Sentiment and violence

Just like peace starts where it wasn’t intended, as an effect of technical communication and unity, so too can the source of violence lay on a terrain, where it wasn’t expected, not only as a direct starting point, but also as a remote cause. This justifies a continued vigilance. And this vigil is then more related to the functioning of communication than to maintaining of values or to courageously standing prepared. Courage isn’t vigilance, contrarily it is the stubbornness of looking in just one direction. If you just aim your vigilance at the eventual effect, peace, you already enter a dialogue with violence and prepare for war. Here the paradoxical effect occurs, that only the last lesson of history is learned. An army that is ready is prepared for the war that’s past. Its courage comes too late, as a good intention that is discovered and emphasized immediately after a failure, not to say:invented as a lyrical compensation for a technical defect.

There is another aspect to this emphaticism that could be described as the identity of sentiment and violence. It is an insurmountable annoyance that those who are held responsible for the violence of war aren’t born criminals with typical criminal defects, but people with an almost lyrical ‘sense of duty’, with accuracy, and mostly with sentiment. They were imbedded into a system that was violent merely by its systemic nature, and their sentiment is the way in which the rebellion against violence gets bent in reconciliation and resignation. In this, they don’t differ from their contemporaries, and this circumstance robs us of the chance to disconnect them as scapegoats from the context of our own community and send them into the dessert as alien things. As a figure of speech it is just a coincidence that it wasn’t us in their place. The blame of violence can never be calculated fully and be individualized, and this too belongs to the obnoxious of violence. And of sentiment, we should add to that. For sentiment is one of the forces that obscures the problem of violence, and try to make it into an impenetrable mystery. It is of vital importance that reason, in its annoyance about violence, does not get blocked by a possibly superfluous darkness of sentiment, which would steer it towards a misty and untimely reconciliation, where only long-term rebellion and an effective revolution are commanded. Sentiment blocks the way out from annoyance, makes it evaporate into a reconcilatory mist of resignation instead of giving it the opportunity to walk the ways of technique and revolution. Sentiment is the adversary of technique.

As technique increases, sentiment is being pushed back and made superfluous, and it’s already visible that computers will dispose of a piece of sentiment made superfluous. Sentiment only has the right to exist as that which needs to be clarified and liquidated, as a dark spot that’s busy dissolving itself, as the cathartic effect of an encounter with reality. It is an experience of provisionality and approaching redundancy, homesickness to the manual labour of defenseless thought. In the emphasis on sentiment, there are a false profundity and conservative quasi-wisdom that thwart the progress of the work on a technical assignment. Sentiment puts itself in the service of the constituted by buying off its liquidation. Sentiment is, to put it in an unmasking way, nothing more than a resignation to violence, anesthetized rebellion. It borrows its prestige and temptation from the wisdom of resignation to the passive violence of death and natural disasters. The displacement from here to active violence betrays itself as sentimentality.

Just as courage is the kitsch of pure activity, sentiment is the kitsch of pure passivity. Courage and sentiment are the paradoxal effects of a complete obedience to an authority, to ethically hypostated principles and values, upon which liberty and sobriety prematurely closes, in which the respite prematurely gets caked in by moral kitsch and the constituated violence is being accepted, perhaps doggedly or resigned, but in any case with a misguided and unbusinesslike lyrical compensatory move. The colossal temptation of collective emotions are an indication here. In the emotion we are being handled by the obscurity of the constituted at the cost of the clarity of our annoyance. The emotion itself is the movement of this turbid mixture. It is the conversion to the constituted via a small detour, through which the annoyance gets integrated into the constituted. The cult of sentiment holds back a painful realisation and obstructs an insight into the origins of violence and into the true nature of human cruelty. 

Sentiment is the flip side of violence. Therefore it cannot and will never be disconnected from it. If you cultivate one, you’ll also increase the other, even if you think you can turn against violence this way. War criminals were sentimental at Christmas, to serve violence the rest of the year without shock. Peace becomes a Christmas matter to justify and ensure the existence of wars. Guilt is ritually cranked up to sentiment and localized in a season, in which it can change very little of the normal way of things. It is no coincidence that the cosy winter fest gets celebrated during a time in which it was less opportune for the old Germanics to go to war. The ritual celebration channels the sentiment and puts it as it were in a remote place to make more room for bravery. This is how the equilibrium gets restored every time.

But an equilibrium between opposites is not yet an identity. The connection between sentiment and violence is more intimate than an opposition that will still give both opposites a chance to be insincere. Whoever cultivates the opposition gives sentiment and violence enormous opportunities and enables them to act as separate entities. Sentiment is at its most dangerous within this juxtaposition, that won’t recognise itself as its identity, because it’s precisely there that it seems most pure and innocent. The juxtaposition gets cultivated to hide the identity. But only within this identity does sentiment aim itself against violence, as a feint: it had already been incorporated into it in advance; it is the sultry heat itself with which the integration is forced. This sentimentality, forced back into a remote nook of existence, feeds violence and can make some of us into war criminals, others into hypocrites. Sentiment is violence, relapsed, palsied and postponed, but pure-bred violence. And ritually aroused sentiment is ritual violence. Ritual violence is even more dangerous than individual violence, because it releases the individual from the duty to personally justify for their actions and for the connection between their sentiment and their violence. The individual gets ritually collectivized and inspired to a lyrical form of cruelty. The feast of goodwill becomes a feast of personal powerlessness and impersonal violence. Good intentions get frantically emphasized to give violence a chance to escape. 

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About fury

Where technique is the mediation in the postponement, the ideology of activity wants in its haste to pass by the provisionality of the means. Against this only thought can place its therapy here by admitting its powerlessness and saving the passive life as a reality. For what is at stake here is the denial of passivity. The ideology of activity is the articulation of an anger, more than a wondering or an annoyance. If thought’s wonder or annoyance is still an attempt of man to collect himself from the bewilderment of the situation and has not yet been substantiated into a stance, then the anger is already a step further: it is already a stance, in which the desperation seems to be conquered, and it is already at the point of switching to deeds. The old philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes and Spinoza describe fury or wrath globally as the impulse to really avenge the evil that is done to us, so approximately as violence against violence. To accommodate nonviolence they then design a technique of self-control, a postponing of a furious outburst. By postponing the energy of the fury is as it were divided into smaller quantities and invested into smaller projects. That way fury even becomes a useful, technically exploited inspiration, roughly in the same way in which modern technology has tamed the explosion. But this school presupposes that the fury stays within the competences of self-control: it denies at least partially its pathetic character or presupposes a philosophical culture, in which it can be made fruitful. Whoever interprets it too hastily in a modern way, could think that it is already based on the ideology of activity, that that school itself is fury already.

For what is attempted in fury is not so much to avenge the sorrow another has done to us, as much as to deny suffering in general, the reality of passivity. Fury is misunderstood sorrow, suppressed powerlessness, unresolved insight in one’s own impotence and rebellion against it. It is an indication that activity has failed, and a rejection of that indication. As a pathos the fury is that which happens to us during activity, a piece of passivity that we pushed back to maintain the illusion of the pure, efficient deed without paradoxical effects.In the fury the energy of a stuck rectilinearity gets kinked in a pathetic twist. The ‘other’ casts its dark shadow over the mind that will not acknowledge it and closes off to its opacity. Fury is the effect of a hero’s courage without melancholy, the revenge of reality to the arbitrariness of thought. And thought can more or less grasp that arbitrariness, because it can reflect upon itself as a source of its own non-identity. It cannoty grasp a constituted fury that is experienced as blind inspiration to action. Fury lies within the reach of thought insofar it remains the immanent impulse to action of powerless thought itself. So if it inspires at all, it sooner inspires a self-critique of thought rather than an irresponsible and in effect merely explosive deed. As a deed fury is the pure violence, namely an activity that wants to ignore all blows from the side of the obstacle. Pure activity is violence: its end term is total destruction. That is also the immediate stake of every big fury. Thus fury inspires a leap over appropriated technical means or ‘the way to go’ and designs its own technique of destruction, in which things are always destroyed more and differently than can be calculated or justified, the anti-technique with the greatest possible surplus of effect and with total destruction as an insane contra-effect. As a panicked impulse for activity without passivity fury places itself outside of reality. That determines its pathological and ‘unusual’ character. Violence is not a form of ethically responsible human behavior, but an abrupt fall into pathetic self-destruction. There are no rules for this anti-behavior and there are no bounds to it. There are no innocent or excusable forms of active violence. The only and most drastic excuse is that it happens, and that is not an ethical criterion. As soon as and in the manner in which there is talk of ethically responsible actions, violence is excluded from it. There can never be talk of ethically responsible violence: violence is a pure, innocent and not free happening or it is an ethically wrong deed. It can never be justified. What is at stake with every form of violence, from the slap to the hydrogen bomb, is total destruction. 

When the dialogue between the one and the other with the same, that is to say normal, behavior, is interrupted, the continuity of behavior and reality, the technical character of behavior, is broken and given up. What remains then is a mere persevering to the bitter end, the bad form of rectilinear and mad consequence, in which reality is ignored.

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On dilemmas

20 years ago, Cornelis Verhoeven died after a short illness. At his wish, he was cremated without a religious ceremony, but he grew up Catholic, and attended the seminary in his youth. One of his first books, ‘Surrounding the void’, was about religion, and as it was quite a popular book, the topic of religion kept popping up in interviews throughout his life, even though he didn’t write much more about it. But in this fragment from a Dutch TV show from 1985, they inadvertently touch upon something quite central to his work: reality cannot be thought up. When they pose that the question whether or not you are catholic provides some clarity, Verhoeven retorts sharply about the merit of such clarity, and the nature of dilemmas.

Another fragment about religion from the same program can be found here:

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The copier is copying

I don’t know exactly what made me laugh so much with that sentence, and why it remained funny in my eyes even after many repetitions, but during the time I was copying my father’s early essays, every time I clicked the the copy button, the phrase “the copier is copying” appeared in the screen of that copier, and it tickled me. Perhaps it was the reverse of what Bergson called humor, namely sticking something mechanical on something natural, for here was something mechanical that tried to be natural, attributing to itself a consciousness that, strictly speaking, it could not claim. It is a pretty clever device, nothing against it, and it can also scan and enlarge and so on, and if something went wrong, for example with the paper supply, it also mentioned that diligently, but that sentence ‘the copier is copying’ implied that it was doing it out of its own volition, because it felt like it. I have often stood there hoping that something along the lines of “The copier is on the phone with its mother” or “the copier is getting ready for a walk and will consider your request after lunch ”, But the copier just kept copying and reporting it. “The copier is making coffee” would have been handy from time to time, because it was quite a chore, but many thousands of times the copier only said what it was doing, which was copying.

Having a machine talking about itself in the third person was probably part of what I thought was so funny about the whole thing. In the first place that a machine was referring to itself, but then you could also imagine, for example, that there was a meeting about it in Japan: what should the machine show in the display? Should it be “I copy”, or “I’m copying”, or “copying”, “copy being made”? And during that meeting, the first in a series, it is then decided to keep it impersonal and therefore never to use the first person singular. Subsequent meetings will discuss the essence of what the machine does, what actually happens, and six months later it is concluded that the copier is copying. And that that will be shown in the screen.

After a while I also started to find the sentence funny because it seemed, if that copier knew it was copying, it also knew what it was copying; actually i was waiting for comment from the device. Every now and then an offhand remark such as “the copier copies a beautiful handwriting”, or even a step deeper, “the copier copies an impressive piece about the symbolism of verticality”, or “The copier does not understand how the author could come up with something this smart!”. Excited by the repeated notification from the device, I entered into an imaginary dialogue with it, because I also found the dry repetition funny. There was such a contradiction between the work the machine did and the work it copied, the difference between originality and copy, creating and repeating, that I would not have been surprised if the genie had gotten into the machine and the machine at a time had gained self-awareness in a moment of ‘deus in machina’ and made a statement like “The copier is now going to write an essay itself.” Okay, that might have surprised me, but the fact I had that thought did not surprise me, because copying is boring work and although the copier copies, people have to feed it things to copy and the mind wanders doing that.

I wasn’t just thinking about what a copier would write while the copier was copying and the clock was clocking. I actually thought mainly about the work I was doing, not so much the work that I did, but the work I had in my hands, the early work of my father. The work that was not work, but was born of passion, of lust to write. The enormous amount of papers full of writing, which at first made me dread this enormous project, like scaling something insurmountable, now spurred me on, because it became so clear that they came from someone who was so enthusiastic about them, who was writing every time he had the chance, who felt the urge to put it all on paper, without ulterior motives, with no intention of publishing it, without anyone asking him to, and despite the fact that he was busy studying and working. My father was at his happiest, I think, when he was allowed to write, and every single piece of paper that passed through my hands was evidence of his happiness. With thoughts like that, the work I did became very easy, and the copier copied.

Every now and then the copier made duplicate copies, without mentioning “the copier is copying again”, because I not only wanted a copy in the archive, but also wanted to take it home to read in the evening. It was the treasure I discovered, the five folders containing some 200 unpublished essays, and I wanted to reward myself with possibly being the first to read them. Some of them I didn’t quite understand, some of them felt like dad hadn’t found his way yet, a bit uneven but exciting, and some I recognised like seeing my own hands, or that smell when you walk into the door of your parent’s house. “There you are”, i’d think, and smile. It’s funny to recognise things you haven’t seen before.

Although – I’d really been seeing them all my life. They stood in black binders in between my father’s desks. My father had two desks: one enormous roller desk that we called his ‘pen’ desk, where he’d read, make notes, and wrote with a fountain pen, and his ‘type’ desk, a simple table against a wall, where his type-writer and later his computer stood. In his study there was also his work library, his archive, his copier (without a LCD screen) and lots of lose books, on the pen desk, on the stairs, everywhere. But not his own books – he had copies of those in a closet in his bedroom, but nowhere else in the house.

Those binders always intrigued me. I glanced in them as a child, and i’d see those thin papers in A5 format, full of a neat handwriting that looked like dad’s, only a bit bigger and rounder, and in blue rather than black. Somewhere in 1954 it transitioned to typed pages, with almost no margin. Dad was a poor student in those days, with a side job teaching Latin and Greek at a high school to support him finishing his degree in Classics and to be as less of a financial burden on his dad as he could be. He used to tell stories that he’d often eat bread with coconut slices to save money, and I suspect that the narrow margins were another way to keep costs down. 

Dad writes in his memoirs ‘The shine of old iron’ that he had handed in three thesis to eventually get promoted on. His promotor Karel Leopold Bellon picked from those ‘Symbolism of the foot’, with which he became a doctor in 1956. Its manuscript, together with many of dad’s originals, are now in the museum of literature. So too those binders. In the end he amassed five binders full of work, with 250 essays. 42 of those we found in his archive later, meaning he used them later in publications or as part of a book. He writes: “One of those binders contained notes about the word Substantia, which I suspected wasn’t so much a learned philosophical term and a slavish translation of the Greek hupostasis, as an important bearer of vertical symbolism or a metaphor for presence.” These notes were later included in his book ‘Past the beginning, part 2’ from 1985 – about 30 years later.

The 208 remaining essays have not been used or published before – though everyone who reads them will recognise themes that occupied dad his whole life. The run-up to the jump he never made into his own metaphysics can be read in some of the essays, but some of them also deal with frivolities like eating beets, or a dream he had. As a child, I couldn’t comprehend one thing about the essays in those binders – I was more fascinated by their quantity – and as a grown-up I can’t really place the more scientific essays for their philosophical merit; luckily i’ve inherited some clever acquaintances. But the spot they occupied in our house between desks, in a place where none of dad’s other work stood, told me enough about their personal meaning to dad. The essays themselves are also between pen and type-writer, from an incredibly fruitful period before he became officially erudite and a doctor, in between farm and classroom. “Never again have I had the opportunity to work for three months without pause on something”, he writes, and what a joy that period must have been for him. Five black binders, the only evidence of his own work that remained in his study.

And now some of them are about to get copied again. After a long time being just copies and only read by a few, they actually get published, printed by big machines that might say ‘the printer is printing’. Three dedicated readers went through them all and picked the ones they deemed most suitable for being copied again. After enough expressions of interest by readers, the publisher will publish, and the reader will read. While the copier was copying, I was already hoping this book would get booked. Now that it is time, I hope that the work still works. 

*normally I only publish work by my father that I’ve translated here, but I was asked to write an introduction to his new book of early essays, and figured it might be of interest how this book came to be. The previous post ‘To own books’ is an essay from that book; you can order it (in Dutch) here:

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To own books

June 27th, 1956

Collecting books poses several different problems. Those are not just of a technical and economical nature, but specifically of a personal nature. For it can happen at a certain moment that one starts to wonder whether it is strictly necessary to own all those books. As it is quite easy to borrow most books from a library. And how rare are the books that we read twice or more! One could say this of novels especially. It appears that it is not necessary to own a collection of books, when we only want to read the books, or of books that we only read. Once one specializes in a certain science, things change: it is then necessary to at any moment have to one’s disposal certain standard works in the field of that science. Collecting standard and reference books then brings few personal problems with it. 

But it is not the case that a lover of books collects only those books they need for their studies. Their biggest love is probably not even for these books. For them it is not enough to be able to read books. To enjoy reading books doesn’t make a person a lover of books. Owning books is of a different order from reading books. There is a love for books that can only be satisfied by owning the book. One doesn’t merely want to see and admire what one loves, but to bring it under one’s control, to own it. This ownership, after all, creates a relationship between the two that is much more intimate than reading or admiring alone. A book that we own means endless more than one that we merely read, even if we never look in it again. There once was someone who had bought Hegel’s ‘Phaenomenologie des Geistes’ and had tried to read the work. He didn’t quite succeed at that, but for weeks he kept it on his desk and looked at it. It inspired him, and even taught him how to think hegelian. Still, that wasn’t a cheap buying off of the enormous mental efforts required for the reading material. It sometimes seems that way, and has the appearance that some people only buy books to get out of the duty of reading them. They put it on the shelf with the firm intention that one day they will read the book. Buying books is one of the ways of postponing reading them for an indeterminate time. But it is also one of the ways, that allows people to start reading it over and over. 

Merely by its presence within the domain marked by ownership, the book invites us to read; standing on the shelf it appeals to its owner, and this appeal is of an entirely different order than when it’s standing in a bookstore. 

There was also someone who had started a small collection of parchment books, to keep alive what he called his antiquarian passion. He just had to look at them to breathe life into that passion, for they continuously appealed to it. It wasn’t necessary to read those books, it sufficed that they were there and that they belonged to him. Thus they maintained his urge to snoop.

For someone who holds books dear, a possessive trait is endemic. It’s not without reason that ‘to hold dear’ implies holding. Without holding the dear becomes unrealistic and a bit floaty. A beautiful book that one doesn’t own, is not nearly as beautiful as one that’s nearby and can be taken off the shelf at any moment. 

Someone else bought a book of pictures of all kinds of people. He looked at the book for barely fifteen minutes, but the book solidified his love for humanity immensely, and that wouldn’t have been the case if he hadn’t owned it himself. For then there wouldn’t have been a chance that he would study all those photos individually one day.

It is not the case that the joy of owning a book would be a sophistic justification of of buying it, or a way of making it profitable through one means or another. Then it would no longer be a true pleasure, but some kind of bourgeois hypocrisy that is alien to a true lover of books. We have to assume that owning a book creates a special intellectual connection to it that is of great significance. Owning books is a bit similar to writing books. Collecting them is composing a world that is a direct extension of the person’s world. The ownership of books spreads, as it were, the subjectivity of the owner to something objective, makes it take root in an objective world and therefore lends to its subjectivity a more objective meaning. In essence that might be the actual meaning of all possession. 

The question whether we want to own many or few books is of a personal meaning. Some think that it is useless to own many books, not just because we don’t read most of them never again, but also because there are always a few books in an extensive row, that we are no longer attached to and therefore no longer authentically own. They have drifted outside of the interest of the owner, possibly also because they bought them in a time when their interests hadn’t solidified yet, or as an impulse buy. Every lover of books will probably sometimes be overcome by the thought that it is actually useless to have this many books. That could cause, as it were, a sort of depersonalisation in regard to the extension of one’s own personality that book ownership is. A part of it comes lose from the totality and subjectivity loses its grip on it. It becomes something impersonal that we regard as alien, that we almost feel embarrassed about. Owning books can also be viewed as an expression of the subjectivity of the owner, as much as their face or their handwriting. 

Now if the row of books discloses a characteristic of the owner which they don’t recognise as themselves, then it creates a sense of alienation from it, which turns into shame when examining eyes are pointed at it. There is something unripe, unharmonious about the row of books then. In any case this makes evident that the collection of books has a very personal meaning.

We could decide, because of these possibilities of alienation, that it is better to own very few books rather than very many. Few books are after all easier to keep together is a possessive orbit. No danger of alienation arises. These few books are then the really good ones, which we constantly read.

Perhaps there are people who settle for a few books and take great pleasure from them. But still, those aren’t the true book lovers. A book lover really wants to own many books. They try to avoid the danger of alienation by maintaining their book possessions and by removing what no longer interests them, what has been depersonalised. For them it isn’t the one book that is of great meaning, but the collection as a totality. Their ideal is a library that is at the same time as big and as alive as possible. But the alien too sometimes has its place in the totality. The row of books becomes a world that the lover peruses and snoops through; also the things that they might have grown out of can still have a place there. The library still offers them opportunities for discoveries; it is an inexhaustible well of material, of stimuli for their thought. Of course it’s not necessary for thorough thought to have many books available, and it is possible that possessing many books can almost paralyse the mind, just like it has the appearance that the smallest minds have the greatest libraries. But on the other hand, it seems that just thinking with one’s bare head alone just leads to infertile grounds in the end. In the material itself, in the historical facts, lay intellectual meanings that thought can’t do without very well. That’s why a library of standard works might just be the real core of a true row of books. 

(This a translation of one of Cornelis Verhoeven’s early essays, previously unpublished. A collection of some of these essays, including this one, has now been published in Dutch and can be found here: )

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Collective violence

The serfdom of the brave servant to the king and the phraseology of courage based on it, also of the so called personal courage, can be seen as a form of alienation. Courage is the replacement of the irreplaceable freedom, its visibility is a minimum of concreteness. With the power of the king the phrase forms a societal system, in which its demands gain a visible form. They manipulate reality to their wishes: their power is the governmental power that robs its subjugates from their liberty. 

The liquidation of this power does not end the phrase on which it is based, nor does it end violence. For also the new power stems from the ideology of activity and of courage, it gives violence a different structure, but it does not dissolve it. The more violence becomes the responsibility of the whole community, the more problematic it becomes, and the more difficult to distinguish the act of violence from the occurrence of violence. The functioning of a collective responsibility demands such complicated technical and juristic provisions, that during its development a failure seems more likely than a success. And then, when on top of that, the human ethos remains behind by the technical possibilities, the situation of violence gets some truly annoying aspects. Not in the name of a monarch, but in the name of the people have the biggest actions of violence been executed. This collective blindness is as it were a delayed effect of a feudal ethos. Individual impulses are being quadrated to grotesque proportions in that collectivism, and forcefully pushed into realizations. 

Here too the glorification of the deed and of active courage makes it mark. Fury, threat and deed are in the collectivity more expressible than undergoing and suffering, and they get more appreciation and validation there. The deed rushes past wisdom, and rouses by its infectiousness the squaring of its effects. Violence finds more ears willing to listen than patience will, especially in a culture that has always glorified big, spectacular acts of heroism. It is almost a physical law, that in such a culture no real possibility remains unrealized. The weapon calls forward the violence, the iron pulls the man, says Homer. A threat, once expressed, almost by law solidifies into a reality. Collectivity is the place where possibilities as such cannot be contemplated and taken into consideration, but where realization is the only attitude towards realizable possibilities. Without hesitation, skepticism or distance a rumor becomes a message, an impulse an activity, a threat violence. 

My individual impulses, in as far as they can be mentioned and are not in their origin a shadow of collective activity, compare to the collective realization in the same way as my footprints in the sand, the trace of my movement, compares to a highway through Europe, or like my sadness to national grief. The second isn’t just bigger than the first, it is qualitatively different. There is no continuity between one and the other. When left to coincidence, collective activity has a frightening harshness and irrevocability. The community is the place where the project is executed and gets its hard reality. That is the blessing of mechanical technique, in which an activity gets rationalized, but violence is the curse of the collective impulses, which have not yet gone through these technical and rational process. Without the liquidation of the type of courage that so immediately equates aggression and activity, that the tool is a weapon and energy is a means of destruction, collective aggression can not be completely averted. It is after all in our culture no longer acceptable to sacrifice a piece of technique in order to make a piece of violence impossible. We are centuries too late for every ‘return to nature’. Technical possibilities must be realized and it is one of the assignments of technique to make violence, as a form of anti-technique, superfluous, to find the tool that can not be a weapon, and to not be inspired by the impulse of aggression, no matter how ‘natural’ it seems.

In a reasonable and technical society the individual aggression should not be able to pass on its impulses to technical collective provisions, so that from those provisions a perpetual lesson in tolerance would egress, like the face of reason, an anonymous authority that can not fall back on feudal relations. It has distanced itself from those in a technical way, that is to say in a realistic and not emotionally manipulable way. That this reasonability is not in the least a vague illusion or an unrealizable dream, can be seen in the way modern traffic is controlled. If you adhere to the laws of traffic, you don’t obey anyone, you are not a hero and you don’t have to demonstrate courage; your aggression only meets itself, and does not get the chance to realize an ideology. It becomes a completely powerless impulse, for which there is no room in the system. The sheer technical regulation prevents chaos and violence; the reasonability is calculated without taking into account the abundance of aggressive impulses. Within the system there can not be a decision for violence: it is rejected plainly as primitive. One of the reasons why this is more or less successful, is probably that traffic was from the get go a technical matter and that the violence present within it could not be justified by a false ethos. If traffic were to still rely on feudal terms like pride, courage and cult of self, it would have been cause for battles. But modern Oedipus no longer gets the chance to kill his father at the fork in the road, because he wouldn’t give him the right of way. The worst he can do is curse him, but this ritual shadow of violence, too, is about to pale away. 

Because of the technical design a large piece of violence is doomed to shrivel away. The ethos of sobriety takes the place of the ethos of violence, which has become superfluous. The authority remain anonymously within it, and functions without any appeal to feudal relationships. The obedience that people subject themselves to it has the earned and responsible matter of factness that people also apply to rules in a game, and because of that it doesn’t get the opportunity to get as dense as the ethical sultriness that characterizes feudal obedience and authority. When we’re risking violence, authority must be anonymous and technical, and not speculate on prestige, subservience or being raised right. The traffic situation can be called exemplary for a technique of nonviolence. After all: everything that is not exclusively in the propriety of freedom, can be called traffic. Therefore everything in principle can be taken care of technically. And that is to be preferred above such uncertain and adventurous things as courage and nobility. Those can be relegated mostly from here to the sector of sports and free time, where war too belonged when it was still a feudal way of passing time. In opposition to traffic, sport is not a way to reach a goal by the most archaic means. It cultivates running while there are motorways, but it is no longer its intention to get somewhere quickly this way. 

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Professionalisation of violence

War and soldiery are apparently so interwoven with humanity’s history, that they seem to form an inevitable part of human fate and of human culture. And we accept a fate as a given of nature against which we stand powerlessly. Thinking about that fate is realistic when its starting point is the acceptance of its inevitability. If floods are inevitable, it is realistic to construct dykes and to diligently practice and perfect the art required for that. If disease is inevitable, then our culture has to take the utmost care in practising medicine. It therefore seems realistic to have this attitude towards everything that is undesirable, yet has to be accepted, even when it is out of sheer impotence.

Another step further and we start calling disasters and wars not only inevitable, but indispensable. War can then be called a culture making, order creating factor in our history, an indispensable stimulus of progression, and even, like Heraclitus said, “the father of everything”. A reflection on war and military can then hardly come from some wonder about the fact that they exist, the ‘that’ of it, for it is absurd to be astounded by what is inevitable and indispensable. That reflection has to instantly be about the ‘how’.

The question of the professionalisation of the army in the shape of a professional militia is a part of that reflection. It concentrates itself to a choice between two possibilities that have both in principle been accepted as soon as war passes for inevitable and military as indispensable. It is then a question too of an internal military nature, way past all wonder about the occurrence of war.

As an outsider and a thinker, I have great difficulties with that question and that form of reflection. War is, I think, not an eternally given natural fate, but it is human history and habit, it is changeable culture. It is not inevitable like diseases and floods. Wars are unleashed voluntarily and with some enthusiasm, called fighting spirit in this case, and are prepared thoroughly. A well defined result is expected of them. As destructive violence, war is in the mean time the great and insurmountable annoyance of reasonable thought as represented by reflection: it is what’s there, but what just as well should not be there.

Viewed from that point, a contribution to the question posed about the professional army must be very naïve, because it seems to be drawn by a private resistance against a cultural phenomenon that might be deplorable, but is universally accepted. That resistance is powerless and doesn’t have the slightest chance, but in its least excited and at the same time most radical shape, as wonder about the ‘that’ of violence and war, it seems to me indispensable in a reasonable reflection about any question connected to war and defence. To put it differently, while maintaining this elemental naivety: an ethical reflection on even just the details of military matters starts with distancing oneself from the military point of view, and doesn’t see the problem from a perspective of a victory, but from the perspective of peace, and assumes that all people strive for peace.

I could therefore make short work of the matter of a professional army. When we don’t let ourselves lose sight of the question by the multitude of tasks that the military often fulfil as a matter of fact, like patching dykes and distributing food and other social and economic functions, but we consider the army in a more strict sense, as an extension of those in power, a machine to wage war and subjugate people, then a professionalisation of this machine means all sorts of things, but also these two: in the first place a definitive acceptance, permanent recognition, and a contribution to the matter of factness of violence; and in the second place also a perfecting of violence.

Ad 1. The violence that is so solidly being counted on, is usually thought to come from the other party. Professionalisation of the army, as the utmost consequence of its institutionalisation, considers it a matter of fact that there is another, hostile, party. In fact it is indispensable. Such a professionalisation eternalises in this way the present tensions and creates enemies. And that process is reciprocal, with the consequence that it becomes self-sustaining. A comparison with the professional fight against crime only holds up from the moment that the other party has been eternalised and identified as the enemy, so that every form of mutual consultation is impossible and a betrayal to their own tactics. From that moment on peace is no longer a common interest that can be debated.

Ad 2. The objectionability of violence increases alongside its perfecting. For the more perfect violence becomes, the more victims it makes. If you denounce violence, you shouldn’t have to perfect it. If, on top of that, the major ethical problem of violence consists in a large part in this, that violence is seen as a means, wrongly, even as the ultimate means, then professionalisation does not solve that at all. At most the fact that violence can be perfected indicates that there are other, true means available, and that those too can be perfected. The will-less acceptance and professionalisation of violence only fits into a system that has resigned in or counts on crime – robbers have mercenary armies – but not in a society that rejects crime and violence and is geared toward peace. If you want peace, you prepare for peace; if you prepare for war, you want war.

The naïvety of this point of view will also be quite clear without further explanation. In the mean time it exists not to make ethical demands of crime, or to prescribe criminals to operate clumsily so that the police has a fair shot, but it exists in the obstinacy of the expectation that the emancipation from violence will not be seduced to employ violence as a method, also not under the illusion of it being temporary. The vicious circle of violence can only be broken when the defence against violence works principally  by improvising. This means that it is a civil and not a military matter.


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Feudal courage

Courage individualizes for a moment the existence of the courageous one and gives it a sportive ferocity. That experience of self is cultivated by the military and phraseological decorations of courage, even if this leads to an elimination of, or even: destruction of the courageous one himself. The experience of self is at its fiercest and most concentrated when it balances at the edge of self-destruction. Courage is the narcissistic culture of the ego in consultation with violence. It uses violence to cultivate the ego and this way maintains it. It serves a hypnotized and enthroned violence. So it’s not so much the king who needs to be courageous, but the vassal, the servant.The degree of courage is the degree of willingness to serve the king and to perish for him. In that courage, the individuality sacrificed to the king is restored again. Feudal courage reinforces the already alienated ‘self’ by putting it on the line. The ‘something’ that the servant still is in the shadow of the mighty master can only be saved by the willingness to give it up and by letting it contrast against the steep abyss of the nothing, in which that willingness might plunge him. The cult of bravery is the lust with which the servant resigns himself to his exploitation, the enthusiasm over the calculable ‘something’ that he’ll be left. This makes the cult the keystone that gives the system an impenetrable solidity, on which even the quasi-violence of the annoyed, debunking thought ricochets. Courage gets chained to its phraseological identity, and violence is only denied sole rulership over the world insofar it has to tolerate another violence besides and across from it. For without an enemy courage can not thrive, and therefore one must be found again and again. This is how feudal courage gets the reach and the depth of courage plain, and how the willingness of the servant to blindly die for his master is awarded with the character of a virtue.

Just like in poor communities or in poor periods frugality begets an absolute, ethical character, and by the need of circumstances sees itself evolve from a temporary adjustment to an eternal virtue, so here courage is substantiated, totalized, idealized and decorated with all the attributes that a generous ruler can dispense with. The courageous one shines amongst the servants of the king and is allowed to sit close to him at the table. Courage is nobility and nobility obliges. In the feudal hierarchy, courage therefore is the characteristic of the higher positions, those who stand closest to the king, a gauge of nobility. In its entire history the epos has been marked by this praise of courage. And as a distinctive characteristic it ought to be visible, not only in the colour of the mantle or in the signs on the shield of armour, but even into the physiognomy itself. The lower classes betray themselves by their fearfulness, as the courtier Virgil already knew.[8] Feudal society demands that the difference in classes also means difference in quality, it demands visibility of those differences and it demands at the same time that those differences are so profound and real, that they are, as it were till a ways below the skin, up to the blue blood, visible or suspect to a good, noble observer. ‘Forsooth, low fold would not produce such sons’, is then what king Menelaos says to the him as yet unknown king’s son Telemachus and his noble friend, and that word ‘kakos’ which is represented as ‘low’ here, can also be translated as ‘cowardly’. [9] Until deep into the 19th century – and perhaps still – there is a physiognomic that is inspired by the feudal preconception that the face, the posture and the amount of courage displayed ‘betray’ lineage. Or perhaps we should say that it isn’t a preconception that inspired the physiognomic, but that indeed the preconception was so powerful, that it had physical and physiognomic consequences. The phraseology of male courage, the rejection of all passivity, doesn’t just demand that the coward is of lower origin; it also builds with its own logical consequences social structures, in which this demand is met. It isn’t just the humble subjugation that has held back societal evolution towards freedom; in perhaps an even stronger degree it has been a mystique of robustness and bravery that through a paradoxical, but therefore no less intended and calculated counter effect, maintains violence and lack of freedom. It is then also curious that the social revolution rejects subjugation and resignation as resolutely as it glorifies bravery. It is only half completed, as long as the feudal courage and all of the phraseological network, in which it got caught, is not liquidated and succumbed to its own impotence.

(From ‘Against violence’, this is chapter 2 of part 3)

sitting next to damocles

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Oppositions (from ‘Against Violence’)

Violence, being overwhelmed, is what inspires thought. Thought is a product of powerlessness. It has to abolish and liquidate itself to get to its inspiration or stay near it. As it gets more self-powered and technically successful, it is more in danger to lose touch with reality and alienate from it. The violence of thought is then placed opposite the violence of reality and with that a beginning is made for a bad and endless dialectic, in which two forms of violence feed on each other.

It is one of the tasks of thought to liquidate violence in thought. It cannot be calculated, how much of the violence in the world is accountable to violent thought, and the possibility to trace this violence and to unmask it creates space for the expectation that thought could contribute to the liquidation of violence. It may not be philosophy itself in whose name violence is being practiced, but there still are some structures to be discovered with the morphology of violence that show kinship with self-powered constructive thought and are inspired by it. Especially in the name of ideology, a degenerated philosophy, violent acts are committed everywhere in the world, attacks on the lives of other people who hold different ideologies. A war that’s being held to protect these so-called ‘higher values’ is anyway a consequence of a philosophy that places these values so highly and holds the opposite values in such low esteem. Both values get identified definitively with themselves in this and are brought into an irreconcilable opposition to each other. War then continues the dialectic of the paralyzed thought and takes the place of thought. It derives its violence from an opposition constructed by thought, which it dramatizes in a populist way. The surprising effect of the other, violence of the reality itself, to which thought does not want to succumb, asserts itself in a tragic conflict. Thought that focusses on a culture of opposition by hypostatizing the dialectic poles of what might be the same thing, can give rise to some dangerous dogma formation and with it to conflicts.

This opposition is a construction of a hasty and self-powered thought, that for the sake of a system ordains over the identity of things without discourse with reality and without tolerating any respite in it. The violence of the act is a continuation of a violence of thought which is blind to reality and from that connection makes the leap to action.

cornelis verhoeven 1965

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What can be found about the etymology of the word ‘heaven’ all points in the direction of a great, all-encompassing space outside and above us. It begins where we are not, and nobody knows where it ends. The place where we are we call, very broadly speaking, earth. That planet in space is the ground on which we stand, build and live. From the start it must have meant that heaven is the space that is out of our reach, where we cannot live, of which we cannot know the possible inhabitants, and which is so far away from us that we must deduct its name from that distance. In the word itself all proximity blows away, past the horizon, and it is drawn away from our imagination. With every waivering of the horizon and every step further into space we have to either erase or adjust our previous preconceptions. Heaven becomes the universe and the universe expands at the same pace with which we have to recall or correct our preconceptions. Every preconception is temporary and becomes more and more incomprehensible. Heaven stands for what we cannot comprehend.

The curious thing in the use of the word ‘heaven’ in the meantime is that, next to this meaning of pointing ever further away, it also traditionally has been used to indicate a place where other beings live in bliss, withdrawn for eternity from earth’s misery, and where we reserve a place for ourselves and those dear to us, in another existence in a far future. For in this aspect our language is quite consistent: when it concerns ‘heaven’ it is always about what is not here and now, but far away in space and time, intangible for what we are and can do here and now. The negation of earthly living determines in the end the meaning that we attach to what we expect from what comes after or outside of this. It is therefore also impossible to fill in that meaning, even if it’s only for the time being. Which makes it all the more wondrous that this happens time and again in all sorts of religious traditions, and that in secular salvation sects they speak quite casually of a ‘new earth’ on which people wouldn’t be less blissful than they’d be in the old heaven. Such a drastic filling in of a concept so purposefully kept vague must lead to critical questions about the pretensions of such conceptions at some point.

At closer inspection that vague and negative name must have been made to exclude any filling in a priori, and to prevent that dogmas arise on a terrain on which not a single certainty is possible and where more likely a vague mystical desire is at play. For dogmas are usually ways of withdrawing formulated answers from criticism and even from any further thinking. Therefore in dogmas we can formulate things that do not tolerate further investigation, just like in myths and opposite to mysticism, which leaves everything open. The danger of such a critical investigation is that in this case, ‘not here’ is polemically replaced with a ‘nowhere’. In that case the dogma can contribute, through its all too concrete filling in, to the premature ending of any perspective, no matter how far removed, in the name of reason, in its more dry and bureaucratic shape, and that as a matter of speech heaven, which represents openness itself, gets hammered shut artificially. It’s hard to think of anything more stupid, but the strange thing is that this is the usual state of affairs, soon as it concerns the ‘higher’ matters.

starry-DaanVerhoeven00308 copy

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