An excerpt from

Courting the Abyss

Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition

by John Durham Peters

Dramatis Personae

Every political or moral theory presupposes a cast of characters—often both mutually dependent and mutually oblivious. Satan represents a key figure in the dramatis personae of free expression, the troublemaker who nonetheless brings about, by the very force of his negativity, good in the end. I will call such figures “abyss-artists,” or borrowing a term from cinematic special effects, “inferno-artists.” Their sins are catalysts. They operate by inversion, that is, by irony. “Evil be thou my good,” perhaps Satan’s most famous line (Paradise Lost, 4.110), can stand as their motto. The key gesture of inferno-artistry is perversity: to prize what “normally” is rejected. Transgression is creative, degradation divine. They gather grapes from thorns and figs from thistles. Abyss-artists are the archetype of the productive criminal. They learn to luxuriate in hell’s warm sulfurousness, enjoy their own naughtiness, and take pleasure in the musky stench of sin. As a rule abyss-artists are not what William James called “healthy-minded.” They enjoy prodding the repressed with a sly knowingness of the shock it will bring to innocent bystanders. These figures find in corruption delights not known in the celestial spheres: “the enjoyments of Genius,” said William Blake, “to Angels look like torment and insanity.” (Blake’s angels look like modern liberals: those whose monopoly of good intention corrupts them.)

In Paradise Lost a clear statement of this strategy comes from Mammon, one of Satan’s partners in crime, who exhorts the assembled hosts at Pandemonium (a word Milton coined) not to submit to heaven’s “splendid vassalage,” but to

                                          …rather seek
Our own good from our selves, and from our own
Live to our selves, though in this vast recess,
Free, and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easie yoke
Of servile pomp. (Paradise Lost, 2.253–57)

Mammon’s gesture certainly resonates for a host of moderns. Bertrand Russell, who never tired of playing up his reputation for wickedness, flattering himself with the deliciously tormenting thought that he was Satan in the suburbs, was never less original than when, in his essay “A Free Man’s Worship,” he deployed the old tactic of inversion to build his faith on the foundation of despair. That vigorous self-creation beats blissfully obedient submission is a theme with almost endless variations repeated by sundry modern figures: romantics riding the demonic, modernists exploring the juxtaposition of the organs of generation and excretion, avant-gardists. Such figures often confound profanity and profundity, and consider themselves the beacons of liberty and free play, pushing the envelope “to none accountable.” Thus “hard liberty” (or hard bondage) is the cuisine of choice for a line of sexual heresiarchs—the Marquis de Sade, Charles Baudelaire, Georges Bataille, Luis Buñuel, Jean Genêt, Michel Foucault—all French or Francophiles, a culture known for producing fine things from putrefaction (cheese, wine, poetry). Perhaps the finest soil for abyss-artists is Russian culture, with authors such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev, and Bulgakov. “Plonger au fond du gouffre, / Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?” [“To plunge to the depth of the abyss/ hell or heaven, whatever.”] asked Baudelaire. Part of Baudelaire’s point, of course, was to make the choice of heaven and hell indifferent. Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer (1873), a notebook of a damned soul, gives us a textbook sojourn in hell. “Le malheur a été mon dieu. Je me suis allongé dans la boue. Je me suis séché à l’air du crime. Et j’ai joué de bons tours à la folie.” [“Unhappiness was my god. I have stretched myself out in the mud. I have dried myself in the air of crime. And I have played some good tricks on folly.”] Rock stars picked up his mantle (Jim Morrison, most explicitly). The Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young said of his 1972 megahit, “Heart of Gold”: it “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch.” Rap musicians, too, like to see themselves as the latest in a long line of poètes maudits. The repertoire of abyss-artistry shows up in punk rock lyrics, performances, album art, and hairstyles (often based on stuff they learned in art school). The life and writings of William S. Burroughs inspired Lou Reed, Nirvana, and other musical connoisseurs of the ditch.

Voluntarily heading for the ditch is far from a modern theme. The book of Ecclesiastes, which like free speech theory is influenced by Stoicism, gives us a notebook, not quite of the damned, but at least of one who desires to sound the range of “all things that are done under heaven”: “And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly” (Ecc. 1:13, 17). To know madness and folly is the business of abyss-artistry, whose modern form enjoys the added aura of Promethean rebellion or Faustian striving. The “black writers of the bourgeoisie,” as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno called Machiavelli, Sade, Nietzsche, and the like, were all engaged in teaching an amor intellectualis diaboli as the counterpart to (and hidden truth of) Enlightenment reason. The films of Luis Buñuel and David Cronenberg, the writings of Cathy Acker and J. G. Ballard, the art of Paul Thek, Damien Hirst, and Adriana Varejão, all put animal and human guts on display. Implied in most abyss-artistry is a kind of moral strenuosity, the implication that the wild side is more rigorous than the boredom of bourgeois morality. In this, abyss-artistry has a hidden affinity with the Stoic stance of the professional, especially the medical doctor, who shies away from nothing and has the strength of character to resist the voices of conscience and inhibition.

It goes well beyond the scope of this book to catalog varieties of inferno-artists, but the essential gesture should be clear. Consider a second actor, the abyss-redeemer. Abyss-artists and -redeemers have a symbiotic relationship. In the language of pop psychology, redeemers are “enablers,” people who provide material or emotional support for other people’s vices, yet often keep themselves aloof from such behaviors. Milan Kundera’s novel Immortality provides an even better label: “the willing ally of [their] own gravediggers.” Kundera mocks liberals for their habit of giving airtime to people whose projects would destroy their own. Liberals like to look, as long as someone else is doing the dirty work. Some things may not be good to do, but may be good to watch. Offenses must come, but not by me, thank you! The reasonable pick up the tab for the revolutionaries, whose surfeit of appetite they both admire and feel guilty about. Milton describes the modus operandi: Satan, setting out to tempt Eve in the getup of a serpent, goes “with tract oblique[;]…side-long he works his way” (Paradise Lost, 9.510, 512). Enablers dress up in the satanic tract oblique, sure that the indirection of their defense will add up to greater truth in the end. The drama enacted by the Nazis and the ACLU is just one version of a much larger modern theme: the co-dependence of abyss-artists and abyss-redeemers. The latter recognize the peril of the fiery deluge but believe that (vicariously) fathoming hell’s lessons justifies the risk of the descent and trust that enlightenment will follow their forays into darkness visible.

Kundera is a wonderful mocker, and his lesson of lightness is one that liberals richly deserve. And yet, as we will see in the cases of J. S. Mill and the U. S. Supreme Court in the following two chapters, there is more than standoffish voyeurism, Pollyanna hope, or strenuous masochism in the defense of speech one hates. The mark of abyss-redeemers is to enter hell for the sake of the lesson and get out again quickly (if they can find the way out). Facilis descensus averni, as Virgil warned: the way into hell is easy. Milton is an abyss-redeemer; Satan is an abyss-artist. One tolerates hell within a larger discourse of redemption; the other burrows into hell with perverse relish. Classic abyss-redeemers know the serious risks involved, so different from many latter-day liberals and civil libertarians, so certain of their theodicy that “the marketplace of ideas” will somehow take care of itself. Paul swoops into brief moments of heresy—Is God a liar? Should we sin so that grace may abound?— only to reemerge on the other end with a shudder at the thought he has just entertained. Let it not be, he exhorts. The warning label, the clarifying caption, the moral commentary that tries to salvage and justify the excursion into the abyss (of atheism, rebellion, sin, violence, the self) is the mark of the abyss-redeemer. Milton tells us he wrote Paradise Lost to justify the ways of God to men. Though suspicious critics can always find reasons to distrust such avowals and discover ulterior motives in the work of abyss-redeemers (such as the flirtation with danger or rebellion), the willingness at least to supply an explanation of moral purpose does genuinely distinguish abyss-artists from abyss-redeemers—and binds them together.

Take Michel Foucault’s brilliantly gory opening to his very influential book Discipline and Punish (1975). With loving detail he describes the execution of Robert Francis Damiens in 1757, who had attempted to murder Louis XV. It is hard to say which is more shocking, the excruciatingly documented description of the quartering and burning of the regicide’s body or Foucault’s studied silence on the experience of the victim and the refusal to probe the sufferer’s soul. He rigorously refuses to contain the spectacle of the broken body in any way. He rides the ticklish edge of moral abstemiousness where you can never quite tell whether he is celebrating cruelty or implying a larger critical purpose. The public execution, the reader is left to infer, reveals a species of pain free of the modern humanitarian overlay, in something of its old awful truth. Like Nietzsche, Foucault sees older forms of punishment—what he calls an “art of unbearable sensations”—as less vicious than the new “economy of suspended rights,” with its surveillance and disciplines; claims of humanist compassion are, for Foucault, in league with what he calls the “carceral” order itself. His account of the écartèlement of Damiens is scrupulously without affect, and the target of his wrath seems not the flamboyant brutality of corporal punishment but the supposedly humanitarian practices of pity, which Foucault believes spiritualize cruelty into an icier and more vicious form. Taking cruelty seriously allows one to “think otherwise,” uses the past as an alternative to the present, and criticizes an insidious regime of power that probes our bodies and makes subjectivity the great locale of truth. The disciplinary agents who peer into our souls and orifices profess to be moved by compassion. For Foucault, as fierce an antinomian as Milton, such inspection is always illegitimate.

Foucault stages a theater of cruelty, leaving the reader with the unpalatable option of assuming that he is taking a sadistic glee in the torture and inviting the reader to enjoy the show. In my experience of teaching Discipline and Punish, at least, many students read Foucault’s account of the torture as an ironically mute exposé of cruelty and suffering. They read him—incorrectly, I think—as a modern humanitarian outraged at suffering instead of the great critic of modern humanitarianism’s smugness. To exult in or at least describe without flinching the torn limbs of a fellow human being undercuts knee-jerk squeamishness and avoids the historically recent piety that suffering is evil; Foucault unfurls a world in which the systematic infliction of maximal pain was a conscious policy. He wants his readers to undergo the discomfort of recognizing how their very resistance to the spectacle of the damned is a precise symptom of the historical processes that have shifted punishment from body to soul, from pain to discipline. The conflict in the reader’s heart in the face of Damiens’s execution drives home the point of the book: that the horror of physical suffering is a recent and largely hypocritical effort to maintain our delicacy in pity without admitting our pleasure in mayhem. Discipline and Punish thus practices the “dialogue of provocation” invented by the ancient Cynics that Foucault later analyzed as central to the western tradition of truth-telling: participants in such dialogues are supposed to be convicted by their own consciences as they discover how easily their anxiety or repulsion can be taunted into being.

Notice how I have managed to construct a critical purpose out of Foucault’s coolly delirious lingering by Damiens’s miserable body. Foucault, in contrast, never turns around and explains that he told the tale of torture for higher purposes. I have just played abyss-redeemer to his abyss-artist. Foucault jettisons any interest in looking squeaky clean, in justifying his interest in torture. Paul of Tarsus does not want to risk leading anyone astray, but Foucault wants us to abide in the aporia. Foucault reads—and writes—diabolically. He does not provide captions for his pictures. In this he is an odd cousin to the ACLU. Both give airtime to realms of culture marked as forbidden or morally sick (torture and genocide). Both run the risk of public attack for consorting with demons. Both often leave their larger purpose unexplained, in part because these are performances, not statements, though there is usually someone willing to come to the rescue to explain their contrarian tactics. Both act out a drama of self-control, of abstinence from standard morality. Just as the ACLU’s defense of Nazis requires people who get it, Foucault’s complicated gesture of withholding sympathetic commentary (pity) requires interpreters who can identify a moral purpose (much recent Foucault criticism wants to save him from James Miller’s reading—one that Foucault left open—as a sado-masochist who rather enjoyed the stuff). Violence can offer aesthetic lessons in strangeness and perspective, in toying with ethical suspensions and unpracticed combinations of feelings. Foucault induces a Pauline shudder: I am glad that criminals are not quartered in public any more, but am constrained to grant the terrifying daring of his art of unbearable sensations. Perhaps pity is often corrupt rather than blessed. In life, rather than art, there is a crucial difference between sublimation and mayhem, between the gaze and the gallows. Foucault knows this; his epigones sometimes do not. You may blame me for thus domesticating his radicalism, but this is the office of the abyss-redeemer. To admit that such shows are art, imagination, or metaphor, and not incitement, jeopardizes their power. Abyss-artists both need and dislike those who explain their performances.

We find a similar example of the interdependence of abyss-artists and abyss-redeemers in a recent essay by the cultural theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner. Their central argument is that the public-private divide is neither neutral nor natural but saturated with “heteronormativity.” They tell of adventures in the sexual underworld of New York City, specifically their witnessing of a performance of “erotic vomiting” during a special night in a leather bar. A young man wearing a dog collar interacts with a male partner, who pours food and milk down his throat and body in an undulating choreography of disgust and eros that culminates in an orgasmic spew of vomit. This episode of climactic barfing is lovingly told, as if it were the latest installment in a long line of transgressive grossness— which it may well be, for all I know. Warner, the author of this section, treats the performance as a Blakean “enjoyment of genius” in a virtuoso interpretation quite like Foucault’s account of the torture of Damiens. Foucault portrays violence, and Warner sex (if indeed we should call it that) without any moral intervention. As Foucault will not stoop to sympathize, so Warner refuses to pathologize what is clearly a Richter scale–busting bit of mutual degradation. Both want to make the normal abnormal—queer, as Warner would put it—and do so via the performative Pauline tactic of a strategic skandalon. Neither prefaces his story with: watch how high I can fly this thought experiment, how long I can manage to keep going without succumbing to pity or disgust. If the audience is shocked by the events or their narrations, that reaction only serves as evidence of how deep its complicities go—whether with Foucault’s jailor’s regime or Berlant and Warner’s heteronormativity—and of the degree to which apparently spontaneous feelings such as pity or disgust are already facts of power. Warner can bank on an academic audience thinking it is bad form to look uptight in public; “prude” is nearly as bad a thing in culturally liberal spheres as “Nazi” or “racist,” since it implies not only a moral deficiency but weakness in taste. The first person caught holding his or her nose loses. If you feel grossed out, then perhaps you ought to reflect on whether your compunctions are complicit with oppression. Guilt makes liberals enablers. Abyss-artists practice a leading kind of moral suspension: refusing to pass judgment and operating, perhaps, like Warner’s performers, just “at the threshold of gagging.”

This tale of performative reflux is another classic “dialogue of provocation.” Abyss-artists and their friends like giving high-minded people the fidgets, knowing they have an audience that enjoys being abused. As Hume said of spectators at tragic plays, “they are pleased in proportion as they are afflicted.” Morally or politically motivated abyss-artists bank on an unspoken collusion with audiences. The ACLU banks on an audience able to discern how defending the rights of the Ku Klux Klan serves the public good. Warner presupposes a liberal audience. Only those with advanced training in self-doubt and stoic self-control would reinterpret their own prissy reaction to a tale of disgust as a symptom of insufficient thoughtfulness, rather than as a justified response to a provocation. The right audience for abyss-artists knows both how to supply the critical caption to the performance and why the performer cannot do so. Some kinds of art consist in the refusal to say, This is Art! Skill at keeping a straight face is central to performance art. To admit an ultimate cathartic purpose too early is to lose the ballgame. If Jonathan Swift had called his satire “A Modest Proposal”—which suggested that Ireland’s population explosion be handled by eating its excess children—“An Ironic Proposal,” the whole joke would have been spoiled. Explicitness kills irony. The unstated makes possible the duet of two voices, the straight and the arch, upon which irony depends. The interpretive tension evoked in the listener—is this sick or genius?—is designed to be part of the effect, hovering, as it does, along the troubling question of our pleasure in taboo or mayhem. This, again, is the cynical practice (in the ancient cheerful not modern bitter sense of cynicism) of engaging audiences in performative games in which the rules are so constructed that every move, including hesitation, is a soul-exposing moral choice. As William Blake noted, “The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act.”

The relation between performers and commentators, artists and redeemers, involves a curious division of communicative labor. In On Liberty (examined in depth in the next chapter), Mill wanted speakers to proclaim their passionate convictions without scruple, and listeners to consider with the coolest of reflective reason. The irrational speaker aids the mental and moral exercise of the rational listener. The speaker’s outrageousness is supposed to stimulate the listener’s reasonableness. If the moderation of the listener were to infect the speaker or the certainty of the speaker were to infect the listener, the check-and-balance system would be upset. Liberal theory locates irony in the communication system, rather than in the individual role. Abyss-artists alone would just stir everything up; abyss-redeemers alone would run out of things to explain. In spite of what both its friends and foes typically say, the liberal public is not solely rational or discursive. It depends, instead, on what we can precisely call a separation of powers between performance and criticism, action and commentary, drama and critique. To understand it we need what George Herbert Mead called a “philosophy of the act.” No one, including the actor, ever quite knows the full meaning of an act. Art and action are subject to vagueness, as C. S. Peirce put it. Action, performance, gesture, and art all defy complete reduction to verbal reason. (And even language is subject to open-ended significance.) Each medium has its own laws. Canons of public reasonableness apply to discourse sooner than to performances. Theorists such as Habermas who make critique the ruling value of the public sphere risk choking off breathing space and scare off the duplicitous demons—or ambiguous angels—of the implicit. Abyss-artists depend on third parties to decipher their dumpster-diving. The whole strategy of liberal public space, from Mill through the ACLU, depends on a collaboration between offensive social dramas and explanation by reasonable bystanders of their higher purpose, the translation of act into word.

Even though abyss-artists (Mill’s outrageous speakers) like to postpone the public admission that they are serving an ultimate cathartic purpose, they are parasitic on abyss-redeemers for funds, forums, and legal protection. They like to loll in the danger of transgression and work hard to keep the old redeeming-hell narrative from taming their work with a happy ending. But as soon as they face charges of slumming for the sport alone, they can claim socially redeeming values. In a pinch friends of the cultural-transgressors—serving in the office of spectator-critic—will invoke the “critical purpose” or “art” argument when those less used to the homeopathic regime of small doses of poison start howling debauchery, indecency, or criminality. Abyss-artists otherwise resist warning labels. They prefer not to provide resources for interpretation but to leave the audience to get it on their own. Critics can read the twentieth-century Francis Bacon’s paintings as a critique of western metaphysical terror, of our oppressively prissy reaction to flesh. They can read Sam Peckinpah’s blood ballets as cinematic criticism of the violence-laden culture of the United States in the Vietnam era. Barbara Kruger says that her advertising-based graphic art is a critique-by-exaggeration of capitalist rhetoric. In each case the work abstains from telling you to read it ironically. (Art that tells you how to read it is usually not art.) Innocent onlookers might be forgiven for thinking that Bacon and Peckinpah rather enjoy the splattered flesh-and-blood or that Kruger glamorizes the commercial sensibility at the same time she criticizes it. If these artists are at war with violence or capitalism, they certainly do not seem to mind fraternizing with the enemy. Creating a dizzy uncertainty of purpose is part of their point. Audiences are expected to bring their own minds to the critical picnic, and the liberals’ refusal to teach plainly what they regard as right and wrong has always irritated those who find clarity of doctrine superior to all the irony and indirection. Liberals respect the autonomy of reason too much for that. “Some assembly required” and “batteries not included” might be the twin mottos of the liberal public sphere.

The categories of abyss-artist and abyss-redeemer do not exhaust the options. Probably the great majority of people alive would not hear tales of erotic vomiting or gruesome torture as calls to repent from their oppressive ways. It is too obvious a point that the world has lots of types besides self-reflective liberals in it. (The world also has lots of people—probably about six billion—who cannot hear certain things without wanting to hit somebody.) Abyss-avoidance is a third option. Many cultures do not train souls for the ironic contortionism that liberal subjectivity calls for. Comparative modernization studies suggest that cultures with strong support for free expression are clustered in the Protestant cultural zone of northern Europe and America, plus Australia and New Zealand, and even there it does not have uniform support. For Africa, Latin America, southern and eastern Europe, and Asia, absolutist tolerance of offense is rarely the majority public opinion (though such publics can also be less sensitive to outrage and scandal than their high-strung, richer neighbors to the north ). And even among elite opinion worldwide there are important differences. In debates after World War II in the United Nations on freedom of the press, delegates from diverse countries had very different ideas about the social responsibility of the press, the right of reply, and the legitimacy of indecent speech; only the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia consistently supported robust press freedoms. The notion that transgressions are the symptoms of liberty is rather exotic on a planetary scale. Cultures that have gone through the Protestant Reformation, legal-bureaucratic rationalization, and what the sociologist Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process” might know what to do with erotic vomiting and the slain body, but most of the world chooses not to stretch itself in the mud voluntarily.

Liberals sometimes find themselves shocked at the outrage of some, the bafflement of others, who cannot make sense of their eager fraternization with demons. Curiously, they fail to reflect on the ways their own program is offensive—or perhaps they are so used to the notion that offenses are the entering wedges of progress that they do not care. (The more rigorous civil libertarians sometimes take pride in their offensive defense of the offensive as a necessary lesson for an intolerant society.) Disdain for the experience of people who do not obey its rules of rationality is one of liberalism’s worst sins. In the free speech story, toleration of diverse opinions helped bring about a world-historical graduation from bad tempers. Those who cannot tell sticks and stones from names are stuck, in this view, in a previous era. People who think that correct words and ideas matter mortally need to get a grip. Good modern citizens in this story know how to set aside firm conviction and enter into congress with any doctrine, at least enough to engage in a civil exchange of wits with it. Lee Bollinger suggests that one of free speech’s roles is to teach minds to be disobedient. Moses, Confucius, Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad would all be puzzled by a high value placed on disobedience. Irreverence is prized only in some cultural systems. Liberals risk mistaking conviction as blindness, and solidarity as stubbornness, and rarely understand why someone would willingly reject self-reflection as a model of mind and heart. Knowledge does not necessarily bring happiness. For comfort and “quality of life,” there is no beating the prosperous regions of the modern world, but no one claims that this world has solved the age-old riddles any better than the older wisdoms (with all their follies). Lacking limits to inquiry accounts for much of what is great and terrible about the modern world. Milton authorizes an attitude of avoidance. “Be lowly wise:/Think only what concerns thee and thy being;/Dream not of other worlds,” Raphael advises Adam (Paradise Lost, 8.173–75). Neither abyss-artists nor abyss-redeemers have much time for lowly wisdom. Those who choose to avoid the produce of the deep are regularly tarred as pusillanimous by righteous transgressors of all stripes, and yet avoidance (or at least circumspection) is very much a live option for that part of the world’s population too busy for snorkeling. Early morning sunshine tells me all I need to know. Paul thought you only needed to know one thing.

Liberal tell-all-ism, with its insistence that everyone be exposed to antigens, gives no civic shelter against the storms of steel, no protection against a hardened heart, and continues modern thought’s contempt for the virtues of softness. You cannot, it says, avoid the abyss. Abyss-redeemers think you have to whiff the civet to be able to enjoy the perfume; some more recent, less thoughtful liberals do not think there is even really an abyss to worry about. For latter-day Stoic professionals, only weaklings and fools refuse to pass through the purifying flames of hell (as later chapters show). Satan, trying to persuade Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, explains the invigorating effects that will follow its consumption:

Thenceforth to Speculations high or deep
I turn’d my thoughts, and with capacious mind
Consider’d all things visible in Heav’n,
Or Earth, or Middle.(Paradise Lost, 9.602–5)

Such claims, in their unexceptionable virtue, are also a potential form of arrogance and tyranny. Contrast the Spartan boast recorded (or invented) by Thucydides: “And we are wise because we are not so highly educated as to look down on our laws and our customs, and are too rigorously trained in self-control to disobey them.” Know-nothings and survivalists agree that it is better to bypass the swamp. So does a host of decent people in the modern world of science, pluralism, and conflict. The great majority of human beings now or ever alive does not enjoy the luxury or disease of doubting everything. Some people have no inclination to expose themselves to the dark or have reasons why they might want to outfit their souls otherwise. They find tarrying with the negative too expensive. I am not romanticizing such people—they are creatures with bowels and nostrils like the rest of us, doing what they need to do. A “capacious mind” is not always the best way to live. Holy fools may miss something important—the pleasure of the contrast effect—but they also may retain a less bloody furniture of mind. A decent respect for the corruptibility of the heart might enjoin caution in making general policies about exposure. Compare the ancient notion of theoria: true knowledge gives not just a picture of the universe to admire, but a model of order for the soul to emulate. The ancients did not deny that the heart is full of corruptions. They were no spokesmen of a positive mental attitude, staying too perky to notice the darkness. But neither were they guilty (ah, there’s the rub) of repression. To be alert and modern is to know rapine, nuclear catastrophe, death camps, Nazi medical experimentation, ad infinitum. The thresholds of disgust are set extremely high. Satan was not kidding when he told Eve about “Speculations high or deep.” Does the capaciousness of our minds have no limits?

Liberal openness, since it recognizes no zones of sanctity, endorses a form of consciousness full of compassings of abstract ill. The civilized take pride in their ability to entertain abominations. The world is too much with us. Pigheaded ignorance is stupid, but it is something very different from a conscious decision not to subject certain parts of life to the inspections of reason. (Note how I have already lapsed into a liberal vocabulary with the mention of “conscious decision.” There is no neutral standpoint.) Must civic consciousness be mixed with detailed knowledge of evil? Consider the exhortation of The New Republic to watch the video of the American journalist Daniel Pearl being decapitated by his kidnappers, which in June 2002 was, inevitably, put on the internet. “The images are, to put it mildly, tasteless; but surely there are times when truth is more important than taste,” opined The New Republic. Surely? Hmm: anyone got a counterargument that taste is more important than truth? (Where is Oscar Wilde when you need him?) The editors have already won a monopoly on rectitude. Those who would prevent the video’s distribution, the editorial continues, are motivated by “a more generalized squeamishness about the reality of the universe that the video shows: the facticity of evil. This fear must be fiercely resisted, if we are to have clarity about the struggle in which we now find ourselves. For this reason, a viewing of this hideous video is as instructive an experience as it is a shattering one.” Anyone with reasons to resist watching a murder—scruples about the feelings of Pearl’s family, the certain self-knowledge that one would not be able to watch without grossly riveted fascination or some hardening of the heart—is treated as a scaredy-cat not ready to confront the abyss of how vile terrorism is. For the New Republic the only legitimate post-Holocaust consciousness is one that is constantly being seared afresh by knowledge of genocidal crimes against humanity. One understands this stance to images of mayhem as a reflection of the journal’s politics of defending the state of Israel at all costs, but it does not work as a general moral recipe. The writers find in abyss-avoidance a kind of head-in-the-sand irresponsibility. Such arguments make me tired. There are perhaps better resources for convincing us of the facticity of evil than watching a pirate video. We might start with a mirror, invite some reflection on the dark night of the soul, and end with a study of history up to the present moment. In this sense we never avoid the abyss; we just choose the forms we take it in.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 84-97 of Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition by John Durham Peters, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

John Durham Peters
Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition
©2005, 316 pages
Cloth $29.00 ISBN: 0-226-66274-89

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