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Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Professor Eduardo Mendieta: The Political Bestiary: On the Use of Violence

26th February 2009, 20:00 to 21:00, Penthouse Boardroom, Collingwood College

IAS/Collingwood College Public Lecture

The state is a cold beast, could have been the blurb for Hobbes’s Leviathan, but only if he had had the hindsight of the 20th century with its extremes. During the run up to the invasion of Iraq in the Spring of 2003, the U.S. Military published and distributed a set of playing cards that identified the most wanted members of the Hussein regime: A ‘Most Wanted.’ Saddam Hussein was presented as the ace of spades. A military spokesman of the US army justified their production by noting that the US army has used such sets of cards since the Civil War. The CIA in turn has published a list that contains its “Ten Most Wanted” that is led off by Osama Bin Laden. Such lists, decks of cards, and posters have been popularized and are sold as souvenirs in the U.S. Terrorists, and so-called rogue leaders, are represented as game of pray, huntable and to be hunted. The state is here seen and heard as inciting a lawless violence. In fact, it sanctions violence by citizens against other subjects. At work here is a process of beastialisation, vilification, and demonizing that reduces another human being to the status of a plague, a vermin, a parasite that must be extinguished with an excessive violence that is indispensable and justified.

One beast confronts another beast—but which one will be more beastly, which one needs to be more terrifyingly beastly than the other? As in the Alien vs. Predator movies, ‘whoever wins, we lose.’ These cards, posters, lists, and movies are in fact the modern version of the Ancient and Medieval Bestiaries, which have figured significantly in the domestication of Western political imaginaries. A bestiary is a manual, a treatise that catalogues wild, fantastic, demonic, uncompromising, undomensticable beasts. While such bestiaries generally served pedagogical and moralizing ends, today they have become powerful political apparatuses that instigate a violence that is simultaneously sacralized while also unhinged from political legitimacy and accountability. The modern political bestiary, which includes terrorists, islamo-fascists, narco-traffickers, pederasts, etc. mobilizes an animal imaginary that result into logics: the beastialised other has to be exterminated, and in order to do so, we ourselves must become like beasts. We are predator and pray, and ‘whoever wins, we lose.’ Through a consideration of the role of certain animal or beastly creatures in some key works, such as Homer’s Odyssey, Plato’s Republic, Plutarch’s Moralia, Schmitt’s Land und Meer, the Alien vs. Predator and Starship Trooper movies, we seek to elucidate the ways in which the contemporary political bestiary takes up and transforms the question: what does it mean to be human? into the question: can only humans be beastly, or is the human the only animal capable of becoming beastly?

Contact enquiries.ias@durham.ac.uk for more information about this event.