Rethinking the “Worst”

Calculation becomes an alibi for continued violence, killing, and warfare. “Just war” becomes nothing more than an arbitrary threshold for collateral damage, a number—any number—assigned by military lawyers making, and changing, the rules of engagement as they go along. Reason is reduced to rationale. Ethics is reduced to computation. Politics is reduced to statistical models of population control. And the fantasy of calculability covers over the reality of unpredictability and experiences out of our control. In Derridean language, economic calculation replaces ethical decision. Whether discussing the ethics of hospitality or the politics of democracy, Derrida insists on the impossibility of calculation, even as we calculate (see Derrida 2005, 48, 149; cf. Derrida 2013). When calculation completely eclipses the incalculable, however, and every other is reduced to its countability and exchangeability, we risk replacing an ethical response with a computing machine and rendering responsibility nothing more than account-ability. While Derrida insists that the calculable and incalculable are locked into a necessarily aporetic relationship, his analysis of the “war on terror” suggests that when ethics and politics become nothing more than adding machines, we risk the worst violence rather than avoiding it. Measuring the “worst” is itself part of an economy of hierarchal valuations intended to engage in comparative judgments of which war or whose violence is worse, which killing or massacre is worse.

On one reading of Derrida, the “worst” is associated with the “most” of sovereignty in the logic of might makes right (see Derrida 2009a, 213–14). Within a notion of sovereignty that demands indivisibility, absolute power, and self-control (if not also self-certainty), any and all others (foreigners) are threats. Derrida describes the undemocratic response of democracy through which it tries to protect itself by killing off, or quarantining, those others that might threaten it. The incarceration or detention of refugees is an example of what he calls the autoimmune logic of democracy wherein, in the name of democracy, we justify undemocratic policies.[1] In a world without a clear enemy, however, where every other becomes a possible threat, this autoimmune response risks genocide.

In the words of Derrida scholar Leonard Lawler (2014), “today, the number of ‘enemies’ is potentially unlimited. Every other is wholly other . . . and thus every single other needs to be rejected by the immune system. This innumerable rejection resembles a genocide or what is worse an absolute threat.” Another Derrida scholar, Samir Haddad, describes how the notion of the “worst” evolves in Derrida’s thought from total nuclear war and the final solution to the autoimmune logic of the archive within which the worst is not just mass killing but also erasure of the trace of an archive through either absolute annihilation of a people and its past or the suffocation of one archive with another (see Haddad 2013, 85–87). While neither of these operations can eliminate all traces of the others or of a people, their logics are genocidal in their attempt to do so. The worst goes beyond literal killing and signals the erasure a way of seeing the world—or we might as well say a world itself—by covering it over with another worldview. In this regard, comparative models that reduce life to units to be exchanged or plugged into equations operate according to a world-destroying genocidal logic. This is to say, when the “worst” becomes part of the economy of “lesser of evils,” life and death are reduced to a logic of calculation that makes them fungible; one life is weighed against another, one war against another: which is worse (and therefore risks the worst), ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the Nazi death camps? Which is worse, killing one little girl or killing three soldiers? And so on. Within the calculus of collateral damage, the worst is reduced to the worse, and everything imaginable is also calculable.

Whatever Derrida does or doesn’t say about the worst, the worst “worthy of its name” must remain outside this economy of exchange, an impossible condition of possibility for thinking of what is better or worse, the incalculable always in tension with what can be calculated. As Derrida suggests in his final seminar, the death of each and every person, each and every living being, is not just the end of a world but the end of the world.[2] If genocide is the destruction of a world through killing and erasure of archives, then the hundreds of thousands of people literally corralled into the camp “refugee” are victims of genocide. Derrida (1984, 28) claims, “There is no common measure adequate to persuade me that a personal mourning is less serious than a nuclear war.” And once we think there is, we start on the slippery slope of utilitarian calculus and exclusionary line drawing that risk genocide.

Statistical models that compute comparative valuations risk the “worst” insofar as they set out a hierarchy of life, human and otherwise, through which violence is justified, where some lives are valuable (in this case, citizens’ lives) while others are disposable (in this case, refugees’ lives). Within the logic of contemporary “humanitarian” warfare, the worst is considered a war without rules—that is to say, without limits on collateral damage. To the contrary, the rationale of collateral damage and proportionality through which lives are reduced to numbers, quantified, and compared for relative value or disposability operates according to a genocidal logic that risks the “worst.” Once we imagine the worst, we can do it, and then we can imagine something even worse. For the worst to operate as a limit to our imaginations, it must remain impossible, forever at odds with the genocidal logic of collateral damage and risk–benefit analysis.