Horrorism: Naming Contemporary Violence

Translated by William McCuaig
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 168
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Words like "terrorism" and "war" no longer encompass the scope of contemporary violence. With this explosive book, Adriana Cavarero, one of the world's most provocative feminist theorists and political philosophers, effectively renders such terms obsolete. She introduces a new word-"horrorism"-to capture the experience of violence.

    Unlike terror, horrorism is a form of violation grounded in the offense of disfiguration and massacre. Numerous outbursts of violence fall within Cavarero's category of horrorism, especially when the phenomenology of violence is considered from the perspective of the victim rather than that of the warrior. Cavarero locates horrorism in the philosophical, political, literary, and artistic representations of defenseless and vulnerable victims. She considers both terror and horror on the battlefields of the Iliad, in the decapitation of Medusa, and in the murder of Medea's children. In the modern arena, she forges a link between horror, extermination, and massacre, especially the Nazi death camps, and revisits the work of Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt's thesis on totalitarianism, and Arendt's debate with Georges Bataille on the estheticization of violence and cruelty.

    In applying the horroristic paradigm to the current phenomena of suicide bombers, torturers, and hypertechnological warfare, Cavarero integrates Susan Sontag's views on photography and the eroticization of horror, as well as ideas on violence and the state advanced by Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. Through her searing analysis, Caverero proves that violence against the helpless claims a specific vocabulary, one that has been known for millennia, and not just to the Western tradition. Where common language fails to form a picture of atrocity, horrorism paints a brilliant portrait of its vivid reality.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51917-5
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Translator’s Note
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  5. Introduction Scenes of a Massacre
    (pp. 1-3)

    Baghdad, 12 July 2005. A suicide driver blows up his automobile in the middle of a crowd, killing twenty-six Iraqi citizens and an American soldier. Among the victims of the carnage—dismembered corpses, limbs oozing blood, hands blown off—the greatest number were children to whom the Americans were handing out candy. Did the perpetrators want to punish them for servility toward the occupying troops? Did they think that violence makes a stronger impression when there are no qualms about massacring children?

    Mass murderers of this kind give themselves glorious names: “martyr” and “combatant.” In the West, they tend instead...

  6. 1 Etymologies: “Terror”; or, On Surviving
    (pp. 4-6)

    The etymology of the word “terror” and the corresponding forms in many modern languages goes back to the Latin verbs “terreo” and “tremo.” Characterized by the root “*ter,” indicating the act of trembling, these words in turn derive from the Greek verbs “tremo” or “treo,” which, according to Chantraine, refer “to fear not as a psychological dimension but as a physical state.”¹ So, going by the etymology, the realm of terror is characterized by the physical experience of fear as manifested in a trembling body. Significantly, this physical perception of fear, or, if you like, this physical reaction to fear,...

  7. 2 Etymologies: “Horror”; or, On Dismembering
    (pp. 7-9)

    Although it is often paired with terror, horror actually displays quite opposite characteristics. Etymologically it derives from the Latin verb “horreo,” which, like the Greek “phrisso,” alludes to a bristling sensation (gooseflesh), especially the bristling of the hair on one’s head,¹ a meaning preserved in the Italian adjective “orripilante “[hair-raising]. This well-known manifestation of the physics of horror is often linked to another, equally well-known symptom, that of feeling frozen, probably because of the obvious connection with goose-flesh as a physiological reaction to cold, a connection supported too by the etymological nexus (not established beyond all doubt) between the Greek...

  8. 3 On War
    (pp. 10-13)

    The etymology of the Italian word “guerra” and the English word “war” from the Germanic “werra,” alludes to a context of fierce combat and disarray. The meaning of the Greek “polemos,” from the verb “pallo,” is not dissimilar: what comes to the fore in it is the movement of hurling oneself and of vibrating. The Latin “bellum,” which strongly evokes a certain type of ordering and lining up in formation, is connected with “duellum.” But a review of the etymologies does not get us very far in this case. War is a complex arena where the fury of intraspecific butchery...

  9. 4 The Howl of Medusa
    (pp. 14-19)

    Medusa belongs to the female gender. We must gaze straight into her eyes, without yielding to the temptation to look away: according to mythology, horror has the face of a woman. In this sense, between the hair-raising monster and Ajza, the Chechen suicide bomber whose head is recovered by her father, there is a disturbing resemblance. Not that the modern champions of carnage, much less those of the past, including the Homeric warriors, are predominantly women. Far from it. As in every theater of violence that we know of to date, men continue to be the unchallenged protagonists. But when...

  10. 5 The Vulnerability of the Helpless
    (pp. 20-24)

    Together they advance: a mask and a face. Aligning them, the London photograph makes evident the contrast between a singularity that violence would like to destroy and a singularity not yet offended, that reveals itself in physiognomic features. But they are not simply standing beside each other. There is an embrace, succor, care between them. For the young man, the woman beneath the mask is a wounded singular being. Vulnerable himself, the young man responds to the vulnus that has struck the other with his care. Care, medication, the soothing of the wound: the gauze mask is all these things...

  11. 6 The Crime of Medea
    (pp. 25-28)

    The mythical constellation of horror has a decided predilection for female faces. After Medusa, or maybe even before, comes Medea. The tradition recounts how Medea, reacting to Jason’s betrayal, murders her own children in revenge. So Euripides assures us at any rate, for he was the first, in his reworking of the legends about the awesome woman from Colchis, to choose to have Medea commit infanticide.¹ In other versions it is the Corinthians who kill the two children.² From then on, among the mothers of death, assassins who only murder their male offspring,³ “the criminal deed that remains linked, more...

  12. 7 Horrorism; or, On Violence Against the Helpless
    (pp. 29-32)

    In the ample repertory of human violence, there is one particularly atrocious kind whose features I propose to subsume in the category of horrorism. This coinage, apart from the obvious assonance with the word “terrorism,” is meant to emphasize the peculiarly repugnant character of so many scenes of contemporary violence, which locates them in the realm of horror rather than that of terror. Why not simply speak of horror, without going to the trouble of adopting a neologism that may cause some annoyance? A neologism assumes that there exists something new, different, recent. But what is so new about carnage...

  13. 8 Those Who Have Seen the Gorgon
    (pp. 33-39)

    Although the slaughter of the defenseless is certainly not a specialty of the modern epoch, ontological crime took on new and exceptional proportions in the history of the twentieth century. Between 1915 and 1916 there occurred the genocide of the Armenian people by order of the government of the Young Turks.¹ Massacred in their villages or deported to the Syrian desert to die of hunger, “sent defenseless out on to Asiatic highroads, with several thousand miles of dust, stones, and morass before [them],”² more than a million Armenians lost their lives. In the course of the forced march, organized like...

  14. 9 Auschwitz; or, On Extreme Horror
    (pp. 40-46)

    Although she did not directly experience the extermination camps, Hannah Arendt provides an analysis of them that accords with Primo Levi’s on a few essential points, starting with the conviction that the Lagers, as we read in The Origins of Totalitarianism, constitute the final stage of a process that aimed to “dominate man entirely” and annihilate him in a systematic manner.¹ In the Nazi concentration-camp system, “suffering, of which there has always been too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims. Human nature as such is at stake.”² Arendt knows well that universal history...

  15. 10 Erotic Carnages
    (pp. 47-53)

    Arendt called David Rousset’s Les jours de notre mort, published at Paris in 1947, one of the “best reports on Nazi concentration camps.”¹ She frequently refers to this first-hand testimony, from which she derives not just the theme of living corpses and the figure of inferno but especially the description of the internees as “agitated and grotesque mannequins,” in whom it is not difficult to recognize the “ghastly marionettes.” One sentence of Rousset’s, which appears several times in Arendt’s text and is crucial to its architecture, also appears as an epigraph to part three of the book, specifically entitled “Totalitarianism.”...

  16. 11 So Mutilated that It Might Be the Body of a Pig
    (pp. 54-59)

    In her last book, returning to the theme of photography, Susan Sontag chose to reflect on images of horror. Entitled Regarding the Pain of Others and published in 2003, the book has a basic message. Sontag maintains that, however much photographs of horror may arouse a morbid pleasure, thus straying into the overcrowded domain of pornography, they have an “ethical value” because they make us aware “that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another.”¹ Virginia Woolf was thinking along similar lines when, defending her antiwar ideas in the celebrated essay Three Guineas, she adduced a photograph published in...

  17. 12 The Warrior’s Pleasure
    (pp. 60-65)

    When Arendt insists on the relation between theories that look for the sublime in the infamous, “elevating cruelty to the highest virtue,” and the experience of the front generation, she brings an important theme into focus. The First World War was not just one of the many wars that, from Homer’s day to ours, have covered the planet with blood. It inaugurated the model of total war, perfected in the 1939–1945 conflict and characterized by “the placing of civilians on the same level as military personnel, and the propensity to exterminate them without hesitation.”¹ The traditional, even heroic conception...

  18. 13 Worldwide Aggressiveness
    (pp. 66-77)

    Hillman’s book, published in 2004, is exemplary in many respects, one of which is this interesting particular. Although it does include a few references to the events of September 11, 2001, it does not address the problem of distinguishing between war and terrorism. As Arendt would put it, the naturalistic basis of the modern social sciences does not concern itself with isolating the criteria that ultimately define the various forms of violence. Observed from the point of view of a carnage that is enjoyment and excitation, one is as good as another. As long as the horror is sublime, the...

  19. 14 For a History of Terror
    (pp. 78-88)

    As Townshend notes, the term “terrorism” made its first appearance in the 1798 edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, where it is defined as “système, régime de la terreur.”¹ Both the neologism and its definition are influenced by the lexicon of the French Revolution, more specifically by the Terreur proclaimed by the Committee of Public Safety in 1793 against the enemies of liberty who were threatening the new republic both externally and internally. But during the two tremendous years that witnessed “the political use of serial death” beneath the blade of the guillotine, the revolutionary patriots directed their terror...

  20. 15 Suicidal Horrorism
    (pp. 89-96)

    Among the many lexical problems arising out of the current debate on terrorism, one is particularly curious. In order to indicate the phenomenon of bombers who carry the explosive device on their own bodies and detonate it in a crowded place, the European languages use disparate terms. In Italian, for example, we tend to use the term “kamikaze,” borrowing the Japanese word that denoted one of the squadrons of suicide pilots in the last phase of the Second World War. The English language, responding to a descriptive exigency, prefers the expressions “suicide bombers” or “body bombers.” The Italian choice to...

  21. 16 When the Bomb Is a Woman’s Body
    (pp. 97-105)

    “I have always dreamed of transforming myself into deadly shrapnel against the Zionists . . . and my joy will be complete when the parts of my body will fly in all directions,” says young Reem al Rayashi in the video that records her last wishes, before the suicidal act that caused the death of three Israelis and wounded another twelve, among them four Palestinians. The mother of two children, twenty-one-year-old Reem blew herself up on 14 January 2004 at the Erez crossing, north of the Gaza strip.¹ She wasn’t the first Palestinian woman to immolate herself in the bombings...

  22. 17 Female Torturers Grinning at the Camera
    (pp. 106-115)

    In the contemporary repertoire of horrorism at the hands of women, the female torturers at Abu Ghraib occupy a special place. The attempt to pass them off as victims themselves is a very difficult feat to perform, although a series of attenuating circumstances is often invoked, including a perverse effect of the movement toward emancipation or the influence of a certain kind of social and cultural conditioning in the American hinterland. Although the debate provoked by the events of Abu Ghraib is vast and multivocal, two fundamental topics for reflection stand out within it. Some commentators, while emphasizing the scandal...

  23. Appendix: The Horror! The Horror! Rereading Conrad
    (pp. 116-124)
  24. Notes
    (pp. 125-146)
  25. Bibliography
    (pp. 147-154)