…the sovereign is the point of indistinction between violence and law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law passes over into violence.
– Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer
When one actually thinks about it, rather than just spouting rhetoric from some ideological mythology of the Left or Right the problem of immigration in our world is about Sovereignty. It’s about the emerging war against boundaries, limits, and finitude in politics, science, philosophy, the arts, and gender. In politics it’s about immigration, migration, and the sense of breakdown of nations and their paranoiac reactionism against imaginary and perceived threats to their own integrity and sovereignty. Same in the sciences we see explorations emerging in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information and communications converging to form a global network society that will break free of political and social constraints and provide a larger framework and platform for such politically motivated notions as transhumanism that seek to transcend the limits of the human into a inhuman other or enhanced humanity – the so-called H++. In philosophy we see the move away from Kant’s heritage of finitude and limits as speculative philosophies of idealist, materialist, and realist notions have begun to takeover the academic treadmill seeking inhuman, nonhuman, or posthumanist ways of transcending the humanists traditions based in either religious or Enlightement philosophies. Same goes for the arts whether in Sonic installations, Cinema, Performance art, and all the media based systems based on breaking free of technological limitations of traditional arts of painting, music, or other forms. In gender we see the transcension of the male/female dichotomies in the issue of transgender dysphoria current in our world of body modification and sexual identity. All these issues are about the notion of Sovereignty and should be centered on this concept whether we’re speaking of Self, Body, Politics, Sciences, Art, or Love.
Starting with the etymological aspects we discover “authority, rule, supremacy of power or rank” as central to the notion of sovereignty. Traces this back into its Greek and showing archaic Indo-European features … with derivatives arkhe, ‘rule, beginning,’ and arkhos, ‘ruler’ “. Bringing this into politics one discovers in the Greek autarkhia, from autarkhein “to be an absolute ruler,” from autos “self” (auto-) + arkhein “to rule” – the notion of absolute self-rule or the integrity of self-bounded rule within boundaries. To set boundaries was to “limit” – “a boundary, limit, border, embankment between fields,” related to limen “threshold.” So that rule is always bounded by a marker, or marked limit. The primary sense is probably “boundary,” which had evolved by Old English through “sign of a boundary,” through “sign in general,” then to “impression or trace forming a sign.” Meaning “any visible trace or impression” first recorded c. 1200.
Trace. “follow (a course); draw a line, make an outline of something,” also figurative; “ponder, investigate,” from Old French tracier “look for, follow, pursue” (12c., Modern French tracer), from Vulgar Latin *tractiare “delineate, score, trace” (source also of Spanish trazar “to trace, devise, plan out,” “track made by passage of a person or thing,” c. 1300, from Old French trace “mark, imprint, tracks” (12c.), back-formation from tracier. Scientific sense of “indication of minute presence in some chemical compound” is from 1827. Traces “vestiges”. The material mark left or imprinted, the trace evidence, etc..
So if we take the above and apply it we get the notion of a slow progression from self-limitation, a setting of the Self or Subject’s own boundaries, the ruling of one’s self-identity and rule and its limits; the sense of the early agricultural societies growing out of the hunter-gatherer traditions and setting boundaries and borders by marking and tracing the edges and margins of one’s fields, etc. Out of this one can see the historical rise of City States where the rulers of the agricultural systems of security and protection set boundaries of sovereignty, bounded by markers, sign-posts, meaning and significance against the excluded as well as the power of inclusion. All of this through the rise of nations, Kings, etc. up to our own age of capitalism and private property with set boundaries on person, place, and thing, etc. We know that the notion to rule originally meant to “mark with lines”. This sense of boundary being marked, staked out, fixed. So that to rule was to make a decision, to decide, to set limits and boundaries. Such notions would soon infiltrate thought forms and become the basis of philosophical speculation as decision, a setting of the bounds of ratio and reason, etc. To reckon, think, reason, count all arose out of these traceries and markings, decisions and ratios of regulating the boundaries and integrity of bare life, self, fields, cities, territories, nations, etc.
In his well known work Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life Giorgio Agamben starts with the definition of sovereignty first stipulated by Carl Schmitt as “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” and goes on to tell us that this became a commonplace even before there was any understanding that what was at issue in it was nothing less than the limit concept of the doctrine of law and the State, in which sovereignty borders (since every limit concept is always the limit between two concepts) on the sphere of life and becomes indistinguishable from it. As long as the form of the State constituted the fundamental horizon of all communal life and the political, religious, juridical, and economic doctrines that sustained this form were still strong, this “most extreme sphere” could not truly come to light.1
Yet, it is in Pindar that Agamben discovers the notion of nomos and sovereignty bequeathed to Western Civilization:
For Pindar-and this is the knot that he bequeaths to Western political thought and that makes him, in a certain sense, the first great thinker of sovereignty- the sovereign nomos (i.e., nomos “custom, law”) is the principle that, joining law and violence, threatens them with indistinction. In this sense, Pindar’s fragment on the nomos basileus contains the hidden paradigm guiding every successive definition of sovereignty: the sovereign is the point of indistinction between violence and law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law passes over into violence.2
One gets the sense of violation of boundaries, integrity, etc. as “to treat with violence, outrage, dishonor,” perhaps an irregular derivative of vis “strength, force, power, energy”. If to make a distinction is to mark out, separate, divide, discriminate, etc., the to blur or cause an indistinction to occur between what has been established, marked, set down, bounded through the power of sovereign rule and law to become permeable and open to the risk of external force and violence.
As Agamben will attest in the classical world the first exclusion from sovereignty is the simple natural life which is excluded from the polis in the strict sense, and remains confined-as merely reproductive life-to the sphere of the oikos, “home”.3 Then he’ll remark that the natural being, the living being has logos by taking away and conserving its own voice in it, even as it dwells in the polis by letting its own bare life be excluded, as an exception, within it. Politics therefore appears as the truly fundamental structure of Western metaphysics insofar as it occupies the threshold on which the relation between the living being and the logos is realized. In the “politicization” of bare life-the metaphysical task par excellence-the the humanity of living man is decided.4
So this division of household and polis sets the boundaries between private and public even from the beginning, of intrinsic/extrinsic, inside/outside, etc., as well as the original sense of threshold was a threshing area adjacent to the living area of a house as the boundary between soil, wilderness, agricultural – natural on one side and the polis and city, sovereign – and artificial on the other side. So to blur or make indistinct the boundaries between natural and private against artificial and public was to dissolve the very integrity of sovereignty and the political sphere of the polis as a self-limiting realm of law and order, etc.
Out of this Agamben will argue that the fundamental mental categorial pair of Western politics is not that of friend / enemy but that of bare life / political existence, zoe / bios, exclusion / inclusion. There is politics because man is the living being who, in language, separates and opposes himself to his own bare life and, at the same time, maintains himself in relation to that bare life in an inclusive exclusion.5
What else is “bare life” but the body itself which must be maintained as an inclusive exclusion? Yesterday I spoke of Kant’s philosophy whose philosophical project was the enactment of a negation and contempt for the body and base matter: a repugnance, disgust, and ultimate horror of sensibility and animality that would drive modernity forward and institute within the capitalist project a death-drive for mastery and accumulation without sacrifice that is in our own time culminating in the Human Security Regime (Nick Land). Bare life is this sense of sensibility and animality or zoe as against bios, etc.. Agamben at one point choses to explicate this notion in reference to the included/excluded people within and outside politics:
It is as if what we call “people” were in reality not a unitary subject but a dialectical oscillation between two opposite poles: on the one hand, the set of the People as a whole political body, and on the other, the subset of the people as a fragmentary multiplicity of needy and excluded bodies; or again, on the one hand, an inclusion that claims to be total, and on the other, an exclusion that is clearly hopeless; at one extreme, the total state of integrated and sovereign citizens, and at the other, the preserve-court of miracles or camp-of the wretched, the oppressed, and the defeated.6
Isn’t this the state of exception of migrant immigrants everywhere, a multiplicity outside the law, outside sovereignty, the inclusive excluded of the wretched, the oppressed, and the defeated? In fact he’ll make it more explicit, saying,
And in a different yet analogous way, today’s democratico-capitalist project of eliminating the poor classes through development not only reproduces within itself the people that is excluded but also transforms the entire population of the Third World into bare life. Only a politics that will have learned to take the fundamental biopolitical fracture of the West into account will be able to stop this oscillation and to put an end to the civil war that divides the peoples and the cities of the earth.7
The point here is that the West has produced through its very practices of sovereignty that which is now in our age performing the task of destruction of that very Sovereignty. Through our very inclusive exclusions of bare life we have broken the boundaries between “violence and law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law passes over into violence,” upon which the whole metaphysical edifice was built thereby providing in our time the demolition of the Sovereignty of Nations.
In some ways the whole fabric of thought, metaphysics, language, law, rhetoric, etc., that have held together the socio-cultural forms of Western Civilization are unraveling all around us. We are seeing by way of its own inner logic the self-destruction of Western Civilization at its own hands. For two centuries now from Kant to our time the Enlightenment project was the last ditch effort to shore up the ruins of an already decaying and dying form of political and social life on this planet. That we have in our time opened up the doors to our own destruction at the hands of the remaining civilizations on the planet is only fitting. What will this lead too?
All the talk of certain nations in the EU and the Americas of closing down the borders, sealing themselves off in hermetically sealed cities, enclaves, security zones; building bigger fences and exclusions is just the last ditch effort of an already dying and dissolving sovereignty which is leading us into a far stranger period of transition than we at first assumed. It’s as if the globalist agenda of capitalism is withdrawing from the globe into the Human Security Regime where it seeks to exclude rather than include reality, rather it is withdrawing into a information society, a solipsistic network of infospheric financialism as it enforces everywhere in the Third World a slow death and decomposition, a war on the earth’s remaining resources at the expense of the Third World. While the homeworlds are allowed to become Third World nations in themselves the elite 01.% have built their dream Oasis’s, their Dream Cities around the global jet-set nodal points where they can live under the cold eye of surveillance, security, and an ultra-fascistic police system that defends and protects them against the others… us. The old nations can fall into boudarylessness as far as these new plutocrats are concerned. For them this is part of the global socialization program of de-sovereignization. They don’t want the old First World to remain as it is, but rather for those not astute enough to become apart of the .01% the world will become a flatland of economic chaos and poverty over the coming century.
Yet, there is no conspiracy behind it, no bad old boys pulling the strings as in far-right conspiracy theory. Rather this is capitalization itself working out its own logic in a global rather than a national setting. Once you gain the global capital vision you gain a different perspective of finance, banking, governance, etc. across the board. Most on the Left still are hindered at the national level of political struggle when the world of Capital has moved on leaving the Nation State to fend for itself and die a bad death. Oh sure the propaganda machines of the mediascape still whistle the tune of old style politics as usual but its over, done, dead. It cannot be revived, and has no use value in the global arena anymore. The EU is the model of the future de-politicized economic regime. Nations have already lost their sovereignty accept as fictions for the popular folk mythologists. Nations are defunct and dying. But Capital will live on without them…
In 2007 we began to see Michael Serres notions of parasitism come into play. As Michael Husdon’s expose Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy tells it the systemic disabling of regulations on Wall Street has resulted in the following, says Hudson: “…the wealthiest One Percent have captured nearly all the growth in income since the 2008 crash. Holding the rest of society in debt to themselves, they have used their wealth and creditor claims to gain control of the election process and governments by supporting lawmakers who un-tax them, and judges or court systems that refrain from prosecuting them. Obliterating the logic that led society to regulate and tax rentiers in the first place, think tanks and business schools favor economists who portray rentier takings as a contribution to the economy rather than as a subtrahend from it.” Continuing he comments: “In nature, parasites tend to kill hosts that are dying, using their substance as food for the intruder’s own progeny. The economic analogy takes hold when financial managers use depreciation allowances for stock buybacks or to pay out as dividends instead of replenishing and updating their plant and equipment. Tangible capital investment, research and development and employment are cut back to provide purely financial returns.” This is not neoliberalism, but rather what Franco Berardi and others term the financilization of the economy as dematerialized hyperware.
As he remarks in Emancipation of the Sign: Poetry and Finance During the Twentieth Century: “The dephysicalization of money is part of the general process of abstraction, which is the all-encompassing tendency of capitalism. Marx’s theory of value is based on the concept of abstract work: because it is the source and the measure of value, work has to sever its relation to the concrete usefulness of its activity and product. From the point of view of valorization, concrete usefulness does not matter. In a similar vein, Baudrillard speaks of the relation between signification and language. The abstraction process at the core of the capitalist capture (subsumption) of work implies abstraction from the need for the concreteness of products: the referent is erased.” Everything has entered the electronic void. Tangible goods do not matter to this market. The reason why the middle-class market of commodities has vanished, why banks no longer invest in businesses. There is no money there: none.
So idiot’s like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio – conservatives (?) have no clue when they tell us they’ll produce jobs, bring companies back to America, close down the world, force tariffs and embargoes etc. It’s like a return to pre-critical thought in conservative clothing… a rationalism leading to fantasy and total collapse. While the Bankers and financiers just laugh and continue to plunder the hyperware in the slipstream… It’s this total disconnect between politics and economics, a bifurcation that is leading to the schizophrenaztion of democracy that Berardi alludes to when he says, “We are tracing here the dynamic of a disaster, the disaster that capitalism is inserting into hypermodern subjectivity, the disaster of acceleration and panic. But simultaneously, we have to look for a rhythm that may open a further landscape, a landscape beyond panic and the precarious affects of loneliness and despair.” Capital is withdrawing from democracy everywhere: it no longer needs politics or democracy. The faster the Left wakes up out of its sleep the better off it will be, for far too long it has beat its head against a fantasy world of neoliberalism (does this term even mean anything anymore?), while real capitalist markets and profits have moved elsewhere. The target has vanished into the network, gone invisible. Only the shell of a mediapropaganda machine is left in the wake to keep the masses eyes off the ball…
The Left needs a global framework within which to approach this flattened economic topology and mapping of the EconoSpheric network society emerging from the rubble of the Nation States. Only the nodal points, the City States where Capital still elaborates its compositional and deco-positional pressures will remain. A new temporal regime based on excess and affluence is emerging from the older systems… most Leftist thought still has its eye on the outmoded neoliberal fictions of the 80’s. All gone, all dead. With the rise of bitcoin and blockchain a new financial system is arising based on smart money, tagged information rich economy that will only gain in resonance as the years progress.
I think works like Maurizio Lazzarato’s recently translated Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity falls somewhere in this sphere, effectively balancing and joining critiques of contemporary capitalism, complex philosophies of subjection (or the complex social production of individual subjectivities), and everyday existence, touching current western politics, yet preserving a general openness and applicability. (see Patrick Lyons review). There’s also Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital: Marx and Spinoza on Desire, which as Jason Read in an excellent review tells us:
Lordon makes a strong claim that capitalism must be considered a reorganization of desire, a claim that resonates well with neoliberal capital’s own self-presentation as a matter of motivation and desire. However, as his own remarks about the naturalization of capital make clear, it is not just desire that is reorganized by capitalism, but knowledge and the imagination as well. Our inability to imagine alternatives, to envision modes of happiness other than consumer fantasies, or “dream jobs,” as well as our inability to comprehend the current economic order as just that, an economic and political order and not a fact of life, are as much elements of our subjection as desire.
We truly are entering a chaotic period of tohu-bohu within which civil-war and violence will become more and more apparent unless the people themselves, the excluded, oppressed, and bare life citizens of earth come together, unite in some form of solidarity to create a more viable form of life beyond the “bare”. Notions of subjectivity, subjectivation and the basic underpinnings of the older Enlightenment heritage of Humanism centered in instrumental Reason is dead, and something else is arising out of the dead body of neoliberalism’s ‘free market’ era. As Lyons says of Lazzarato’s project, it is thus (under the principal guidance of Félix Guattari) recasting the subject upon a mechanical plane, as both sentient personality and blissfully ignorant lynchpin in the machinery of capitalism. The grounds for such a critique are set by establishing a basic distinction between social subjection, or the effects of the complex of social/symbolic institutions that assign us complex identities (gender, nationality, class, etc.), and mechanic enslavement, which signifies the complex of social and symbolic systems mentioned above. The cultivation of the subject, for Lazzarato, occurs precisely at the juncture of these two systems, so that’s where we ought to look to find spaces of potential change and spontaneity.
All this is also earmarked in such works from a materialist dialectics in Fabio Vighi’s On Žižek’s Dialectics: Surplus, Subtraction, Sublimation. As Michael Calderbank in his review remarks, “Fabio Vighi’s starting point in his explication of Žižek’s dialectics is the latter’s insight thatcapitalism, like all social orders, is stained by a self-generating excess that makes it incomplete, inconsistent and therefore vulnerable. However … unlike previous formations … it does not hide or disavow its constitutive excess; rather it elevates it into ‘the very principle of social life, in the speculative movement of money begetting more money’ (11).” He goes on to say:
Vighi explores the division between mental and manual Labour in relation to the work of Adorno and Alfred Sohn-Rethel, with particular focus on the way that the production of knowledge is reified and abstracted from the sphere of material production more generally. Vighi takes Marx’s observation that the activity of the labouring subject cannot be valorized without remainder to be the same fundamental claim as the Lacanian point that the weight of the unconscious disturbs the integrity and consistency of the Symbolic register. Captialist society’s disavowal of the “knowledge-at-work” in the labour of the proletariat shares the same fundamental structure as the subjective disavowal of unconscious thought.
The Left must answer this with imagination and courage rather than with pessimism and despair, otherwise all the reactionary forecasts of civil-war – ethnic, regional, and global will become more and more apparent as the pressure of natural and artificial emergencies or catastrophes become prevalent in the coming years: – such as climate change, viral infestation, crop failure, migration, and any number of other divisive known or unknown, natural or man-made catastrophes haunt our future horizons. Unless humans can overcome their ancient systems of exclusion/inclusion based on an insane and narcissistic solipsism: Sovereignty – we more than likely will proceed to our own self-immolation in the pyre of historical apocalypse. I’m neither optimistic nor pessimistic to which we shall proceed. We will know soon enough.
- Giorgio Agamben. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (Kindle Locations 151-155). Kindle Edition.
- ibid. (KL 376-379).
- ibid. (KL 36-37).
- ibid. (KL 109-111).
- ibid. (KL 112-114).
- ibid. (KL 2014-2017).
- ibid. (KL 2050-2053).