Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Poems of Force

Subtopia's post on Camp Justice, to which I linked yesterday, makes a point that's near and dear to my heart. In his discussion of Giorgio Agamben's theories on the "state of exception," Bryan raises the spectre of the "morbid aestheticization" of power among those who ostensibly oppose it:

Another point [Derek Gregory] makes about Agamben’s observations is that they are too heavily steeped in a kind of obsession with the look or the image of the camp; with a fetishization of the camp – meaning he falls into the lure of the camp as a kind of political pornography, which I think is an interesting and timely criticism today given how western culture seems so lustful for its own fantasies of the apocalypse.
I'd go along with that (although I had a stronger reaction in that regard to Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz, which I felt came very close to romanticism in its discussion of depersonalized death-camp prisoners).

I'm often troubled by the extent to which such theories constitute a “poem of force,” to take Simone Weil’s phrase somewhat out of context. These visions of the "Society of Control" have the attraction of what Frederic Jameson calls “reassuring extinction fantasies," without necessarily threatening extinction (it's the best of both worlds!). Even bureaucratic dreariness has an awe-inspiring side, if it’s comprehensive enough. And it’s a small step from awe to submission, particularly for people who enjoy our privileged position (cf. Susan Sontag's interesting argument that theorizing reality-as-spectacle involves "a breathtaking provincialism").

What’s often missing from analyses like these is a simple openness to human possibilities beyond eking out some sort of semi-autonomous life in the “interstices” of the Administered Society, like barnacles on the hull of a warship. This, to my mind, amounts to colluding with power by projecting an efficacy onto it that it doesn't and can't have.

Speaking of which, Robert Koulish discusses "emergency politics":
The scholar Ole Weaver's idea of "securitization" suggests that by labeling immigration as a security issue, authorities (including officeholders, the media and large nongovernmental organizations) legitimize efforts to move immigration out of the realm of "normal politics" and into that of "emergency politics" - a realm where allegations that have no basis in fact can trigger extreme government responses that have no basis in law.
This seems accurate enough. But at the same time, it reminds me of Rebecca Solnit's complaint that the Left tends to overlook what she calls "liberation conspiracies." The villains in Koulish's piece comprise a vast, powerful network that "mass-produces and localizes fear in novel ways." His vision of resistance is somewhat less imposing:
We should all decry this manipulative and racist "assault on reason" in the local anti-illegal immigrant ordinance campaign.
Fair enough...consider it decried! I hope this'll be a sufficient rebuke to "officeholders, the media and large nongovernmental organizations," and that they won't force me to demonstrate the indomitability of the human spirit by producing a photograph of that guy who blocked the tanks in Tienanmen Square.

Kidding aside, I think part of the problem here is that upheaval and disaster are easy to describe in a compelling way, whereas utopia - or at least, any utopia worth believing in - isn't. Consider the gory particularity of Hell or the Tribulation in our literature and art, versus the wooly vagueness of Heaven. Whether the author is Dante, Milton, or Tim LaHaye, descriptions of suffering and oppression tend to be concrete and memorable in a way that goodness rarely is (perhaps because, as RMJ argues via Wittgenstein, it's "outside of the space of facts"). If I were inclined to overgeneralize - God forbid! - I'd wonder at this point whether it's possible for aestheticization not to be morbid. Without going to that extreme, I'd stand by this earlier assertion:
There's a real longing for upheaval and catastrophe in some quarters, and horror stories about the future - even if they're intended to shock people into awareness - may amount to little more than fuel for that fire....As odd as it sounds, we're simply going to have to offer people something a bit more fulfilling than the end of the world.
(Illustration: "Pandemonium" by John Martin, 1841.)

No comments: