Chapter from my dissertation: The Declaration of Future Democracy

Another text from the archives, a more complete and wide-ranging version of the MLA paper I posted last week. This was the dissertation chapter form which that paper was culled. This was the third chapter in the diss, following from a long discussion of Octavia Butler’s Kindred in chapter one (published in somewhat different form in Science Fiction Studies) and a discussion of politics and science in the context of Stuart Kauffman’s theory of complexity in chapter two (published in Configurations–my first ever publication! Thanks Jim Bono, Hugh Crawford, and Mark Hansen!). Chapter four dealt with the problem of the monster and offered a conceptualization of wonder.

For the most part, I don’t like my dissertation as a dissertation. It’s all over the place, and this chapter is sort of a microcosm of that all-over-the-placeness (it’s a word). I do like a lot of things I say, and I do like my attempt to draw together theories of democracy and violence from Agamben, Schmitt, Benjamin, Deleuze, Derrida, and others with literature by DeLillo, Coupland, Gibson and others. Also here is Battle of Algiers and Syriana as well as Robert Baer’s See No Evil, upon which Syriana was based. Oh, also: Thoreau and the Declaration of Independence.

I appear to myself, six or seven years later, a much less mature writer. So many block quotes here, which appear to me now as a mask for misunderstanding. I could not discuss or deploy these texts effectively, so I let them speak for themselves far too often and only addressed what I wanted to. In any case, not sure my readings of these texts hold up under scrutiny. Rather, I am pretty sure that my readings of individual texts hold up (simple as they are), but that these texts don’t play as nicely with each other as I might want them to, or believe them to. I am not sure how I feel about that now. I find being RIGHT so uninteresting, and abhor debates about what so-and-so REALLY means a waste of time. As such, if these texts don’t play well together, on some deeper level that only a proper close reading can find and address, then I am not sure I care.

The Declaration of Future Democracy

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such government.1

—The Declaration of Independence

 

Revolution.

In “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau reiterates Jefferson’s claim that when the situation warrants, citizens have the right to change their government: “All men recognize the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable” (389). However, what Thoreau is able to accomplish in his essay is not simply an affirmation of the right to revolution, but an expansion of Jefferson’s argument. For Thoreau, while political processes must include revolution (or at least its possibility), he also understands that not all decisions involve the dissolution and recreation of government. Thus the right to revolution becomes for him the right to make political decisions, specifically the right to decide upon slavery and the Mexican-American War. The problem, of course, is that while “all men” might recognize the “right to revolution” cum the “right to decide,” they will not all agree upon the proper moment for such decisions or even what decisions should be made and how.

To overcome this problem, democracy asks citizens to express their desires first in deliberation and then through their vote, with the majority awarded the right to make decisions (or the majority’s decision being enforced). However, for Thoreau, the ends reached via this method (what Kaufmann would call consensus) are not satisfactory:

After all, the practical reason why, when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest. But a government in which the majority rule in all cases can not be based on justice, even as far as men understand it. Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. (386-87)

The important aspect of Thoreau’s claim is not the notion of “might makes right” (what Jacques Derrida calls “the reason of the strongest”2). Thoreau does not mean here simply that a majority of citizens can forcefully execute their will upon a minority, as in a physical confrontation. What is important in Thoreau’s argument is the implicit claim that decisions cannot be rightfully made on the basis of the deliberation and agreement of the majority, but through an appeal to conscience. In that conscience is for Thoreau only found in the individual and never in groups (unless the groups are comprised of conscientious individuals acting in their capacity as conscientious individuals), the decision making process he advocates is, it would appear, fundamentally undemocratic. It is the purpose of this chapter to explain what Thoreau means as well as to explain the necessary non-democratic aspects of the democratic process.

We should not misinterpret what Thoreau means by “conscience,” or, rather, underestimate such a faculty. While conscience here retains its common meaning of a “moral sense” by which we determine right from wrong, it is not relativistic. The last line of the above passage informs this reading. There Thoreau seems to state that obligations are taken on through a choice, well-informed or otherwise. However, in the previous sentence he contrasts “law” with “right.” If we understand “right” in the context of chapter two, as a power coextensive with its exercise, then we must also understand that such rights are not simply taken on or left aside through a choice, but are obligations in the strongest sense of the term. So to follow conscience, or more appropriately to have a conscience, is to always do what one thinks is right. More specifically, to have a conscience is to use that conscience to the extent that one cannot do anything but what is right.

The difficulty for democracy, according to Thoreau, is that while individuals can and do make use of their consciences, groups of people, taken in total, lose their ability to distinguish between right and wrong, a fact that is demonstrated during voting procedures.

All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men. When the majority shall at length vote for the abolition of slavery, it will be because they are indifferent to slavery, or because there is but little slavery left to be abolished by their vote. They will then be the only slaves. Only his vote can hasten the abolition of slavery who asserts his own freedom by his vote. (392)

That there is an election day once per year does less to afford right action than it does to obfuscate the structuring of action in a specific form. Along with Thoreau, thinkers as historically and politically diverse as Alexis de Toqueville, Carl Schmitt, and Derrida have made clear that voting is not what is important for democracy. What is clear, and here we must extend Thoreau’s discussion of this issue, is that voting, while necessary, is action in a form dictated by the state. It is rationality applied to human action, the naturalization of what Thoreau calls conscience. In that it is the design of a group rather than an individual, it is not guaranteed to be in the right. In that it operates according to juridical structures, it is manipuable in the manner of the history described in chapter one. I do not mean to suggest that elections can be bought or that elections are fraudulent (although both cases are sometimes true). Rather, what I would like to consider is the manner in which the juridical impinges upon the natural, how law (and the representations surrounding it) constrains right.

Most importantly, what I would like to offer is an analysis of the manner in which right must be brought to bear in the name of law, how juridical structures, how democratic institutions, can only ever be effectively democratic by allowing that which is not democratic to influence their behaviors. This statement is no doubt one that will cause concern, and I would like to be able to address it immediately. However, in order to do so effectively I will first turn to a further discussion of right in the context of democracy in order to demonstrate the tenuous legitimacy of democracy itself as well as the problematic legitimation it affords.

 

Legitimacy.

If the Declaration of Independence is the founding moment of the United States, as I briefly suggested in chapter one, then the nation’s establishment is predicated upon redactions to that document. While we can no doubt discern in each and every instance of this editing a political motive, we likewise can find for some if not many of these actions reasonable explanations. However, regardless of whether the South would accept the dissolution of slavery as an institution in the United States, and would therefore pull out of the fragile coalition of colonies that made up the revolution, it is difficult if not impossible to justify the removal of language that would have eliminated that practice from the Declaration. Regardless, the problem with this debate generally is that those in the United States were within their rights (as defined in chapter two) to keep slaves: they had the power to do so. As such, one of Jefferson’s complaints against King George is false: “he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.”3 If Jefferson means that the oppression/subjugation of humans is wrong by nature, he is, according to Spinozan logic, mistaken, as natural rights are always “correct.” If one’s right is greater than that of another’s, then she has the right to do as she will with that person so long as she does not violate that other’s rights (which is impossible in any case). Simply put: if someone is capable of being enslaved (has the right to be enslaved), and someone else has the right to enslave that person, then there is nothing contrary to nature if the one person enslaves the other.

Because Nature knows no exception, because the laws of nature can never be set aside or ignored, we must conclude that, within nature, slavery is “justified” (although justice is foreign, if not hostile, to such a concept of nature). Thus the only criterion with which we are left to accurately judge slavery and other affronts (and there can be no doubt that they are affronts) is juridical law. In other words, law must constrain right. However, the problem (discussed in the previous chapter) with this admission is, of course, that such moral law is constructed and easily manipulated, in the manner of the revisions made to the original text of Jefferson’s Declaration. More importantly, for the moment, we must recall that the foundation of juridical law is problematic; we have already demonstrated that such a foundation is not natural. Without a foundation for political arguments—whether anti-slavery, anti-war or pro-choice—it is difficult if not impossible to legitimate political action, especially in light of the fact that slavery is ethically “right.”

Just as Kauffman’s assumption that democracy is the best form of government allowed him to posit it as natural and therefore justified in its existence, democracy is often defined as that from which justice and legitimacy flow. Take, for example, a statement made by (at the time) neoconservative thinker Francis Fukuyama, on the concept of “state building.” While the notion of the state-as-construction complements a critique of the understanding of state-as-natural, it likewise calls into question the function of democracy in the ascension of the state as well as in the mechanisms of the state once established. Fukuyama writes, “While there have historically been many forms of legitimacy, in today’s world the only serious source of legitimacy is democracy” (26). Presumably, Fukuyama understands democracy to legitimate the state because it is a means through which the people exert their will. Witness the neoconservative insistence that the state building project in Iraq is a success by dint of elections: if people take a hand in sanctioning the state through deliberation and voting, the state must be considered legitimate.

However, democracy is only as good as its practice. In a statement on parliamentary democracy, which could just as easily stand in for democracy generally (or at the very least the democracy found in the United States in the early twenty-first century), Carl Schmitt draws attention to one of the major problems facing real democracy (as opposed to the ideal democracy espoused by neoconservative thinkers such as Fukuyama). He argues that the “situation of parlimentarism is critical today because the development of modern mass democracy has made argumentative public discussion an empty formality” (Crisis 6). Political opponents downplay their divisions (which are for Schmitt necessary for politics to exist) in favor of compromises that maintain their power. As for the people with the supposed power to stop these deals: “The masses are won over through a propaganda apparatus whose maximum effect relies on an appeal to immediate interests and passions” (6). The result of this unlikely agreement with Adorno and Horkheimer is that, for Schmitt, politics “is no longer a question of persuading one’s opponent of the truth or justice of an opinion but rather of winning a majority in order to govern with it” (7). It is this truth and justice I wish to pursue for the remainder of this dissertation, without, however, falling victim to a definition of either that limits what is true to a single definition or justice to what is expedient. Before turning my attention to these issues, I will first examine those practices that manifest their opposites: Recognition, redaction, and corruption.

 

Recognition.
Schmitt understands the political to be predicated upon the distinction of friends and enemies, in a very specific sense:

The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner of a conflict in general. He is also not the private adversary whom one hates. An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity. The enemy is solely the public enemy, because everything that has a relationship to such collectivity of men, particularly to a whole nation, becomes public by virtue of such a relationship. (Concept 28)

That the enemy is a public one is significant for democracy. In The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy Schmitt notes, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). This line of argument is apposite his contention that, for those in power, the best means through which to maintain power is not to convince your opponent of your truth, but rather to obfuscate the truth so as to persuade your constituents to vote for you. Persuasion is a means through which the people are made homogenous. Writes Chantal Mouffe, in a summation of the implications of Schmitt’s thought: “It is clear that what is important for Schmitt is not the nature of the similarity on which homogeneity is based. What matters is the possibility of tracing a line of demarcation between those who belong to the demos—and therefore have equal rights—and those who, in the political domain, cannot have the same rights because they are not part of the demos” (41).

The upshot to this argument is twofold. First, as Mouffe notes, is that we must distinguish between a liberal notion of equality and a democratic one. For Schmitt the two concepts have been too long confused with one another. Mouffe:

Despite liberal claims, a democracy of mankind, if it was ever likely, would be a pure abstraction, because equality can exist only through its specific meanings in particular spheres—as political equality, economic equality, and so forth. But those specific equalities always entail, as their very condition of possibility, some form of inequality. This is why he concludes that an absolute human equality would be a practically meaningless, indifferent equality. (40)

In other words, the state-building projects championed by Fukuyama and others in the name of a liberal notion of equality conflated with democracy are either disingenuous or naïve. In Iraq, for example, the United States may now claim to have at heart the freedom and human rights of Iraqis, but those people can never hope to be American and therefore included within that demos. At best they can form their own demos and remain, at least potentially, enemies.

Tied to the fact that democracy is not concerned with universal equality—that at least in one respect democracy is based upon exclusion—is the second consequence of Schmitt’s thought, namely that democracy, when deployed in a certain manner, is a means through which we Recognize. If politics requires a distinction between friends and enemies, and democracy relies upon the homogeneity of a people (Mouffe notes that “Democracy can exist only for a people” [41, my emphasis]), then it is possible to utilize the liquidation of internal heterogeneity to manufacture an external one. That which is not us is other. While such constructions have long been recognized in contemporary philosophy and critical theory, it is important to understand here the manner in which that which is different is the agent of the new, of the future, and the need to Recognize it—not in the sense of simply identifying it, but rather of determining or objectifying it—is born of a need to foreclose upon the future.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze claims that the new is always new and that the established and fixed is always established and fixed: “Nietzsche’s distinction between the creation of new values and the recognition of established values should not be understood in a historically relative manner, as though the established values were new in their time and the new values simply needed time to become established.” Moreover, “What becomes established with the new is precisely not the new. For the new—in other words, difference—calls forth forces in thought which are not the forces of recognition, today or tomorrow, but the powers of a completely other model, from an unrecognized and unrecognizable terra incognita” (136). This “completely other model” is something other than a thought that is merely the application of the unity of the faculties on an object distinct from it. Such an “image of thought” is only capable of banal practices such as Recognition, the identification of the Same in the Different and is charged with the organization of the world within established taxonomies. What is questioned here is not the content of the established, i.e. anything established in particular, but the form of the established itself, a form that can never account for the new.

In the present context, the mandate for Recognition is born of at once a need to represent an enemy to the people and, more importantly, a requirement to capture that enemy literally and within a representation that will foreclose upon the unexpected (the new is always unexpected) that she carries with her. If the enemy is not Recognized, she may show up anywhere without warning: without Recognition, she will be, like the future, unrecognizable. This dangerous burgeoning indistinction of friends and enemies as well as the necessity of enforced Recognition cum exclusion is illustrated, for example, in Gillo Ponetcorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers. Therein, Colonel Mathieu, who has been brought into the midst of the Algerian insurgency to suppress it, shows his men a film to drive home the problematic and dangerous situation in which they find themselves. The film begins by showing Algerians moving through police checkpoints as the authorities attempt to (as Mathieu puts it) “isolate and destroy” the Front de Libération Nationale. Mathieu lectures:

It is a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others. It is everywhere. In cafes, in the alleys of the Casbah, or in the very streets of the European quarter. This footage was taken by the police with cameras hidden around Casbah checkpoints. The police thought it might come in handy, and indeed it does, to show the futility of certain methods, or at least their drawbacks. I deliberately chose footage taken shortly before a number of recent terrorist attacks. Among all these Arab men and women are the perpetrators. But who are they? How can we recognize them? ID checks are useless. If anyone’s papers are in order, it’s the terrorists. Need reference

The dilemma Colonel Mathieu faces is not how to see the terrorists as terrorists per se, but rather how to differentiate between friends and enemies. The terrorists have already proven themselves to be capable of producing false representations to challenge those of the state: their “papers are in order.” As such they cannot be readily identified because they look like everyone else. Indeed, as Mathieu and his men view the film, unbeknownst to them one of the very terrorists responsible for the mentioned attack passes before the camera, unRecognizable to anyone but, perhaps, another terrorist. Mathieu’s job, as he understands it, is to find a means by which to become able to consistently Recognize terrorists, again, not so much to see them as terrorists but instead to capture them as those who are not included in the demos and are therefore not able to threaten it from within. I will have more to say on this subject below.

For now, suffice it to say that Recognition, as Deleuze would remind us (we will deal with this issue at length in the next chapter), is not simply the identification of the familiar as familiar, but is a mode of thought that trusts thought itself to be the application of a faculty to an object that is outside of itself. However, Recognition is not a contentless form, but always hides a specific content that sees in its object what it already knows. Recognition is, in other words a means through which the potentially new is appropriated by and assimilated into the same. What terrorists are in both Pontecorvo’s film and the United States of the early twenty-first century is the new, the future, a world that includes something other than the Same. In other words, what Mathieu needs to do is fit the terrorists into a form that pre-exists them. To do so he needs to not see them as terrorists, because the threat of the terrorist is that which comes from the future, is something that cannot be expected or Recognized prior to its existence (and even after it has happened its Recognition is not assured). Thus Mathieu must force what is an internal threat into the mold of an external one: the terrorist must become the enemy. This attempt at capture is the means by which power maintains the Same when confronted by the Different. What democracy must do if it is to be what Derrida calls “democracy to come” is learn to include that which is dangerous within itself. To be clear: my claims here are meant to romanticize or apologize for terrorism but instead are a demand to stop representing the dangerous as the comforting.

 

Redaction.

The terrorist does not belong to society; she is excluded from the demos and does not benefit from its institutions and equality. However, the danger of the terrorist is that it is difficult to gauge her heterogeneity. Thus the terrorist finds herself, like other marginalized groups throughout history, written out of the demos before the fact, and regardless of the actuality of her intentions as a terrorist. In no way do I mean to conflate the terrorist with other marginalized groups. There are, to be painfully obvious, significant differences between actual terrorists and African-Americans, women, homosexuals, etc. However, where these groups intersect with terrorists as a group is in the fact that in their resistance to established norms and narratives (such as the one discussed in chapter one), they are often if not always excluded from society. In other words, terrorists, like blacks, threaten established power structures. Moreover, because of the threat they pose—which is the threat of a future that is not the futuristic—they are increasingly described in terms formerly reserved for terrorists (the Black Panthers being the most notable example of this trend). Therefore, it becomes imperative for those with power to manufacture the Recognizable through representations. Those who threaten power or offer the future are represented as a “them” and are excluded from the “us” in the hopes that what is outside the demos cannot affect it.

Let me now turn to a discussion of what I will call redaction, the process of editing texts for publication. As noted previously, the United States is founded upon such textual revisions: the official “published” version of the Declaration of Independence was heavily edited before being sent to King George. Removed from it were remarks considered too inflammatory to potential British sympathizers as well as, more importantly, language that would have all but outlawed the practice of slavery. Thus, in an American context, redaction is inextricably coupled to exclusion: by dint of editing, a broad segment of the North American population was relegated as a “them,” an other outside of the demos and the rights it grants. Such redactions are common in preparing official texts, even if their consequences are not often so profound. What are less common, are those redactions that are not complete, that are left in place as redactions that call attention to themselves in the manner of Derrida’s sous rature. Such redactions, often done with a black magic marker for the purpose of keeping certain information secret in otherwise declassified government documents, belie the lack of transparency in what is otherwise called democracy. Moreover, they distort the distinction between what are considered “official” and “unofficial” texts.

See No Evil is an account of Robert Baer’s tenure in the CIA, from his recruitment through his resignation. Aside from its interest as a view of the CIA in the years leading up to September 11 and the Iraq War, See No Evil provides an interesting case of how redaction works in the context of government and secrecy. The CIA requires its employees to agree to allow anything they write for publication to be reviewed and potentially censored by the agency. In See No Evil, Baer leaves these redactions in place to demonstrate how the process works. However, far from being a mere pedagogical instrument, this hidden information draws attention to itself (very much in the manner of “highlighted” text, only in a negative fashion) and the function it serves. Often these redactions are merely for purposes of maintaining the integrity of an operative’s cover, as when Baer writes, “A day after I sent New Delhi a cable about the botched pitch, its chief, Bill ************, asked me to fly up to see him” (52). These redactions appear inconsequential, as Baer himself often changes names, especially those of the foreign agents upon whom he relied for information. Other times, these redactions seem more substantial: “I’d had some experience with the Muslim Brothers during my abbreviated tour in Khartoum. One of my jobs there was to *************** **************** against Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s” (87). And still at other times, the feeling that vital information is absent or hidden is palpable:

I also looked into reporting on the Saudi royal family. ***************************************** ********************************************************************************************************************************

********************************************************************************************************************************

*********************************************************************************************************************************

*************************************************************************** (234)

The text beneath or within the black space is not only a mystery, but a mystery that demands consideration. After all, as any viewer of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 knows, there are at least some people who connect the Bush family with Middle Eastern interests.4 However, the demand this mystery enacts is not one of mere curiosity. There is no difference between the revisions to Jefferson’s original Declaration and Baer’s book except that Baer was able to draw attention to those revisions in his own time, whereas Jefferson could only content himself with noting the edits in private. The function both serve, from the position of those who insisted upon them, is to foreclose on the possibility of change, of the future.

 

Wound.

Before continuing with a more resonant example of how redaction works, I need first to say something about the future and the danger it presents. For contemporary thinkers of politics in the context of the yet to come, the necessity of Recognition as a method by which to assimilate the new to the Same is predicated by the wound. Derrida: “A weapon wounds and leaves forever open an unconscious scar; but this weapon is terrifying because it comes from the to-come, from the future, a future so radically to come that it resists even the grammar of the future anterior. [. . .] Traumatism is produced by the future, by the to come, by the threat of the worst to come, rather than by an aggression that is ‘over and done with’” (Borradorri 97). While I am not certain Derrida has in mind here the Deleuze of The Logic of Sense, his statements on the event and autoimmunity find common cause with Deleuze’s discourse on Stoicism and becoming. In the “Twenty-First Series of the Event,” Deleuze writes,

To the extent that events are actualized in us, they wait for us and invite us in. They signal us: “My wound existed before me, I was born to embody it.” It is a question of attaining the will that the event creates in us; of becoming the quasi-cause of what is produced within us, the Operator; of producing surfaces and linings in which the event is reflected, finds itself again as incorporeal and manifests itself in its impersonal and preindividual natures, beyond the general and the particular, the collective and the private. It is a question of becoming a citizen of the world.5 (148)

For Deleuze, the event is neither what Derrida seemingly mocks as a “major event”—a news story with significant weight, capable of carrying a massive headline and a full page picture on the front of the New York Times—nor is it the Lacanian Real, that which defies the logic of the Symbolic order (although it certainly contains elements of both). Rather, the event is that which happens to us in such a manner that it could not not have happened to us. Moreover, the event is that which, while potentially devastating, is part of us essentially to the extent that we must not merely resign ourselves to it but must embrace it and call it our own. Deleuze: “Either ethics makes no sense at all, or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of what happens to us” (149). Derrida’s critique of the traumatic wound, the wound understood in a manner so very different than Deleuze’s in that it threatens rather than promises (although for Deleuze threat and promise are the same thing), demonstrates a conservative desire to heal, for closure. Such ends, however, are impossible as the wound is that which has never yet happened to us.

Thus Derrida writes:

But what happened or, more exactly, what was signaled, made explicit, confirmed on September 11? Beyond everything that has already been said, more or less legitimately, and to which I will not return here, what became clear on that day, a day that was not as unforeseeable as has been claimed? This overwhelming and all-too-obvious fact: after the Cold War, the absolute threat no longer took a state form. (Derrida, Rogues 104)

Absent the homogenizing power of the state, friends and enemies became indistinct and were longer easily recognized and relegated to their appropriate places. The Same became different. The future became a possibility, albeit a dangerous one, as the future always is.

This Sameness is part and parcel of the notion of American identity that reached its apotheosis at the height of the Cold War, a conflict predicated upon Schmitt’s distinction between friend and enemy. The effect of the removal of this conflict had on American identity is explored in the first chapter of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which sees protagonist Nick Shay visit the now elderly Klara Sax, a woman he had an affair with in as a teenager. In terms that sound similar to Derrida’s in significance if not in syntax, Klara tells Nick that at some point life became “unreal” (DeLillo, Underworld 73) with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. With the passing of the world’s other superpower, power itself took on new and unfamiliar meanings.

“Now that power is in shatters or tatters and now that those Soviet borders don’t even exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly, and them as well. Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held the world together. You could measure things. You could measure hope and you could measure destruction. Not that I want to bring it back. It’s gone, good riddance. But the fact is.” (76)

“The fact is” that American identity could be reassuringly measured against the threat of the Soviet Union and its nuclear arsenal, which was reported as an event in the Derridan sense on the front page news where it competed with an equally large headline announcing that the New York Giants had won the National League pennant over their crosstown rivals the Brooklyn Dodgers. In fact, it is in the juxtaposition of these two headlines that DeLillo found the impetus to develop the themes Underworld would ultimately explore.6 While these two events may seem at first to be rather unrelated, in fact their proximity is more than simply fortuitous. In both Americans found common cause, a means by which to find community. States one of DeLillo’s characters: “‘[W]hen Thomson hit the homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. Maybe it was the last time people spontaneously went out of their homes for something’” (94).

What is lost in the Cold War and its construction of homogeneity is this spontaneous expression of joy, a joy in which people lost themselves to the extent that they for a moment did not recognize their differences and stepped out of character without explanation: “All over the city people are coming out of their houses. This is the power of Thomson’s homer. It makes people want to be in the streets, joined with others, telling others what has happened, those few who haven’t heard—comparing faces and states of mind” (DeLillo, Underworld 47). With the advent of the Cold War the other becomes the enemy and people no longer have a wish to join together. When the Cold War ended, because they had become so accustomed to finding identification in their striated lives, people found the smoothness of the world frightening.7 In this world the to come is not well-defined. Even if nuclear war is threatening, it is comforting to know from where the threat comes, the “them” that threatens “us.” The threat from the non-state as Derrida understands it is the threat that we will not be able to recognize the “them” when it attacks, that the “them” may not be entirely separable from “us.”

 

Exclusion.

With this understanding of threat in mind, especially in its relationship to identity, we can now to a more detailed discussion of the function of redaction. The border between “us” and “them,” between “me” and “you,” between those pronouns that define the inclusivity of the demos against its exclusivity, is examined in Underworld’s first line: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful” (DeLillo, Underworld 11). “He” is Cotter Martin, a black youth and Giants fan who has skipped school to see what would become the most famous home run in baseball history. That he speaks in the voice of “you,” the reader, indicates a connection at a moment when such a connection was not yet founded upon an exclusion of the enemy. This moment is the reason for the “halfway hopeful” look in his eye. That it is not entirely hopeful is the result of the fact that this is the last moment such a hope is possible: the Cold War is about to begin. Hence a less generous reading of the opening line would understand the term “American” to be pejorative, an accusation: “He speaks in your voice, American,” the voice of exclusion.

This exclusion is significant in the context of the story of the Martin family generally. Manx Martin, the eponymous protagonist of the three significant sections of Underworld that take up where the story of Cotter Martin leaves off, is intimately connected to the redactions present in the Declaration of Independence. The three sections of the novel that bear Martin’s name are printed between pages that are on both sides completely covered with ink, a blackness similar to the redactions visible in See No Evil. These chapters chronicle Martin’s theft of the home run ball from Cotter and the subsequent sale of the ball for a quick buck to another father waiting in line for tickets to the impending World Series between the Giants and the Yankees. While the actions that take place within these sections seem of little consequence when compared to the ruminations on global events that comprise much of the rest of the novel, as one of DeLillo’s “fraternity of missing men” (182), Martin shares an historical absence with the slaves whose plight and existence are redacted from the Declaration. In fact it is precisely because Martin’s story appears not to overlap with the Cold War narratives of science, paranoia, and identity that Underworld describes that he is so important. His presence in the novel is a reminder of the common, the everyday, and the “unimportant.”

However, even if Martin himself does not realize it, he is important and his life does intersect with the geopolitics of his day. As he searches for someone to sell the ball to he passes a street preacher in his native Harlem expounding on the day’s news, not of the already famous home run but rather of the atomic bomb the Soviet Union had successfully tested.

“Russians explode an atomic bomb on the other side of the world. You got your radio tuned to the news? I’m telling you the news. Clear across the world. And you’re standing there saying don’t mean anything to me. Old business, you’re saying. The business of the generals and the diplomats. But now, this here minute, while I’m talking and you’re listening, officials making plans to build bomb shelters all over this city. Building bomb shelters that hold twenty-five thousand people under the streets of this city. And guess what you don’t hear on today’s news. You have to stand here in the street and hear it from me. Every one of those people standing in those shelters while the bombs raining down is a white person. I’m talking to you. Because not one single shelter’s being built in Harlem.” (352-53)

Here, in these ramblings, the distance between “us” and “them,” between the actors of history (the inner circle of the empire spoken of by the White House aid in my introduction and chapter two) and those who follow along behind, between those always already included in the demos and those who are outside of its protection, is collapsed. That which affects the world affects those within the world and not simply a certain segment of it. However, the exclusion of men like Manx Martin is effected in such a manner as to convince them that they are outside of history. They treat the world’s events—if they consider such events at all—as things from far away and without importance to their everyday lives. This internalized exclusion serves to keep the marginalized marginal to the extent that they no longer demand inclusion. And when someone such as this preacher stands up and demands inclusion someone else will claim, “‘He’s a agitator,’” [sic] as someone says within earshot of Martin (353). If these “invisible men” (and women) ever did force themselves into the national narrative they would likewise force the future to be different than the past, something that those in power are loathe to have happen. As Giorgio Agamben notes, “[M]odern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political system” (State of Exception 2).

If Martin falls into one of those categories, it is nonetheless within his means to challenge power. After all, no amount of redaction can literally erase the past or a human being, even if the texts used to describe them hide their materiality. For much of the novel, Martin’s existence is a matter of some debate, plausibly the fabrication of protagonist Nick Shay, whose own father abandoned him shortly before his beloved Dodgers lost to the Giants (and was therefore unable to save his son from a loss that would haunt him fro the rest of his life). However, Martin’s existence is verified and proves invulnerable to redaction through the brief mention of his daughter, Rose Meriweather Martin, far away from the her native New York City, in Jackson, Mississippi in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This mention occurs in the span of but six pages and is so seemingly insignificant in terms of Underworld’s plot, themes, and length that it would be easy to overlook. None of the novel’s major characters appear. Only the theme of history and the presence of tear gas (related to a character who designs weapon systems for a living) ties Rosie to the rest of the text. But that is enough. Enough because she escapes from the black pages that segregate her family’s history from the other histories unfolding (or refolding, given Underworld’s reverse structure) in the novel. These six double-sided pages, printed solid black, are an attempt at containment that fails. If the rest of Underworld is history, inside of the black pages is counterhistory, which, if taken up as a means to resist the state and those in charge of it is potentially the foundation of what Derrida calls “the democracy to come.”

As Thoreau argues, regarding the power of the individual in the face of the state,

I know this well, that if one thousand, if one hundred, if ten whom I could name,—if ten honest men only,—aye if one HONEST man, in this State of Massachusetts, ceasing to hold slaves, were actually withdraw from this copartnership, and be locked up in the county jail therefore, it would be the abolition of slavery in America. For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be: what is once well done if done forever. (397-98)

Speaking in the context of slavery and the Mexican/American war, Thoreau here advocates the individual’s withdrawal from her partnership with the state. Of course, those same people to whom Thoreau speaks are also those people who are likely to be already excluded from the state. Thoreau was, after all, if not a terrorist then at least an agitator (even if the terms share a certain lexical space). However, the withdrawal from the partnership, insofar as it is a positive action undertaken by the individual rather than a systematic taxonimization/representation at the hands of the state, is the overall destruction of the state itself as an entity predicated upon the homogeneity of its people.8 It is therefore in the state’s interest to maintain this homogeneity at any price.

Of course such maintenance is part and parcel of a resignation to future wounds. Rather than being open to them by including the excluded entirely—not simply in name but also in its capacity to enact the future—such resignation is indicative of an attitude that views wounds not as a condition of progressive existence but instead as a burden to be ignored or gotten past. However, if there is to be a future that is not he futuristic it must be a future that threatens the present, a future that is dangerous. Thus it should be clear that my deployment of the term “terrorism” is not meant to conflate that practice with political activism, but rather to highlight the danger both represent to the Same. “Terrorist” is a term of convenience, and the Right associates all who challenge the status quo with it for the simple fact that people always already understand what the term means. Manx Martin is thus a terrorist because his story challenges the redaction of his story, challenges therefore the written history of power. He is not a terrorist strictly speaking but rather an agent of the future associated with a group that operates in an identical space. Thus, for all the discussion about how 9/11 “changed everything,” in fact it changed nothing (unless we can say that things became more like they already were).

Corruption.
The method through which events are relegated to the status of what Derrida calls “mere events” and individuals are denied interaction with the world is corruption, the manipulation of politics, economics, and society generally by those with the power and vantage point with which to do so. Perhaps the most remarkable statement on corruption in recent years is made in the course of the 2005 film Syriana, based upon Baer’s See No Evil. In a pivotal scene, Bennett Holiday, a lawyer charged with investigating the machinations behind an international oil merger, confronts lobbyist Danny Dalton. Dalton, who earlier in the film appears on television arguing that money is speech (in terms of campaign finance and advocacy) and espousing a neoconservative doctrine of individual sovereignty, is one of the primary objects of the investigation. He rants at Holiday about the investigation and its illegitimacy:

“Some trust fund prosecutor, got off-message at Brown, thinks he’s gonna run this up the flagpole, make a name for himself, maybe get elected to some two-bit, no-name congressman from nowhere, with the result that Russia or China can start having, at our expense, all the advantages we enjoy here. No, I tell you. No.

But Danny, these are sovereign nations. . . Sovereign nations! What is a sovereign nation, but a collective of greed run by one individual. But, Danny, they’re codified by the UN charter. Legitimized gangsterism that has no more legitimacy than an agreement between the Crips and the Bloods!

“Corruption charges. Corruption? Corruption ain’t nothing but government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That’s Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get a way with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are here in the white-hot center of things instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out there in the streets. Corruption. . . is why we win.” Need reference

Much of the film focuses on a pervasive Sameness at the heart of the oil industry. The small number of movers-and-shakers who attend board meetings that have consequences that range from the personal to the global (with the distinction between the two spheres often blurred if not wholly lost at this level) are all, to a person, white men (we must exclude from our count the Middle Eastern leaders who are led about by their noses throughout the film as well as Holiday, whose blackness exists to highlight the otherwise unbroken whiteness of power). This scene between Dalton and Holiday is no different, despite the fact that they appear isolated from the rest of the inner circle.

What’s significant here is the connection of corruption to legitimacy: corruption legitimates or, more precisely, corruption affords a specific legitimation. That with which Dalton disagrees is illegitimate, despite the fact that it has been sanctioned by an ostensibly democratic institution. The deliberation and transparency through which such sanctions are supposedly achieved threaten Dalton’s way of life (which he generously extends to the American people), a Sameness he intends to maintain for himself and others like him at the expense of enemies who wish to have such lives themselves.

Earlier in Syriana, Dean Whiting, a mover-and-shaker in the proposed merger specifically and the oil industry generally, meets with Prince Meshal Al-Subaai, younger son of the Emir of a semi-fictional, unnamed Middle Eastern nation.9 The context for the scene is the aftermath of the Prince’s birthday party, at which he brags about his material wealth and chastises his guests for not providing him with more. As the Prince, Whiting, and an otherwise unidentified middle-man in the oil industry exchange pleasantries and congratulate each other on being powerful, the question of the Prince’s future is raised. Whiting asks the Prince what it is he wants, and in scolding the would-be ruler for not being able to articulate his desire to be Emir, Whiting makes clear that interests within the United States (which are consistently represented as both governmental and private; the distinction between these two spheres loses all meaning) are prepared to back him as Emir so long as he in turns protects the interests of those interests. Although the viewer is not completely aware of the context for the discussion at this point, or necessarily what it means, she will come to understand that Whiting is offering the Prince the Emirship at the expense of his older (more liberal, educated, and generally qualified) brother, who becomes the subject of several assassination plots. (He had the audacity to award drilling rights to China for a higher bid than was tendered by any American company.) What’s remarkable about this scene is not the dialogue, although it is, or anything truly cinematic; rather, it is that the viewer comes away from it with the impression that the reason these men do the things they do (make illegal deals, order assassinations, bribe, beg, steal—in short, enact corruption) is not for the benefit of the future, but for the benefit of themselves. What I mean is not that they are simply selfish or self-interested, but that they never want anything to change. The future they create in these meetings is the present, where they sit around and drink cognac, smoke cigars, and be rich.10 They know they will not be there to see the distant future, but they will be reflected in those who will: their sons or the equivalent. Thus they seek to produce a Sameness within the world, both synchronically and diachronically, fueled by a country they would invent from whole cloth (Syriana) which will allow them not to produce the new, but to maintain the old.

 

Sameness.

Of course, as I have argued throughout this dissertation to this point, the maintenance of the Same, or, alternatively, the desire for a return to an idealized past, is the mark of conservatism. And yet Syriana’s critique is not of a political movement per se, in the contemporary American understanding of politics. There are no party lines described by the film (although it seems relatively easy to imagine how they play out). What I wish to highlight by calling attention to the non-partisan adherence to Sameness is the fact that texts by writers such as DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Kathy Acker, Dennis Cooper, J.G. Ballard, Pamela Zoline, and William Gibson as well as films such as Syriana and the Matrix trilogy describe a radical Sameness at work in contemporary culture. This Sameness is anything but a notion of the Same in the sense of “that” is “the same” as “this,” the resemblance of two extant objects already known in their properties. Rather, it is a prepersonal Sameness, imbedded in the virtuality of the thing prior to its actuality (to think along Bergsonian/Deleuzian lines). In other words, it is a Sameness that preexists any instantiation of the thing, a “space” in which the thing will come into existence predetermined as an object. No doubt these two notions of Sameness are resonant with one another, but we must understand them separately as it is the radical form of Sameness that must be combated first and foremost if we are to create a progressive politics.

The distinction between the same as content and the same as form becomes clear in, for example, the contrary notions of Sameness described by, on the one hand, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, and, on the other, Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. In the former, which was published in 1991 but is a Cold War novel to its core, the narrator lists where he and his friends are from: “Dag is from Toronto, Canada (dual citizenship). Claire is from Los Angeles, California. I, for that matter, am from Portland, Oregon, but where you’re from feels sort of irrelevant these days (‘Since everyone has the same stores in their mini-malls,’ according to my younger brother, Tyler)” (4). This notion of Sameness, associated with the critique of the US exportation of low-culture capitalism, is, despite its ubiquity, unexceptional: people eating the same burger in New York and Shanghai, wearing the same tee-shirt in London and Moscow. In other words, this Sameness is a simultaneity of objects, a correspondence of content and is not a proper concept for the contemporary world, if it ever was. Sameness cannot be understood simply by the common as content, but by the deployment and maintenance of the form of the Same as the established.

By contrast William Gibson’s most recent novel, Pattern Recognition, describes a more insidious form of the Same. Protagonist Cayce Pollard’s job is to find the different, but to find it as it is on the cusp of being the same. She hunts “cool,” but not as a purely aesthetic end. Rather cool is pure potentiality within a global economy that would stagnate without an influx of fresh culture, what early adopters are doing, wearing, watching, thinking (ironically with mass-produced objects created for different purposes, such as baseball caps turned backwards, as first done by a Mexican male according to Pollard/Gibson). Thus Cayce is involved in a search for the authentic, both in her personal and professional life: she can’t stand the sameness (everyone wearing, watching, or eating the same thing), but she can’t help but facilitate its production. She gives her approval to “new” logos on the basis of their originality, the ability to be what they say and have the right look. However, given that logos’ power derives from their ability to be recognized, the authentic is authentic (i.e. different) only insofar as it is (at least potentially) assimilable to the same. In this context the Same is no longer formulated as a “same as” but rather as pervasive homogeneity that does not merely establish an immeasurable distance between itself and the new, but that ensures that the new cannot ever be thought or enacted. It is for this reason that such Sameness is far more dangerous than the type described by Coupland. Authenticity such that Cayce defines affords only the futuristic, as described in my introduction: a future that is predetermined and therefore will in retrospect be clearly identifiable as the past, or the present of the predetermination.

The thought that leads to such predeterminations plays prominently in See No Evil, which simultaneously tells a story of espionage and intrigue and of bureaucratic sabotage at the hands of a renovated CIA more interested in its representation within government and, therefore, its representation of situations to the government than with gathering and analyzing facts through material interactions with agents. One such moment is particularly resonant with the contemporary political climate: “But the point was that Washington’s fantasy about a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam helped the big thinkers there to sleep at night, and since we had no human resources inside or even near Saddam’s circle—none—there was nothing to bring them back down to earth” (175). Similarly, on a failed coup in Iraq (a failure that was largely the result of a US refusal of support), Baer writes, “I knew enough about the way Washington worked to know that when it didn’t like some piece of information, it did everything in its power to discredit the messengers, which in this case were Chalabi and the general. So the corporate line in Washington was that nothing had happened in Iraq on March 4, nothing at all. Frankly, at that point, I wondered if Washington was right” (205). What these examples illustrate is that representations will always trump materiality when they serve the interests of those with power, interests that are not interests in the sense that they will pay actual dividends, but rather in the sense of what Ralph Ellison calls, to recall a quote from chapter one, “those lies [the] keepers keep their power by” (439). Such lies do not only manifest in public statements made to recruit citizens to the cause du jour, but are also told within inner circles, over cognac and cigars in the form of congratulatory remarks and an acknowledgement of being powerful for the sake of being powerful, of constructing stasis, or more of the Same.

 

Declaration.

Thus it would seem that the challenge facing democracy in terms of producing the new lies in overcoming the form of the Same, destroying the conditions of a power that, if it allows deliberation at all, only allows it to proceed in a certain direction so as to maintain the present.

Let us take a moment to describe the problem specifically. Power establishes representations, namely of itself as power and those who challenge power and its representations as outside of the demos (whether as slave, racialized/gendered/sexualized other, terrorist, etc.). These representations—such as those facilitated by the redactions in the Declaration of Independence and See No Evil—serve to maintain Sameness in the form of the Same. Simply put, Sameness is the enforced stagnation of the world, the brutal avoidance of the future to keep the present perpetual. Also serving this end is corruption, the means by which power’s representations are legitimated. Corruption here is the cooptation of democracy and its institutions, the channeling of deliberation in a certain direction and the abuse of exception. What I will now call declaration is the means by which endless representation is cast aside and coopted democracy is set back on track. However, as I hinted earlier, this device is not one that can be taken lightly. It is part and parcel not only of democracy, but of fascist dictatorships as well. As Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia and Pynchon illustrates in Vineland, radical democracy is differentiated from oppression by the thinnest of margins such that the methods by which one is achieved are able to be appropriated and deployed for the establishment of the other.

Derrida argues that the challenge of democracy is that it must by definition contain its opposite:

For it is said that the essence of such a politics, in its liberal form, is to authorize or call for free discussion or indefinite deliberation, in accordance, at least, with the circular figure of the Athenian assembly in the agora or the semicircular figure of the assemblies of modern parliamentary democracy. In its very institution, and in the instant proper to it, the act of sovereignty must and can, by force, put an end in a single, indivisible stroke to the endless discussion. (Rogues 9-10)

This is the moment of declaration, a moment reached when further debate will no longer suffice but action is needed. It is the moment at which Jefferson argues that a people will know to throw off an unjust government and the moment that must be found according to Thoreau’s notion of conscience. While its condition is the democratic, it is a moment at which democracy fails in its ideal sense. Deliberation is part and parcel of the Same. In other words, the discussion necessary to democracy’s functions, insofar as they are built up from rhetorical frames and representations, is, if left unchecked, a means by which nothing happens. Declaration is the device that ensures that something happens.

However, the assurance that something must happen can never be an assurance that the “right” thing must happen. The future, as Derrida and Deleuze (not to mention this dissertation) understand it, is dangerous. Moreover, what is dangerous about the future must not stopped for the reason that the future can only be the future if it is unrecognizable. If we Recognize it, if we know what’s coming, if utilize our power to determine the shape of the future in such a manner that it will not harm us (as do the corrupt officials described above), then we will not have a future at all but a futuristic. Thus, that which is the method for producing the future must at the same time be that which could destroy everything, whether in a literal sense or because it brings with it fascism. The freedom to live the new must include the freedom to choose oppression.

Thus declaration, which is a requirement for ideal democracy, is thus also the tool of the dictator, or the sovereign. It is therefore very much like what Schmitt calls exception: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” (Political Theology 5). When exception is invoked, the law is suspended. Thus the sovereign is he who by law has the right to declare law invalid, which leads to the following question in Agamben: “If the state of exception’s characteristic property is a (total or partial) suspension of the juridical order, how can such a suspension still be contained within it?” (State of Exception 23). The answer: “In truth, the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and inside do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other” (23). It is in this zone where we must find a notion of declaration adequate for the production of the future.

In other words, while I do not mean to imply that exception and declaration are identical concepts, the decision to invoke either must be made through recourse to the same method. Exception must only be invoked at the correct time, and declaration can only end deliberation for the sake of ending Sameness and producing the new. The problem with exception then is the instantiation of the exception as the rule. It is there that Recognition, redaction, and corruption support each other to become a total system. Because perpetual exception is a reality without rules, representations are not subject to empirical evidence and power is not constrained in any way. That which threatens power is easily excluded, marginalized, and, eventually, destroyed lest it destroy power. Content becomes meaningless before a ubiquitous formalism under which all is made to fit expectation. To remain in a state of exception permanently is to live without criteria for evaluation because the exception is (at best) to be invoked at moments when the situation cannot be evaluated in a rational fashion.

Similarly, declaration cannot occur at whim. It must invoked at the correct time. In the ideal world of, say, the Declaration of Independence, the end of deliberation—the moment at which the revolution begins—always occurs at the right/correct time, a point at which everything that needs be said has been said and without the silencing of dissent. Here the end of deliberation is not marked by consensus or oppression, but by the recognition that further deliberations are no longer useful, and that more radical measures are required. Retained in this scenario is an idealism that states that when a situation demands action of the people, the people will take the correct action: “When it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” the people will do so by right and for the correct reasons (because, a Jefferson writes, governments should not be changed for transient reasons). According to this logic, as a result of people’s legitimate actions, the state itself achieves legitimacy. What should be clear, however, is that the derivation of such powers can only occur by way of a declaration that appropriates (usurps?) those powers at a decisive moment, a moment at which the “decider” claims to fully understand the will of the people and acts upon that understanding. Thus, under less than ideal circumstances this moment might occur prior to any debate, decided upon without free discussion and in the service of the suppression of dissent. Used correctly declaration is a powerful means of accomplishing the good, of producing the new. Used incorrectly (in a manner that Danny Dalton might approve of, for example) however, it operates in conjunction with corruption and is the hijacking of the declarative, revolutionary moment by power to maintain itself at the expense of the multitude and therefore the future.

 

Right.

Thus, in preparation for the discussion in chapter four, which will describe the monster—a concept similar to exception that constitutes the promise and threat of the future in the manner defined here—we must establish at least a preliminary ground for the proper use of declaration. We shall do so by returning again to the seminal text of the United States, which, even with its flaws, retains the promise of the new.

Among the self-evident truths stated in the Declaration, there is one that is particularly relevant in the current context:

that to secure [the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing it powers in such form, as to them shall see most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

If we understand “right” in the sense described in chapter two, as a power that is coextensive with its exercise (made easier by the fact that Jefferson and Spinoza have similar desired outcomes for the proper role of government: to preserve the safety and happiness/freedom from fear of the governed), then this passage can be read to mean that revolution (which is here synonymous with declaration or the ending of deliberation) must occur when the people, who in fact are no longer the people but the multitude, are ready for it. In other words they will be entitled a new government at the same time they are able to seize one. They will produce the future when they no longer live in the present/past. However, the Declaration also notes that the governed will often be content with their government for its convenience, for the fact that they become accustomed to it. Therefore, if eternal vigilance wanes—whether through apathy or as the result of systematic propaganda—then the government will draw not only what we might objectively call “just powers” from the consent of the people, but “unjust powers” as well, and with the same degree of “legitimacy.” Of course, in an ideal democracy the government will only have the right to just powers, powers that have been legitimated through democratic process. This is just the form of ideality at work in the Declaration specifically and the history of US politics generally.

Contra the idealism of the Declaration—the liberal mentality that governments can be trusted with unlimited power (which has been usurped by the contemporary neoconservative position which understands the executive branch of government to be infallible and without limits)—is Thoreau’s position discussed above: that the government is at best an expedient, but is not qualified or capable of making decisions with regard to morality because it has no conscience. According to Thoreau, only individuals have consciences, and therefore only individuals have the ability to decide right from wrong. His claims are worth quoting for a second time:

Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?—in which majorities decide only those questions to which the rule of expediency is applicable? Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right. (Thoreau 387)

At work in this passage are different but related notions of right. When Thoreau makes a distinction between “the law” and “the right,” he clearly understands “right” as “correct,” as in “the right thing to do.” The law may tell us what to do (or not to do), but it does not tell us whether that course of action is correct. Similarly, the second use of “right” in the last sentence is distinct from the first. While the latter is analogous to “correct” once again, the former is closer to the notion of affect. Once we understand these notions of right are at work simultaneously, we can then consider Thoreau’s deployment of conscience, the affect that tells the individual what is correct and ensures correct action through a power that is coextensive with its use. In other words, conscience is that which mitigates the relationship between law and right, between what we are told to do (morality) and what we are capable of doing (ethics).

Consider that, as Agamben argues, exception is both within and exclusive of law:

if exceptional measures are the result of periods of political crisis and, as such, must be understood on political and not juridico-constitutional grounds, then they find themselves in the paradoxical position of being juridical measures that cannot be understood in legal terms, and the state of exception appears as the legal form of what cannot have a legal form. On the other hand, if the law employs the exception—that is the suspension of law itself—as its original means of referring to and encompassing life, then a theory of the state of exception is the preliminary condition for any definition of the relation that binds and, at the same time, abandons the living being to the law. (1)

The law as written cannot contain exception, because to codify it would be to strip it of its power. On the other hand the law must afford the exception space in which to work because without exception the law cannot move forward. It is here that we can see the means by which declaration can be invoked justly.

In “Critique of Violence,” Walter Benjamin makes a case for an annihilating violence that might “shatter the dialectic between lawmaking violence and law preserving violence,” between the violence that legislates and the one that enforces that legislation and therefore legitimates. As such, both forms of violence are always already included within the scope of law. By contrast, the law cannot accommodate mythic violence. According to Agamben, for Benjamin, “What the law can never tolerate—what it feel as a threat with which it is impossible to come to terms—is the existence of a violence outside of the law; and this is not because the ends of such a violence are incompatible with law, but because of ‘it’s mere existence outside the law.’”11 What is therefore important about such violence “is that it neither makes nor preserves the law, but deposes it and thus inaugurates a new historical epoch” (State of Exception 53).

However, mythic violence does not simply produce the future. It also offers a theory of how the deployment of such violence, which is nothing if not analogous to what we are calling declaration or what Schmitt calls exception, is to be evaluated. Benjamin: “The premise of such an extension of pure or divine power is sure to provoke, particularly today, the most violent reactions, and to be countered by the argument that, if taken to its logical conclusion, it confers on men even lethal power against one another.” Similarly, as I have argued, the abuse of declaration or exception is the advent of fascism, which was to become for Benjamin an overriding concern later in his career, notably in his essays on art and mechanical reproduction upon which I will touch late in chapter four. However, this seemingly intransigent problem is not, according to Benjamin, a problem at all as the legitimation of lethal power he alludes to “cannot be conceded.” Benjamin:

For the question ‘May I kill?’ meets it’s irreducible answer in the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This commandment precedes the deed, just as God was ‘preventing’ the deed.12 But just as it may not be fear of punishment that enforces obedience, the injunction becomes inapplicable, incommensurable, once the deed is accomplished. No judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment. And so neither the divine judgment nor the grounds for this judgment can be known in advance. Those who base a condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another on the commandment are therefore mistaken. It exists not as a criterion of judgment, but as a guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in exceptional cases, to take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it. (“Critique” 250)

Thus the right to commit violence, or to invoke the exception or make a declaration, is always preserved. The juridical only provides a suggestion, which in turn begs the question of the exceptional situation which must be acted upon without regard to that suggestion by an individual or a community capable of taking such responsibility for that action—in the manner that the people, for Jefferson, took responsibility for revolution. And when the dust settles and the rule of law is restored, mythic violence, exception, and declaration must be judged on their own terms, in light of their accomplishments and according to the material facts of their contexts. They must not be condemned as violations of the rule of law, for, as Benjamin states, such rules cannot apply to these situation but only serve to ensure that such situations are not themselves the rule.13 It is in this manner that the juridical constrains the natural, not as another instance of natural right, but as assurance that the rule of natural right is not perpetual. On the other hand, natural right will always trump the juridical, but only when it is necessary for it to do so.

 

Reason.

However useful this description of how violence/exception/declaration works actually is, it still begs the question of how one is to know when violence is to be used, exception to be invoked, or declaration to be enacted. How does one decide to ignore the guideline? It should be clear that democratic deliberation cannot achieve the condition necessary for declaration, even if it is an important component of the build-up to it. Similarly, exception cannot be invoked arbitrarily. To do so would be in direct contradiction to what Jefferson and Spinoza both believe is the task of the state: to maintain the safety and happiness of its constituents. To invoke exception at whim, or without sufficient reason, is to maintain a state of fear, yet another ground for the maintenance of the Same. While a comprehensive answer to this question is not possible—after all, how can one legislate that which is fundamentally outside of legislation?—I can here offer a tentative step in that direction by turning to a critique of reason so as to describe a theory of the impersonal.

In the introduction to this dissertation I briefly discussed Brian Massumi’s warning against instrumental reason, the application of intelligence to an object that limits that object to a particular use (or what I called there interpretation) such that the object’s future is cut off and limited to the futuristic. In the second of his “Two Essays on Reason” that comprise Rogues, Derrida covers similar ground in the context of the crisis of the sciences and rationality, which I described in chapter two and will deal with at greater length in chapter four. In the present context Derrida’s comments are especially important, however, as they speak directly to the issue of not only the future but also democracy and the contemporary dilemma in the United States and elsewhere of dealing with enemies that are not well-defined, who resist representation. Derrida writes, “If naturalism and objectivism are critical perversions of reason, the risk that is run has to do with what links the ideality of the ideal object to exactitude, and thus to a certain type of calculability” (Rogues 132, original emphasis). By naturalism Derrida refers to the vulgar scientific practice of nature described in Stuart Kauffman’s work previously, and by objectivism the scientific practice of considering oneself apart from the world and predetermining the nature of objects in terms of necessity. What necessity dictates then is a perfect object, an object that, in terms of my introduction, is limited to a specific part-subject: the stick only ever understood as garbage and nothing else because it is necessary that the stick be garbage for the one or the group in power.

This necessity was applied, for example, by the Algerian government during the crisis that inspired Pontecorvo’s film: “They decided in a sovereign fashion to suspend, at least provisionally, democracy for its own good, so as to take care of it, so as to immunize it against a much worse and very likely assault” (Rogues 33, original emphasis). Exception is here invoked to preserve democracy as it is—contra what Derrida calls “democracy to come,” what democracy could be—which is democracy idealized and objectified as a specific form necessary to the maintenance of extant power structures. This sovereign decision, according to Derrida, who here follows Benjamin and Agamben, is impossible to judge with normal criteria as it is a decision from which there is no turning back, even if its effects are often denied. In this enforced commitment, there is something self-destructive about democracy: “Democracy has always been suicidal, and if there is a to-come for it, it is only on the condition of thinking life otherwise, life and the force of life” (33). This is the danger of democracy, as I have already noted: that the freedom it confers includes the freedom to be oppressed. While the suicidal tendency is always there, however, it is often obfuscated by the claim that democracy must be set aside for the sake of democracy, that the exception is being used to preserve the rule. When exception is invoked thus, when declaration is used to ensure a continuity with the past, democracy becomes an object among others, determined for a specific purpose for a specific group. In this determination, or rationalization, democracy becomes a component of the Same.

Derrida describes this strong rationalization at work in current politics as an operation undertaken in the face of an enemy who is not defined according to the comforting contours of Cold War logic. Weapons of all kinds, those most powerful weapons that are capable of destabilizing the state (even the nuclear ones DeLillo finds near the heart of Cold War American identity), “now escape all control and all state oversight.” Derrida continues,

They are no longer at the sole disposal of a sovereign state or coalition of sovereign states that protect one another and maintain a balance of terror, as was the case during the Cold War, where everyone was held in check by a reasoned game theory that calculated the risks of escalation so as to exclude, in principle and according to the greatest probability, any suicidal operation. All that is over. A new violence is being prepared and, in truth, has been unleashed for some time now, in a way that is more visibly suicidal or autoimmune than ever. (Rogues 155-56)

Of course, Derrida’s claims here are in line with what I have argued all along. What has changed with the end of the Cold War, if only because that event made apparent what had always been reality, is that there are threats not only outside of the demos—in short there are threats that are not what Schmitt terms enemies—but also threats that exist outside of the representations that are the demos and its other. In other words, what the states Derrida describes protect—and we should realize that the two superpowers of the Cold War colluded in this endeavor despite their claims of animosity towards the other—is exactly the rationalization of the state as power and the exclusion of others based on the necessity of maintaining power and Sameness. It is this reason, this rationality at work in modernity (as we shall see in the next chapter) that is at the heart of the abuse of declaration. And this brings me to my point: these rationalizations, and what they protect, serve a minority for whom the political has become the personal.

Consider Danny Dalton, the corrupt official at the heart of the oil merger in Syriana. His defense of corruption is founded upon, among other things if to a lesser degree, his desire to be in the “white hot center of things” and not “fighting for scraps of meat out there.” His argument regarding money as speech has to do with the ability of power to advocate in the manner it sees best, for individuals and entities with personal stakes in the political process to exert their will in a manner not available to the marginalized. Dalton, like all of the other men with power in Syriana, maintain power for themselves. Sameness refers not only to a global condition, but also to something that must be preserved for power, whether it’s the power of an individual sovereign or the state in which she resides.

The rationalizations, or interpretations, that make possible the exceptions, declarations, and violence utilized by these sovereigns are always the result of a specific point of view, precisely the sort of identity based interpretation that makes Walter Benn Michaels suspicious in The Shape of the Signified. However, as I showed in my introduction, this problematic is not to be overcome by appealing to intentionality. In the present case, to determine what is meant by “democracy” would be impossible because such political institutions cannot be said to have an author in any meaningful sense. What Michaels therefore derides as merely materiality then presents a significant challenge to those who would take responsibility for interpretation themselves, and therefore overcome the lies that Ellison claims “keepers keep their power by.” However, such is only the case if we: assume that materiality is monolithic (in the sense of what Bruno Latour refers to as mononatural); agree with Michaels that there is “no there there” in materiality, nothing to interpret or understand, just a series of mute marks; and/or believe that materiality can only be interpreted according to personal proclivities.

I have dealt with all of these issues previously. Materiality is not monolithic but is multivalent. Materiality can be interpreted, although what we conventionally understand as interpretation does not apply to the material world. Finally, materiality can be “interpreted” only according to its affects; what we can do with a stick will not be limited so much to our necessity (although that is a controlling factor), but absolutely constrained according to what it can do itself (just as for Spinoza a table cannot be made to eat grass). Thus while these problems are settled for the immediate questions this dissertation has and will pursue, I will, for the remainder of this chapter, briefly consider the role of the personal in the interpretation of materiality and its objects.

 

Democracy.

To return then to a concept from Thoreau: conscience, far from being significant of individual stake, is the mark of the impersonal, the prepersonal. “What I think right,” or correct, is not an opinion, but hinges upon a concept of “right” that is, like Nature’s, coextensive with its power. Thoreau’s critique of the vote can thus be tied to Schmitt’s critique of parlimentarism. Voting is done according to an interpretation of a representation, a personal understanding of how power presents itself to the world. Even voting for the “correct” person therefore is “incorrect” insofar as it is tied intrinsically to the personal.

Recall that for Thoreau the “moral sense,” or conscience, what we might call an affect or aggregation of affects, is not relativistic. Again, “what I think right” is not a formulation meant to legitimate any action whatsoever but rather shorthand for a process by which the individual is able to interpret the conditions of a problem without the corrupting influence of deliberation. Of course, deliberation is not always, or even often, a corrupting force. However, in the conflation of liberalism with democracy all voices are given equal weight (minus those who are excluded as a necessary other against which to judge inclusion). Thus the non-expert, for example, is allowed to debate the expert; novelists and political appointees are afforded opportunities to pontificate on global warming, the Big Bang, the Iraq War, and evolution along side and against those who have spent years coming to understand the issues of which they speak. No one is denying the non-experts’ right to have opinions, but what Thoreau would advocate is the ending of debate by means of an act that cuts through representations—faithful or otherwise—and reaches what we can only hopelessly refer to as truth. This truth, while not an absolute truth reached by a pure objectivity, is one that is achieved through appeals to materiality and facts that cannot be bent to any opinion whatsoever. Just as the table cannot be made to eat grass, the hole in the ozone layer cannot be written off as the mere opinion of scientists.

Derrida explains what this liquidation of pointless debate means in terms of democracy and the future: “The expression ‘democracy to come’ does indeed translate or call for a militant and interminable political critique. A weapon aimed at the enemies of democracy, it protests against all naïveté and every political abuse, every rhetoric that would present as a present or existing democracy, as a de facto democracy, what remains inadequate to the democratic demand” (Rogues 86). That political critique is interminable means that there can never be a final analysis, a transcendental interpretation or representation of what democracy is. While all decisions are permanent and irrevocable, they do not decide everything forever but are rather always prologue to future decisions of no less importance. This interminable nature of critique is for the sole purpose of preventing the objectification of any issue, the predetermination of a decision according to personal necessity, the Recognition of the threat as the enemy, the redaction of historical record, or the corruption of the political process for the purpose of maintaining the Same. It is, in short, the production of the future.

1 The underlined text was removed from the final draft of the Declaration.

2 See Rogues. Note that Derrida does not refer to the “right” of the strongest, a formulation that would no doubt be more familiar to readers. That he instead employs the notion of “reason” indicates his alignment of vulgar rationality, what Massumi calls “instrumental reason,” with the corruption of democratic institutions.

3 As with the underlined segment of my epigraph to this chapter, this entire passage was removed from the version of the Declaration delivered to King George.

4 One might also consider the claims made in House of Bush, House of Saud.

5 Deleuze’s quote is from French surrealist poet Joe Bousquet

6 See DeLillo’s discussion of the headlines in “The Power of History.”

7 In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari define a striated space as one that is differentiated but homogenous vis-à-vis a smooth space which is undifferentiated by heterogeneous. While the two types of spaces translate into one another, it is the smooth that is most frightening for the people being discussed here. The inability to draw lines between self and other, to identify and Recognize the enemy, and yet know she is there, is a symptom of smooth space that is not easily overcome. For more on the smoth and the striated, see the fourteenth plateau of A Thousand Plateaus.

8 An interesting comparison to Underworld in this context is Cold Warrior Tom Clancy’s novel of Red Menace paranoia Red Storm Rising. Set in the 1980s during the aftermath of a terrorist strike on a Russian oil refinery that leaves the USSR unable to provide enough energy for itself, the novel tells the story of Red Storm, a masterful and deceitful Soviet plan to capture for itself the petroleum resources of the Middle East. While telling much the same story of American identity as does Underworld, and covering similar ground in regards to the politics of nuclear weapons, Red Storm Rising is notable for the fact that it never once mentions anyone other than the powerful. Even those who seem to be without power initially are always already incorporated into the military-industrial complex and, once they become aware of their position in the geopolitical order, are elevated above the commoner and become part of the inner circle of power. Thus the narrative that Clancy relates is one of equality of opportunity—that the American Dream is viable—but only those who fully are able to realize it can be fully included in the demos as actors.

9 The nation itself is never named, although in many respects it resembles Saudi Arabia: a sharia-enforcing monarchy that is hostile to democracy but held in high regard in the United States. Within the film, it resembles Iran, a nation which the powerful hope will one day be constructed through US intervention and diplomacy as a democracy amenable to US exploitation. In both resemblances, the nation is Syriana, the ideal Middle Eastern state dreamt of by US interests for being willing to turn over its oil exclusively to American industry (or at least being powerless to prevent such an end).

10 Robert Baer recounts a similar experience while investigating a player in the oil industry who was trying to buy influence in Washington: “He smiled, pleased to be the one to tell me. Before he began, he poured himself another white Armagnac and clipped a cigar” (226).

11 Agamben’s quote is from Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” p. 239.

12 Of course, as the scare quotes indicate, Benjamin is in agreement with Spinoza that god’s decrees do not so much make impossible as they do warn against certain actions.

13 Derrida agrees: “[T]he responsibility of what remains to be decided or done (in actuality) cannot consist in following, applying, or carrying out a norm or rule. Wherever I have at my disposal a determinable rule, I know what must be done, and as soon as such knowledge dictates the law, action follows knowledge as a calculable consequence: one knows what path to take, one no longer hesitates. The decision then no longer decides anything but is made in advance and is thus in advanced annulled” (Rogues 84-85, original emphasis).

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