revolution, which resound uncannily in our contemporary debates over the status of opponents: enemies of humanity, enemies of the people, enemy combatants. These debates too often become terrorist in their simplification. Edelstein shows how the original terror of western modernity drew on an understanding of natural law, imbued with the emancipatory agenda of the Enlightenment—the simplicity and purity of nature against the corruption of the court—but reverting to violence: back to nature and therefore to the guillotine. Edelstein not only provides an overview of the conceptual history leading to the Terror, but he also presents an introduction and a translation of the Law of 22 Prairial, adopted by the National Convention on June 10, 1794, which ushered in the culmination of the violence. In its wake, some 1,400 victims were put to death in the name of nature. Timothy Martinez continues the discussion of terror in an analysis of Badiou’s account of evil, which involves an extended meditation on Nazism and Stalinism. In contrast to the Jacobin discourse of natural law, Martinez traces Badiou’s treatment of evil in multiple permutations: as a simulacrum of truth, as a betrayal of truth, and as the disaster of truth. At stake here is the dialectical insight that terrorist violence does not come (solely) from the outside but emerges from a transformation of normative discourse, what Arendt called the “logicality” of totalitarianism, a compulsive thinking that allows no latitude and therefore ceases to think. Reason becomes unreason.

Can we forestall the violence of this dialectical collapse? Wolfram Malte Fues explores the simultaneity and difference between historical event and historical narrative, between (so to speak) history and story. By way of Goethe at Valmy and Rilke’s tenth Duino Elegy, he interrogates the search for a “true story,” by insisting on the interplay of factuality and fictionality as an open tension at the decentering center of the humanities but equally definitive of an “occidental culture.” Terror starts, it could follow, with a naturalistic reduction, which makes the poetic language of indeterminacy a condition of freedom. It is all the more important, as he points in conclusion, for cultural studies to rethink its own self-understanding. The critique of reductionism underlies Jonathan Blair’s survey of the political element in Derrida’s work, which, for Blair, is not restricted to the later writings, deriving instead from the 1971 conference paper “Signature, Event, Context,” which, as Badiou would later underscore, rejects historicism as a “temporalization of context.” Naturalism and historicism—as Husserl pointed out long ago—represent parallel degradations of thought. For Blair, Derrida’s writing resists reduction and therefore maintains an open space, which is the political (not unlike, one is tempted to muse, the open space of the Southwest for Abbey, outside the sprawl of suburbanization). Victoria Fareld examines Taylor’s different difference, the combination of self-expression (by way of the biological and natural metaphor of epigenesis) and recognition. Defending Taylor against critiques of essentialism, she nonetheless sheds important light on his limits: by retreating from more emphatic notions of alterity, he falls back on a model of autonomy that he had hoped to escape. The issue concludes with two short pieces: John Zerzan’s note on “Second Life,” where nature has become virtual, as civilization emerges triumphant, and a review of Matthias Küntzel’s sobering genealogy of Islamist terror.

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