John Pistelli


From the Gray Zone

Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead…

—Walt Whitman, “The Wound Dresser”


On the eleventh of November, a friend calls, panicked about the surprise success of a political tendency opposite to his own. On the twentieth, he calls back, not much less incensed at his enemies but now wishing to confide some misgivings he feels he cannot share publicly about what he calls the “groupthink” of his friends. “What do they think they’re achieving?”


Recently, whenever ISIS has carried out another terrorist attack, the public has been exhorted by counterterrorism experts not to respond with over-generalization or vituperation toward Islam in general because the intention of the terrorists is precisely to destroy the “gray zone” between moderate and radical Islam and more generally between east and west—the discursive space of moderation wherein negotiation and dialogue (sans violence) can occur. On this theory, moral, religious, and metaphysical appeals must be suspended to allow all interlocutors sufficient dignity and security to feel they can compromise without being destroyed. Even if we know we are on the side of the angels, it is in our own interests to refuse the satisfactions of the generalizing demonization; even if we feel unsafe, it is to secure our safety that we must avoid outright civilizational or cultural war. And even if we wish to alter destructive elements in the culture of another, the best way to go about that is to amplify that culture’s creative and productive elements rather than dwelling endlessly on the negatives or suggesting that their entire enterprise is corrupt from top to bottom. Total war would be a price too high to pay for total victory, so we seek in its place a modus vivendi. Peace, this argument implies, is the precondition of justice and not the other way around.


Overheard between two artists, one of whom received a harsh reception for her latest work, on social and political grounds (“this project wasn’t even about race!”): “I’m thinking of just painting pictures of blank walls. People are too easily offended, so here’s the solution: nothing to look at.” The historical secret of formalism and aestheticism: when the general gray zone disappears, artists make their own private spaces of hiatus, intermittence.


…a kind of political model: scientific, knowledgeable, artistic, and commercially successful hybrid societies, essentially pleasure oriented, but not in a manner primarily under the aegis of sin; cultures with a strong and open female presence, and, in addition to all of this, a tendency toward secular religiosity and the development of philosophy as of art—all of this is destroyed by playing on, as well as by sowing and making use of, individuals’ feelings of guilt about their trespasses. Inasmuch as the internal conflicts—which themselves are always occurring between different groups of a society—are heated up and intensified by means of a fundamentalist order setting itself up as a military counterforce, all of these groups somehow, step by step, become ready for armed conflict, and the whole thing finally blows up in an ethnic pogrom. […] What is important and central here is the banding together of fundamentalists from both sides for the purpose of the extinction of the worldly, hybrid culture.
—Klaus Theweleit, “Playstation Cordoba, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Etc. A War Model, Part 1” (Cultural Critique 54, Spring 2003, trans. Thomas Pepper).


A classroom in the present season, sleet battering the windows, “evening all afternoon” (Wallace Stevens). The teacher suggests that the fictional narrative under discussion pursues its goal of a warm-hearted universal humanism by introducing only to dispel the specter of cultural, racial, and class conflict, this to console the elite audience for whom the narrative is intended: under the skin, we are all just people, we all want the same things, we all are born and have childhoods and make love and die. Some students resist the unsentimental critical interpretation, with its unspoken Marxist assumption, the cordite stench of which is sharp in the intellectual atmosphere, that to achieve justice it is necessary to start “a war inside society.” The students suggest by contrast that the achievement of a common empathy, a shared understanding, a universal ethical commitment, and a general aesthetic address cannot be premature. “These differences between us are bullshit,” says one, “and we have to get past them.” The teacher suggests nevertheless that the refusal of conflict and complexity weakens the narrative as work of art and not only as a political statement. Is peace the end of art?

One comment on “From the Gray Zone

  1. Jason Preater
    31 December 2016

    What a powerful piece of writing. It is interesting that those students took the path away from conflict towards the fiction of a peace without conflicts. That would seem to be the natural tendency of the old- to shy away from violence and extremes- whereas the young buck privilege and cock a snook at power.
    Is the area between black and white necessarily gray? I want to ask. Perhaps it is filled with colours which are bleached out by an excess of reasonable tyranny and swamped by darkness on the other side. Something to think about for the day. Thanks.

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This entry was posted on 23 November 2016 by in literature, politics, religion, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , .
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