Tag Archives: adorno

The Business of Haunting

So, what is this business about hauntingWOUNDS is a film that reflects on what it means to be haunted. In his address on May 23rd this year, President Obama claimed that he is “haunted” by the loss of civilian life from the drone attacks and wars carried out on his orders.

Let’s take this seriously. What is haunting?

To begin simply: haunting is when the dead refuse to die. It’s when they pull up a chair at the dinner table and demand that you set a place for them. It’s an expression of loss. And, it’s so disruptive that one cannot continue as if one were not haunted. Is this President Obama’s condition?

This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living what they have lost.


In their essay “On the Theory of Ghosts,” the German intellectuals Adorno and Horkheimer wrote:

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.

I’ve been writing and speaking for some time about the limitations of international law as a language through which to think and speak about drone attacks. International law is slow. Missiles are fast. International law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence. In other words, it doesn’t reject drone attacks or imperial power as such; it only raises objections when it finds that the violence has become excessive. This is not to deride legal work, but to point out what it constitutively is: a method to regulate the status quo.

It’s not so much lawyers, but journalists actually, who have popularized legal language as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.

We forget that our categories are also an ideological construct. (All categories are.)

So, what is an alternative language to use to think about drone attacks? I think haunting is one frame through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere. The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered–not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?

It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.

If our task as journalists — not the MSM who get paid a lot to shill for power — but the rest of us, in fact most of us: if our task is not to establish the humanity of others, then we might as well stop writing.

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