Spectacle, Emergency and Exception: Benjamin and Agamben on Trump and Neoliberal Configurations of Violence

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[i]

It’s been a long twentieth century.

For twenty-three months, since the November 2015 Paris attacks, there has been a state of emergency in France. In times of acute crisis, the French president assumes pouvoirs exceptionnels—‘exceptional powers’—granting the ability to carry out house arrests, instate curfews, regulate public assembly and conduct investigations with nearly inexistent oversight. Since the dispersion of thousands of refugees from the Calais Jungle, these exceptional powers have given free reign for police to legally harass marginalized populations scattered throughout the heavily securitized banlieues. Critics comment that this is the new normal for police brutality in France.

A present-day Walter Benjamin might have given the situation its grim diagnosis. The state of emergency is increasingly becoming the norm; the exception is becoming the rule. The challenge Benjamin throws down to our “astonishment” at the normalization of state violence should strike us even deeper today than at the time the above lines were written, in the spring of 1940, shortly before the author’s death. Europe seems embroiled in an endless crisis, and politics on the international scene aren’t faring much better.

The twenty-four hour news cycle does much to dull our senses, and whatever reaches our imagination is already mediated by spectacle: of these critiques, Benjamin was amply aware. Yet it would take an unapologetically situationist spin to heed Benjamin’s anxieties for the hyperrealistic farce of global politics in the Trump era. Beyond the normalization of the exception, Benjamin was keenly aware of the aestheticization of politics—and, by contrast, the politicization of aesthetics.[ii] A decidedly futurist aesthetic firmly rooted in the past germinated in proto-fascist Italy, and the Nazis envisioned similarly folkloric futures, each infused with jingoistic elements ranging from subtle to overt. The sway that these aesthetics hold is undeniable. The unsurrendering presence of an all-encompassing spectacle tends to cause us to surrender our judgement rather than embolden our beliefs, as Hannah Arendt observed, and this is especially true in periods of extreme crisis. It is with this in mind that we should approach the analysis of Trump’s position in international politics today.

Precisely because “The Donald” is hyperreal, pure simulacrum, a transcendent ego, etc., one must attend to the ways in which the spectacle causes and helps to maintain the normalization of the exception. His cartoonish irresponsibility, his excesses of racism and misogyny, are magnified and mediated by deeply networked relations of power. Everything Donald Trump says or does is deeply infused with the spectacular, from his warmongering with North Korea to his delusional dealings with Mexico and Venezuela. The news cycle magnifies his apish buffoonery while Twitter users are forced to choke on the drivel of his digital spew. By the simple fact that the media at our fingertips expand and contract the reality of things and events in the worlds of our concern, we must treat Donald Trump as a floating signifier that points back towards the exclusion; that is, the exclusion of a zone or state of exception from the game of politics as normal. The question is, what do we not see, when all that we can see is Trump?

Because practically everything he says is deeply polarizing, Donald Trump creates the illusion of being the utmost exception. More and more, public opinion sways violently away from the majority of positions Trump takes. Meanwhile, international allies and more polished neoliberal agents carry out similar abuses unburdened of the inconvenience of drawing too much attention to themselves. As France and Turkey remain in states of emergency, while the threat level in the United Kingdom has been recently downgraded to ‘severe’, analysts opine that Europe is slipping into a permanent state of emergency. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received plaudits for his successful transactions with Trump, continues to receive little criticism for exploitation by Canadian mining companies abroad, particularly in Latin America, while the patience of First Nations is running thin over the much touted process of reconciliation for cultural genocide and systematic neocolonial abuses. While there is no state of emergency to speak of in Canada, many reserve lands carve out geographies of exception where our vision of progress has meant the brutalization and neglect of those seen to be non-progressive.

Sophisticated neoliberal ‘progressives’ like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are seen as injecting some youthful vim into international relations and the management of the global economy by the world’s wealthiest nations. At the recent G7 Summit in May, Trump isolated himself over his negative stances towards the refugee crisis and climate change. Officially scorned by the other member countries, Trudeau and Macron (their “bromance” widely reported) came out strongly in favour of free trade and the Paris Climate Accord, clashing with Trump on either score. While Macron played “the good cop”, praising Trump’s “pragmatism,” Trudeau issued limp imputations of his American counterpart’s attitudes. Both profit from economic and environmental exploitation and political repression in their own countries.

One might contend that it is easier for Trudeau to govern with a certain gloss due to his country’s distance from direct terrorist threats; however, Canadian citizens in Quebec have been imprisoned for attempting to flee the country to join ISIS, and the quiet city of Edmonton, Alberta, was rocked by a terrorist attack as recently as last month. Alas, this contention somewhat misses the point. Zones of exception are indistinct in the abstract, as they are realized only in the concrete geographies of political landscapes. Such zones might be multiple and overlapping, but in any given landscape, some will be more pronounced than others.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben theorizes the exception beyond its normal limits. In a sense, Agamben’s entire work can be interpreted as an attempt to force the enclosure opened by Benjamin in the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy. For Agamben, the paradigm of western politics in the era of modernity is the camp, meaning Nazi extermination camps or forced labour camps. The camp is a zone of indistinction, where sovereignties extend their power precisely by suspending the rule of law, treating citizens as non-citizens and erupting the continuity of any conception of ‘rights’. Sovereign power is constituted by the exclusion. It is no coincidence that Agamben’s critical currency swelled among American theorists following 9/11, in the search for a conceptual geography in which to think the explosion of rights and uses of exceptional violece against a targeted population of (non-)citizens guilty of being (or appearing) Muslim.

The banlieues in France, many First Nations reserves in Canada, exemplify states of exception. For Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the exception. He traces a shift in sovereign power, departing from Foucault, who held that the power of the sovereign consists in the capacity to let live or make die. Sovereign power for Agamben is characterized by the paradoxical status of Homo sacer—one who can be killed, but not sacrificed. Agamben’s point is that Homo sacer, “the sacred” or “the accursed man,” is held subject to the law by exclusion from it, thus having no legal protections from being put to death, but also constitutively lacking in the Spirit of a religion or a culture such that that man’s death could be ritualized. The camp is a zone of legal indistinction in which all are potentially Homines sacri. Crucially, as Agamben figures Homo sacer as the exact mirror image of the sovereign—that is, as paradoxically existing both inside and outside of the law—the figure of the accursed is the functional norm of sovereign power. to As the camp, or the state of exception, increasingly becomes the rule, all subjects of sovereign power, thinks Agamben, may potentially feel the force of sovereign power through the suspension of the law. The key point Agamben wants to emphasize is that those living in the state of exception lack legal citizenship in the eyes of the sovereign, and along with it, any right to claim a duty on the part of the state to protect them. They are literally stripped of their humanity, such that Agamben will also call Homo sacer, “bare life,” meaning brute animal living, excluded from any force or principle that could constitute a community.

First Nations in Canada have fought hard for the recognition of their stories by the federal government—an ongoing and incomplete process—while many communities continue to struggle for basic necessities. A suicide crisis plaguing many of Canada’s indigenous communities is a bitter testament to the logic of sovereignty Agamben describes. In France, police continue to carry out discriminatory raids and abusive searches in banlieues where thousands live below the poverty line with a complete lack of services, noted by critics and government agencies alike to be hotbeds of radicalization. Today Puerto Rico would be a further example of the state of exception, while the United States’ response to a terrorist act committed by a white man in Las Vegas merits attention insofar as it demonstrates the current limits of the rule of the exception—the insignificance of the shooter’s race (precisely what makes his race significant for philosophy) shows that the exception in the United States operates as a principle of racialized exclusion (although theory on this point would be infinitely less instructive than a drive through any of America’s inner city ghettos).

One could imagine innumerable examples, theorizing the ways in which neoliberal abstractions representing man as Homo economicus generate exclusions. But we must return, by way of a conclusion, to the subject of the spectacle. Agamben cites Guy Débord as a major influence. But even Benjamin, in his earlier engagement with the philosophy of the spectacle, offers a telling insight.

XI. The shooting of a film […] affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.[iii]

What is remarkable here is that Benjamin connects spectacle with exclusion, the spectacular image with the apparatus responsible for generating it. What does this entail for the spectacle of sovereign power? According to Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the state of exception. The power that produces the exception is thus masked by the spectacle, and the spectacle reproduces the empty proclamation of the exception as a pure affect. Benjamin will suggest that this is similar to how the viewer loses the ability to place his perspective in the shift from stage play to film. That the logic of exclusion is constitutive of the power of sovereignty disappears from our imaginative fascination with Trump’s profane excesses. Benjamin concludes this passage, evocatively stating, “the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” Something tangible, even beautiful—because natural, pre-modern or pre-technological—is dissolved by the force of total mediation.

Politics in the Trump era play by the rules of the aestheticization of politics as much as they do the rule of the state of exception. The former point is crucial for understanding how Trump’s image has become the idol of the alt-right imaginary, but without holding this up as against the normalization of the exception, it is impossible to place Trump in the broader context of political power in the age of neoliberal globalization. Trump fits into the broader context of these power relations by performing what is problematic about the logic of sovereignty in an absurdly excessive manner, creating the impression that only he is the problem; this, while providing a cover for the actual routine excesses of neoliberal violence.

Is there any way to break this spell? Agamben, following Benjamin, entertain the possibility of a “divine” or “pure violence,” one which shatters the cycle of mythical violence that operates as a normal function of sovereignty, politics, the rule of law, etc. This violence would be violence as “pure means,” rather than a “means to an end”. Benjamin draws the comparison between a political general strike, in which workers stop work in order to force their employers to make certain concessions, and a proletarian general strike, which amounts to an absolute refusal, a refusal to employ violence as a means and to break with the cycle of mythical violence by exploding the continuities of law and sovereign power. The practical output of these elements of their theories remain unthought. But perhaps there is something to the outrageous spectacle of “The Donald” that will tend to peel his image away from the cycle of violence and lay the latter bare before all our naked indignation.

[i] While the exact time of writing is uncertain, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt have surmised that Benjamin must have written the Theses in spring of 1940, months before his death in September of the same year. They were first published in German in 1942.

[ii] The former corresponds to a conservative reaction to liberal narratives of progress under the conditions of socioeconomic degeneration and destitution, while the latter points towards possible strategies of resistance, the spirit of which Benjamin saw in French Surrealism.

[iii] From Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). My emphasis.

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