Friday, January 9, 2009

The Truth Machine: the Relationship between Life and Sovereign Power

In the long awaited movie Sex and the City, one of the main protagonists, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), hires a personal assistant; she is a young, lower class woman who came from the southern U.S. to New York in search of a job and, indubitably, “happiness.” Being a personal assistant, she has to have the “necessary” commodities; she cannot afford them, but still she is forced to get them, though only for a short period of time. What is a necessary commodity other than a Louis Vuitton purse? Happiness is therefore not achieved (as this popular series/movie/brand promotes) by getting a job, a career or the like; not even by getting the commodity itself; but by getting a lifestyle. This example shows not just how commodity fetishism influences the cultural system of capitalist democracy, but how much life itself today plays the role of the rationalisation of power structures. Today it is not the commodity itself that is the fetish, but a form of life which is. What better way, then, to see the relationship between power and life than by taking a view on life that is neither life, nor power, but is something in between, an alien. The figure of an alien (illegal alien, excluded misfit) surpasses mere administrative questions of the regulation of foreign laborer status; it does not matter if we look at the suburban riots in Paris or even at the military blockade against Mexican immigrants on the southern U.S. border. An alien, as a “phobogenic” object (an object that creates fear in others), has become a sort of a foundation of the cultural system in capitalist democracy that rationalizes the political malfunction of these same democracies. When Joel Kovel describes the relation of the economic forms and patterns of racism, he finds three forms in historical phases of racism: dominant – in which the “savagery” of the black man that endangers the purity of a white woman is controlled by domination and violence; repulsive – in which the “contagious filth” of a black person is “approached” through avoidance; and a meta-racism (a designation of the present capitalist democracies) – in which a difference is being denied through a complete denial of the existence of racism.1 In all of these cases, as Ivan Ward remarks, “the phantom Negro” endangers cultural illusion and structures of power status quo.2 “The phantom Negro,” as an alien, is the ultimate phobogenic object. The present text is precisely about the relation of this phantom to the status quo capitalist power structure.

Sovereignty and Life
The Alien, in its ambiguous position, by not being completely inside, and neither being completely outside the law, exposes the very sovereignty of today’s power structure that is not the “supreme power over a body politic,”3 but is rather a sovereignty that organizes a social context in which individuals should crave for something else as compensation for the lack of participation in political processes, or for a lack of the political process at all.
Just what form of sovereignty are we talking about? First is the “imperial sovereignty”, which is not a sovereignty of a certain nation-state, but a global form of sovereignty that includes dominant nation-states along with supranational institutions, major capitalist organizations and other powers.4 And second, this sovereignty is marked less by definition, and more by paradox, like the one Giorgio Agamben refers to. The paradox of sovereignty, according to him, means that the “Sovereign is at the same time outside and inside of the legal order.”5 To paraphrase him further, I can state that the sovereign, by having a legal power to suspend the law, legally puts itself outside the law. The structure of this paradox that presents sovereignty as a border (in the sense of drawing a beginning and an end) is, as Agamben claims, a structure of exceptions. When Agamben quotes Schmitt, paraphrasing him, we see that “the Sovereign creates and guarantees the situation in its totality, the sovereign has the monopoly on that last decision; there lies an essence of state sovereignty, not as a monopoly on repression or rule, but as a monopoly of a decision.”6 In other words, the sovereign decides whether some situation is “normal” (where legal order is applicable), or whether it is to proclaim a state of exception (stating that the legal order is not to apply). Therefore, sovereignty of a capitalist state does not depend on power over certain political space; it depends on maintenance of a certain truth about that political space. That truth says that the only sovereignty is not some state sovereignty, but the sovereignty of capital itself (as an ongoing state of exception), and that the only politics it has is the politics of the market that supports life as commodity. Hence, once capital reached its initial accumulation within the nation state, it started to reproduce constantly, and in the process of discovering new forms of production, distribution and exchange, it changed the very notion of territory. As philosopher Marina Gržinić observed, de-territorialisation is not the process of erasing territories, but of re-territorialisation – the constant cannibalisation of old territories and the constant reinvention of new ones.
One such territory is life itself. Giorgio Agamben differentiates bare life: life for the sake of life only; Greek zoe; pure nature. This is the life of Homo Sacer, Holy man, a figure that, according to Agamben, can be killed but can not be sacrificed, a life that does not have anything more than its biological life (migrants stripped of any commodity, third world laborers, etc.). The other form of life is bios: life with style, of a citizen; the form of life that can be sacrificed (to the sovereign). Although it could seem that an alien might resemble bare life and although bios might be seen as an oppressor of bare life, our basic hypothesis here is that the figure of an alien is situated between these two forms of life. The alien is the ultimate phobogenic object, a blank position that attracts all residues of failed rationalizations of state-of-exception power structures. What this means is that an alien emerges somewhere in the bare life’s path toward the power structure, or in the path of bios moving away from the rationalization of power structures.

Relationship of Life and Power
As Agamben says, bare life is a life form that is excluded from human jurisdiction and that has not been included in God’s jurisdiction.7 The continuous sovereign sphere is one in which one can kill while committing neither murder nor sacrifice. And holy life, the one that can be killed but not sacrificed, is a life caught in this sphere. As such, and produced as such, according to Agamben, bare life in that sense is a primal effect of sovereignty. Western mainstream media reports and/or the policy makers, when reporting on the situation in Iraq, fail to acknowledge the thousands of dead Iraqis8 but rather acknowledge that a far less number of dead American soldiers (as soldiers, not as members of low class community in the U.S.) are, on the other side, a cause for panic in assessments of the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. Iraqi life is bare life, while a U.S. soldier’s life is bios. The death of an Iraqi is an humanitarian problem, while the death of a U.S. soldier is a political fact. Hence, the sovereignty of the capitalist state, through the lack of ruling over certain social organizations that seek a solution for its problems, rules over life, produces bare life and sustains bios. Production of bare life is paradoxically also a practice of killing it, as a practice of a sovereign’s “right” to rule over the possibility to cease life, or to organize all of life’s relationships and meaning. But bare life is not one that would perceive itself as a victim: it has a tendency to perceive itself as potential bios, potential “success story”. Bare life does see that the state of exception is not the anomaly, but the truth of capital, but it does not react against it, as it wants to become a part of it, to become the one who oppresses. Bare life, therefore, does not react towards the discriminatory hierarchy of state exception (truth of capital), but it tends to react against some other bare life, that allegedly stops it in its way of emancipation to the same hierarchy.

As Mona Chollet explains, in a Marxist model, a worker is called upon to resist a servile and humiliating position that does not allow him/her to compare his/her destiny to the destiny of a wealthy man and demand a share of the wealth.9 In this model, the worker identifies him/herself only to his/her fellow workers, employed and unemployed. According to Chollet, the genius of the political right is exactly in the twisting of this scheme, which has been effective in the past. Today a worker identifies him/her self with a wealthy man and compares himself to those who share his/her situation. Therefore, s/he “sees” that immigrants get social help and he or she doesn’t; s/he “sees” that the unemployed sleep longer, while s/he has to go to work. Chollet says that workers are therefore diverted from the legitimate target, and that this then creates the vicious circle: the more his/her life conditions are deteriorating, the more likely s/he is to vote for the politics that deteriorates them. This is what happens to bare life: the more it suffers, the more it wants to become integrated into the work processes of neo-liberal capitalism; the more it wants to become bios, life with style. It has a tendency not to resist the oppression, but to become an oppressor. As Hardt and Negri say, “Every sovereign power (…) necessarily forms a political body of which there is a head that commands, limbs that obey, and organs that function together to support the ruler.”10 But it seems that the sovereignty of capital does not even need a political body (as a demand for a potential of a different organization of the social); it just needs a body. Thus, bare life is not the only form produced by the sovereign, but the sovereign produces the relationship between two forms of life, in which one, bios, wants to stay included, while the other, bare life, struggles to be included. This obscene relationship marks the situation in which politics are being slowly killed by capitalism, where the tortured body of politics is not hidden, but presented as culture. And here, the main preoccupation of a slave (bios) and of the wannabe slave (bare life) becomes nothing but a lifestyle as an euphemism for a right to be indifferent, or for a right to become an oppressor. The same way the state socialist totalitarian rituals (mass parades, etc.) were used for compensation for other “sins” of their sovereigns, similarly capitalist democracies use entire cultures for the same compensation policy, for the same scope… but it can barely be seen as such.
As an example, the New York Times recently reported11 that there is a peep-show style artistic installation on Coney Island (NY), where two animatronics (demonstration figures) are simulating the act of waterboarding.12 This presentation of a method used by U.S. interrogators against alleged terror suspects clearly shows that something as deadly serious as torture not only symbolizes the legacy of Bush Jr.’s neo-conservative rule, but also the frivolity of its potential installation as public art/entertainment. Incidentally, the New York Times published this article in the Art & Design section of the paper. Therefore, culture has become the other name for political indifference that is nothing else but neo-liberalism (as a dominant form of representation of capitalist state), or in other words, lifestyle instead of a struggle for a more meaningful, or for some other meaning of life.

A Machine that Produces Truth
Like we said, alien is neither bare life, nor bios, but is in-between. How does this in-between look like? When the French of African/Arab heritage started to riot in Parisian (and other French) suburbs, the rioters were immediately presented as insignificant, lazy, unemployed people, who during pauses between dealing drugs like to burn cars. This discrediting of the rioters by the authorities and the mainstream media, besides being an intentional destruction of the political potential of the protests was in my opinion a strategy to keep bare life as bare life. Although probably a mass of the rioters did not want anything more than a job, the effect of the riots was such that it was recognized by the authorities as potentially capable of igniting questions that address the issue of inequality in a far broader, racial and class context. The political repercussions of the riots were pretty effectively denied, as the rioters were presented as a bunch of hooligans, as bare life. When somebody protests against class inequality, against G8 meetings or against globalization, they are a bunch of hooligans, but when somebody protests against Hugo Chavez, against Iranian leadership or against Chinese rule over Tibet, then those are political protests. This is the representation and repression strategy whose aim is to stop the emergence of an alien as a political figure. Not because they demand integration into a society, but because aliens as political figures invoke the possibility of more radical changes to the society all together. A moment when a certain life (bare life or bios) ceases to be such a life, and becomes an alien, is exactly a moment where either of the two (or both) starts to shape a political demand that goes beyond liberal capitalist dogma of the truth of capital. At the moment Parisian suburban riots started to receive (or at least started to get perceived as) a form of political demand that would address segregation (i.e., an issue of class), bare life became an alien and the political form of its demand was denied to it. When the riots developed beyond the boundaries of the suburbs, and started to refer to a process of inequality as a class, and when bare life started to reject being bare life, but at the same time refused to become bios, these are two cases when the alien as political figure emerged. It is a moment when bare life refuses to be sacred, refuses to be available for murder without sanction, and refuses to be available for sacrifice to the sovereign of capital. The alien is the figure that practices the Marxist model mentioned by Mona Chollet. It focuses its hate toward the very nature of the sovereignty of the capitalist state, toward its truth. It identifies not only with other aliens, but also with the possibility of conflict, the possibility of unmasking or exposing the hideous democratic/consumerist ritual as a totalitarian ritual. The position of an alien is not an embellished position; it does not mark some decorated, romanticized role to be coveted; above all, it is not an alienated subjectivity. An alienated subjectivity (the misfit member of a subculture, or some celebrity with a drug addiction everybody loves to hate) is mainstream today; as elaborated by Marina Gržinić, it is a way that legitimizes itself through a “right to choose” concept, which she elaborated in analyzing such films as Lost in Translation or Broken Flowers. Bill Murray as a lost, empty, depressed misfit character in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation or in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, presents not an alien but a “sensualised alienated position” to the point to become an attractive, stylish, alienated subjectivity.13

According to Hardt and Negri, “The multitude is an internally different, multiple social subject whose constitution and action is based not on identity or unity (or, much less, indifference), but on what it has in common.”14 In the context of this definition, the figure of an alien turns out to be a figure that exposes what is “in common,” what is the same for both bios and bare life. Exposing the truth of capital as nothing but capital itself is a disbelief in the definition of truth imposed by capital(ism). The alien, thus, is not an individual position (as “I”), and it is not a position that demands “emancipation”: it perceives itself as one of many whose “sameness” (common denominator) lies in the fact that they are all subjectivities produced by the order. Therefore, bare life, or even the relationship between different forms of life, is not the primal product of the order’s machine. Its primal product is the “truth” which the individual life tends to accept as its own system of belief; it is the form of life’s grand rationalization of the order, and of itself. This system of belief imposes that its particular truth is the only one possible. This is not a notion that would actualize a question about universal truth, but addresses the capitalist order that monopolizes truth as such, with the imposition of the (im)possibility of struggle for some other truth. This mise-en-scène of life is the capitalist machine’s main product.

Alien vs. Predator
In order to clarify this even further, let us refer to the action movie Alien vs. Predator (Twentieth Century Fox, 2004). In this movie, Aliens (disgusting, reptilian, completely unknown but resilient creatures – pure other) are beings that are created and nurtured as such by the hunter civilization of “Predators” for the sole purpose of being a “worthy” prey for them. The meaning of existence for Aliens is to resist as much as possible before the Predator hunters kill them. Can we draw a parallel here with Agamben? He says that the basic operation of sovereign power is a production of bare life as a source political element and the threshold of articulation between nature and culture. In pre-modern times, our “aliens” were the bare life that suffered under colonization from the (White) First world, and whose purpose was solely to be at service through slavery to their masters, the white colonizers, i.e., the “predators.” Then, not only was bare life used as a work force, but also as a justification for the segregation practiced by the white sovereignty; the same sovereignty as a “domination of culture” also relegated to itself the right to rationalize its imperialistic territorial gains by oppressing the “pure nature,” as the savages, the slaves, i.e. bare life, were defined. But after the era of colonization, the purpose of bare life (as a result of the imposition of the truth of capital) shifted from “being a slave” to “wanting to be a slave”; which reflects today’s bare life position that (mostly) tends to “succeed” in the First World, to become a lifestyle. It is not about achieving a decent life, but about embracing the perverted notion of a decent life as mindless consumerism. If the prime political relationship is an exclusion (a state of exception as an area of non-differentiation between the outer and inner, exclusion and inclusion), then “bare life” could be seen as life that “wants to be included” into capital, while bios (life of culture) is a life that, under a threat of exclusion from the capitalist order, wants to “stay included”. The paradigm of bios is Terezín (German: Theresienstadt) a camp where Jews lived in “better” conditions, where the Nazis could film them for propaganda purposes, to kill them later. Bare life and bios are therefore inscribed not in a form of capitalist democracy, where equality among human subjectivities is allegedly universal, but into an obscene, banal totalitarian ritual where equality means only that subjectivities are equal as commodities on the market. The state of exception, where capitalism can even suspend itself, is therefore a capitalist attempt to give itself some (ideological) meaning, though such meaning is not less banal than the unlimited power of the market, or the human equality that is defined by the market.

Hence, as the movie unfolds, after the Predator commander is killed, other predators take his body into a space ship… but in the final seconds of the movie, out of his body a newborn alien emerges, as a threat to everyone on the ship. Here, the alien refuses to stay on Earth (the predators’ battleground and concentration camp), and thus, it refuses to respect the rules of the game; it does not want to be in a camp at all. Instead of emancipating itself within the truth of the machine, the alien should start investing its own diverse skills and knowledge to emancipate itself through resistance against capitalism, by unmasking the border of capitalist truth, by showing its nature as totalitarian.

Šefik Šeki Tatlić

1 Cf. Ivan Ward, Phobia, Totem Books, Cambridge 2001. Joel Kovel’s quotation is from this book.
2 Ibid.
3 As defined in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (
4 Cf. Michael Hardt / Antonio Negri, Multitude, War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, London 2005.
5 Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer. Il potere sovrano e la nuda vita, Giulio Einaudi, Torino 1995.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
9 Cf. Mona Chollet,
10 Cf. Michael Hardt / Antonio Negri, op. cit.
12 A form of torture that consists of immobilising a person on his back with the head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the breathing passages.
13 Cf. Marina Gržinić, Re-Politicizing art, Theory, Representation and New Media Technology, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, Schlebrügge.Editor, Vienna 2008.
14 Cf. Michael Hardt / Antonio Negri, op. cit.

Source: REARTIKULACIJA no. 5 - 2008