What Comes Between Us

Etienne Turpin

Reviewed in this article

Introduction to Civil War

This challenging text operates as an intervention and has consequences for the ways in which activists and organizers understand the social and political civil war that extinguishes any possibility of neutrality. The epigraph that opens the first section of Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War is taken from the Constitution of Athens, and is as striking in its content as it is in its attribution: “Whoever does not take sides in a civil war is struck with infamy, and loses all right to politics.”2 In the tradition of Western political theory with which I am familiar, civil war has rarely been described as a constitutive fact of political life. It is surprising, then, to find such a politics outlined in the constitution of that quasi-mythical Athenian city-state heralded as the cradle of modern liberal democracy. The tradition of liberal political theory has consistently emphasized the moralistic dimensions of free will, individual rights, and democratic debate, which betray its own bastard line that sees both thought (or theory), and action (or practice), quite differently. Which is to say, along this bastard line of political theory, thought and action are problems of an existential rather than logical nature. They are the very conditions of struggle, not predicates to its erasure. It is precisely along this line, extending at least from Spinoza to Jean Genet to Assata Shakur, that we find Tiqqun: “In every situation there is one line that stands out among all the others, the line along which power grows. Thought is the capacity for singling out and following this line… all thought is strategic” (CW 20).

Before we can consider more specifically what this line means for Tiqqun, and what compositions are at stake on it, a few brief contextual points are in order. First, what, or who, is Tiqqun? According to the English translators, “Tiqqun” can refer to “an anonymous collective, the journal in which these texts appeared, a subjective process, or to the historical process to which these texts bear witness” (CW 7). As “author,” Tiqqun also offers additional points of reference: someone who “triggers or pursues the process of ethical polarization, the differential assumption of forms-of-life. This process is nothing other than tiqqun” (CW 180). Also, “Tiqqun is… the action that restores to each fact its how,” and holds “this how to be the only real there is” (CW 189). Finally, and somewhat further from the text itself, is the homophonic relation to a Hebrew phrase, originating in the early rabbinic period, “Tikkun olam.” This phrase, which takes on additional significance in the medieval kabalistic tradition, means “repairing the world.” While I have not found any specific reference to Judiaism in the writings of Tiqqun, the relation might provide readers with some cues regarding the scope of Tiqqun’s political homonymics.

Second, what is the context of the publication of the text? It is useful to recall that the publication of Introduction to Civil War was preceded a year earlier by The Coming Insurrection, attributed to The Invisible Committee. This earlier text was the first book in the Semiotext(e) Intervention series, which was initiated as a way of expediting the publication of politically consequential new titles.3 The commitment to political necessity over pragmatic (i.e. economic) publishing decisions is not an insignificant factor in allowing the texts of The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun to be made available in English.

Finally, what is the relation betweenThe Coming Insurrection and Introduction to Civil War? According to Tiqqun, “At some point, the ‘Invisible Committee’ was the name given to the ethic of civil war expressed in these pages. It refers to a specific faction of the Imaginary Party, its revolutionary-experimental wing” (CW 193).4 Notably, much of the controversy surrounding The Coming Insurrection has been tied to the 2008 arrest in France of its alleged authors on charges of “association of wrongdoers in relation to a terrorist undertaking.” In the introduction to the English edition of The Coming Insurrection, the authors offer a “point of clarification” on the relationship between the arrest of 20 young activists and intellectuals in Paris, Rouen, and Tarnac, who, following the release of 11 members, came to be known as the “Tarnac Nine” and were perceived to be the supposed authors of the text.5 The authors of the introduction note,

Deserting classical politics means facing up to war, which is also situated on the terrain of language. Or rather, in the way that words, gestures and life are inseparably linked. If one puts so much effort into imprisoning as terrorists a few young communists who are supposed to have participated in publishing The Coming Insurrection, it is not because of a ‘thought crime,’ but rather because they might embody a certain consistency between acts and thought. Something which is rarely treated with leniency.6

The promiscuous relation between theory and action are, in our contemporary moment, what constitutes the gravest threat to obedience and control. But it is also in this sense that The Invisible Committee contends, “We can discern more clearly every day, beneath the reassuring drone, the noise of preparations for open war. It’s impossible to ignore its cold and pragmatic implementation, no longer even bothering to present itself as an operation of pacification” (CI 9).

Returning to the bastard line discussed above – “all thought is strategic” – we can now ask: in what situation can the power of a strategic line of thought grow? What is its necessary condition of possibility, and how are such conditions created? For Tiqqun, “The point of view of civil war is the point of view of the political.” Because of this, “We reproach this world not for going to war too ferociously, nor for trying to prevent it by all means; we only reproach it for reducing war to its most empty and worthless forms” (CW 59). This reclaiming of the language of civil war is described with great precision in the text and does not require further rehearsal here. However, it is worth noting that, like the language of civil war, Tiqqun emphatically reclaims the term communism, declaring, “I call ‘communism’ the real movement that elaborates, everywhere and at every moment, civil war” (CW 63). The ethic of civil war calls for the formation of political polarization, wherein the position of one’s friends and enemies is determined according to the how of their existence, and thus allows for a struggle that is not predicated on the adjudication of neutral third parties, nor is it limited to the inertia of generalized hostility. The insistence on the language of communism and civil war, each evoked for their controversial potential to renew social polarization, suggests a strategic vision that demands a reconsideration of the contemporary neoliberal organization of capitalism.

Tiqqun relies on the term “Empire” to designate the administrative condition of contemporary life – an intentionally broad designation for the global order that links states and corporations, institutions and businesses. However, Tiqqun is vehement about the failings of “Negriism,” and it should be stressed that Empire is not, in their reading, the existing structure of global governance primed for a messianic reversal wherein a global civil society can replace the current structures of power.7 Instead, Tiqqun’s anexact description of Empire is important for its articulation of the two dominant “super-institutional poles of Empire”: Spectacle and Biopower (CW 118). It is worth pausing on these two concepts, because both their specific logics and the relationship between them take on decisive and pragmatic importance within Tiqqun’s diagnostic.

For Tiqqun, spectacle, initially deployed as a term of analysis in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), is the “discursive” dimension of Empire. While the logic of spectacle operates beyond the limits of discourse and therefore must be understood within the field of the imaginary as such,

Spectacle’s genius is to have acquired a monopoly over qualifications, over the act of naming. With this in hand, it can then smuggle in its metaphysics and pass off the products of its fraudulent interpretations as facts. Some act of social war gets called a ‘terrorist act,’ while a major intervention by NATO, initiated through the most arbitrary process, is deemed a “peacekeeping operation.” (CW 189).

While the novelty of this description may be contested with references to Debord’s own reevaluation of “integrated spectacle” in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), what is important for Tiqqun’s position is the persistent assumptions regarding the neutrality of this global schematic of managed distraction. As Debord himself wrote, within the society of the spectacle “what are given are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what to think of them.”8 All the better to dissuade us from believing in neutral accounts of our reality.

Biopower, the other super-institutional pole of Empire, develops the research initiated by Michel Foucault in his lectures at the College de France in the early 1980s. For Tiqqun, this aspect of Empire signals a shift:

Empire can only be understood through the biopolitical turn of power… Power has always cut across the life and bodies of subjects. What is novel about Biopower is that it is nothing more than this… Biopower means only that power adheres to life and life to power. Thus, from the perspective of its classical form, power is changing radically before our eyes, from a solid to a gaseous, molecular state (CW 123-4).

Importantly, Biopower does not “[claim] to govern men and things directly – instead, it governs possibilities and conditions of possibility” (CW 131). These possibilities are especially important in relation to two particular regimes: labour and law.

A key aspect of the biopolitical transformation, according to Tiqqun, is the reorganization of labour as a form of constant and interminable mobility. This regime of mobility is the conversion of work into potential, or the transition from the hiring of workers to the precarity of temporary labour. Similarly, the constant demand for production at all levels of life, including the most personal, signals the deepening incursions of the biopolitical order into everyday life. It is for this reason that, according to The Coming Insurrection, “To organize beyond and against work, to collectively desert the regime of mobility, to demonstrate the existence of a vitality and a discipline precisely in demobilization is a crime for which a civilization on its knees is not about to forgive us. In fact, though, it’s the only way to survive it (CI 51).”

The second key aspect of the biopolitical turn is the usurpation of the sovereign execution of law by statistical management of the norm. However, the law remains a key technique in the management of the norm. That is,

Under Empire we witness a proliferation of the legal, a chronic boom in juridical production. This proliferation, far from confirming some sort of triumph of the Law, instead verifies its total devaluation, its definitive obsolescence. Under the regime of the norm, the Law becomes but one instrument among many for retroactively acting on society, an instrument that can easily be customized – and subject to reversal of sense – as all the others. It is a technique of government, a way of putting an end to a crisis, nothing more (CW137).

There are many difficult lessons that follow from this analysis, including decisive polarizations with regard to the many contemporary forms of legal negotiation.

Key to an understanding of Tiqqun’s ethic of polarization is the need to replace the generalized hostilities conjured by the desire to annihilate Empire (for Tiqqun, hostility can only separate us from our power) with the clear decisions of friendship and enmity.9 This, in fact, may be the most subtle dimension of the book, and certainly it is one of the most important: the ethic of civil war is not one of annihilation or destruction, but of political composition.10 This is because “Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us” (CW 171). From such a position, the foundations of any representational politics are at least pragmatically suspect, if not entirely undermined. One does not “raise the consciousness” of poison ivy or demonstrate injustice to a flooding river bank. Political philosophy here meets the philosophy of nature. Indeed, under Empire’s environment of total hostility, one can only attempt to survive by alliance rather than by annihilation.

Finally, it should be noted that Tiqqun takes up the question of violence without any naïve romanticism or heroic grandeur, instead emphasizing the nearly comic novelty of the term. “‘Violence’ is something new in history. We decadents are the first to know this curious thing: violence” (CW 34). This demonstrates how the term is detached from the act that determines its condition of possibility (i.e. “theft, blasphemy, parricide, abduction, sacrifice, insults and revenge”). This separation allows for the manifestation of a fear of a universal threat that requires constant surveillance and correction. While the question of violence is posed throughout the text in several different forms, the following estimation makes clear the stakes of the question:

only the timid atom of imperial society… thinks of ‘violence’ as a radical and unique evil lurking behind countless masks, an evil which it is so vitally important to identify, in order to eradicate it all the more thoroughly. For us, ultimately, violence is what has been taken from us, and today we need to take it back (CW 34).

It is precisely the explosiveness of passages such as this that led Fox News pundit Glenn Beck to devote a monologue to how “the extreme left on this planet is actively calling for violence.” According to Semiotext(e) founding editor Sylvère Lotringer,

In America, to be a radical, for the most part, is writing ‘critiques.’ The flip side, of course, is that Glenn Beck and the Tea Party need enemies to energize their crowds before the elections, and after. They jumped on this small book and made it a brulot [time bomb], and the media on both parts of the Atlantic turned it into a hot event. The book indicated that in (actually) closed societies such as ours, if you are not already zombified, the only way is to explode and remind people that they are alive.

Whether we understand anger and the enmity it fuels as a psychological, emotional, or existential condition, to imagine its resolution through political life (i.e. civil war) without violence would be to imagine a neutered and neutralized dream that is, in fact, a nightmare for at least nine-tenths of the world.

The conceptual language and aphoristic presentation of Introduction to Civil War can at times be challenging, if not overly frustrating. The brevity of the work, in several instances, leads to quick movements that are not especially clear or explicit. The book has also been criticized by feminist activists and intellectuals for its tone of insurrectionist machismo, and, perhaps more significantly, for its strict refusal of identity politics. While the question of the value and legacy of representational politics is best left to historians, it is clear that Tiqqun’s provocation cannot, despite its rhetorical style and intellectual polemics, be simply dismissed as insurrectionist rhetoric or “ultra-left” academicism. What is most important to recognize is that the text operates according to a strategy of intervention – literally, a coming between. It attempts to come between us, where a plurality of forms-of-life are connoted by the term “us.” The most consequential of these connotations for activists and organizers is the denial of any neutrality between us. The virulent denial of neutrality at issue in both the analysis and diagnosis is as emphatic as the hope for neutrality is naïve. For Tiqqun: no “saving power,” no redeemer, no redemption, no messianic reversal in the end of times. The composition of the text is remarkable in its ability to dispel, at every turn, any assumption that there is a space or position of neutrality that might administer, judge, or decide among competing forms-of-life according to some universal criteria of acceptability. “We recognize the fragile formations of power by their relentless attempt to posit fictions as self-evident. […] to posit the existence of a center, and then say that this center is ethically neutral” (CW 69). In the end, we must admit that nothing is more loathsome or arrogant than the pretense of neutrality.

The ethic of polarization that Tiqqun poses as a problem – an ethic increasingly plagued by sad passions, police surveillance, and counter-insurgency at the macro and micro scales – is clear: how do we find each other? Again, this is a lesson that activists and organizers might consider more closely in their work contesting the gentrification (i.e. destruction) of the city, the quotidian forms of State violence, and within the larger campaigns against the neoliberal agenda of capitalism. Necessarily,

It is useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization. It is within this reality that we must choose sides (CI 96).

It is, in fact, what comes between us that might embolden the formation of unapologetic and unavowable communities – an “us” that is beyond representation – to survive the hostility of the collapsing Empire.



1The author would like to thank Sylvère Lotringer and Hedi El Kholti for their contributions to this review.

2Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War, translated by Alexander R. Galloway and Jason E. Smith. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Intervention series No. 4, 2010 [originally published by Éditions La Fabrique, 2009], pp. 15; henceforth cited in the text as CW.

3According to the series editor, Hedi el Kholti, “We felt it would be important to regain something of a more ‘spontaneous’ spirit and resist becoming too professionalized or institutionalized. The Intervention series was something that could be distributed through our site and put out as soon as the book was ready or translated with ‘soft releases.’… I suspect one of the reasons that Semiotext(e) has lasted so long, and that Sylvère [Lotringer] and Chris [Kraus] stayed invested in the project is mostly because it has stayed true to its original intention, which is to publish books because we want them to be part of the cultural landscape at a given moment, outside of other practical considerations.”

4The “Imaginary Party” is the name Tiqqun gives to the “formation – the contagious formation – of a plane of consistency where friendships and enmities can freely deploy themselves and make themselves legible to each other” (CW 179).

5For detailed account of this arrest and its consequences, see Alberto Toscano, “The War Against Preterrorism: The ‘Tarnac Nine’ and The Coming Insurrection,” in Radical Philosophy, Issue 154, March/April 2009, available online: http://www.radicalphilosophy.com/

6The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Intervention series No. 1, 2009 [originally published by Éditions La Fabrique, 2007], pp. 17; henceforth cited in the text as CI.

7See, for example, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

8Guy Debord,Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, translated by Malcolm Imrie. New York, Verso, 1990, pp. 6.

9Merriam-Webster: enmity: positive, active, and typically mutual hatred or ill will.

10In this sense, Tiqqun’s ethic of civil war is analogous to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the “war machine,” first made available in English by the Semiotext(e) publication of Nomadology in 1986.