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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

To return to the subject of the fanatic…

What LI finds fascinating is that the role played by the figure of the bigot or the fanatic in the Enlightenment is played, now, by the fascist. The fascist, in one sense, is useful to the degree that he doesn’t exist. In Italy, where there is a real fascist party, or in France, where La Pen plays with the fascist label, the cry of fascist has a different sense than it has in the U.S. The lack of existence, here, opens up a linguistic opportunity – such figures can become pure figures of discourse, filled in by the play of the language. Not that there are no criteria or determinants for creating a “fascist” – myth, in Barthes sense, is never that liberated from the social whole. But the strictures are those that adhere in the composition of a fiction – that is, the fascist can be reconstituted, his elements can be rearranged, new properties can be attributed to him, others can be erased, and so on. It is even possible to create fictions that use him – for instance, the absurd hybrid, Islamofascist, can carry a real weight. This is because nothing like an Islamofascist exists. In a sense, this inaugurates the real work of imperialism – the imperialist only fights those enemies over whom he first asserts the ethnographic primacy that consists in assuming a complete right to the Name. To plant your flag on the other’s name is the essential step in any conquest. The Spanish conquistadors made this a ritual – they would read, in Latin and Spanish, an official document claiming an area before some gathering of uncomprehending natives in order to legalize their theft. An amusing parallel occurrence: Jay Garner, in the first month of the occupation, gathering various American approved Iraqi politicians together and cobbling together some document and then comparing this bogus process to the "Convention of 1787" (see LI post, Tuesday, April 15, 2003).

Amazing how the pattern persists. In Western eyes, renaming officially negates, with all the sad comedy of an obsessive compulsive ritual, the history of the territories the imperialist claims.

Americans are especially good at negating the history of their various enemies, because they have applied the same operation so often and so consistently to their own history. Since our short term memory loss country only retains a few fragments of history at all, we use those fragments to refer, systematically, to other cultures and territories until we think we are talking about them the way they talk about themselves. Read any NYT report from Baghdad over the past two years for a comic instantiation of this national quirk.

On the Left, it is fascinating to see the constellation of authoritarian elements that collect around the Republican party transformed into the figure of the fascist by a conventional rhetorical transformation that leaps from analogy to political ontology.

While we think this kind of verbal aggression is intrinsic to the rules of polemic, we also think that these figures are strategically limited. Which gets us back to the career of the fanatic in the Enlightenment, for the fanatic – unlike the fascist – was a successful invention.

Voltaire was the great inventer of the figures of the Enlightenment polemic. In the fight against the power of the aristocracy and the church, his invention of the fanatic – not that he was alone, but he was the most persistant and creative purveyor of the figure -- did incalculable and wonderful damage to the ancien regime. To see how it gained its force, and how it gradually lost it, is a case study in rhetorical/political strategy.

It is also useful since the fanatic (in the Voltarian sense) is obviously on the rise in Red State America.

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