Thumos, Terror and Houellebecqian Temperatures

by Katrin Trüstedt

Achilles ThymosThe assumed Islamist terror attack in Munich two weeks ago that was part of a series leading to claims that “terrorism has now reached Germany” turned out to be something else: the shooter actually targeted ‘immigrants', and carried out his attack on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Norway attacks conducted by his hero Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist and self-declared fascist. Because the shooter had Iranian parents, people jumped to conclusions, but then became increasingly confused – not only as to whether to call this act an act of terrorism or a killing spree, but also whether to link it to an Islamist, or rather, a right-wing ideology. What makes the reaction to this particular shooting interesting is the incapacity of getting the story straight. While the drive to create a narrative with a clear distinction between some kind of ‘us' and some kind of ‘them' was obvious enough in the shooting, the specific contents of that opposition confused the attempts to make it fit an expected pattern.

The recent obsession of certain right-wing intellectuals in Germany with the idea of thumos is an interesting example where the position of a ‘we' standing up against a ‘them' seems more important than the actual content of that opposition, and the position, moreover, turns out to be somehow informed by what it opposes. While these intellectuals rally to reaffirm a thumos which is supposed to mean something like wrath or rage and connotes an invigorating vitality, one cannot help but suspect that such thumos is exactly what its advocates see in the Muslims they work so hard to distinguish themselves from. Many former workers who now favor the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) do have legitimate anger, since the social democratic parties – like their equivalents in other European countries – have been neglecting them. Marc Jongen, one of the AfD's chief ideologues, on the other hand, philosophizes and elevates (or rather diverts) this anger into a value in and of itself, without the burden of actual issues. The anger, now thumos, is nobilitated as a philosophically deep temper with an ancient Greek term. Thumos should not be appeased – with, say, political interventions that actually solve a problem – but rather fueled and raised to a permanent level of tenseness. Jongen, formerly an assistant to German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, claims to speak for the bourgeois AfD supporters with a higher education who actually make up the majority of AfD voters.

The apparent lack of a certain level of thumos, of an inner force that Western Culture exhibits, became a subject, interestingly enough, in the context of the so-called refugee crisis. Faced with an imaginative ‘horde' of eager young Muslim men ‘overrunning' this country, apparently Western civilization started worrying about their state of thumos tenseness. Those cultivating these worries probably felt confirmed by representatives of the German economy insisting these highly motivated refugees eager to work are not only welcome here but actually much needed. This also goes for the demographic development, as Germany is a quickly aging population that does not produce enough offspring. It was against such a background that the thumos discourse evolved.

The strange logic of such discourses setting out to reclaim something they fear in the imagined other is captured quite nicely in the French novel Submission by Michel Houellebecq (January 2015). The protagonist is an underachieving middle-aged academic in France of 2022, who watches the news about the far right clashing with the “Muslim Brotherhood,” while his microwave can't even generate the heat to warm up his fast food. Europe – that is the story this image is supposed to convey – is in decay. The decadent West has lost its juice and has nothing exciting to offer, so right-wing ideology steps in, only to be then replaced in turn by Islam. The Muslim character of the novel used to be associated with an existing European neo-fascist movement adequately called “Le Bloc identitaire” and defined by its fear of the “Great Replacement”. He then converts to a caricature of Islam – formerly the object of the movement's fear – that eventually takes the whole of France in a sweep and offers itself as the better, stronger, in a word: a more thumotic culture. The promise of conversion the novel offers in some kind of satirical utopia, unfortunately, is meant only for men. The difference Islam has to offer is not least the sexual difference.

In Germany the novel generated much interest, becoming a bestseller and producing many stage performances. The interest also speaks to the recent discourse on thumos or rather on the lack thereof and the specific position it claims vis à vis its supposed other. To blame for the lack of thumos and the decay of Western Culture are, according to these discourses, multiculturalism and feminism, with their advancement of political correctness, gender equality and what not. Anders Breivik takes up a good part of his unbearable ‘manifesto' blaming feminism for creating a European ‘cultural suicide'. Much of it was copy pasted from Political Correctness: A Short History of an Ideology by the Free Congress Foundation. Political correctness is here taken to mean losing one's ‘natural' and ‘given' position, like the entitlement, for instance, to call the current PC generation a “pussy generation”, associating – naturally – ‘pussy' with weakness, and ‘balls' with strength (despite the fact that ‘pussies' actually give birth to human beings while ‘balls' appear to be rather fragile and sensitive – so much for the ‘naturalism').

When Breivik and others consider themselves knights dedicated to stemming the tide of Muslims immigrating into Europe, this seems not bound to specific contents like Christian commitments. Rather, it seems to be about a position that is informed by the projection it is posited against. (In letters sent to Norwegian newspaper Dagen, Breivik said that there are few things in the world more “pathetic” than “the Jesus-figure and his message”. Similar arguments can be found in Submission: Jesus had been hanging out with women too much, where Islam, on the other hand, is about men.) The German AfD avoids such obvious inversions, but their positive point of reference is also not a specific, debatable content or commitment, but rather Western or German “culture” as such that needs to be protected and restored. Culture seems to function as an empty term here, a placeholder for any kind of identity that can be raised and held up in the face of an imagined antagonist that is secretly envied for its projected strength. The emptiness in content is filled with ‘natural' surrogates: the reaffirmation of family, clear gender hierarchies and the idea of a thumos, a mysterious life power we have to re-instigate.

The supposed loss of thumos seems to be the loss of a supposedly natural and given position. Calls for its reinvigoration react to the slowly transpiring suspicion that the position of the ‘Westerner' with all his entitlements and prerogatives, political might and economic power may after all not be a ‘natural' one. We cannot just not know that the smartphones we use daily are not a natural given, but based on a capitalistic global economy involving unacceptable conditions for workers in the Congo and elsewhere. And that these forces, together with the very selective political and military engagements of the West, have in fact created the conditions for people having to leave their homes. These are issues we should be addressing instead of reproducing old Orientalisms to cover up the fact that we don't have a natural right to our expected way of living and that there is no such thing in society as a ‘natural position.'