All the potentially guilty...
In one of their best-loved hits, the members of Icelandic pop outfit FM Belfast refer to their natural habitat as a place where nothing ever happens. Thereby, the lyrics tell us, the sole way to spend the days is to count them, apart from an occasional quest for meaning in the midst of the meaninglessness, practised by running down the streets wearing only underwear. As if in order to validate Lenin, who juxtaposed “decades where nothing happens” and “weeks where decades happen,” the song was published parallel to the 2008 financial meltdown and its subsequent social turbulence—a great demonstration of a surprising “something” that disrupts the normalized “nothing.” Consequently, it now stands as a monument to the precariousness implied in attempting to inhabit a void.
In the small town of Selfoss, some kids recently stumbled upon a hungry mink dumpster-diving in a garbage bin. The news went viral, as if an alien had just landed, and soon the kids were joined by a crowd of self-proclaimed home reserves—including the cops, an exterminator and a reporter who televised the story nation-wide. The town had acquired an enemy, and what followed was a textbook example of bullying mingled with hate crime. After a rampage of collective terror, the barely forty centimetre source of panic got hurt. Resistance was futile. The mink was slaughtered. With a shovel.
Monotonous Nothingness Syndrome
If the methods employed to implement capital punishment by the Islamic State and the United States, respectively, highlight the difference between barbarism and civilization, it’s no exaggeration to state that the mink was killed by a violent mob in the most barbarian manner. The crucial question, however, is not really how it was murdered but much rather why it was killed in the first place. How come the mink became subject to a unanimous principle of killing on sight?
Sticking to FM Belfast’s pathology, the mob could be diagnosed with the syndrome of monotonous nothingness: due to the uncertainty brought forward by the appearance of a something that abruptly penetrated the heretofore omnipresent nothing, the bodies felt threatened and therefore reacted violently. Fright, according to Sigmund Freud, is “the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” But if the mink would be replaced with a kitten or an infant, we can assume that although the finding might ignite the same Freudian surprise—and thus fright—the shovel would surely be swapped for a duvet.
Cruelty and greed / Humanity and need
In search for some external factors, we start in the courtrooms. Animal trials and tribunals were quite common in Europe during the Middle Ages. E.P. Evans’ book ‘The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals’ details how pigs, rats, birds, insects, flies, oxen, dogs, bulls and horses were prosecuted for crimes ranging from theft and trespassing to homicide—punishments included banishment and the death penalty. Surprisingly to some, the defendants were often assigned defence lawyers, one such being 16th century jurist Barthélemy de Chasseneuz, famous for successfully defending a gang of rats accused of sabotaging crops in the French province of Autun.
While this perished judicial tradition might at first come across strange, it demonstrates a peculiar attitude towards animals, inherently different to the way the mink was treated. Although medieval courts were largely based on presumed guilt—and no less so in cases of non-human creatures—the animals were nevertheless given a chance of defence. The mink, on the other hand, wasn’t just guilty until proven innocent, but regardless of a possible proof of innocence. Like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan, the mink’s guilt boiled down to belonging to a group that Michel Foucault called “all the potentially guilty.” Hence, justice is served without further procedures.
But potentially guilty of what? Ever since first fleeing the factory cages, seeking refuge in Iceland’s ecosystem—only a year after being brought over from Norway for industrial fur production in 1931—the mink has been viewed and portrayed as a plague, of which we have to get rid by any means necessary. Roaming around farms in search of food, this species of sneaky outlaws has gained a notorious reputation for doing what humans do best: killing other animals. What distinguishes them from us—or the “other” from “us”—is exactly what distinguishes the Islamic State from the West: their killings are primarily associated with cruelty and greed as opposed to our humanity and need.
In reality, though, it’s not the claimed difference that causes the hatred. Quite the contrary, it’s the similarity. As Slavoj Žižek explains, “the ‘other’ can be someone who tries to steal from us our enjoyments; to disturb—as we usually put it—our way of life.” Just as immigrants are said to “take our jobs,” the minks assume “our role” by killing sheep and chicken. They take on our identity and become us. In defence, we attribute to them all the extreme elements of our own behaviour, reducing our (potential) guilt to a zero. A nothing. A void. Thus we end up as the “decades where nothing happens” whilst the minks show off as the adventurous “weeks where decades happen.” Frightened and frustrated—not because of their behaviour but precisely because of their theft of our behaviour—we find no salvation in counting those decade-long days, but in counting them out. With a shovel.
There is, however, one historical fact—one fateful “something” that famously overthrew “nothing”—which undoubtedly differentiates us and the mink: the bite of that damn apple way back in Eden, to which FM Belfast’s cry of “Oh, my lord!” pays tribute. Devoid of the backbreaking burden of hereditary shamefulness, the mink wanders about in a moral void where our supposedly abnormal act of running down the streets clad only in underwear is merely a monument to the price of the Original Sin.
Vis-à-vis our shameless past reflected in that four-legged creature, we stand with our genitals covered by civilized curtains of collective guilt—wishing that nothing had actually ever happened.