The Blind Leading the Blind: the Paris Attacks and the Construction of Infinite Evil

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

After the horrific attacks in Paris, the painting of the great Bruegel, The Blind Leading the Blind is in my mind. Bruegel finished this work in the year 1568. It was the year when the notorious Duke Alba arrived with his troops on behalf of the Spanish King in order to cleanse the land of all heretics: Calvinists, Lutherans, Anabaptists as well as all those who dared to oppose the hegemony of the governors of the Spanish Netherlands. The Duke of Alba appointed the Council of Troubles, also known as “the blood council” to pass relevant orders to protect Spanish interests and to judge the sinners. Year by year the number of those deemed ‘outlaws’ increased, and the authority of the council and its ‘justice’ grew with the execution of more than 1000 people, until the popular revolution of 1576 in Brussels. It is the political and historical context of this city where the the painting was created which links it to the recent Paris attacks: it is the city where the law-making councils of the European Union sit, and also where some of the perpetrators of the massacre in Paris came from. Newspapers have written again and again speculating as to how the suburb of Molenbeek has become the “Europe’s jihadi central.”

One of the details of the painting, the church that lies behind the line of blind people, has sparked a great deal of commentary from art historians. I will follow just one of these readings, which considers the painting in relation to Matthew 15:14 : “They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.” It is argued that through the metaphor of the blind leading the blind, Bruegel criticises the church, and of course the “blood council” by setting the church just above the those depicted. The desolation surrounding the church and the small dry tree positioned exactly in front of it present an image of death. The blind men themselves are alarmed—they are not really able to progress, they begin to fall although they try hard not to. They hesitate to move, and they have no one but their brothers in faith in front of them. What we see in these men is also their lack of hierarchy; more than following a leader they seem to follow each other because of a need for solidarity. This makes it possible to consider them in more general terms as ‘humanity’ rather than a particular religious community as such.

What does this insightful painting tell us today? I will not focus on the symbolism of the blind men holding and needing each other, falling or progressing together. Judith Butler wrote on them in her recent article. For now, I prefer to focus on the church in the background.

During the age of ‘discoveries’, as European children used to be taught to call the events leading to the genocide of the indigenous peoples of South America, when white Europeans would travel to a newly known land, they would ask the Catholic Church to provide information about that land and its people. Military expeditions were always pursued with the participation of a priest and the benediction of the Catholic Church. Today, it would not be the Church but Amnesty International along with the CIA fact book that would be consulted before traveling, in order to have an idea of the human rights abuses in a wild land. If previously a military expedition would not be possible without the Church, today a military expedition without human rights organisations is not imaginable. In all this time and despite nominal changes, we have not left Brussels.

Humanitarian interventions that bring bombs to the ‘savages’ legitimize this violence in our hearts and minds, while also bringing about the erasure of the political. French philosopher Jacques Rancière gives a fine tuned conceptualization of this colonisation of politics by the ethical in his article “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics.”1 For Rancière the ethical turn “signifies the constitution of an indistinct sphere.” It is not the reign of moral judgments over politics and art, but the elimination of the distinction that would separate these two spheres—in other words, the distinction between “what is and what ought to be,” between fact and law. This creates the inclusion of “all forms of discourse and practice beneath the same indistinct point of view.” Rancière adds that, as far as this indistinction between fact and law grows, “an unprecedented dramaturgy of infinite evil, justice and reparation” comes onto the scene. This is where we are, when Holland declares war on terror 14 years after George W. Bush: it is the search for infinite evil, in order to bring absolute justice and reparation by demolition.

In order to explain the concept of infinite evil, Rancière analyses the film Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003). The film is a transposition of Bertolt Brecht’s story, Die Heilige Johanna der Schlachthöfer (1929-1930). In the original story everything is divided into two: between the capitalist jungle and Christian morality. Brecht’s story considers how Christian morality is ineffective against capitalism’s violence until it is finally transformed into a militant morality against oppression. Rancière affirms that “the opposition between two types of violence was therefore also that between sorts of morals and of rights.” And this division constitutes politics: politics is not the opposition of these two forms of morality but their division (which is a criticism addressed to Habermas). It is this division that creates basis for disagreement. However, in Dogville, what one cannot see is the reason of the division and their distinct morals. In the movie, Grace (Nicole Kidman) reaches the town of Dogville whilst running from some gangster. The community agrees to hide her with encouragement from the intellectual of the town, Tom (Paul Bettany). The community wants to “try” the migrant Grace for two weeks. In these two weeks Grace tries hard to win the trust of the small town, but the demands of the residents escalate day by day. She learns in a very hard way how the hosts became evil, and at the end of the movie gives them a lesson with the help of her mafioso friends. In Ranciere’s reading, the evil that Grace is exposed to “refers to no other cause but itself.” Grace is the excluded “who wants to be admitted into the community, which brings her to subjugation before expelling her.”The local community is the evil without any cause. If there is no specific reason for the violence, a morality that legitimizes the violence, a division of the world, then the only way to abolish it is the “radical annihilation” of the community itself. This brings us to infinite justice, which can be reached only by infinite violence against the infinite evil: a complete annihilation of the community where the evil comes out. Rancière reminds us that the film was rejected from Cannes for ‘lacking humanism’. He suggests that we should understand humanist fiction as elimination of justice (justice of Grace), through hiding the opposition between the just and the unjust.

On the one hand it is a very similar humanist fiction that we are exposed to with the recent attacks: just like Bush, Holland declared a merciless fight against “the barbarians of Islamic State,” as the president of the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the idea of human rights changed dramatically from that of an emancipatory revolution to a war against evil in last two centuries. Fourteen years after the seminal article of Makau Mutua, “Savages, Victims and Saviours: The Metaphor of Human Rights,” the saviours continue to fight against savages through a legitimization which stems from the victims. Mutua writes that the grand narrative of human rights “depicts an epochal contest pitting savages, on the one hand, against victims and saviours, on the other”.2 In this contest, justice becomes the annihilation of the savage and construction of Evil is in the face of he other. Ironically enough, just as in Dogville, the victim becomes the source of legitimization for this absolute justice of the saviour. This is same for the victims of Paris attack and bombings by Western powers in Middle East. The Western subject and its Middle Eastern counter part legitimize the violence of their saviours (be it drones or the suicide bombers) with this controversial construction of war against the barbarian other.

This is also not very different for the systemically disempowered second or third generation migrants who live in the ghettos of European capitals. They have been asked to believe in the probability of upwards mobility, the middle class religion of human rights and non-violence, and the fiction of how enlightened Western powers protect the world from Evil. As a twenty-four year old who joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria told :

They [Western society] teach us to work hard to buy a nice car and nice clothes but that isn’t happiness. I was a third-class human because I wasn’t integrated into a corrupted system. But I didn’t want to be a street gangster.

Terrorist violence has been condemned, while scores of people experience other forms of violence in their segregated communities, each time they turn on their television, each time they walk on the high street. Human rights offers no protection from this degradation. They are as, if not more, aware that something is rotten in urban planning, housing, labor law and the capitalist production of desire. Yet “violence” is forbidden and the disempowered must show respect to those who have a face, visibility, and a voice because it is called “freedom of speech.” Walter Benjamin in his “Critique of Violence” quotes from Anatole France: “poor and rich are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges,” like middle class Parisiens and the youth of suburbs. Numbers show that only “7 to 8 percent of France’s population is Muslim, however as much as 70 percent of the prison population is Muslim.” Even if they do not have decent housing, or a face and a voice, or the color and dress code, they have to respect to all those who have them, because it is their right to have it. And if they don’t follow the established order, the absolute justice of modern society will be waiting for them, with its penal system, batons and bombs. Total annihilation as a form of justice haunts not only the imaginary of middle class Parisian with a French flag covering their facebook profile, but also the youth of Parisian suburbs, with their hoodies, kefies and veils covering their faces.

Then, the church of Bruegel becomes a mosque with a radical cleric obeying to Sharia Councils of ISIS this time, instead of the European councils. The Catholic church in the painting, the source of the violence of the Duke of Alba against protestants, this time becomes legitimate source of absolute violence in the form of some particular readings of Quran. ISIS calls their 2004 manifesto Idharat at Tawahoush (The Management of Savagery), as if they know their role in the tripod of Mutua. They want to be savages, they declare to be so, and they insistently transgress all the ethical norms which flow from the fiction of human rights, at the expense of the lives of thousands. In the way that the Western narrative creates its evil and its justice, the jihadist narrative finds its own as an exact reflection of the first. You can defeat the evil only with unprecedented violence, which in turn is considered justice. The ‘mirror stage’ is, according to Lacan, is when a child recognizes himself or herself in the mirror and becomes conscious of selfhood. When a baby recognises itself in the mirror, it also kills rest of the world from being a part of his/her body. By the condemning the other to death, one becomes audible and visible, but at the same time becomes indebted to the existence of the other (Evil other) to determine itself. The one that calls for the bombing of Syria, and the one that sympathises with the Jihadists, recognizes themselves as a separate being from the other only because they are able to judge the others with a death sentence.

King Phillip was talking about the heretics in Netherlands when he said that: “in truth I cannot understand how such a great evil could have arisen and spread in such a short time.” Newspapers of Western media ask how the great evil of ISIS could have arisen in such a short time again and again. This is the blind leading the blind. Fight for the social justice is inaudible among the battle cries of the politicians and the cries of victims. In the background, churches of humanitarian intervention and Sharia hold confidently. Struggle for an emancipatory politics, a libertarian, communitarian opening is being oppressed both in Paris and Raqqa. A different ethics of looking at life becomes impossible while war lords push us to stand with them against their infinite evil, and condemn us if we don’t. Case in point, more than 24 environmentalist activists were put into house arrest before the Paris climate summit using emergency measures after the Paris attacks, while ISIS has killed in Turkey.

Ozan Kamiloglu is an associate lecturer and doctoral candidate at Birkbeck College School of Law.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Jacques Rancière,  Aesthetics and Its Discontents  (London: Polity, 2009).
  2.  Makau Mutua, “Savages, Victims and Saviours: the Metaphor of Human Rights,” Harvard International Law Journal 42(1): 2001, 204.
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