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TitleTAUSSIG - Terror as Usual Walter Benjamin s Theory of History as a State of Siege
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Table of Contents
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		Front Matter [pp.  1 - 1]
		Terror as Usual: Walter Benjamin's Theory of History as a State of Siege [pp.  3 - 20]
		Other Stories [pp.  21 - 28]
		How the Athenians Planned to Colonize the Mind of the West and Immortalize Themselves [pp.  29 - 58]
		Marxism and Nationalism: Ideology and Class Struggle in Premchand's Godan [pp.  59 - 82]
		As Her Hand Crept Slowly up Her Thigh: Ann Bannon and the Politics of Pulp [pp.  83 - 101]
		Synesthesia, "Crossover," and Blacks in Popular Music [pp.  102 - 121]
		The Vietnam War and American Music [pp.  122 - 143]
		History, Ethnography, Myth: Some Notes on the "Indian-Centered" Narrative [pp.  144 - 160]
		Short-Prose [pp.  161 - 164]
		Come to the Movies Yerach: Not a Response to "Why Be a Nebbish?" [pp.  165 - 166]
		Back Matter
Document Text Contents
Page 1

Terror as Usual: Walter Benjamin's Theory of History as a State of Siege
Author(s): Mick Taussig
Source: Social Text, No. 23 (Autumn - Winter, 1989), pp. 3-20
Published by: Duke University Press
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Page 2

Terror As Usual:
Walter Benjamin's Theory of History
As A State Of Siege


Terror as The Other

A question of distance - that's what I'd like to say about talking terror, a matter
of finding the right distance, holding it at arm's length so it doesn't turn on you
(after all it's just a matter of words), and yet not putting it so far away in a clini-
cal reality that we end up having substituted one form of terror for another. But
having said this I can see myself already lost, lost out to terror you might say,
embarked on some futile exercise in Liberal Aesthetics struggling to establish a
golden mean and utterly unable to absorb the fact that terror's talk always talks
back - super-octaned dialogism in radical overdrive, its talk presupposing if not
anticipating my response, undermining meaning while dependent on it, stringing
out the nervous system one way toward hysteria, the other way toward numbing
and apparent acceptance, both ways flip-sides of terror, the political Art of the
Arbitrary, as usual.

Of course that's elsewhere, always elsewhere, you'll want to say, not the rule
but the exception, existing in An-Other Place like Northern Ireland, Beirut, Ethi-
opia, Kingston, Port au Prince, Peru, Mozambique, Afghanistan, Santiago, the
Bronx, the West Bank, South Africa, San Salvador, Colombia, to name but some
of the more publicized from the staggering number of spots troubling the course
of the world's order. But perhaps such an elsewhere should make us suspicious
about the deeply rooted sense of order here, as if their dark wildness exists so as
to silhouette our light, the bottom line being, of course, the tight and necessary fit
between order, law, justice, sense, economy, and history - all of which them
elsewhere manifestly ain't got much of. Pushed by this suspicion I am first re-
minded of another sort of History of another sort of Other Within, a history of
small-fry rather than of the Wealth of Nations, as for example in a letter in the
Village Voice in 1984 from an ex-social worker in the state of Colorado, in the
USA, commenting on an article on Jeanne Anne Wright who killed her own chil-
dren. The social worker notes that it was axiomatic that the "deeper you dig, the
dirtier it gets; the web of connections, the tangled family histories of failure,
abuse, and neglect spread out in awesomely unmanageable proportions." When
the social worker asked a young mother about the bum marks on her nine-year
old daughter, she replied in a passive futile voice that her husband used a cattle


Page 9

10 Terror as Usual

reality is sad and cruel after having had him in front of me. At other times I
spend the night running through bush and ravines, searching amongst piles
of cadavers, witnessing battles and Dantesque scenes. It makes you crazy.
And this happens to the whole family, as well as to his friends. Even the
neighbors have told me many times that they dream of him.

And our dreaming? For are we not neighbors too?
As for hard facts, General Landazabal is adamant, at least until September of

1986, that evidence indicating that the Armed Forces is behind many if not most
of the assassinations and disappearances in Colombia is false. Questioned in La
Semana by Antonio Caballero (whose name now appears on the Medellin Death
List) regarding his statement that the only paramilitary groups in the country
were the guerrillas, the general replied that while it was beginning to appear to
him that there might perhaps be some sort of organization, even a nationally or-
ganized one, whose function was to assassinate members of the Uni6n Patri6tica
(by far the most popular left-wing party in Colombia), he really had no idea
about this. Moreover, he went on, it was infamous to connect the Armed Forces
with the assassins now supposedly so abundant in Colombia in the wake of the
cocaine trade.

That would be to enter into the most tremendous contradiction with the
professional morality and honor of the Armed Forces. It is said that there is a
"dirty war" going on, but the Armed Forces do not participate in that. They
combat subversion with all the means of the Constitution and the Law, but
not by paying assassins on motorbikes or placing bombs. That would be
infamous, and we cannot tolerate such infamy to be mouthed.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Santiago
Nassar walks the hot Colombian town during the night's revelry unaware that he
is being pursued by two men armed with knives passionately committed to kill-
ing him. A question of honor. It's a small enough town for its inhabitants to
sense something strange. They see the armed men searching from place to place,
yet they can't believe that they will really kill - or rather they believe and dis-
believe at one and the same time, but proof comes sure enough with Santaigo
Nasar's bloody disembowelment - all of which I take to be paradigmatic of
what General Landazabal refers to as the "dirty war" which he says "is said to be
going on." Of course the point of such a war, of the phrasing of such a war,
which is also called by some national commentators a war of silencing, is that as
the General says it is "said to be" going on which means, in political and opera-
tional terms, that it is and it isn't - in just the same way as the abnormal is nor-
mal and disorder is orderly and the whole meaning of the relatively moder term
"society," let alone the meaning of the social bond, suddenly becomes deeply
problematic. After all what does it mean to have a society at (undeclared) war
with itself? "In Colombia," my twenty-year-old friend from one of the poor sug-
arcane towns of the Cauca Valley, Edgar, constantly assured me with smug final-
ity, "You can't trust anyone."

We were in a bus in 1981 heading into the frontier province of the Putumayo,
reading a Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and I commented how strange an air of

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Mick Taussig

reality the tale conveyed, everybody sensing yet not believing what was about to
happen. "Ah profesor," he replied, "but there's always one who knows."

In the murk, an eye watching, an eye knowing. Here you can't trust anyone.
There's always one who knows. Paranoia as social theory. Paranoia as social
practice. Note the critically important feature of the war of silencing is its geo-
graphical, epistemological, and military-strategic decenteredness - yet we can-
not but feel that it is organized from some center no matter how much the
general denies his knowing. The leaders of the Uni6n Patri6tica say this (unde-
clared) war (which is said to be going on) is the outcome of the Pentagon's plan
for Latin America, the infamous "doctrine of national security" which we can
read about in the general's books where it is presented in a favorable, even re-
demptive, light.

Side by side with this doctrine, and the symmetrical paranoid circles of con-
spiracy traced around it, there is this new type of warfare that has come to be
called "low intensity conflict" whose leading characteristic is to blur accustomed
realities and boundaries and keep them blurred. That is another eye to contend
with, grotesquely post-modem in its constitutive contingency.

Talking Terror 3

And now we start to feel this eye watching in other places as well. Hearing, too.
The tira is what the students in the university in BogotA called it, meaning spy,
and it was, they intimated, right there in the classroom. Curiously this particular
word for spy - the tira - also means throwing, and its opposite - pulling.
And as if that isn't strange enough, tira is also used to mean fucking. All this
makes for a curious network of associations, granting us some rare insight into
the erotics not only of spying but of the terror-machine of the State as well, with
its obscure medley of oppositions, seduction, and violence.

Sappo, frog, is the term used for the informer in the sugarcane towns in west-
ern Colombia, reminding me of the frog's role in sorcery and of its slimy habitat
between earth, sky, and water, where it croaks songs of love and war yet, both
like and unlike the informer, is suddenly muted when people pass by. When you
walk through the cane fields at night - as only the peasants, cane-workers, and
the occasional consipirator, revolutionary organizer, and anthropologist ever
would - you become the auditory equivalent of a sensitive photographic plate,
registering under the black canopy of the immense skies the deafening silence of
suddenly stilled sound. And the frog? I guess it's all ears too.

But who knows from whence come these terms for spies and whence they go?
Their awkwardly constellated meanings register a compound of slime and omi-
nous quiet, no less obscure, and no less pointed, than the Death Squads them-
selves. In these suddenly muted fields of power the neatness of the symbol itself
gives way to the rapidly pulsing underbelly, the pushing and pulling, of Nervous

And for the poor young men of Colombia, which is to say for the majority of
young men, there is the eye of the libretta militar or military pass, possession of
which means that one has performed the eighteen or twenty-four months military
service demanded by the state. If you don't have it, the authorities can pick you
up as they please, and most employers will refuse to hire a man without one. At


Page 18

Mick Taussig

nobody knew where I was other than Roberto. Why hadn't I called Rachel? I
looked up at the roof. It was only corrugated plastic. Almost transparent. Surely
easy to break through? But then these places were built to be burglar-proof, and
looking more closely it didn't seem that easy. But this was absurd. He'd be back
soon. I was a miserable coward. I tried to read more of the cuttings. My eye was
caught by random phrases, exacerbating the tension - as if all that horrific stuff
scattered across the table in the feeble light of the Bogota gloom filtered through
the plastic was about what was about to happen to me. I had premonitions of
how I would feel and to what desperate lengths I would go if I panicked. I didn't
feel or allow myself to feel panicky at that stage. That was the most curious
thing. I saw myself from afar, as it were, in another world, going crazy, not
knowing what was happening, what was being plotted, what would happen next,
unable to breathe. I looked again at the door with its tough wire. Immovable. It
was raining hard. Every now and then a few drops fell through onto my head and
neck. I turned back to the crumpled cuttings from the newspapers and the cheap
Xerox copies of letters between institutions and government agencies and then,
truly, waves of panic flooded over me absolutely unable to move waiting for the
police to surge through the door. Any moment. Dark suits. Machine guns wav-
ing. Machismo ejaculating in the underground opera of the State. The handcuffs
- esposas, in Spanish, also meaning wives - grinding into your wrists. Later,
recounting what had happened to friends who lived all their life in Bogota, I was
made to realize that this fear was not without foundation since it is said to be not
uncommon for victims of police or army brutality to become informers.

Then the door opened and in came Roberto with a small bottle of
aguardiente. I was relieved but wanted to leave. The rain drummed down. Even
the elements were against me leaving. He pulled up a stool by my side and
poured a drink into two tiny olive-green plastic tumblers. "I'm not a drunk, Mi-
guel," he said, and proceeded to tell me how he was tortured, how bad it was
when they changed the handcuffs for rope, how he felt like drowning with the
wet towel stuffed down his mouth, and what it was like being in the bag and shot
but not killed. He leant his head forward almost onto my lap and guided my finm-
ger through the hair to the soft bulging wounds of irregularly dimpled flesh.
"Like worshipers with Christ's wounds," murmured a friend days later to whom
I was telling this.

"Surely the army knows you are here?" I asked. "No!" he replied, "I've learnt
the skills of the urban guerrilla," and reaching for a blue writing pad he told me
that he spent nearly all his time in the apartment and that he was writing about
his case, trying, for instance, to win the attorney general over to his side and not
believe in the campaign of defamation spread by the army. The attorney general
had served as a judge in the small town in Antioquia where Roberto had been
raised - malnourished from the start, he noted, in a large peasant family, and
unable to walk until he was twenty-one months old after which, as a teenager, he
had become a famous athlete. All this was in the letter to the attorney general.

He asked what I thought about his case and showed me more correspondence
with Amnesty International. I mumbled about people I knew and ways of getting
his story publicized, but I felt overwhelmed by the situation. Then he sprung me.


Page 19

Terror as Usual

"Could I stay in your apartment when you leave?" My heart sank. I so much
wanted to help but to have him use the apartment would be to endanger a whole
bunch of other people, beginning with Rachel and the three kids. I felt the most
terrible coward, especially because my cowardice took the form of not being
able to tell him that I thought his situation was too dangerous, for that would tear
open the facade of normalcy that I at least felt we so badly needed in order to
continue being and being together and that he needed to survive. In so many
ways I too was an active agent in the war of silencing.

I feel terrible and less than human. I've become part of the process which
makes him paranoid and a pariah. I am afraid of the powers real and imagined
that have tortured and almost killed him. Even more I'm afraid and sickened by
the inevitability of his paranoiac marginalization, people being suspicious of his
miraculous escape, interpreting it as a sign of him possibly being a spy. And in
the state of emergency which is not the exception but the rule, every possibility
is a fact. Being victimized by the authorities doesn't stop with actual physical
torture or the end to detention. In Roberto's "case" that's only the beginning. In a
way he didn't come back to life at all. He's still disappeared, and only his case
exists to haunt me in this endless night of terror's talk and terror's silence.

Talking Terror 6

An hour later I was with my kids at the Moscow Circus which was playing in a
sports arena by one of the freeways ringing the inner city. It was unreal enough,
but coming on top of the episode at Roberto's it was devastatingly so. The rain
was pelting down outside in the pitch-black night onto the heads of thin-faced
hungry people clamoring for attention selling candies and peanuts while, in their
rough-cut woolen uniforms the police - perhaps the very ones that had partici-
pated in Roberto's disappearance - maintained order with their sad sullen faces
as we moved inside into another world where joy and expectancy shone from
people's faces, so far from the fears and suspicions outside. Here we were im-
mersed in quickly shifting scenes of clowns, trapeze artists, balance, strength,
tension, as the performers spun in their glittering costumes. The pink mobile
flesh, firm and muscled, of the acrobats in their gold and silver tights made me
think of my finger on Roberto's wounds. Laughter and wonder rippled through
the crowd. But what I remember most of all was the beginning. In the shifting
tube of light formed by the spotlight in the immense darkness of the arena, two
Colombian clowns were arguing with one another and in the process beating up
a life-sized female mannequin. They began to tear the mannequin to pieces and
beat it onto the ground with fury as the crowd laughed. Then the lights changed,
music blared, and a disembodied voice came on:

"In 1986, this year of World Peace, we are proud to present..."

This talk was given to the conference on 'Talking Terrorism: Paradigms and
Models in a Postmodern World," organized by the Institute of the
Humanities of Stanford University, February, 1988)


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