Resetting Theory

The Terror

Part I: Civilization, Decadence, and Hope

Meditations on the decadence of civilization are as old as the idea of civilization. The tradition goes back at least as far as Hesiod, who claimed in his poem-meditation Works and Days that the people of his age and after would be a race of 'iron':

Children will not resemble their fathers, and there will be no affection between guest and host and no love between friends or brothers as in the past. Sons and daughters will be quick to offend their aging parents and rebuke them and speak to them with rudeness and cruelty, not knowing about divine retribution; they will not even repay their parents for their keep -- these law-breakers -- and they will sack one another's city. [1]

The tradition of decadence-denunciation continues, hundreds of years after Hesiod, in Livy's history of Rome:

I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth. [2]

We find it again, another thousand years along, in the apocalyptic musings of the Anglo-Saxon Wolfstan's sermon to the English people: "it is ever the worse the longer the world lasts" [3]. Yet another thousand years in the future, we find another variation on the theme in the work of the Oswald Spengler, in his classic text, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (The Decline of the West) [4]. That the accusation of decadence, that it becomes a mainstay in Christian apocalypticism, but existed long before the life of Jesus, is so perennial would seem to indicate that the idea and practice of what we call western civilization might be concomitant with its own decadence, from the very beginning.

Civilization, we have heard for at least three thousand years, is in decline; its old values have faded, and all that is left is cynical, stupid, short-sighted self-interest. Our world has become shallow, ugly and weak. Spengler vividly evoked this sense of weakness in a discussion of the design of modern houses:

They no longer have anything in common with the houses in which Vesta and Janus, the Lares and Penates resided: rather, they are mere shells, fashioned not by blood but by utility, not by feeling but by the spirit of commercialism [5].

This kind of romantic feeling is designed to invoke a moral reaction from its audience -- that we should return to the old ways, listen to our hearts, be ready to make sacrifices.

Experience tells us, however, that if the purpose of a critique of decadence is to induce a return to the past, it has always failed and will always fail. Even at the ripe age of three thousand years old (or more, depending on where we mark its birth), civilization is, we now know, a relatively new arrival on the scene of human co-existence. It is an expansive and progressive form of life that brings great changes to 'primitive' forms of life. To renew its values, then, cannot really mean a return to the past; at the very least, any reference to the past must be much more recent than the boundlessly archaic visions that the theorists of decadence have always invoked. That Spengler is referring to ancient Rome in his discussion of architecture already gives the lie to the claim to a more ancient than ancient. Equally, in Spengler's doctrine of blood, a modern biological innovation masquerades as ancient wisdom. And it is no accident that Spengler's biological idea of 'blood' as a symbol for the long-lost past would be plagiarized in the years to come by the Nazi movement. His invocation of the glorious architecture of the past foreshadows the ludicrous and terrifying neo-Romanist gigantism of Nazi architecture. Fascism in general could be described as a fraudulent attempt, in a decadent world, to return to the values of the past. It is a conservatism as hollow, decadent and modern as the liberal world it makes war upon.

Notwithstanding its hollowness, the idea of decadence has a peculiarly universal relevance as I write these words. For surely, behind every invocation of our 'troubled times', the permanent refrain of panic and economic catastrophe, the old wisdom that 'we have lived beyond our means', is the old critique of decadence, the old prediction of a coming calamity that will punish us for our sins. The sheer scale and ubiquity of the new global financial crisis induce a powerful, hypnotic emotional response, a terror, that would seem all the more clearly to prescribe a stance of unflinching objectivity, reasonability or even an 'audacity of hope.'

But if the prophets of decadence have always been wrong on the question 'what is to be done', this does not mean they are simply wrong. It is quite clear that, while the birth of civilizations may be accompanied by a sense of their own decadence, they also really can decay. No civilization has lasted forever, and the history of civilization has indeed been marked by decadence, by recurrent episodes of deep social insecurity and violence, as if by a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the facile, optimistic dismissal of the rage simmering under the claim that our civilization is decaying is only the flipside of the prophecy of decadence itself. T. W. Adorno, writing on Spengler in particular, gives a model for the interpretation of all theories of decadence:

But the more the world marches in step with him, the more urgent it is to consider the meaning of the work in which he proclaimed a destiny for mankind?. Finally, while maintaining a fundamental distrust of his thesis, one should ask what considerations could hold their ground against Spengler's arguments while avoiding both the pose of power and the guilty conscience of official optimism [6].

Adorno admits subtly here that there is a good deal of truth in Spengler's arguments, a truth that we can, certainly, attempt to dispel through the gestures of power, or an officially mandated optimism. But the perception of decadence throughout the history of civilization is not merely a sign of weakness of will on the part of the perceiver: it in large part reflects the world from which it emerges. Adorno says that hope lies in arguments that can hold their ground against the self-fulfilling prophecies of decay -- not that we can and should easily dismiss those prophecies.

According to Adorno and negative dialectics, the truth of theories of decadence is not beyond them or above them, but is already contained in their inner contradictions. Theories of decadence are not entirely 'wrong;' they are an unrestrained expression of terror. If real hope consists in knowing the terror and not giving up in the face of it, if theories of decadence capitulate by giving in to and helping to amplify that terror, we must not for all that flinch when it comes to understanding what decadence means in our time.

As the summer of 2008 has changed into autumn and winter, our consciousness has become collectively, globally dominated by an idée fixe. Like the sound of mounting feedback, slowly distinguishing itself from background noise, the 'credit crisis' has attained a kind of high fever pitch. One begins to have the uncanny feeling that conversations, private concerns, that generally public life (and, we surmise, private life too, for what is the real difference between private and public anymore?) has become dominated by this idea.

After all, it is not as if money was far from our minds even when capitalism, in its euphoria, was riding the proverbial bull. We live in a society in which money has for some time assumed an historically unprecedented structural role. Never before, for example, have the fortunes of military orders been more closely intertwined with technological and economic development. We live in an age of techno-mercenaries and hugely expensive robotic assassin machines.

Never before has the idea of the free market exchange of goods over the entire earth been possible, let alone almost universally desired. And yet the unprecedented nature of our time, the meaning of a civilization that has become deeply and intimately global, is all but lost to the public mind, even in its more intellectual moments. In the world of Hollywood, it is as if nothing has changed in 10,000 years, as if the only difference between ourselves and our Neolithic ancestors is the degree of development of that institution -- the market and its technological products -- that is not recognized as unique to our time or to our culture, but has always been what it is, was and ever shall be. The world-as-market for us is as water for fish; we do not notice what is the general and universal background to all of our transactions. We know full well we are the biggest fish ever, but we do not understand how we as a market society are qualitatively different. This is the pose of power and the official optimism of our time, as much as it was for the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans and for Homeric Greeks. It is a colonial ideal that conceives of the entire world as already contained in and defined by our way of life. And it evokes the same half-conscious 'conservative' response of annihilating rage and terror it has done since its earliest victories.

Adorno also says we must realize that the liberalization of public morality, which is always attacked puritanically by the prophets of decadence, is part of the constellation of civilized terror, not an antidote to it. The ever-more uncertain status of traditional sexual and communal structures in our own time actually mirrors the triumph, if only by default, of protestant morality, of parsimony as the only and predominant norm of public conduct. The virtue of shrewd and efficient investment trumps all other moral concerns, in the world of business, government and warfare, in the academy and everywhere else. The plurality of moral messages that circulate in the electronic storm of information, fundamentalist and liberalist -- all similar in that they shape public behaviour by inducing self-justifying patterns of belief and behaviour -- are today all underwritten by the demands of financial-managerial acumen. As it has done at all the high watermarks of the economic and technical development of western civilization, money now suffuses previous un-marketized aspects of life. Conservatives are essentially correct when they rave that it is the alpha and omega of work, family, and nation, the index of survival and fitness.

If money was important to us before, if it was already 'the economy, stupid' in the early 1990s, the sense of impending doom inspired by the current credit crisis is (for the moment) only twisting every conceivable form of social and political effort further in the direction of economization, in the direction of greater efficiency of expenditure, with a view to greater return. A mass movement of austerity and thriftiness, a testament to the power of a most parsimonious morality, is induced as a futile response to the crisis. In this, it is irrational as any moral response to a collective social problem has ever been. We witness the unfolding of what may turn out to be another gigantic, world-historical human tragedy, and every thought is turned angrily to where our money has gone. In our journalism, our advertising, all the way into our day-to-day conversation, we become a collectivity of Wolfstans, Livys and Hesiods -- we become collectively 'Spenglerized.' We adopt the master strategy of western civilization: to master terror by imprinting it on the not-yet-terrorized.

We hear from progressive economists that since the end of the Second World War, there has been a slow suffocation by constriction of the flow of money into public sector services. There has also, in a reciprocal movement, been a great flow of wealth in spectacularly more focused and 'productive' directions. This overall movement is usually referred to as neoliberalism or neoconservatism, but a more general way of looking at it would be to see it as commensurate with the process of civilization in general. As Adorno and Max Horkheimer remind us in Dialectic of Enlightenment, [7] specialization, functionalization and terror are the non-idealized earmarks of civilization. In our time, money has been steadily removed from the more general, amorphous realms of life -- general education, public health, maintenance of infrastructure, careers whose future productivity cannot be estimated with supposed certainty -- for which no return on the investment can be measured and for which we can identify no singular recipient of praise and honour for the result.

At the most general level, what happens is that a work of selection, a process of differentiation, is undertaken to separate the good from the bad, the productive from the wasteful, the prudent from the intemperate. We duly honour with responsibilities and gifts those whom we find to be honourable. It is quite arguable that no human community has ever existed that did not make some form of selection of this self-justifying, self-fulfilling kind. But the primary function and characteristic of civilization, according to Adorno and Horkheimer's re-definition of the term, is to make more extreme and more pronounced the perception and the reality of the difference between the honourable and the dishonourable. Civilized peoples, for this reason, are terrorized peoples; their desire to 'rise above' and 'progress' is a mark of their terror of 'falling below'. The extent to which they 'rise above' is a measure of the depth to which they can fall.

Whole countries and parts of the globe, then, have experienced time and again, for thousands of years, what middle- and low-income class America is now experiencing. They have been left high and dry, fish beached on the arid sands of recession, depression, collapse, and failure: they are now the losers in the great half-conscious game of civilized decadence. Human sacrifice does not exist within civilization as an official institution; indeed, one of the supposed hallmarks of civilization is the abandonment of human sacrifice. But the uncivilized practices of human sacrifice did not go so far as to blame the victims for their fate, or to conceive of them as being the losers in the game. As we speak, the new feeling of economic failure is actively invoked by our elites not so much as circumstantial, not as the will of a voracious fate or divinity, but as a moral failure. Our troubles are not mere misfortune, the result of capricious fate: 'we' fully deserve what is coming to us. Our wastefulness, our laziness, and our lack of thrift have brought a terrible punishment on us (notwithstanding all rational evidence that thrift only would have brought on the 'punishment' sooner). This criticism of decadence hinges on the sense that there is a moral fault involved which justifies the terror being invoked and promoted. The victims of the current economic collapse have failed to be parsimonious, have failed in the only way that really matters.

The inner ideal of the current philosophy and policy of neoliberalism would ultimately be that every part of life -- politics, education, family, water, maybe even breathing -- could be entered into a universal calculus of value. The universal calculus, like any moral ideal, compels action and calls for punishments, but it is different form any other morality, in that the only action it really compels is buying cheap and selling dear, in cleverly marketing one's goods or oneself as the goods. The only real ground for guilt, according to this outlook, is a lack of proper self-interest. Moral behaviour, in this account, is the acquisition of a value. It facilitates our success in a process of acquisition, whether the goods are material or spiritual. Spiritual goods are only higher because they call up the most valuable good of all: the desire of others to acquire what you have. Civilization in general represents the reduction of morality, under the force of terror, to this kind of 'enlightened' self-interest.

Pedophilia (to use an extreme example), more than the terrible abuse of children to which the post-modern public gives eager and anxious witness, represents for civilized people a lack of enlightened self-interest. The pedophile is a loser, a misfit without any of the good qualities that, in the universal calculus of value, are ascribed to properly self-interested, self-promoting misfits. Anyone can succeed. The most perverse, strange, un-traditional and eccentric characters can make it, but they must realize that the point of all perversity, strangeness and eccentricity is to make it and not lose it. We humiliate the 'loser' pedophiles on national television, to make an example of them -- and let the ratings tell the tale. We do not permit ourselves a luxury like public castration, but we fantasize about it [8]. But in the phantosmagoria of functionalization and specialization, in what Plato has Socrates call 'the feverish city', it is a question of 'everything in its right place.' A pseudo-literature and pseudo-culture pornographically obsessed with infantile sexuality is the ultimate outcome of what Adorno called the 'culture industry.' And we know, furthermore, that the right children, in the right places, are the product of a huge and lucrative global sex trade.

For Adorno, the truth is that our civilizations become decadent because the very force of terror that establishes them as dominant, that gives them their highest values, eventually shatters them from the inside. The voices of prophets of decadence, then, though they may sound overbearing, are not to be ignored. They are cast aside by official liberal optimism, but they are simply playing without restraint the full range of the instruments of civilized morality, and revealing that the roots of our civilization lie in terror. In a negative form, they indicate that real hope regarding civilization has always actually rested on the abolition of what we have known up to now as civilization, on bringing an end to the terror that has always lain at its heart.

Part II: The Bell and the Hammer

Exploitation, racist imperialism, sexism indexed to racism, in general, massive inequality: what has really changed with the new credit crisis? Indeed we already hear many progressive voices assuring us, and with good reason, that this new crisis will change nothing. It has already happened many times over in the Global South. It has happened time and again to the enemies of victorious civilizations. At the current conjuncture, it will merely provide one more way for neoliberalism to tighten the economic screws, to plunge them deeper into the material that is constantly threatening to disintegrate.

But at the same time, most, 'progressive' or not, seem to agree that in this new crisis change is real and is certainly on the order of an event. It is not only that the crisis of financial solvency that has emerged and intensified over the last six months has represented a gigantic loss of value from precisely those accountable, specialized, productive private institutions that had defined themselves against the wasteful, the unproductive, those global losers in the race of capitalism. Indeed, the virtuosos of the modern morality of parsimony, at once selfish and selfless in their promotion of selfishness as a universal calculus of productivity, were wrong, at least in the short run. The sense of their failure to foresee the future is what dominates our media and increasingly our public life.

What is new, what is worthy of being called an event in this case is the all-encompassing scale of the process. Quantitative expansion has brought on a qualitative shift. The failure of the morality of parsimony now forms a kind of absurdly close horizon line, a zone of complete darkness, an 'unknown unknown' dominating the near future of the entire world. It is an idée fixe in the sense that, at least for the moment, you can be sure to find indirect reference to it in every newscast and news website, and be confident that it will function as a universal axis point, a trope that will find its way in to any conceivable act of communication that meaningfully concerns the future. It is empirical evidence in favour of the argument that the terror which has inspired or possessed all the prophets of decadence is the inner truth of civilization itself, is the self-fulfilling prophecy by which it lives and decays.

But if the credit crisis is an event, it is because it is new in its scope as a global event both 'objectively' -- as a gigantic and wildly unpredictable economic phenomenon -- and 'subjectively' insofar as it fills out and tests the limits of the externalized nervous system of technological communications and control, which assure that most people hear the latest word in minutes or seconds of the event itself. This 'fearful telemetry' feeds back into the crisis itself.

For all the 'newness' of this crisis, one cannot help but have a sense of déja vu. For what event in recent memory is more like this one, in its unpredictability, in the murky mixture of fascination and terror it generates, than that great return of the event which bookended the scholarship of a man who had previously declared the reign of simulacra, of endless copies, of repetitions without reference to a place or moment of origin? It is possible, taking a posthumous Baudrillardian trip, to imagine 9/11 as an event of twin towers falling in twin, 'déj  vu', temporality [9]. There was a considerable delay between the event of the planes hitting the towers, and their terrifying, fascinating, even suicidal collapse.

The event of the collapse of the twin was itself, then, a double event, a call and echo: planes hitting, then towers falling. But the double temporality goes far beyond this, if we imagine the doubleness of the 'real' event itself, which was endlessly repeated, doubled, as it were, on television and computer screens. The event itself, as many commentators noted, was also itself a double of its virtual prefigurations in countless Hollywood disaster films: 'we had long expected it.' To take the Baudrillardian trip toward its posthumous conclusion, we need only see the entirety of the real-virtual event in September 2001 as itself being one half of a double that includes it. There has been a considerable delay between the event of the planes destroying the twin towers, and the terrifying, fascinating, and seemingly suicidal collapse of institutions ranging from Freddie and Fannie Mac, to Bernie Madoff, to the Lehman Brothers, to the Big Three automakers.

What is most fascinating, terrifying and definitive about the 9/11 event is its quality of twinning and doubling, of echoing, and not in the usual sense of an echo, which quickly dies out after the original sound. Our everyday experience of the echo is a situation of negative feedback, where the original disturbance of aural equilibrium quickly subsides into background noise. The twinning-echo of the collapse of the twin towers has been not negative, but positive feedback, progressively exploding in a direction away from equilibrium. The financial crisis, we might say, is like a reverse echo: rather than being a dying, ever-more-minor repetition of the original, it quickly grows far beyond it in its real scope and scale.

The horrifying and exhilarating nature of this kind of phenomenon has many natural and artificial analogues, but its feeling has perhaps nowhere better been captured than in the apocalyptic vision of C.S. Lewis, in the fourth chapter of his classic fantasy tale The Magician's Nephew, entitled "The Bell and the Hammer" [10]. The two heroes of the novel have traveled to the petrified world of Charn, a world at the end of its allotted time, and have found their way to a great palace filled with what appear to be statues of the lineage of great, but ever-declining kings that governed it. At the end of the line is a small bell, which, true to C. S. Lewis' form, the boy-hero Digory in his pride and stupidity rushes forward to strike with the hammer hanging next to it. It turns out to be a most unusual bell, as it makes absolutely no sound when Digory strikes it. However, at first almost imperceptibly, the bell does begin to sound, but in the reverse of the usual manner of a bell ringing. Instead of dying out, the sound mounts and grows ever louder, until it is so loud that its sound shakes the entirety of Charn into its final ruin.

Of course in The Magician's Nephew the ruin of Charn sets the stage for the creation of the world of Narnia and the great drama of good, evil and salvation it allegorizes. Where our world might fit into the apocalyptic schema of Charn and Narnia, the one ending, the other just beginning, cannot be considered with the depth it deserves in this essay, but nevertheless Lewis' image of the 'reverse-bell-ring' or 'reverse-echo' is sublimely illuminating for the situation that the twinning event of 9/11 has induced. Maybe for all the anger about George W. Bush's bombastic, militaristic presidency, what is most remarkable about 9/11, in retrospect, is how comparatively minor it was, how little change it really produced in the America political climate, how much American culture on all sides simply entrenched and retrenched itself in the belief, the real belief underlying all of the terroristic spin, liberal as much as conservative, that nothing of substance had really happened.

An appreciation of the logic of doubling and twinning as positive feedback indicates the possibility that, far from being the next 9/11, the new crisis might actually constitute the reverse-echo of the event itself. 9/11, or more accurately, the new 'social order' of which it is an emblem, the horrible and fascinating processes of positive feedback it set off, has not gone away, although public discussion -- or to be more precise, invocation -- of 9/11 seems finally to have subsided, or been displaced. What we have witnessed in the events following 9/11 is a road map for social and political life in the first part of the twenty-first century, an endless repetition of that 'original' event, a circulation in which its equivalent has re-occurred at every possible level as a general prevalence of what George Agamben calls the 'state of exception' or 'virtual state of emergency.'

The emergency, the unplanned, violent, emotionally-authentic-because-violent event has become the normal structuring element of public life, though we still lack an adequate language to even acknowledge it consciously in public space. In the permanent virtual state of emergency, no government can really be said to have hegemony in the sense the term had for politics prior to the twenty-first century. Governments' power to manipulate the masses of people, to shape the public space, is now tied exclusively to a larger hegemony of terror. Civilized morality, a morality of self-preservation and self control intended to eliminate every non-productive element from communal existence, has cancelled its own premises. Our work lives are structured as never before, globally, by the demand for a flexible labour force. We must be ready to change our habits, our mode of living and working, indeed our entire way of life, at short notice. And when we say 'we', we, perhaps for the first time in history, mean everyone on the face of the earth.

Our identities, for better or worse, have become subject to the kind of Mobius logic Spike Lee prophesied in his 2000 film Bamboozled [11]. This process is affecting us at every level of the self. What is it to be a man today, for example, if not to throw one's manhood in question? To appear satisfyingly unpredictable, to shatter expectations as radically as reasonably possible, has become the sine qua non of fashion not only for the couturistes and hipsters but for every high school student, every viewer of reality television, every Facebook subscriber. And so we do not even have fashion any more, but a kind of permanent reign of the completed history of fashion, nothing really new in itself, but everything punctuated by a kind of sexual and social violence that is the one and only dominating real event [12].

The very process of flexibilization, diversification, and integration under the rubric of productivity and control has produced a general state of enormous unpredictability and risk, and a huge event of what is mystifyingly called 'value destruction.' This emergence of the permanent state of exception is much larger than the particular events of 9/11. Like any world-historical event it is determined by the totality of what has preceded it, and has had innumerable predecessors at earlier stages of development. In this way, the new credit crisis refers back to the Depression, just as we might say the new American Empire refers back to the Roman one. To paraphrase Adorno, there is no universal history of freedom, but there is an unbroken line of development from the slingshot to the hydrogen bomb. In the same way we might compare 9/11 to the innumerable events of terror and inhumanity that have been practiced by human beings on one another since a very long time ago indeed, if not forever.

And yet the 9/11-credit crisis event was and is, as Baudrillard argued, an event: it marks a new stage of development among a group of comparable phenomena. It marks an explosion of positive feedback processes that mirror the ones we have employed to create massive economic growth on a worldwide scale. It has revealed to us the deep instability of our current way of life, one based on an unsustainable and unbalanced trajectory of growth for which no innovation in 'green technology' can correct. And it points up that our time, perhaps more than the period of the French revolution that has traditionally received the title, is the time of the Terror. Thinkers as different as Adorno and Baudrillard would agree: recognition of the enormous destructive potentials of our positive-feedback system, moving beyond facile optimism that only contributes more of its own kind of 'positive feedback,' can help much in effort of allaying or even abolishing this state of Terror. We have nothing to lose, the radical thinkers of negativity have told us at least since Rousseau, but chains woven of false hope.


[1] Hesiod (trans. Apostolos Athanassakis), Theogony, Works and Days, Shield (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 69.

[2] Sourced from an online text of Livy's History of Rome,

[3] Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson eds., A Guide to Old English (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007), 331.

[4] Oswald Spengler,Decline of the West (London: Allen and Unwin, 1980).

[5] Spengler is quoted in T. W. Adorno, Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1967), 55.

[6] Adorno, Prisms, 54.

[7] T.W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002).

[8] Could it not be argued that David Slade's recent film Hard Candy (Vulcan Productions, 2005) is precisely such a case of wish-fulfillment? The film draws upon both a certain kind of feminine lust for revenge, and (more to the point) masochistic male fantasies about that lust for revenge. The film is no more and no less than a symbolic public castration.

[9] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism and Requiem for the Two Towers (London: Verso, 2002).

[10] C. S. Lewis, The Magician's Nephew (New York: Collier, 1970).

[11] Spike Lee, Bamboozled (New Line Cinema, 2000).

[12] A recent 'version-mashup-homage' of the classic Iggy Pop song, "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is exemplary of the new couture of sexual brutality, which coincidentally also dramatizes a process of imitative positive feedback:

Colin J. Campbell recently completed a PhD in the Graduate Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University. His dissertation focused on the problems of sacrifice, morality and egalitarian politics in the work of Georges Bataille, René Girard and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.