Liberté, égalité, fraternité – The Workings of Brotherhood in the Age of the Web

This may be irrelevant, but when I hear the term “brotherhood” I first think about the “Aryan Brotherhood”.  The Aryan Brotherhood” is a neo-Nazi organization, about which I once saw an episode of “Gangland”. “Gangland” is a TV-series on the “History Channel”. On TV, they said the Aryan Brotherhood” was one of the most violent of all prison gangs. Then, I think about commander – was that his rank? – Kane and his “Brotherhood of NOD”, the evil faction in 1995’s real time strategy blockbuster “Command and Conquer”. Kane, the leader of this sinister brotherhood had a baldhead and wore leather. The logo of his crew was the tail of a scorpion on a red background. The movies that Imdb lists under the search term “brotherhood” are all either about similar dark cults or about brothers who grew apart, such as the 2006–2008 TV series “Brotherhood”, which – according to the plot summary – “reflects around two brothers on opposite sides of the law: one a gangster and the other a politician.”

It feels almost redundant to mention Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, Richard I the Lionheart and John Lackland of England, Heinrich and Thomas Mann, Brian Wilson and his “Beach Boy”-Brothers. Practically all the famous brothers hated each other. Brotherhood, in spite of the term’s somehow positive associations with community, is essentially a dark thing. 

But that was too fast. Before I come back to the problem of individual evil, let’s talk about violence and evil in a larger scale, the grand narrative. By the end of the 18th century, the broad availability of firearms has led to the French Revolution – overall a catastrophe, bringing about not only the terror of the guillotines and Napoleon, but most of all the rule of the bourgeoisie, which was in some ways – the hells of the 20th century proof it – even worse than what it replaced.

In spite of the devastating effects of this failed revolution of 1789, which still can be felt today, it must be considered one of the most radical undertakings in human history, only comparable to the total transformation of everyday life by the Russian avant-garde before Stalin imposed the kitschness of dictatorship upon esthetic progress. The sans-culottes and others not only wanted to overthrow the proverbially rotten French aristocracy, but also were seeking to built a new society, a society based on the new, secular values liberté, égalité, fraternité. 

Invoking this baguette-ish triad seems inevitable when talking about brotherhood and therefore all too trivial at first sight. It is no coincidence that contemporary French neoliberal populist philosophers such as André Glucksmann and Paul Thibaud both were giving unctuous elaborations on this matter. And who has ever been to France will hate nothing more than this kind of revolutionary kitsch that also fuels the so called “radical” left of the country, most of all Alain Badiou, who loves to proclaim “la revolution” from his recess in an elite university.

Something though, is in spite of all that remarkable in the triad liberté, égalité, fraternité: To come straight to the point, it says “brotherhood” not “sisterhood”. Why is that so? Surprisingly, there are not many people who even thought about this. One of the few exceptions is Belgian art historianThierry de Duve in his essay “Humains, encore un effort si vous voulez être post-chrétiens!” To de Duve, who is otherwise a remarkable thinker, the use of “brotherhood” is a hint for the sexism of the French Revolution, which, especially in the juxtaposition to the sacralisation of female figures such as the Marianne, proves that all ideas of the French revolution are ultimately phallo-, logo- and whatever-centric.

Of course, that is exactly the kind of bullshit post-deconstructivist and meta-modern approaches have to get rid off. De Duve, otherwise brilliant, is just projecting his own mindset on other epochs in this case. He ultimately criticizes the French Revolution for its inherent sexism that he locates in the fact that 18th century rhetoric didn’t include the gender-neutral formulations of today’s campuses. He implicitly alleges that the French revolutionaries didn’t know better, that they in fact wanted to say “humanity” or “solidarity”, but their sexist subconscious spoiled this certain wish. There is no more naïve and self-righteous way to misunderstand historical speech acts.

The French of the 18th century were probably not aware that “brotherhood” involved an exclusion of gender. They had drafted a “Declaration de droits de l’homme”, which was gender neutral, in spite the word “homme” literally means “man” in the gender sense – just like the English word. In fact, the constitution of 1791 uses the notion of brotherhood in direct relation to a gender-neutral “homme”, when it says: “Men (hommes) of all countries are brothers (frères), he who oppresses one nation declares himself the enemy of all.” It is therefore most likely, that the “fraternité” doesn’t only imply men.

Nevertheless, “fraternité” is not simply a gender-neutral form of “solidarity” or “humanity”. The revolutionaries could have used the gender neutral terms “humanité” or “solidarité”, if they really would have wanted to express that. Both words do rhyme with “egalité” and “liberté” and there were many different versions of the slogan liberté, égalité, fraternité circulating. Replacing one term was a real possibility. 

So, why “brotherhood”? What separates the members of a brotherhood from those of a sisterhood besides the bearing or non-bearing of the typical sexual organs – which is most likely anyway not the way how a 18th century person would have understood gender differences? Why is “brotherhood” not “sisterhood”, in a political sense? What is the real difference between both concepts?

I mentioned it before. First of all, it needs to be noted that the brothers in classical narratives all hate each other. This phenomenon also exists concerning sisters, but it surely is stronger with brothers. It is almost hard to choose where to begin. Cain and Abel. Osiris and Seth. Romulus and Remus. Richard I the Lionheart and John Lackland of England. Heinrich and Thomas Mann. Where brothers clash, there is often blood. And being competitors for elderly love and heritage, they clash almost everywhere. The relation between really existing brothers is in fact, the opposite of solidarity.

This is an even more interesting fact, since – in spite the hatred between real brothers being trivial and everyday life knowledge – one still associates “brotherhood” with “solidarity”. And we rarely even think about real brothers when we think about “brotherhood”. Two brothers are relatives, but they almost never form a bond of “brotherhood”.

On the other hand, a “brotherhood” is a somewhat mythical, undefined threat to an outsider from the realm of fairytales and conspiracy theories. A “brotherhood” will have its symbols, its liturgy, it’s “secret knowledge”. In one sentence: a brotherhood is folklore and kitsch.

In the juxtaposition of these two implications of brotherhood, one can easily recognize a paradoxical coincidence. The impossibility of real, blood-based brotherhood on the one hand and the hysteric, kitsch concept of brotherhood as secret society on the other. In spite of being the opposite, both notions exactly presuppose each other. There is something so deeply virtual and unreal in the term brotherhood as solidarity that it can only be expressed by the means of a hysteric narrative.

The political notion of a brotherhood – the specific community that brotherhood describes – therefore doesn’t most importantly imply a form of solidarity, but precisely the virtuality of solidarity. When the French citoyensacted with the legitimacy of a “brotherhood”, they acted as individuals in the name of a fictive universal community, which – especially because it obviously doesn’t consist of genetic brothers – at the same time acknowledges its own virtuality. If Kant’s philosophy is the philosophy of the “As-if” – and this fictional approach is precisely the strength of it – then the brotherhood is the community of the “As-if”. The individual acting in the name of a brotherhood, any brotherhood, is like the individual acting in the name of the categorical imperative: acting in the name of the “As-if”. As in Kant’s categorical imperative, it is not the content that is important, but only the form.

It is precisely the fiction of the “As if”, which opens up the space of the universal within the limited sphere of the concrete: a possibility that would be less universal if “brotherhood” described a real existing institution. Mathematics is one path to the universal, fiction another. They both happen in a situation where the individual is directly connected to the universal, without institutional middlemen. There might be an institution that doesn’t recognize that 2+2 = 4, but every individual, especially in liberty, will always come to the same conclusion. Narratives, if not obstructed by institutions, do work in a similar way, although their truth is existential, not formal.

A brotherhood is – like a tribe – what Lévi-Strauss calls a “zero institution”. It is an institution with neither function nor meaning. Neither does it represent a shared understanding, nor an assumption, nor a shared concrete narrative. Rather, it is just a common, empty “as if” that can take on any concrete narrative or meaning. As such, every individual ultimately decides the meaning of it, but it can serve as a basis for individual actions performed with reference to a fictive community.

It is interesting to recall the brilliant essay “Why the Net is not a Public Sphere” by Jodi Dean, in which Dean argues that the net is such a “zero institution”, since it forms a global discourse and a global sense of community without any concretely existing global community. This paradoxical situation for example leads to the bizarre, clearly untrue idea that “the net” or the “internet community” had one voice, as newspapers and TV often say. The net itself is a fertile ground for infinite brotherhoods with their manifold shibboleths of youth- and nerd-culture. But it also produces a sense of universality in regard to its form, in regard to common, merely technical interests and the common fight against laws such as CISPA or SOPA. The space of the web, as Dean argues, is precisely not a public sphere, but something different. A space in which neither arguments are exchanged, nor consensuses are found, nor people represented: a space instead, in which the logic of representation is exchanged for the logic of action under an individually formulated universal narrative.

This end of representation is precisely what makes a brotherhood so politically powerful and so disquieting. Anonymous or the Mexican#yosoy132 are such brotherhoods. Everybody can claim to act in their name. The Rosicrucians in the 17th century, aka “Fraternity of the most Laudable Order of the Rosy Cross”, were such a brotherhood. Their Invisible Collegewas fictional. Their founder, Christian Rosenkreutz, never existed. One of their most sacred texts, the Corpus Hermeticum, was a forgery. Nevertheless, they formed the seed of the Royal Society, which revolutionized science by universalizing it, by detaching it from concrete institutions and binding it to the individual and its own judgment.

This notion of the “Invisible College” or the “Invisible Church” has been influential throughout occidental history. As Carl Schmitt writes in his essay on “The visibility of the Church”, Christianity includes the possibility, that in times of exception, the times of the parousial presence of the divine, the individual has to bypass all institutions and to seek its own relation to the universal. It is important however to remember Kierkegaard here, who clarified that the individual can only find such a privileged path to the universal inasmuch as it is itself an exception to the universal. The individual can only relate to the universal in the form of understanding itself as an exception to the universal – and by doing so, at the same time affirming and revoking the universality of the universal.

Similar is the relation of the individual to the brotherhood. The universal can only be fictively invoked as an exception, as a kitsch narrative that at the same time as it is invoked, questions its own legitimacy. It is the big advantage of a brotherhood that it ultimately cannot and never could be taken seriously. In these terms, one has to understand the triad: liberté, égalité, fraternitéFreedom and equality are such absurd, unrealistic ideals that they can only be understood within the framework of the fictive, unreal community of a broken universal that is exceptional and only includes exceptions.

Johannes Thumfart