The Paradoxical Terrorist Pleasure

Europe was hit, yet again, by Islamic terrorism. From the January 1st nightclub shooting to the Parsons Green bombing 4 days ago, the tally for the year is now 132 deaths and 572 injured. All explanations and arguments have been tried, at least once, though willingness to openly debate the issue remains jammed between the opposite sides of the political correctness scale. The rigidity of discussion is pathological and, thus, perhaps, it is time to place everyone on a collective therapist couch.

Religion, on one side, and, on the other side, people's reaction to the spectacle of terrorism on their mobile, computer and TV screens, share a common ground. So does the polarization of world views, both inwards and outwards vis-à-vis the West. Ironically, the answer may not reside in a groundbreaking formula but in a rather time-worn philosophical quandary: the paradox of tragedy. This is one of the many crossroads of modern life, whether it is consciously (or unconsciously) lived in an archaic or full blown post-modern manner.

The paradox of tragedy is embodied in a simple question: how can humans feel pleasure from something which is painful? Tragedy is a form of drama, i.e. the portrayal of human suffering from which the audience renders pleasure. The original Greek word for this phenomenon is catharsis, a metaphor coined by Aristotle to describe the effect of tragedy on the viewer. It translates as “purification”, i.e. the audience's purgation of emotions through art. For Nietzsche, instead, thought that the pleasure found in tragedy was not due to the Aristotelian self-cleansing phenomenon through extreme exposition to pity and fear, but to a particular joy experienced by the witnessing of destruction –the sensuous acceptance of the terror of existence itself. In the middle of those two philosophical extremes, though, and more mechanistic as to how the transition from pain to pleasure takes place, there's David Hume. For the Scottish philosopher, when in the presence of tragedy humans witness the marriage between the horror of the scene and the sheer beauty of how it is presented, and if the latter is more powerful than the former, the “miracle” happens and we are capable of experiencing pleasure, always against the backlash of the certainty that, after all, we are in the presence of mere fiction and no real suffering is being inflicted on anybody. This explanation, though, falls short of elucidating the transition itself. I think that philosopher Susan Feagin completes the work of Hume in that respect. Allow me to explain.

For Feagin the explanation lies in the duality of human responses to what they witness. On one side there are the immediate gut reactions while, on the other side, there are meta-responses, i.e. the response to the response. This is illustrated, for example, by the laughter experienced when we see somebody clumsily stumbling on something and landing on the ground in a funny way (response), but then feeling shame for rendering amusement out of someone else’s unfortunate accident (meta-response). Almost infinite combinations can be found within this duality, e.g. surprise to a chill reaction towards danger, amusement for blushing when we are introduced to an attractive person, anger at our lack of compassion when stumbling upon a street beggar, etc.

Under this elegant solution to the paradox of tragedy it can be said that the audience’s response of displeasure towards others' suffering is met with a meta-response of pleasure. And such pleasure comes from recognizing, via the displeasure, that we’re compassionate in the presence of suffering, thus humanizing ourselves by empathizing and joining the human species in togetherness. In normal circumstances, the self-congratulatory meta-response as a solution to the paradox of tragedy works only to the extent that we are faced with fictional representations of suffering. However, we are not living under normal circumstances. The mechanics of the meta-response solution as developed by Feagin would not apply seamlessly to real life situations, for it is expected that a functioning, non-psychopathic human being identifies him or herself at a moral level with the suffering of the others and, henceforth, experiences compassion and solidarity –at least at the emotional level, whether a helping hand is extended or not. However, we live in the aftermath of a relativist earthquake. Half of the world has receded or remained in pre-modern times while the other, by will or inertia, has stepped into the dark hole of postmodernism. Neil Postman, in "Amusing Ourselves to Death", wrote that as the influence of print waned the content of politics, religion, and education was recast in terms most suitable to television. This is no more. The immediacy, hyperrealist nature of social media has transformed the tangibility of existence. The instant feedback and the omnipresent witness has fulminated the deep introspection formerly needed after receiving a message and turned it into a gut reaction. The response and the meta-response has shortened to an almost invisible closeness and how we feed it back to the world defines who we are via a like, 140 characters, or a paintbrush meme.

It looks a bit like this.

Post-Postman Tragedy Matrix

When Jihadi John beheaded James Foley for the cameras, circa August 2014, the high production audiovisual ISIS roadshow had its red ribbon cutting ceremony. In that precise instant the world bifurcated between those who could not contain their outrage and those who saw it as a foreseen historical consequence of the sacred clashing against the profane. Puzzled, in affront or affinity, we all took sides. I posit that the old paradox of tragedy and Feagin's contribution to it are helpful to measure how the reaction to terror draws a clear-cut division in our society. For that, we need to look at the work of Mircea Eliade to shed light on the lower left corner of the spectrum and to Stephen Hicks' work for insight on the upper right one.

Eliade is the quintessential religious historian and, to this day, his models rule academia. For him, the sacred is what is considered worthy of spiritual respect and, despite being manifested in the world, it transcends it. As any self-respecting theorist, he divided the human experience in sacred and profane, both in the physical and temporal planes. For him, the myths of homo religiosus are ritualized with the purpose of realizing the potential of existence. What is most interesting about Eliade's work is that, in a historically accurate way, he identifies the West as the only modern society in which nonreligious man has blossomed to its full potential, and it is defined as the one who considers himself the sole subject and agent of history, free insofar as he desacralizes his space, time and condition. As man is a product of his past, Eliade concludes, non-religious man is formed by opposing his predecessor (or "purifying" himself from earlier "superstitions") hence being left with religious behavior, superstitions and tabus though devoid of their magic-religious structure.

And this is where Hicks' ineffable "Explaining Postmodernism" comes into play. Sandwiched between its two mortal foes, pre-modernism and postmodernism, is where the Enlightenment is trapped in what I call a rational abyss. While the pre-modern man, Eliade's homo religiosus, (a) exists in a metaphysical supernaturalism, (b) is epistemologically mystical, (c) understands human nature as subject to God's will, and (d) is ethically collectivist; on the other hand, modern man (a) is fiercely realist, (b) is founded on a firm faith in the acquisition of knowledge through experience and reason, (c) sees human nature as autonomous and (d) is ethically individualist. Postmodernist man, then, is built also in opposition to its hated predecessor, hence (a) is anti-realist, (b) tyrannizes the acquisition of knowledge to one's pigeonhole in the identity politics game, (c) subscribes all nature to how it is socially constructed within the power-plays of intersectionality, and (d) pirouettes back into a tribal, chimeric pre-colonial collectivism --the latter two marrying it smoothly with what is termed neo-marxism.

It is not difficult to identify many of those clinging to centrist positions as completely lost in the rational abyss, if not also the ones desensitized by a Facebook wall plastered with flags, "je suis" phrases, and inane, heartfelt messages of self pity. Ironically, the opposites at each side of the abyss often touch, giving explanation to many quizzing issues, raised elsewhere, for example the phenomenon of third wavers demonstrating shoulder to shoulder with people whose medieval viewpoints are outright frightening. In the post-Neil Postman world of dramatization of real world tragedy and information feedback immediacy, Feagin's meta-response not only has been shortened to a nanosecond but has magnified the points advanced by Eliade and Hicks. That beheading, those trucks ramming through the crowds, or this shooting, are not creating in the postmodernist a meta-response of pleasure by recognizing one's compassion in the presence of suffering but, instead, reinforcing, on one hand, the certainty of how the perception of violence is socially constructed into multiple layers of interpretations --all valid as long as they right the wrongs of oppression-- or, on the other hand, for the pre-modernist, signifying a divine justice cemented on a divinely ordered world where sacrileges are punished sooner or later.

Left to orphanhood, and ever thinning in numbers, are those who once dreamed of a world founded on ideas of liberty, democracy, secularity and cooperation. And, oh yes, those for whom Antigone was a beautiful play rather than a device that "…has deep roots in fascism and reactionary politics and white supremacy."