Thursday, 5 May 2011

Nobody's dead

Reading the news of the bin Laden assassination I am reminded of Polyphemus. You remember - the gigantic cyclops who was blinded by Odysseus. In the story, Odysseus gets away from the raging cyclops with the help of his cunning, calling himself "Nobody" so that poor Polyphemus makes a fool out of himself when he calls for help. Having escaped out of the cave by trickery, Odysseus sails to safety and new adventures, narrowly escaping the rocks that the cyclops in vain hurls at his ship.

Of course, in the story we've been served in the media the ending is different. The cyclops gets his revenge and justice is done.

Do we feel dismayed or happy? Well, I personally don't feel like celebrating in the street. Nor do newspaper headlines saying "Rot in hell" or "Got the bastard" make me very happy. Frankly, I find it revulsive when presidents or secretaries of state find it in order to sound like boasting maffia bosses: "You won't see him walking this earth again", "You cannot wait us out, you cannot defeat us..."

Incidentally, my first thought when I read the news was that Charles Tilly was entirely right in stating, as he does in several of his texts, that there is a close analogy between state government and organized crime.

What fascinates me - oh yes, I admit that I do find these lurid pieces of news fascinating - is not Mr Nobody (as many have already pointed out, he was already a nobody by the time of his death), but Polyphemus.
What then does the Cyclops symbolize, this one-eyed giant with his terrible caves and his sheep farming? Of course the one-eyed fanaticism and crudely simplistic dominance, which has existed in all times and which is just as strong and one-eyed in our own time. Stupidity's language of power, the dictatorship of narrowmindedness. Truly, we have reason to ask how things will fare. We are trapped in the cave of the Cyclops, now as then. Among wolves we play sheep. Confronted by the threat of the Cyclops' groping hands we hide under the ram's stomach, trying to make the despot believe we are his favorite ram. (Harry Martinsson)
Well, I'm not sure this portrayal of the Cyclops as the stupid despot is all there is to this many-sided creature. At the very least, there is one little bit missing, which I think Adorno and Horkheimer help us to see when they stress the fact that to Homer, the Cyclopses were primitive barbarians unacqainted with laws, agriculture and civilization.
Stupidity and lawlessness share a common definition: when Homer calls the Cyclops a "lawless-minded monster", he does not mean simply that the Cyclops does not respect the laws of morality but this his thinking itself is lawless, unsystematic, rhapsodic (Adorno & Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment)  
Fortunately, there's a neat way to solve the logical conundrum that the Cyclops seems to connote both repressive state power and lawlessness. We only need to recall Schmitt's formula: sovereign is he who decides on the exception. The essence of sovereign power consists in the very power to abrogate the law or the constitution. The state can protect the lawful order only by virtue of possessing the power to set the law aside and create a temporary lawlessness in the form known as a state of emergency or "state of exception". What is revealing and helpful in Schmitt's formula is that it points out that such lawlessness is not so much an aberration but rather the very essence or core of state power.

This power of course also extends over information, over the "truth". The openly admitted logic of state interest that makes Obama withhold the photo of bin Laden's corpse, would indicate that other inconvenient pieces of information are also likely to be withheld the moment they clash with state interest. No problem if the body is too brutally mutilated to be shown - we'll just mutilate the truth as well so that we don't have to show it.

There's no need, however, to interpret this sovereign power as rational, Machiavellian or calculating. Let us recall the blind rage of American politics in the wake of 9.11, a rage that American politicians never made any attempt to hide. In fact, I believe they took pride in it, perhaps even delighting in how mad and barbaric they had become. Let me echo Adorno & Horkheimer here: calling this politics lawless does not mean simply that it lacked respect for laws but that its thinking was itself lawless, unsystematic, rhapsodic. Isn't there even something almost endearingly stupid in the way the Obama administration has gone about the business of the photo? Telling people that they won't be shown it because it will make them hate you really sounds like a very good way to placate them, doesn't it?

The source of my fascination is seeing the face of the stupid Cyclops appear in the raw, in the full, naked and undisguised display of his brutal powers. It's not so often that it happens. Usually it hides away, pretending not to exist, under its much more civilized, lawful, and agreeably democratic and tolerant surface. Even when the traces of barbarism are a little bit too conspicuous to be hidden away - like when things like Guantanamo or the use of torture get a little too much attention - they are usually treated as embarrassing facts rather than things to boast about. I am not just talking about the sycophancy of the present US administration here. I have no doubts that all states possess similar monsters in their caves somewhere, ready to jump out at the slightest provocation, wreak their havoc and dance in the streets when the nobodys that dared to disturb them have been crushed to pulp.

As the dancing stops, however, we will be treated to another macabre spectacle: that of Cyclops' face reverting back into the smiling, familiar and civilized faces of whatever "progressive" politicians happen to be in power and addressing their people through their TV cameras. What interests me is not at all the mutilated face of bin Laden, but the uncanny face of the state. No photos of that, please. It's not a pretty picture.

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