… the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.

Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem



There is, in the minds of those whose very being is calibrated to that proverbial Doomsday Clock, an eternal recurrence wherein, like protagonists in a science fiction fantasy, they are constantly reliving the unfinished business of the Cold War: an eternally recurring glitch in time, where it will always be 90 seconds to midnight and history will always be just about to end. It’s necessary to grasp that, from this unique vantage, both the war in Ukraine and the putative genocide in Gaza can only be viewed as the decisive “struggle” — the one that Cold War doctrine denied its protagonists the gratification of submitting to an ultimate proof.

In this parallel universe, the Doomsday Clock may yet strike the hour, not with a dialectical whimper but with all the apocalyptic jouissance of a “final solution” whose contemporary avatars see themselves as archangels at the Last Judgement. To these minds, the imprisoning fantasy of a “liberal democratic world order” can indeed be brought to a happy end and the chosen ones be permitted, at long last, to march triumphant into the nuclear sunset — or at least to raise their flags over the desolation of Avdiivka and Rafah, if nothing else.


Bringing the war back home

On 21 December 2023, at 14:59, a terrorist armed with a ZEV AR15 military assault rifle opened fire in the upper corridors of the Philosophy Faculty at Charles University, Prague, killing fourteen and wounding twenty-five. They were students and colleagues attending lectures, taking end-of-year exams and preparing an afternoon programme of Christmas carols. Bodies lay on the floor. One survivor sustained seven bullet wounds. Hundreds had to be evacuated while the terrorist continued to fire from the rooftop into the street.

In the rightwing media this became a story about yet another misunderstood white boy, suicided by those institutions of liberal “woke” propaganda otherwise known as the humanities.[1] For their part, mainstream outlets persisted in referring to this terrorist by the asinine term “shooter,” as if the corridors of the Philosophy Faculty were simply a target range with cardboard silhouettes. And by a perverse role-reversal, one seen too often before, the victims almost immediately became the “culprits,” accused of responsibility for the very terror inflicted upon them and targeted by hate speech that filtered even into the nation’s parliament.

While such actions are easily dismissed as belonging to “fringe elements,” they in fact represent a far more general and persistent totalitarianism operating just below the threshold of the State (the neofascist SPD, one of whose deputies openly defamed the victims under parliamentary privilege, is the fastest growing political movement in the Czech Republic and holds twenty seats in the legislature). Nor is the language of intolerance and victim-shaming merely “a primal shelter to compensate for personal disarray,”[2] making perverse demands upon our sympathy for these hapless mouthpieces of reactionary ideology. It is nothing short of a motive force of social capture — which is to say coup d’état — ruthlessly operating by means of “culture war.”

It was the view held by Hannah Arendt that wherever “civic life has become a vacuum or a farce, the forces of cultural barbarism can be counted on to fill the void.”[3] Such forces can’t be dismissed as opportunistic hyenas coming out of the wilderness into the precincts of “civilisation” to thieve from upturned rubbish bins. They are themselves the agents of farce and the very architects of this void.

As Arendt must have known, on 17 November 1939 these same forces of barbarism stormed the Philosophy Faculty and other university buildings in Prague, arrested and later shot nine professors and students involved in organising protests against the Nazi occupation, and deported 1,200 more to Sachsenhausen and other death camps.[4] The 17th of November, subsequently commemorated as International Students Day, was also the date in 1989 on which student protests against the Soviet puppet regime in Prague initiated the so-called Velvet Revolution. For many years “17. listopadu” has been the name of the street adjoining the Philosophy Faculty on Jan Palach Square — the latter memorialising the student of history and political economy who, on 16 January 1969, set himself alight in protest against the Warsaw Pact invasion which had terminated the period of social reform known as the Prague Spring, dying three days later.

The site of the 21 December terror attack is no mere “ivory tower,” then. It emerges from the twentieth century rather as a kind of dissident institution within civil society itself — one in which a critical consciousness of the “philosophy of state” and its totalising apparatuses has somehow managed to persist despite its institutional status and in spite of every effort at normalisation both from within its own bureaucracy and by those external regimes of power to which its mere existence is anathema.

Who owns the rhetoric of terror?

Through the prism of the long twentiet century, we have reached the inverse of that sentiment famously expressed in the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies:

… For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can still barely endure,
and while we stand in wonder it coolly disdains
to destroy us.

In the immediate aftermath of 21 December, news outlets repeatedly cited the claim by “security officials” that, by not being the work of a member of a designated terrorist organisation, the attack on the Philosophy Faculty[5] could not be deemed a “terrorist attack.”

Terror, like tragedy, is a bespoke term. As are war and genocide. In these, the language of the “individual” is partitioned from that of the “state,” just as that of “aesthetics” is partitioned from that of “politics.” Economies of linguistic power circulate within a system that is self-authorising, self-perpetuating, and from which the poetics of everyday life is ostensibly alienated (beyond the spasms of satirical critique). Jacques Derrida alludes to this system under the neologism economimesis.[6] That is to say, as an economy of representation wherein the valorisation of what is represented and how it is represented is bound to a profit mechanism, a systemic bias that capitalises on itself. The “Prague Shootings,” as the events of 21 December have since been dubbed, are no exception: the tension between survivor narratives and official discourse (21.12 as a “national tragedy”) is obvious, and this dissonance has been especially visible in a media driven by reflexive sensationalism.

For Arendt, such an economimesis is at work in producing the media cult of “individual life” and its analogue in the “life of the species” which, as Julia Kristeva remarks, “tries to impose itself as the supreme modern good.”[7] It is in their name that the rhetoric of terror is evoked and maintained. Arendt alludes to this signifying regime as a “single-minded activism” in which the political has been elided with a Kantian categorical imperative (a pseudo-ethics). One vector of this thought is Sartre’s existentialist phenomenology, which produces a “paranoid subject” (Roquentin and his epiphany of the pebble-on-the-beach) whose ethic of being-for-the-world by individual, committed action merely inverts the paranoiac’s belief in a conspiratorial world operating exclusively upon it. Sartre’s committed individual is the paranoiac’s sublimation of the experience of being inscribed within the gaze-of-the-other (that is to say, under the sway of a transcendental signified: pure reason or the state). The irony for Arendt is that “the pervasiveness of an egocentric … attitude toward public life” contributes to making “totalitarianism possible.”[8] It is the tragedy of western civilisation that totalitarianism is itself immanent to liberal democracy’s self-image (media): a self-image through which “the political sphere” comes to be seen “as merely the administrative and protective apparatus required by the economic realm … Increasingly, the economic sphere subsumes all others.”[9] As in Derrida’s economimesis, the paranoid subject mirrors a totalising economic system of meaning’s production-consumption.

If poetry’s supposed alienation from the world is a metaphor for the work of alienation in general across the sphere of everyday life — of an apparent acquiescence to economic totalitarianism (and its ungainly remainder) — then the question arises as to what stands beyond the “impossibility” ascribed to this system of totalisation. What mode of critique or détournement corresponds to this system’s insufficiency (for, a system of totalisation can only operate on the proviso that it doesn’t totalise. Instead, it produces an image of totality, to which it pretends the whole of reality corresponds). Were we to name this ungainly remainder, this insufficiency, poetry — as Arendt suggests — then in a situation where realpolitik (as total representation) can be affected only through radical “poetic” praxis, the concern with language demands priority.


War on terrorism

While it is easy to reject as fake political processes and referenda staged in overtly manipulated media environments like Hong Kong and Russia-occupied Ukraine,[10] it remains a virtual taboo (conspiranoia) to critique the relation of privately owned media conglomerates to the subversion of democratic processes in western liberal democracies. This has been tested in recent times by referenda in the UK and Australia (Brexit, the Indigenous Voice to Parliament) in which manipulation of public discourse has not only been comparable to the fraudulence visible in the former Soviet sphere (and in pseudo-democratic colonies of authoritarian regimes, such as Hong Kong), but is nakedly so. The representation of “terror” in the western media has long been a measure of its much-vaunted press independence. The Global War on Terror launched by the United States in the wake of the World Trade Centre attacks on 11 September 2001, can be considered the apogee of an historical movement to annex this term. In this respect “terror” stands as a counterpart to the legitimate usage of the term “genocide.” It isn’t simply that these two terms are interrelated, but rather that within a certain mimetic economy, the discourses they permit to be represented are ideologically bound.

This is nowhere more visible today than in Israel’s invasion of Gaza in response to an “armed incursion” (denounced by some forty-four countries as a “terrorist attack,” occasioning murder, kidnap and rape)  by the Islamic Resistance Movement known as Hamas and its allies on 7 October 2023. With geopolitical alignment strongly affecting the terms in which this conflict has been represented in public discourse, it marked a sensational development when — informed by the disproportionate nature of Israel’s response — post-apartheid South Africa brought a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging genocide against the Palestinian people. It is within the remit of the ICJ to determine the application of the term genocide based upon the meaning given to it by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948. This hasn’t prevented western media (including such venerable institutions as the BBC) from seeking to manipulate, if not the legal arguments themselves, then at least the public reception of them. Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who “defected” to Russia in 2013, wrote on social media in January:

No matter your politics, it should appall you that the media outlets which claim to care the most about “misinformation” suppressed coverage of South Africa’s case against the Gaza genocide, but fully covered Israel’s defence the next day …

In reference to its ongoing “war against Hamas” (a “designated terrorist organisation”), Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, declared that he had ordered a “complete siege” of Gaza City, that “we will eliminate everything” and that Israel was fighting “human animals.” In ordering preventative measures against acts of genocide in Gaza, the ICJ cited this, among other examples, as prima facie evidence of a plausible case to be answered by Israel.[11] Israel’s reply to these charges had been to argue that its actions (resulting — so far — 33,037 people killed, 75,668 wounded, an undisclosed number arbitrarily detained and, according to UNRWA, more than 2.3 million displaced) constituted self-defence against the “unprecedented attacks” by Hamas on 7 October (resulting in 1,139 military and civilian deaths, of which 364 were attendees at the Re’im Supernova Music Festival, a celebration of ”unity and peace”).[12]

According to Israel’s lawyers, it was Hamas, not Israel, whose actions constituted genocide. Indeed, since its foundation, Israel has evoked a state of exception in the matter of its self-defence, since it defines any military attack on itself as ipso facto an act of intended erasure of the “Jewish state of Israel” (an expression that reveals how the “Jewish people” and the political entity Israel are not only rendered strategically cognate, but how Judaism is actively elided, in the rhetoric of the state — and its laws — with a eugenic “race” principle). In response to the ICJ’s ruling, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stated “Israel is fighting a just war like no other.”


Poetry and crime

On 2 December, 2023, Nour al-Din Hajjaj, author of The Gray Ones (2022) and Wings That Do Not Fly (2021), was killed by an Israeli “airstrike”/“terror bombing”on his home in Al-Shujaiyya, shortly after writing this post on Facebook:

This … might be my last message that makes it out to the free world, flying with the doves of peace to tell them that we love life, or at least what life we have managed to live; in Gaza all paths before us are blocked, and instead we’re just one tweet or breaking news story away from death.

Anyway, I’ll begin.

My name is Nour al-Din Hajjaj, I am a Palestinian writer, I am twenty-seven years old and I have many dreams.

I am not a number and I do not consent to my death being passing news. Say, too, that I love life, happiness, freedom, children’s laughter, the sea, coffee, writing, Fairouz, everything that is joyful—though these things will all disappear in the space of a moment.

Kristeva observes that, for Arendt, “only action as narration, and narration as action, can fulfil life in terms of what is ‘specifically human’ about it.”[13] Arendt challenges the notion that poetic work is somehow remote from life, insisting rather on the contiguity of poiēsis and a certain praxis of human subjectivity.[14] Whether or not this is sufficient to withstand the force of abstraction that reduces the “life as narrative” of those, like Hajjaj, who insofar as they signify at all to a certain western consciousness do so as a statistical increment of collateral murder. Like NPCs denied the status of protagonists in this “just war” — a war, allegedly, on “terror” — their narratives exist only in the far margins, among civilian casualties deemed, in the cynical rhetoric of those responsible, unfortunate but otherwise unavoidable (the cast-offs of teleology). Yet more than just the vocabulary of this “tragic view” rings false. During the 2014 “Gaza War” (aka Operation Protective Edge), American critic and proponent of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, Marjorie Perloff, wrote on social media in a response to Eugene Ostashevsky:

The media reporting has been disgusting — nothing but pictures of the “innocent children” in Gaza. First of all, children are NOT innocent; anyone who has ever had children or been around children knows how cruel and mean children can be. Most of the parents of these children are apolitical too so can be classified as “innocent” if you like. The only reason right now that Israelis are not being killed in the same numbers are because they’re down in the bomb shelters!

Perloff’s intervention belies a wider ideological condition of the “war on terror” phenomenon, in which the innocent are never innocent but de facto “enemy combatants” (minus any dignity conferred by that term under the Geneva Conventions). The narratives of such de facto combatants are thus doubly erased: firstly, in the mass of statistics. Secondly, as quasi-terrorist propaganda. Implicitly “guilty” of an antisemitism which, like original sin, is seemingly the ontological condition of Israel’s adversaries, Hajjaj’s self-testimony is, as it were, made to evoke an inherently criminal poetics. The same may just as easily have been said of the diary of Anne Frank. And here we must add a caveat to Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil: for it is in the nature of such an evil that it always projects back upon that which testifies to and against it, in a kind of righteous indignation. It’s no accident that, in her reflections on the 1960 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt cast the “architect of the Final Solution” as a kind of mirror-image to the Israeli prosecutor (and Attorney General) Gideon Hausner, as two disfigured versions of the Kantian categorical imperative.


By what means, the terror of rhetoric?

Shortly before his death, in 1940, while attempting to flee the Nazis, Walter Benjamin wrote:

The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.[15]

In her introduction to the volume in which Benjamin’s text posthumously appeared, Arendt observed:

Any period to which its own past has become as questionable as it has to us must eventually come up against the phenomenon of language, for in it the past is contained ineradicably, thwarting all attempts to get rid of it once and for all. The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence — that is, at the bottom of the sea — for as long as we use the word “politics.” This is what the semanticists, who with good reason attack language as the one bulwark behind which the past hides — its confusion, as they say — fail to understand. They are absolutely right: in the final analysis all problems are linguistic problems; they simply do not know the implications of what they are saying.[16]

A rhetoric of the impossible discloses itself in an appeal to unrepeatable history. Which is not to say that certain historical events are deemed, semantically or otherwise, beyond the bounds of present or future action. Rather, that the meaning of present and future possibility is itself foreclosed by this burden of history: its ultimate, negative-dialectical counterpart.

Not long after Benjamin’s death, the Shoah came to radicalise this idea, as the manifest “never again” of an historical impossibility transfigured into a teleological force. Since Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948 (anticipating by seven months the UN’s adoption of the Genocide Convention), the systematic murder of six million Jews by the Nazis has (by a kind of inescapable necessity) served as the transcendental signified of Israel’s “state of exception.” Such is the singularity of this transcendental signified that the very notions of individual and species falter before it.

When Mahmoud Darwish speaks of a poetry of defeat, we need to understand this also as a poetry of metaphysical overwhelm. It is an overwhelm often expressed in quasi-cybernetic terms, of extremely large numbers, the number 6,000,000 to be exact. This monstrous arithmetical regime stands as the counterpart of that zero to which both the individual and the collective are reduced by a totalising programme of erasure present in contemporary discourse under the name genocide.[17]

All transcendental signifieds point to a condition that is both radically finite yet open-ended, infinite. If the meaning of this infinity and of this finitude opens itself to dispute, its fact represents the ne plus ultra of what must remain, everywhere and always, indisputable.

Here the impossible stands in a particular relation to the language of its avowals or disavowals, its testimonies, those narratives alone by which its truth is enacted, so to speak, in the lives it simultaneously erases and inscribes, in memory to itself, as the “itself” of an unrepeatable, unpresentable singularity. An apocalyptic strain of thought holds that the meaning of such singularity is expressed in the movement of a world historical spirit, a kind of paradoxical “manifest destiny”: some New Jerusalem gained at the price of oblivion.[18] Yet the contrary of such apocalypticism also poses a philosophical dilemma. In a letter from Paris dated 1935, Benjamin wrote:

On this planet a great number of civilizations have perished in blood and horror. Naturally, one must wish for the planet that one day it will experience a civilization that has abandoned blood and horror; in fact, I am… inclined to assume that our planet is waiting for this.[19]

What kind of “civilisation” affecting a claim over that noun could exist in such a state of self-abandon, if not as a contradiction-in-terms: a civilisation of “defeat,” of “manifest destiny” declined, of “self-supersession”? Is such a dissident institution even conceivable, without instantly reverting to the status of an impossibility? Utopia, in fewer words? Or not at all, simply the limit of a totalising rhetoric that seeks, even at the point of expiring, to aggregate to itself the only exception permissible?


Prague, February 2024


[1] The murderer “evaded justice” by shooting himself in the head.

[2] Julia Kristeva, “What of Tomorrow’s Nation”? Nations Without Nationalism, trans. Leon A. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 2.

[3] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958) 6.

[4] The university remained closed for the duration of the war.

[5] This synecdoche, between individual victims and institution, prefigures the discussion below of Hajjaj’s “I am not a number and I do not consent to my death being passing news.”

[6] Jacques Derrida, “Economimesis,” trans. R. Klein, Diacritics 11.2 (Summer, 1981): 2-25.

[7] Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative, trans. Frank Collins (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) 7.

[8] Arendt, The Human Condition, 6.

[9] Arendt, The Human Condition, 5.

[10] Mindful of the fact, here, that the Kremlin’s “justification” for its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 hinged on two points: protecting ethnic Russians against genocide; and denazification.

[11] See the full text of the ICJ order indicating provisional measures in the case concerning Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in the Gaza Strip (South Africa v. Israel). Federal court judge Jeffrey White, hearing a subsequent case in California regarding US military support for Israel, ruled on the 2nd of February that “the undisputed evidence before this court comports with the findings of the ICJ and indicates that the current treatment of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by the Israeli military may plausibly constitute a genocide in violation of international law.”

[12] Reported figures at time of publication (4 April 2024): see https://www.aljazeera.com/news/liveblog/2024/4/4/israels-war-on-gaza-live-israel-accused-of-ai-assisted-genocide-in-gaza?update=2816434.

[13] Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, 8.

[14] “It is of this life, bios as distinguished from mere zoē, that Aristotle said that it ‘somehow is a kind of praxis.’” Arendt, The Human Condition, 97.

[15] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968) thesis 8.

[16] Hannah Arendt, “Introduction,” Illuminations, 49.

[17] The term was first coined by Raphael Lemkin in his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

[18] This apocalyptic tone is not a recent adoption of philosophy. From its origin, philosophy has always needed to contend with the absence of history before it can assert what it “is.” Constructed upon the analogy of forensic anatomy, the “meaning of history” assumes a retrospective character, emblematised by Benjamin’s Angelus Novus: that no species of being can be fully grasped until after it’s dead. This, philosophy does by substitution and imitation; that is to say, by self-substitution on the one hand and by a kind of morbid posthumous reconstruction on the other (the future in the rearview mirror). History, as the doppelganger of reason itself, is made to labour on under a kind of Frankenstein syndrome for the sake of an ultimate “end” that must, by the same imperative that demanded it, be perpetually deferred.

[19] Qtd in Arendt, “Introduction,” 38.


Images from vigil held outside the faculty on 31 December 2023, taken by the author

Louis Armand

Louis Armand directs the Centre for Critical & Cultural Theory at Charles University, Prague. He is the author, most recently of the essay collection Entropology (2023) & the novel Anizar (2024). www.louis-armand.com

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