Saturday, July 09, 2005

"A Threshold of Indeterminacy"

In the wake of Thursday's bombings, Defense Tech discusses the failure - or perhaps irrelevance - of London's surveillance system.

Londoners are seen on the city's vast amalgam of surveillance cameras an average of 300 times a day. Which means that the terrorists behind yesterday's bombings almost certainly knew they'd be caught on tape -- and went ahead with their attacks anyway.
The article goes on to discuss whether the "surveillance-as-deterrent" concept - which it traces back as far as Bentham's panopticon - actually translates into lower crime rates, even as regards more ordinary forms of crime.

Whether this type of surveillance works or not is somewhat immaterial; it has a self-perpetuating logic all its own. And of course, it may work much better, someday, if we keep shortchanging schools and hospitals in order to throw money at it.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Walter Benjamin's assertion that the "state of emergency" decreed by government is not the exception, but the rule. Giorgio Agamben sees the state of exception as a "threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism," and views it as characteristic of modern government.

It's the claim that a state of exception exists that leads us to accept the loss of privacy, and the suspicion of guilt, that panoptic mass surveillance represents. It also leads us to accept that there are certain people who represent "life unworthy of life," who can be killed at will, and who can paradoxically be made entirely subject to the law without having any recourse to it (cf. Guantanamo).

Which means that law is no longer law, but whim. However, the beauty of the state of exception is that it tends to be a reversion to a form of rule in which the sovereign is synonymous both with the state, and with nature or God. Thus, an act of violence that seems to be a cruel whim is actually in harmony with a spiritual order that, in Benjamin's phrase, "engenders those to whom punishment is due."

Francois Jullien's discussion of ancient theories of Chinese despotism in The Propensity of Things describes how the ruler must act as a force of nature, guided not by morality but by necessity:
Results follow automatically, for they are simply effects. Such a mechanism is inexhaustible, because it functions "naturally"...the nature of this power is that it issues orders ad infinitum without wearing out.
Jullien is speaking of the Legalist School, which flourished about five hundred years before Christ. Their central notion was that "humanity is not adequate for a government." In order to rule, one must be pitiless and inspire fear; to attempt to rule according ordinary human virtues was to Legalists self-contradictory foolishness. As Wang-Tsit Chan says in A Source Book In Chinese Philosophy, the Legalists
[A]ccepted no authority expect that of the ruler and looked for no precedent....aggression, war, and regimentation would be used without hesitation so long as they contributed to the power of the ruler.
Having recognized a person - or group of people - as "life unworthy of life," a Legalist ruler would know that to kill would be to act in harmony with nature.

The problem is, of course, that anyone can designate a class of people as unworthy of life, as today's terrorists do when they proclaim that their victims are protected neither by law nor by God. They've made the same determination that Agamben reports was made by the German penologist Karl Binding and the German doctor Alfred Hoche in their Authorization for the Annihilation of Life Unworthy of Being Lived (1920), which is that there is no reason, "be it juridicial, social, or religious, not to authorize the killing, who are nothing but the frightening reverse image of authentic humanity."

It's odd how often people who object to the "frightening reverse image of authentic humanity" exemplify it. In any case, the rulers held up as exemplary by the Legalist School are just such images. Like terrorists, they're able to kill with a steady hand and a dry eye, confident that they embody the laws that govern the unfolding of history. The Legalists were opposed to the Confucian school, whose talk of morality and virtue in rulers they found nonsensical. For its part, Confucianism generally held the view that a tyrannical emperor was himself "life unworthy of life," who could be killed at will for having betrayed the "Mandate of Heaven." Sic semper tyrannis, as the saying is. What could possibly go wrong?

All of this tends to reinforce the commonplace notion that between terrorists and politicians, there's not as much difference as one might wish. Defense Tech's mention of the panopticon reminds me that Jullien sees the Legalists' notion of power as a sort of society-wide panopticon, in which the ruler's position in the scheme of things allows him to remain opaque, while forcing transparency on others. Of course, the goal of terrorists is similarly to convince the public that they're invisibly in all places at once. Between the terrorists' imitation of omnipresence, and the government's, it's no wonder that things feel rather claustrophobic these days for "authentic humanity." Hell does indeed go 'round and 'round.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Phila.

Phila said...

Thanks, Kate. I scribbled it during a bad case of insomnia, and am sort of afraid to read it in the cold light of day.

On the other hand, my yard is alive with quail chicks who are about the size of large grapes, so even self-reproach will have to wait!

Wayne Hughes said...

Quite a tight chain of logic to me, that makes it clear that the perps who acknowledge and advocate (however slimily behind the scenes) torture and worse are no better than terrorists.

And as well, nice to see a Bouponia post! I've missed it!

Anonymous said...

Wow, you're back!

Marc, a fan.

Phila said...

Hi Marc,

Yeah, I pretty much am. Thanks for noticing! I'm trying to ease myself back into things. But you may have to put up with a week or so of rambling and free association (like the current post), until my poor abused noggin stabilizes itself a bit!

Anonymous said...

So, can I ask what the project which deprived us of you was? Did you succesfully complete it?

Anonymous said...

Wow. Can you write or what! Nice work!

Anonymous said...

I look forward to when you get your noggin going full time, because it seems you are already offering quite a buffet of tasty morsels here. Thanks for offering all the philosophical underpinnings for what will now be added to my reading list, but . .. I will say the current age in the vision of its rulers lacks any underpinnings, moral or otherwise. Life unworthy of life. The morality of Confucius. Legalist thought. Which of these if any or in what combination can explain the depraved indifference to life we find clothed in the holier than thou garb(age) of one George W. Bush? As the great taoist kabalist Hyman Schlemiel would say, Oy.

Phila said...


Well, my point wasn't that Bush and his friends have been poring over the works of Kuan point is that despite the various philosophical guises it's been dressed up in over the centuries, "depraved indifference to life" remains its eminently drab and ugly self.

And the political theories created in opposition to it aren't much better, unfortunately. One either has to recognize "life unworthy of life," or recognize a ruler who has betrayed the "mandate of heaven." Thirsty work indeed, and there's plenty of room for error on both sides.

"Oy" does cover the situation nicely.

Anonymous said...

Oy indeed. Added you to the blog roll. Keep up the fine work.

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