Sunday, January 10, 2010

The A Brief History of the State of Exception

Giorgio Agamben
An excerpt from State of Exception


We have already seen how the state of siege had its origin in France during the Revolution. After being established with the Constituent Assembly’s decree of July 8, 1791, it acquired its proper physiognomy as état de siège fictif or état de siège politique with the Directorial law of August 27, 1797, and, finally, with Napoleon’s decree of December 24, 1811. The idea of a suspension of the constitution (of the “rule of the constitution”) had instead been introduced, as we have also seen, by the Constitution of 22 Frimaire Year 8. Article 14 of the Charte of 1814 granted the sovereign the power to “make the regulations and ordinances necessary for the execution of the laws and the security of the State”; because of the vagueness of the formula, Chateaubriand observed “that it is possible that one fine morning the whole Charte will be forfeited for the benefit of Article 14.” The state of siege was expressly mentioned in the Acte additionel to the Constitution of April 22, 1815, which stated that it could only be declared with a law. Since then, moments of constitutional crisis in France over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been marked by legislation on the state of siege. After the fall of the July Monarchy, a decree by the Constituent Assembly on June 24, 1848, put Paris in a state of siege and assigned General Cavaignac the task of restoring order in the city. Consequently, an article was included in the new constitution of November 4, 1848, establishing that the occasions, forms, and effects of the state of siege would be firmly set by a law. From this moment on, the dominant principle in the French tradition (though, as we will see, not without exceptions) has been that the power to suspend the laws can belong only to the same power that produces them, that is, parliament (in contrast to the German tradition, which entrusted this power to the head of state). The law of August 9, 1849 (which was partially restricted later by the law of April 4, 1878), consequently established that a political state of siege could be declared by parliament (or, additionally, by the head of state) in the case of imminent danger to external or internal security. Napoleon III had recourse several times to this law and, once installed in power, he transferred, in the constitution of January 1852, the exclusive power to proclaim a state of siege to the head of state. The Franco-Prussian War and the insurrection of the Commune coincided with an unprecedented generalization of the state of exception, which was proclaimed in forty departments and lasted in some of them until 1876. On the basis of these experiences, and after MacMahon’s failed coup d’état in May 1877, the law of 1849 was modified to establish that a state of siege could be declared only with a law (or, if the Chamber of Deputies was not in session, by the head of state, who was then obligated to convene parliament within two days) in the event of “imminent danger resulting from foreign war or armed insurrection” (law of April 3, 1878, Art. 1).

World War One coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of the warring countries. On August 2, 1914, President Poincaré issued a decree that put the entire country in a state of siege, and this decree was converted into law by parliament two days later. The state of siege remained in force until October 12, 1919. Although the activity of parliament, which was suspended during the first six months of the war, recommenced in January 1915, many of the laws passed were, in truth, pure and simple delegations of legislative power to the executive, such as the law of February 10, 1918, which granted the government an all but absolute power to regulate by decree the production and trade of foodstuffs. As Tingsten has observed, in this way the executive power was transformed into a legislative organ in the material sense of the term. In any case, it was during this period that exceptional legislation by executive [governativo] decree (which is now perfectly familiar to us) became a regular practice in the European democracies.

Predictably, the expansion of the executive’s powers into the legislative sphere continued after the end of hostilities, and it is significant that military emergency now ceded its place to economic emergency (with an implicit assimilation between war and economics). In January 1924, at a time of serious crisis that threatened the stability of the franc, the Poincaré government asked for full powers over financial matters. After a bitter debate, in which the opposition pointed out that this was tantamount to parliament renouncing its own constitutional powers, the law was passed on March 22, with a four-month limit on the government’s special powers. Analogous measures were brought to a vote in 1935 by the Laval government, which issued more than five hundred decrees “having force of law” in order to avoid the devaluation of the franc. The opposition from the left, led by Léon Blum, strongly opposed this “fascist” practice, but it is significant that once the Left took power with the Popular Front, it asked parliament in June 1937 for full powers in order to devalue the franc, establish exchange control, and impose new taxes. As has been observed, this meant that the new practice of legislation by executive [governativo] decree, which had been inaugurated during the war, was by now a practice accepted by all political sides. On June 30, 1937, the powers that had been denied Blum were granted to the Chautemps government, in which several key ministries were entrusted to nonsocialists. And on April 10, 1938, Édouard Daladier requested and obtained from parliament exceptional powers to legislate by decree in order to cope with both the threat of Nazi Germany and the economic crisis. It can therefore be said that until the end of the Third Republic “the normal procedures of parliamentary democracy were in a state of suspension.” When we study the birth of the so-called dictatorial regimes in Italy and Germany, it is important not to forget this concurrent process that transformed the democratic constitutions between the two world wars. Under the pressure of the paradigm of the state of exception, the entire politico-constitutional life of Western societies began gradually to assume a new form, which has perhaps only today reached its full development. In December 1939, after the outbreak of the war, the Daladier government obtained the power to take by decree all measures necessary to ensure the defense of the nation. Parliament remained in session (except when it was suspended for a month in order to deprive the communist parliamentarians of their immunity), but all legislative activity lay firmly in the hands of the executive. By the time Marshal Pétain assumed power, the French parliament was a shadow of itself. Nevertheless, the Constitutional Act of July 11, 1940, granted the head of state the power to proclaim a state of siege throughout the entire national territory (which by then was partially occupied by the German army).

In the present constitution, the state of exception is regulated by Article 16, which De Gaulle had proposed. The article establishes that the president of the Republic may take all necessary measures “when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory, or the execution of its international commitments are seriously and immediately threatened and the regular functioning of the constitutional public powers is interrupted.” In April 1961, during the Algerian crisis, De Gaulle had recourse to Article 16 even though the functioning of the public powers had not been interrupted. Since that time, Article 16 has never again been invoked, but, in conformity with a continuing tendency in all of the Western democracies, the declaration of the state of exception has gradually been replaced by an unprecedented generalization of the paradigm of security as the normal technique of government.


The history of Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution is so tightly woven into the history of Germany between the wars that it is impossible to understand Hitler’s rise to power without first analyzing the uses and abuses of this article in the years between 1919 and 1933. Its immediate precedent was Article 68 of the Bismarckian Constitution, which, in cases where “public security was threatened in the territory of the Reich,” granted the emperor the power to declare a part of the Reich to be in a state of war (Kriegszustand), whose conditions and limitations followed those set forth in the Prussian law of June 4, 1851, concerning the state of siege. Amid the disorder and rioting that followed the end of the war, the deputies of the National Assembly that was to vote on the new constitution (assisted by jurists among whom the name of Hugo Preuss stands out) included an article that granted the president of the Reich extremely broad emergency [eccezionali] powers. The text of Article 48 reads, “If security and public order are seriously [erheblich] disturbed or threatened in the German Reich, the president of the Reich may take the measures necessary to reestablish security and public order, with the help of the armed forces if required. To this end he may wholly or partially suspend the fundamental rights [Grundrechte] established in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 153.” The article added that a law would specify in detail the conditions and limitations under which this presidential power was to be exercised. Since that law was never passed, the president’s emergency [eccezionali] powers remained so indeterminate that not only did theorists regularly use the phrase “presidential dictatorship” in reference to Article 48, but in 1925 Schmitt could write that “no constitution on earth had so easily legalized a coup d’état as did the Weimar Constitution.”

Save for a relative pause between 1925 and 1929, the governments of the Republic, beginning with Brüning’s, made continual use of Article 48, proclaiming a state of exception and issuing emergency decrees on more than two hundred and fifty occasions; among other things, they employed it to imprison thousands of communist militants and to set up special tribunals authorized to pronounce capital sentences. On several occasions, particularly in October 1923, the government had recourse to Article 4 to cope with the fall of the mark, thus confirming the modern tendency to conflate politico-military and economic crises.

It is well known that the last years of the Weimar Republic passed entirely under a regime of the state of exception; it is less obvious to note that Hitler could probably not have taken power had the country not been under a regime of presidential dictatorship for nearly three years and had parliament been functioning. In July 1930, the Brüning government was put in the minority, but Brüning did not resign. Instead, President Hindenburg granted him recourse to Article 48 and dissolved the Reichstag. From that moment on, Germany in fact ceased to be a parliamentary republic. Parliament met only seven times for no longer than twelve months in all, while a fluctuating coalition of Social Democrats and centrists stood by and watched a government that by then answered only to the president of the Reich. In 1932, Hindenburg—reelected president over Hitler and Thälmann—forced Brüning to resign and named the centrist von Papen to his post. On June 4, the Reichstag was dissolved and never reconvened until the advent of Nazism. On July 20, a state of exception was proclaimed in the Prussian territory, and von Papen was named Reich Commissioner for Prussia—ousting Otto Braun’s Social Democratic government.

The state of exception in which Germany found itself during the Hindenburg presidency was justified by Schmitt on a constitutional level by the idea that the president acted as the “guardian of the constitution;” but the end of the Weimar Republic clearly demonstrates that, on the contrary, a “protected democracy” is not a democracy at all, and that the paradigm of constitutional dictatorship functions instead as a transitional phase that leads inevitably to the establishment of a totalitarian regime.

Given these precedents, it is understandable that the constitution of the Federal Republic did not mention the state of exception. Nevertheless, on June 24, 1968, the “great coalition” of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats passed a law for the amendment of the constitution (Gesetz zur Ergänzung des Grundgesetzes) that reintroduced the state of exception (defined as the “state of internal necessity,” innere Notstand). However, with an unintended irony, for the first time in the history of the institution, the proclamation of the state of exception was provided for not simply to safeguard public order and security, but to defend the “liberal-democratic constitution.” By this point, protected democracy had become the rule.


On August 3, 1914, the Swiss Federal Assembly granted the Federal Council “the unlimited power to take all measures necessary to guarantee the security, integrity, and neutrality of Switzerland.” This unusual act—by virtue of which a non-warring state granted powers to the executive that were even vaster and vaguer than those received by the governments of countries directly involved in the war—is of interest because of the debates it provoked both in the assembly itself and in the Swiss Federal Court when the citizens objected that the act was unconstitutional. The tenacity with which on this occasion the Swiss jurists (nearly thirty years ahead of the theorists of constitutional dictatorship) sought (like Waldkirch and Burckhardt) to derive the legitimacy of the state of exception from the text of the constitution itself (specifically, Article 2, which read, “the aim of the Confederation is to ensure the independence of the fatherland against the foreigner [and] to maintain internal tranquility and order”), or (like Hoerni and Fleiner) to ground the state of exception in a law of necessity “inherent in the very existence of the State,” or (like His) in a juridical lacuna that the exceptional provisions must fill, shows that the theory of the state of exception is by no means the exclusive legacy of the antidemocratic tradition.


In Italy the history and legal situation of the state of exception are of particular interest with regard to legislation by emergency executive [governativi] decrees (the so-called law-decrees). Indeed, from this viewpoint one could say that Italy functioned as a true and proper juridico-political laboratory for organizing the process (which was also occurring to differing degrees in other European states) by which the law-decree “changed from a derogatory and exceptional instrument for normative production to an ordinary source for the production of law”. But this also means that one of the essential paradigms through which democracy is transformed from parliamentary to executive [governamentale] was elaborated precisely by a state whose governments were often unstable. In any case, it is in this context that the emergency decree’s pertinence to the problematic sphere of the state of exception comes clearly into view. The Albertine Statute (like the current Republican Constitution) made no mention of the state of exception. Nevertheless, the governments of the kingdom resorted to proclaiming a state of siege many times: in Palermo and the Sicilian provinces in 1862 and 1866, in Naples in 1862, in Sicily and Lunigiana in 1894, and in Naples and Milan in 1898, where the repression of the disturbances was particularly bloody and provoked bitter debates in parliament. The declaration of a state of siege on the occasion of the earthquake of Messina and Reggio Calabria on December 28, 1908 is only apparently a different situation. Not only was the state of siege ultimately proclaimed for reasons of public order—that is, to suppress the robberies and looting provoked by the disaster—but from a theoretical standpoint, it is also significant that these acts furnished the occasion that allowed Santi Romano and other Italian jurists to elaborate the thesis (which we examine in some detail later) that necessity is the primary source of law.

In each of these cases, the state of siege was proclaimed by a royal decree that, while not requiring parliamentary ratification, was nevertheless always approved by parliament, as were other emergency decrees not related to the state of siege (in 1923 and 1924 several thousand outstanding law-decrees issued in the preceding years were thus converted into law). In 1926 the Fascist regime had a law issued that expressly regulated the matter of the law-decrees. Article 3 of this law established that, upon deliberation of the council of ministers, “norms having force of law” could be issued by royal decree “(1) when the government is delegated to do so by a law within the limits of the delegation, and (2) in extraordinary situations, in which it is required for reasons of urgent and absolute necessity. The judgment concerning necessity and urgency is not subject to any oversight other than parliament’s political oversight.” The decrees provided for in the second clause had to be presented to parliament for conversion into law; but parliament’s total loss of autonomy during the Fascist regime rendered this condition superfluous.

Although the Fascist governments’ abuse of emergency decrees was so great that in 1939 the regime itself felt it necessary to limit their reach, Article 77 of the Republican Constitution established with singular continuity that “in extraordinary situations of necessity and emergency” the government could adopt “provisional measures having force of law,” which had to be presented the same day to parliament and which went out of effect if not converted into law within sixty days of their issuance.

It is well known that since then the practice of executive [governamentale] legislation by law-decrees has become the rule in Italy. Not only have emergency decrees been issued in moments of political crisis, thus circumventing the constitutional principle that the rights of the citizens can be limited only by law (see, for example, the decrees issued for the repression of terrorism: the law-decree of March 28, 1978, n. 59, converted into the law of May 21 1978, n. 191 [the so-called Moro Law], and the law-decree of December 15, 1979, n. 625, converted into the law of February 6, 1980, n. 15), but law-decrees now constitute the normal form of legislation to such a degree that they have been described as “bills strengthened by guaranteed emergency.” This means that the democratic principle of the separation of powers has today collapsed and that the executive power has in fact, at least partially, absorbed the legislative power. Parliament is no longer the sovereign legislative body that holds the exclusive power to bind the citizens by means of the law: it is limited to ratifying the decrees issued by the executive power. In a technical sense, the Italian Republic is no longer parliamentary, but executive [governamentale]. And it is significant that though this transformation of the constitutional order (which is today underway to varying degrees in all the Western democracies) is perfectly well known to jurists and politicians, it has remained entirely unnoticed by the citizens. At the very moment when it would like to give lessons in democracy to different traditions and cultures, the political culture of the West does not realize that it has entirely lost its canon.


The only legal apparatus in England that is comparable to the French état de siège goes by the term martial law; but this concept is so vague that it has been rightly described as an “unlucky name for the justification by the common law of acts done by necessity for the defence of the Commonwealth when there is war within the realm.” This, however, does not mean that something like a state of exception could not exist. In the Mutiny Acts, the Crown’s power to declare martial law was generally confined to times of war; nevertheless, it necessarily entailed sometimes serious consequences for the civilians who found themselves factually involved in the armed repression. Thus Schmitt sought to distinguish martial law from the military tribunals and summary proceedings that at first applied only to soldiers, in order to conceive of it as a purely factual proceeding and draw it closer to the state of exception: “Despite the name it bears, martial law is neither a right nor a law in this sense, but rather a proceeding guided essentially by the necessity of achieving a certain end.”

World War One played a decisive role in the generalization of exceptional executive [governamentali] apparatuses in England as well. Indeed, immediately after war was declared, the government asked parliament to approve a series of emergency measures that had been prepared by the relevant ministers, and they were passed virtually without discussion. The most important of these acts was the Defence of the Realm Act of August 4, 1914, known as DORA, which not only granted the government quite vast powers to regulate the wartime economy, but also provided for serious limitations on the fundamental rights of the citizens (in particular, granting military tribunals jurisdiction over civilians). The activity of parliament saw a significant eclipse for the entire duration of the war, just as in France. And in England too this process went beyond the emergency of the war, as is shown by the approval—on October 29, 1920, in a time of strikes and social tensions—of the Emergency Powers Act. Indeed, Article 1 of the act stated that

if at any time it appears to His Majesty that any action has been taken or is immediately threatened by any persons or body of persons of such a nature and on so extensive a scale as to be calculated, by interfering with the supply and distribution of food, water, fuel, or light, or with the means of locomotion, to deprive the community, or any substantial portion of the community, of the essentials of life, His Majesty may, by proclamation (hereinafter referred to as a proclamation of emergency), declare that a state of emergency exists.

Article 2 of the law gave His Majesty in Council the power to issue regulations and to grant the executive the “powers and duties…necessary for the preservation of the peace,” and it introduced special courts (“courts of summary jurisdiction”) for offenders. Even though the penalties imposed by these courts could not exceed three months in jail (“with or without hard labor”), the principle of the state of exception had been firmly introduced into English law.


The place—both logical and pragmatic—of a theory of the state of exception in the American constitution is in the dialectic between the powers of the president and those of Congress. This dialectic has taken shape historically (and in an exemplary way already beginning with the Civil War) as a conflict over supreme authority in an emergency situation; or, in Schmittian terms (and this is surely significant in a country considered to be the cradle of democracy), as a conflict over sovereign decision.

The textual basis of the conflict lies first of all in Article 1 of the constitution, which establishes that “the Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it” but does not specify which authority has the jurisdiction to decide on the suspension (even though prevailing opinion and the context of the passage itself lead one to assume that the clause is directed at Congress and not the president). The second point of conflict lies in the relation between another passage of Article 1 (which declares that the power to declare war and to raise and support the army and navy rests with Congress) and Article 2, which states that “the President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”

Both of these problems reach their critical threshold with the Civil War (1861–1865). Acting counter to the text of Article 1, on April 15, 1861, Lincoln decreed that an army of seventy-five thousand men was to be raised and convened a special session of Congress for July 4. In the ten weeks that passed between April 15 and July 4, Lincoln in fact acted as an absolute dictator (for this reason, in his book Dictatorship, Schmitt can refer to it as a perfect example of commissarial dictatorship. On April 27, with a technically even more significant decision, he authorized the General in Chief of the Army to suspend the writ of habeas corpus whenever he deemed it necessary along the military line between Washington and Philadelphia, where there had been disturbances. Furthermore, the president’s autonomy in deciding on extraordinary measures continued even after Congress was convened (thus, on February 14, 1862, Lincoln imposed censorship of the mail and authorized the arrest and detention in military prisons of persons suspected of “disloyal and treasonable practices”).

In the speech he delivered to Congress when it was finally convened on July 4, the president openly justified his actions as the holder of a supreme power to violate the constitution in a situation of necessity. “Whether strictly legal or not,” he declared, the measures he had adopted had been taken “under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity” in the certainty that Congress would ratify them. They were based on the conviction that even fundamental law could be violated if the very existence of the union and the juridical order were at stake (“Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the Government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?”

It is obvious that in a wartime situation the conflict between the president and Congress is essentially theoretical. The fact is that although Congress was perfectly aware that the constitutional jurisdictions had been transgressed, it could do nothing but ratify the actions of the president, as it did on August 6, 1861. Strengthened by this approval, on September 22, 1862, the president proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves on his authority alone and, two days later, generalized the state of exception throughout the entire territory of the United States, authorizing the arrest and trial before courts martial of “all Rebels and Insurgents, their aiders and abettors within the United States, and all persons discouraging volunteer enlistments, resisting militia drafts, or guilty of any disloyal practice, affording aid and comfort to Rebels against the authority of the United States.” By this point, the president of the United States was the holder of the sovereign decision on the state of exception.

According to American historians, during World War One President Woodrow Wilson personally assumed even broader powers than those Abraham Lincoln had claimed. It is, however, necessary to specify that instead of ignoring Congress, as Lincoln had done, Wilson preferred each time to have the powers in question delegated to him by Congress. In this regard, his practice of government is closer to the one that would prevail in Europe in the same years, or to the current one, which instead of declaring the state of exception prefers to have exceptional laws issued. In any case, from 1917 to 1918, Congress approved a series of acts (from the Espionage Act of June 1917 to the Overman Act of May 1918) that granted the president complete control over the administration of the country and not only prohibited disloyal activities (such as collaboration with the enemy and the diffusion of false reports), but even made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.”

Because the sovereign power of the president is essentially grounded in the emergency linked to a state of war, over the course of the twentieth century the metaphor of war becomes an integral part of the presidential political vocabulary whenever decisions considered to be of vital importance are being imposed. Thus, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to assume extraordinary powers to cope with the Great Depression by presenting his actions as those of a commander during a military campaign:

I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.…I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require.…But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take [the necessary measures] and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

It is well not to forget that, from the constitutional standpoint, the New Deal was realized by delegating to the president (through a series of statutes culminating in the National Recovery Act of June 16, 1933) an unlimited power to regulate and control every aspect of the economic life of the country—a fact that is in perfect conformity with the already mentioned parallelism between military and economic emergencies that characterizes the politics of the twentieth century.

The outbreak of World War Two extended these powers with the proclamation of a “limited” national emergency on September 8, 1939, which became unlimited on May 27, 1941. On September 7, 1942, while requesting that Congress repeal a law concerning economic matters, the president renewed his claim to sovereign powers during the emergency: “In the event that the Congress should fail to act, and act adequately, I shall accept the responsibility, and I will act.…The American people can…be sure that I shall not hesitate to use every power vested in me to accomplish the defeat of our enemies in any part of the world where our own safety demands such defeat.” The most spectacular violation of civil rights (all the more serious because of its solely racial motivation) occurred on February 19, 1942, with the internment of seventy thousand American citizens of Japanese descent who resided on the West Coast (along with forty thousand Japanese citizens who lived and worked there).

President Bush’s decision to refer to himself constantly as the “Commander in Chief of the Army” after September 11, 2001, must be considered in the context of this presidential claim to sovereign powers in emergency situations. If, as we have seen, the assumption of this title entails a direct reference to the state of exception, then Bush is attempting to produce a situation in which the emergency becomes the rule, and the very distinction between peace and war (and between foreign and civil war) becomes impossible.

The State of Emergency

Giorgio Agamben

In his Political Theology (1922), Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) established the essential proximity between the state of emergency and sovereignty. But although his famous definition of the sovereign as “the one who can proclaim a state of emergency” has been commented on many times, we still lack a genuine theory of the state of emergency within public law. For legal theorists as well as legal historians it seems as if the problem would be more of a factual question than an authentic legal question.

The very definition of the term is complex, since it is situated at the limit of law and of politics. According to a widespread conception, the state of emergency would be situated at an “ambiguous and uncertain fringe at the intersection of the legal and the political,” and would constitute a “point of disequilibrium between public law and political fact.” The task of defining its limits is nevertheless nothing less than urgent. And, indeed, if the exceptional measures that characterize the state of emergency are the result of periods of political crisis, and if they for this very reason must be understood through the terrain of politics rather than through the legal or constitutional terrain, they find themselves in the paradoxical position of legal measures that cannot be understood from a legal point of view, and the state of emergency presents itself as the legal form of that which can have no legal form.

And, furthermore, if the sovereign exception is the original set-up through which law relates to life in order to include it in the very same gesture that suspends its own exercise, then a theory of the state of emergency would be the preliminary condition for an understanding of the bond between the living being and law. To lift the veil that covers this uncertain terrain between, on the one hand, public law and political fact, and on the other, legal order and life, is to grasp the significance of this difference, or presumed difference, between the political and the legal; and between law and life. Among the elements that render a definition of the state of emergency thorny, we find the relationship it has to civil war, insurrection and the right to resist. And, in fact, since civil war is the opposite of the normal state, it tends to coalesce with the state of emergency, which becomes the immediate response of the State when faced with the gravest kind of internal conflict. In this way, the 20th century has produced a paradoxical phenomenon defined as “legal civil war.”

Let us look at the case of Nazi Germany. Just after Hitler came to power (or, to be more precise, just after he was offered power) he proclaimed, on February 28, 1933, the Decree for the Protection of the People and the State. This decree suspends all the articles in the Weimar Constitution maintaining individual liberties. Since this decree was never revoked, we can say that the entire Third Reich from a legal point of view was a twelve year-long state of emergency. And in this sense we can define modern totalitarianism as the institution, by way of a state of emergency, of a legal civil war that permits the elimination not only of political adversaries, but whole categories of the population that resist being integrated into the political system. Thus the intentional creation of a permanent state of emergency has become one of the most important measures of contemporary States, democracies included. And furthermore, it is not necessary that a state of emergency be declared in the technical sense of the term.

At least since Napoleon’s decree of December 24, 1811, French doctrine has opposed a “fictitious or political” state of siege in contradistinction to a military state of siege. In this context, English jurisprudence speaks of a “fancied emergency”; Nazi legal theorists spoke unconditionally of an “intentional state of emergency” in order to install the National Socialist State. During the world wars, the recourse to a state of emergency was spread to all the belligerent States. Today, in the face of the continuous progression of something that could be defined as a “global civil war,” the state of emergency tends more and more to present itself as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics. Once the state of emergency has become the rule, there is a danger that this transformation of a provisional and exceptional measure into a technique of government will entail the loss of the traditional distinction between different forms of Constitution.

The basic significance of the state of emergency as an original structure through which law incorporates the living being – and, this, by suspending itself – has emerged with full clarity in the military order that the President of the United States issued on November 13, 2001. The issue was to subject non-citizens suspected of terrorist activities to special jurisdiction that would include “indefinite detention” and military tribunals. The U.S. Patriot Act of October 26, 2001, already authorized the Attorney General to detain every alien suspected of endangering national security. Nevertheless, within seven days, this alien had to either be expelled or accused of some crime. What was new in Bush’s order was that it radically eradicated the legal status of these individuals, and produced entities that could be neither named nor classified by the Law. Those Talibans captured in Afghanistan are not only excluded from the status as Prisoners of War defined by the Geneva Conventions, they do not correspond to any jurisdiction set by American law: neither prisoners nor accused, they are simply detainees, they are subjected to pure de facto sovereignty/to a detention that is indefinite not only in its temporal sense, but also in its nature, since it is outside of the law and of all forms of legal control. With the detainees at Guantamo Bay, naked life returns to its most extreme indetermination.

The most rigorous attempt to construct a theory of the state of emergency can be found in the work of Carl Schmitt. The essentials of his theory can be found in Dictatorship, as well in Political Theology, published one year later. Because these two books, published in the early 1920s, set a paradigm that is not only contemporary, but may in fact find its true completion only today, it is necessary to give a resume of their fundamental theses.

The objective of both these books is to inscribe the state of emergency into a legal context. Schmitt knows perfectly well that the state of emergency, in as far as it enacts a “suspension of the legal order in its totality,” seems to “escape every legal consideration”; but for him the issue is to ensure a relation, no matter of what type, between the state of emergency and the legal order: “The state of emergency is always distinguished from anarchy and chaos and, in the legal sense, there is still order in it, even though it is not a legal order.” This articulation is paradoxical, since, that which should be inscribed within the legal realm is essentially exterior to it, corresponding to nothing less than the suspension of the legal order itself. Whatever the nature of the operator of this inscription of the state of emergency into the legal order, Schmitt needs to show that the suspension of law still derives from the legal domain, and not from simple anarchy. In this way, the state of emergency introduces a zone of anomy into the law, which, according to Schmitt, renders possible an effective ordering of reality. Now we understand why the theory of the state of emergency, in Political Theology, can be presented as a doctrine of sovereignty. The sovereign, who can proclaim a state of emergency, is thereby ensured of remaining anchored in the legal order. But precisely because the decision here concerns the annulation of the norm, and consequently, because the state of emergency represents the control of a space that is neither external nor internal, “the sovereign remains exterior to the normally valid legal order, and nevertheless belongs to it, since he is responsible for decision whether the Constitution can be suspended in toto.” To be outside and yet belong: such is the topological structure of the state of emergency, and since the being of the sovereign, who decides over the exception, is logically defined by this very structure, he may also be characterized by the oxymoron of an “ecstasy-belonging.”

1. In 1990, Jacques Derrida gave a lecture in New York entitled “Force de loi: le fondement mystique de l’autorite.” ["Force of Law: the Mystical Foundation of Authority"] The lecture, that in fact consisted of a reading of an essay by Walter Benjamin, “Towards a Critique of Violence,” provoked a big debate among philosophers and legal theorists. That no one had proposed an analysis of the seemingly enigmatic formula that gave the lecture its title is not only a sign of the profound chiasm separating philosophical and legal culture, but of the decadence of the latter. The syntagm “Force de loi” refers back to a long tradition of Roman and Medieval Law where it signifies “efficacy, the capacity to oblige,” in a general sense. But it was only in the modern era, in the context of the French Revolution, that this expression began designating the supreme value of acts expressed by an assembly representative of the people. In article 6 from the Constitution of 1791, “force de loi” designates the indestructible character of the law, that the sovereign himself can neither abrogate nor modify.

From a technical point of view, it is important to note that in modern as well as ancient doctrine, the syntagm “force de loi” refers not to the law itself, but to the decrees which have, as the expression goes, “force de loi” – decrees that the executive power in certain cases can be authorized to give, and most notably in the case of a state of emergency. The concept of “force de loi,” as a technical legal term defines a separation between the efficacy of law and its formal essence, by which the decrees and measures that are not formally laws still acquire its force.

This type of confusion between the acts by an executive power and those by a legislative power is a necessary characteristic of the state of emergency. (The most extreme case being the Nazi regime, where, as Eichmann constantly repeated, “the words of the Fuhrer had the force of law.”) And in contemporary democracies, the creation of laws by governmental decrees that are subsequently ratified by Parliament has become a routine practice. Today/the Republic is not parliamentary. It is governmental. But from a technical point of view, what is specific for the state of emergency is not so much the confusion of powers as it is the isolation of the force of law from the law itself. The state of emergency defines a regime of the law within which the norm is valid but cannot be applied (since it has no force), and where acts that do not have the value of law acquire the force of law.

This means, ultimately, that the force of law fluctuates as an indeterminate element that can be claimed both by the authority of the State or by a revolutionary organization. The state of emergency is an anomic space in which what is at stake is a force of law without law. Such a force of law is indeed a mystical element, or rather a fiction by means of which the law attempts to make anomy a part of itself. But how should we understand such a mystical element, one by which the law survives its own effacement and acts as a pure force in the state of emergency?

2. The specific quality of the state of emergency appears clearly if we examine one measure in Roman Law that may be considered as its true archetype, the iustitium.

When the Roman Senate was alerted to a situation that seemed to threaten or compromise the Republic, they pronounced a senatus consultum ultimum, whereby consuls (or their substitutes, and each citizen) were compelled to take all possible measures to assure the security of the State. The senatus consultum implied a decree by which one declared the tumultus, i.e., a state of emergency caused by internal disorder or an insurrection whose consequence was the proclamation of a iustutium.

The term iustitium – construed precisely like solstitium– literally signifies “to arrest, suspend the ius, the legal order.” The Roman grammarians explained the term in the following way: “When the law marks a point of arrest, just as the sun in its solstice.”

Consequently, the iustitium was not so much a suspension within the framework of the administration of justice, as a suspension of the law itself. If we would like to grasp the nature and structure of the state of emergency, we first must comprehend the paradoxical status of this legal institution that simply consists in the production of a leg. void, the production of a space entirely deprived by ius. Consider the iustitium mentioned by Cicero in one of his Philippic Discourses. Anthony’s army is marching toward Rome, and the consul Cicero addresses the Senate in the following terms: “I judge it necessary to declare tumultus, to proclaim iustitium and to prepare for combat.” The usual translation of iustitium as “legal vacancy” here seems quite pointless On the contrary, faced with a dangerous situation, the issue is to abolish the restrictions imposed by the laws on action by the magistrate – i.e., essentially the interdiction against putting a citizen to death without having recourse to popular judgment.

Faced with this anomic space that violently comes to coalesce wit that of the City, both ancient and modern writers seem to oscillate between two contradictory conceptions: either to make iustitium correspond to the idea of a complete anomy within which all power an all legal structures are abolished, or to conceive of it as the very plentitude of law where it coincides with the totality of the real.

Whence the question: what is the nature of the acts committed during iustitium? From the moment they are carried out in a legal void they ought to be considered as pure facts with no legal connotation: The question is important, because we are here contemplating sphere of action that implies above all the license to kill. Thus historians have asked the question of whether a magistrate who kills a citizen during a iustitium can be put on trial for homicide once the iustitium is over. Here we are faced with a type of action which appears t exceed the traditional legal distinction between legislation, execution, and transgression. The magistrate who acts during the iustitium is like an officer during the state of emergency, who neither carries out the law, nor transgresses it, just as little as he is in the process of creating a new law. To use a paradoxical expression, we could say that h is in the process of “un-executing” the law. But what does it meant un-execute the law? How should we conceive of this particular class within the entire range of human actions?

Let us now attempt to develop the results of our genealogical investigation into the iustitium from the perspective of a general theory c the state of emergency. – The state of emergency is not a dictatorship, but a space devoid of law. In the Roman Constitution, the dictator was a certain type c magistrate who received his power from a law voted on by the people The iustitium, on the contrary, just as the modern state of emergent does not imply the creation of a new magistrate, only the creation of zone of anomy in which all legal determinations find themselves inactivated. In this way, and in spite of the common view, neither Mussolini nor Hitler can be technically defined as dictators. Hitler, in particular, was Chancellor of the Reich, legally appointed by the president What characterizes the Nazi regime, and makes it into such a dangerous model, is that it allowed the Weimar Constitution to exist, while doubling it with a secondary and legally non-formalized structure the could not exist alongside the first without the support of a generalize state of emergency. – For one reason or another this space devoid of law seems so essential to the legal order itself that the latter makes every possible attempt to assure a relation to the former, as if the law in order to guarantee its functioning would necessarily have to entertain a relation t an anomy.

3. It is precisely in this perspective that we have to read the debate on the state of emergency which pitted Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt against each other between 1928 and 1940. The starting point of the discussion is normally located in Benjamin’s reading of Political Theology in 1923, and in the many citations from Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty that appeared in The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Benjamin’s acknowledging of Schmitt’s influence on his own thought has always been considered scandalous. Without going into the details of this demonstration, I think it possible to inverse the charge of scandal, in suggesting that Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty can be read as the response to Benjamin’s critique of violence. What is the problem Benjamin poses in his “Critique of Violence”? For him, the question is how to establish the possibility of a future violence outside of, or beyond the law, a violence which could rupture the dialectic between the violence that poses and the one that conserves the law. Benjamin calls this other violence “pure,” “divine,” or “revolutionary.” That which the law cannot stand, that which it resents as an intolerable menace, is the existence of a violence that would be exterior to it, and this not only because its finalities would be incompatible with the purpose of the legal order, but because of the “simple fact of its exteriority.”

Now we understand the sense in which Schmitt’s doctrine of sovereignty can be considered as a response to Benjamin’s critique. The state of emergency is precisely that space in which Schmitt attempts to comprehend and incorporate into the thesis that there is a pure violence existing outside of the law. For Schmitt, there is no such thing as pure violence, there is no violence absolutely exterior to the nomos, because revolutionary violence, once the state of emergency is established, it always finds itself included in the law. The state of emergency is thus the means invented by Schmitt to respond to Benjamin’s thesis that there is a pure violence.

The decisive document in the Benjamin/Schmitt dossier is surely the 8th of the theses on the concept of history: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ’state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism.”

That the state of emergency since then has become the norm does not only signify that its undecidability has reached a point of culmination, but also that it is no longer capable of fulfilling the task assigned to it by Schmitt. According to him, the functioning of the legal order rests in the last instance on an arrangement, the state of emergency, whose aim it is to make the norm applicable by a temporary suspension of its exercise. But if the exception becomes the rule, this arrangement can no longer function and Schmitt’s theory of the state of emergency breaks down.

In this perspective, the distinction proposed by Benjamin between – an effective state of emergency and a fictitious state of emergency is essential, although little noticed. It can be found already in Schmitt, who borrowed it from French legal doctrine; but this latter, in line with his critique of the liberal idea of a state governed by law, deems any state of emergency which professes to be governed by law to be fictitious.

Benjamin reformulates the opposition in order to turn it against Schmitt: once the possibility of a state of emergency, in which the exception and the norm are temporally and spatially distinct, has fallen away, what becomes effective is the state of emergency in which we are living, and where we can no longer distinguish the rule. In this case, all fiction of a bond between it and law disappears: there is only a zone of anomy dominated by pure violence with no legal cover.

Now we are in a position to better understand the debate between Schmitt and Benjamin. The dispute occurs in that anomic zone which for Schmitt must maintain its connection to law at all costs, whereas for Benjamin it has to be twisted free and liberated from this relation. What is at issue here is the relation between violence and law, i.e., the status of violence as a cipher for political action. The logomachia over anomy seems to be equally decisive for Western politics as the “battle of the giants around being” that has defined Western metaphysics. To pure being as the ultimate stake of metaphysics, corresponds pure violence as the ultimate stake of the political; to the onto-theological strategy that wants pure being within the net of logos, corresponds the strategy of exception that has to secure the relation between violence and law. It is as if law and logos would need an anomic or “a-logic” zone of suspension in order to found their relation to life.

4. The structural proximity between law and anomy, between pure violence and the state of emergency also has, as is often the case, an inverted figure. Historians, ethnologists, and folklore specialists are well acquainted with anomic festivals, like the Roman Saturnalias, the charivari, and the Medieval carnival, that suspend and invert the legal and social relations defining normal order. Masters pass over into the service of servants, men dress up and behave like animals, bad habits and crimes that would normally be illegal are suddenly authorized. Karl Meuli was the first to emphasize the connection between these anomic festivals and the situations of suspended law that characterize certain archaic penal institutions. Here, as well as in the iustitium, it is possible to kill a man without going to trial, to destroy his house, and take his belongings. Far from reproducing a mythological past, the disorder of the carnival and the tumultuous destruction of the charivari re-actualize a real historical situation of anomy. The ambiguous connection between law and anomy is thus brought to light: the state of emergency is transformed into an unrestrained festival where one displays pure violence in order to enjoy it in full freedom.

5. The Western political system thus seems to be a double apparatus, founded in a dialectic between two heterogeneous and, as it were, antithetical elements; nomos and anomy, legal right and pure violence, the law and the forms of life whose articulation is to be guaranteed by the state of emergency. As long as these elements remain separated, their dialectic works, but when they tend toward a reciprocal indetermination and to a fusion into a unique power with two sides, when the state of emergency becomes the rule, the political system transforms into an apparatus of death. We ask: why does nomos have a constitutive need for anomy? Why does the politics of the West have to measure up to this interior void? What, then, is the substance of the political, if it is essentially assigned to this legal vacuum? As long as we are not able to respond to these questions, we can no more respond to this other question whose echo traverses all of Western political history: what does it mean to act politically?

The State of Emergency as the Empire’s Mode of Governance

5 German Law Journal No. 5 (1 May 2004) – Special Edition

Interview with Giorgio Agamben – Life, A Work of Art Without an Author: The State of Exception, the Administration of Disorder and Private Life

By Ulrich Raulff

[Editors’ note: this interview, conducted by Ulrich Raulff in Rome on 4March 2004, was originally published, in German, by the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 6 April 2004. We are grateful to Ulrich Raulff and Giorgio Agamben for the permission to translate and publish this interview in German Law Journal. This translation was made by German Law Journal Co-Editor, Morag Goodwin, EUI, Florence. All notes have been provided for this publication by the editors.]

[1] Raulff: Your latest book The State of Exception has recently been published in German. It is an historical and legal-historical analysis of a concept that we, at first blush, associate with Carl Schmitt. What does this concept mean for your Homo Sacer[1]project?

[2] Agamben: The State of Exception belongs to a series of genealogical essays that follow on from Homo Sacer and which should form a tetralogy. Regarding the content, it deals with two points. The first is a historical matter: the state of exception or state of emergency has become a paradigm of government today. Originally understood as something extraordinary,an exception, which should have validity only for a limited period of time, but a historical transformation has made it the normal form of governance. I wanted to show the consequence of this change for the state of the democracies in which we live. The second is of a philosophical nature and deals with the strange relationship of law and lawlessness, law and anomy. The state of exception establishes a hidden but fundamental relationship between law and the absence of law. It is a void, a blank and this empty space is constitutive of the legal system.

[3] Raulff: You wrote already in the first volume of Homo Sacer that the paradigm of the state of exception came into being in the concentration camps, or corresponds to the camps. The indignant outcry of last year as you applied this concept to the United States, to American politics, was predictably loud. Do you still consider your critique to be correct?

[4] Agamben: Regarding such an application, the publication of my Auschwitz book[2] brought similar remonstrance. But I am not an historian. I work with paradigms. A paradigm is something like an example, an exemplar, a historically singular phenomenon. As it was with the panopticon for Foucault,[3] so is the Homo Sacer or the Muselmann or the state of exception for me. And then I use this paradigm to construct a large group of phenomena and in order to understand an historical structure, again analogous with Foucault, who developed his “panopticism” from the panopticon.[4] But this kind of analysis should not be confused with a sociological investigation.

[5] Raulff: Nevertheless, people were shocked by your comparison because it seemed to equate American and Nazi policies.

[5] Agamben: But I spoke rather of the prisoners in Guantánamo, and their situation is legally-speaking actually comparable with those in the Nazi camps. The detainees of Guantanamo do not have the status of Prisoners of War, they have absolutely no legal status.[5] They are subject now only to raw power; they have no legal existence. In the Nazi camps, the Jews had to be first fully “denationalised” and stripped of all the citizenship rights remaining after Nuremberg,[6] after which they were also erased as legal subjects.

[6] Raulff: What do you understand the connection to be to America’s security policy? Does Guantánamo belong to the transition you have previously described from governance through law to governance through the administration of the absence of order?

[7] Agamben: This is the problem behind every security policy, ruling through management, through administration. In the 1968 course at the Collège de France, Michel Foucault showed how security becomes in the 18th century a paradigm of government. For Quesnay, Targot and the other physiocratic politicians, security did not mean the prevention of famines and catastrophes, but meant allowing them to happen and then being able to orientate them in a profitable direction. Thus is Foucault able to oppose security, discipline and law as a model of government. Now I think to have to have discovered that both elements – law and the absence of law – and the corresponding forms of governance – governance through law and governance through management – are part of a double-structure or a system. I try to understand how this system operates. You see, there is a French word that Carl Schmitt often quotes and that means: Le Roi reigne mail il ne gouverne pas (the King reigns but he does not govern). That is the termini of the double-structure: to reign and to govern. Benjamin brought the conceptual pairing of schalten and walten (command and administer) to this categorization. In order to understand their historical dissociation one must then first grasp their structural interrelation.

[8] Raulff: Again, is the time of law over? Do we live now in an era of rule by decree (Schaltung), of cybernetic regulation and of the pure administration of mankind?

[9] Agamben: At first glance it really does seem that governance through administration, through management, is in the ascendancy, while rule by law appears to be in decline. We are experiencing the triumph of the management, the administration of the absence of order.

[10] Raulff: But do we not also observe, at the same time, the enlargement of the whole legal system and a tremendous increase in legal regulation? More laws are created on a daily basis and the Germans, for example, regularly feel that they are governed far more by Karlsruhe than Berlin.[7]

[11] Agamben: Also there you see that both elements of the system coexist with one another, and that they both are driven to the extreme, so much so, that they seem at the end to fall apart. Today we see how a maximum of anomy and disorder can perfectly coexist with a maximum of legislation.

[12] Raulff: From the way you have just described it, I see a rift that leads to an ever-starker polarization. Elsewhere, however, you say that the classical realm of the political will become ever narrower – and that sounds somewhat critical and decadently theoretical.

[13] Agamben: Allow me to reply with Benjamin: there is no such thing as decline. Perhaps this is because the age is always already understood as being in decline. When you take a classical distinction of the political-philosophical tradition such as public/private, then I find it much less interesting to insist on the distinction and to bemoan the diminution of one of the terms, than to question the interweaving. I want to understand how the system operates. And the system is always double; it works always by means of opposition. Not only as private/public, but also the house and the city, the exception and the rule, to reign and to govern, etc. But in order to understand what is really at stake here, we must learn to see these oppositions not as “di-chotomies” but as “di-polarities,” not substantial, but tensional. I mean that we need a logic of the field, as in physics, where it is impossible to draw a line clearly and separate two different substances. The polarity is present and acts at each point of the field. Then you may suddenly have zones of indecidability or indifference. The state of exception is one of those zones.

[14] Raulff: Does the endpoint – and therewith the reality – of the private still have a meaning, in the sense of your systematic examination too? Is there something there that is worth defending?

[15] Agamben: It is firstly obvious that we frequently can no longer differentiate between what is private and what public, and that both sides of the classical opposition appear to be losing their reality. And the detention camp at Guantánamo is the locus par excellence of this impossibility. The state of exception consists, not least, in the neutralization of this distinction. Nonetheless, I think that the concept is still interesting. Think only of the multitude of organizations and activities in the United States that, at present, are devoted to the protection and defense of “privacy” and attempt to define what belongs within this realm and what does not.

[16] Raulff: How does this then involve your work?

[17] Agamben: Homo Sacer is supposed to, as I said at the beginning, comprise four volumes in total. The last and most interesting for me will not be dedicated to an historical discussion. I would like to work on the concepts of forms-of-life and lifestyles. What I call a form-of-life is a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to separate something such as bare life. And here too the concept of “privacy” comes in to play.

[18] Raulff: At this point you clearly link up again with Foucault, perhaps with Roland Barthes as well, who held one of his later lectures on the topic of Vivre ensemble.

[19] Agamben: Yes, but Foucault went back in history to the Greeks and the Romans when he had this idea. When you work on this topic, you suddenly no longer have a floor under your feet. And here you see clearly that we seem not to have any access to the present and to the immediate, except through what Foucault called an archaeology.[8] But what an archaeology could be, whose object is a form-of-life, that is to say an immediate life experience, this is not easy to say.

[20] Raulff: As I understand it, almost every philosopher has had a vision of the good and the right or of a philosophical life as well. What does yours look like?

[21] Agamben: The idea that one should make his life a work of art is attributed mostly today to Foucault and to his idea of the care of the self. Pierre Hadot, the great historian of ancient philosophy, reproached Foucault that the care of the self of the ancient philosophers did not mean the construction of life as a work of art, but on the contrary a sort of dispossession of the self.[9] What Hadot could not understand is that for Foucault, the two things coincide. You must remember Foucault’s criticism of the notion of author, his radical dismissal of authorship. In this sense, a philosophical life, a good and beautiful life, is something else: when your life becomes a work of art, you are not the cause of it. I mean that at this point you feel your own life and yourself as something “thought,” but the subject, the author, is no longer there. The construction of life coincides with what Foucault referred to as “se deprendre de soi.” And this is also Nietzsche’s idea of a work of art without the artist.

[22] Raulff: For all those who have tried over the last thirty years to forge a non-exclusive form of politics, Nietzsche was the decisive reference. Why is he not that for you?

[23] Agamben: Oh, Nietzsche was important for me also. But I stand rather more with Benjamin, who said, the eternal return is like the punishment of detention, the sentence in school in which one had to copy the same sentence a thousand times….

[24] Raulff: But the work of the Italian Philological School around and after Montinari has precisely shown us that Nietzsche is not a hard, despotic author, as one wanted us to believe for so long, but rather an open, traversed and criss-crossed system of readings and ideas – a work of art without author, like you just now called for.[25] Agamben: If that is so, then we need to learn to forget the presence of the subject. We must protect the work against the author.

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address

January 20, 2009
Following is the transcript of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, as transcribed by CQ Transcriptions:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you.

CROWD: Obama! Obama! Obama! Obama!

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation…


… as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.


On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.


In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less.

It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor — who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.


For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth.

We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together.

We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality…


… and lower its costs.

We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.

All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

MR. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.

Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.

And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.


As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.


Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We’ll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard- earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we’ll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet.

We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense.

And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, “Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”


For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.

And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those…


To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.


To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.

We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.

And yet, at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours.

It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old.

These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.


So let us mark this day in remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled.

In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.

The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.

At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you.


And God bless the United States of America.


Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Slavoj Žižek

Alain Badiou identified as the key feature of the XXth century the “passion of the Real /la passion du reel/”1: in contrast to the XIXth century of the utopian or “scientific” projects and ideals, plans about the future, the XXth century aimed at delivering the thing itself, at directly realizing the longer-for New Order. The ultimate and defining experience of the XXth century was the direct experience of the Real as opposed to the everyday social reality — the Real in its extreme violence as the price to be paid for peeling off the deceiving layers of reality. Already in the trenches of the World War I, Carl Schmitt was celebrating the face to face combat as the authentic intersubjective encounter: authenticity resides in the act of violent transgression, from the Lacanian Real — the Thing Antigone confronts when he violates the order of the City — to the Bataillean excess.

As Badiou demonstrated apropos of the Stalinist show trials, this violent effort to distill the pure Real from the elusive reality necessarily ends up in its opposite, in the obsession with pure appearance: in the Stalinist universe, the passion of the Real (ruthless enforcement of the Socialist development) thus culminates in ritualistic stagings of a theatrical spectacle in the truth of which no one believes. The key to this reversal resides in the ultimate impossibility to draw a clear distinction between deceptive reality and some firm positive kernel of the Real: every positive bit of reality is a priori suspicious, since (as we know from Lacan) the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void. The pursuit of the Real thus equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle. The fundamental illusion is here that, once the violent work of purification is done, the New Man will emerge ex nihilo, freed from the filth of the past corruption. Within this horizon, “really-existing men” are reduced to the stock of raw material which can be ruthlessly exploited for the construction of the new — the Stalinist revolutionary definition of man is a circular one: “man is what is to be crushed, stamped on, mercilessly worked over, in order to produce a new man.” We have here the tension between the series of “ordinary” elements (“ordinary” men as the “material” of history) and the exceptional “empty” element (the socialist “New Man,” which is at first nothing but an empty place to be filled up with positive content through the revolutionary turmoil). In a revolution, there is no a priori positive determination of this New Man: a revolution is not legitimized by the positive notion of what Man’s essence, “alienated” in present conditions and to be realized through the revolutionary process, is — the only legitimization of a revolution is negative, a will to break with the Past. One should formulate here things in a very precise way: the reason why the Stalinist fury of purification is so destructive resides in the very fact that it is sustained by the belief that, after the destructive work of purification will be accomplished, SOMETHING WILL REMAIN, the sublime “indivisible remainder,” the paragon of the New. It is in order to conceal the fact that there is nothing beyond that, in a strictly perverse way, the revolutionary has to cling to violence as the only index of his authenticity, and it is as this level that the critics of Stalinism as a rule misperceive the cause of the Communist’s attachment to the Party. Say, when, in 1939-1941 pro-Soviet Communists twice had to change their Party line overnight (after the Soviet-German pact, it was imperialism, not, Fascism, which was elevated to the role of the main enemy; from June 22 1941, when Germany attacked Soviet Union, it was again the popular front against the Fascist beast), the brutality of the imposed changes of position was what attracted them. Along the same lines, the purges themselves exerted an uncanny fascination, especially on intellectuals: their “irrational” cruelty served as a kind of ontological proof, bearing witness to the fact that we are dealing with the Real, not just with empty plans — the Party is ruthlessly brutal, so it means business…

So, if the passion of the Real ends up with the pure semblance of the political theater, then, in an exact inversion, the “postmodern” passion of the semblance of the Last Men ends up in a kind of Real. Recall the phenomenon of “cutters” (mostly women who experience an irresistible urge to cut themselves with razors or otherwise hurt themselves), strictly correlative to the virtualization of our environs: it stands for a desperate strategy to return to the real of the body. As such, cutting is to be contrasted with the standard tattoo inscriptions on the body, which guarantee the subject’s inclusion in the (virtual) symbolic order — with the cutters, the problem is the opposite one, namely the assertion of reality itself. Far from being suicidal, far from signalling a desire for self-annihilation, cutting is a radical attempt to (re)gain a stronghold in reality, or (another aspect of the same phenomenon) to firmly ground our ego in our bodily reality, against the unbearable anxiety of perceiving oneself as non-existing. The standard report of cutters is that, after seeing the red warm blood flowing out of the self-inflicted wound, the feel alive again, firmly rooted in reality. So, although, of course, cutting is a pathological phenomenon, it is nonetheless a pathological attempt at regaining some kind of normalcy, at avoiding a total psychotic breakdown. On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol… Virtual Reality simply generalizes this procedure of offering a product deprived of its substance: it provides reality itself deprived of its substance, of the resisting hard kernel of the Real — in the same way decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like the real coffee without being the real one, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality without being one. However, at the end of this process of virtualization, the inevitable Benthamian conclusion awaits us: reality is its own best semblance.

And was the bombing of the WTC with regard to the Hollywood catastrophe movies not like the snuff pornography versus ordinary sado-maso porno movies? This is the element of truth in Karl-Heinz Stockhausen’s provocative statement that the planes hitting the WTC towers was the ultimate work of art: one can effectively perceive the collapse of the WTC towers as the climactic conclusion of the XXth century art’s “passion of the real” — the “terrorists” themselves did it not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but FOR THE SPECTACULAR EFFECT OF IT. The authentic XXth century passion to penetrate the Real Thing (ultimately, the destructive Void) through the cobweb of semblances which constitute our reality thus culminates in the thrill of the Real as the ultimate “effect,” sought after from digitalized special effects through reality TV and amateur pornography up to snuff movies. Snuff movies which deliver the “real thing” are perhaps the ultimate truth of virtual reality. There is an intimate connection between virtualization of reality and the emergence of an infinite and infinitized bodily pain, much stronger that the usual one: do biogenetics and Virtual Reality combined not open up new “enhanced” possibilities of TORTURE, new and unheard-of horizons of extending our ability to endure pain (through widening our sensory capacity to sustain pain, through inventing new forms of inflicting it)? Perhaps, the ultimate Sadean image on an “undead” victim of the torture who can sustain endless pain without having at his/her disposal the escape into death, also waits to become reality.

The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most recent example of this is Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a 24-hours permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him permanently. Among its predecessors, it is worth mentioning Philip Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic Californian city of the late 50s, gradually discovers that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied… The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way IRREAL, substanceless, deprived of the material inertia. And the same “derealization” of the horror went on after the WTC bombings: while the number of 6000 victims is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see — no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of the dying people… in clear contrast to the reporting from the Third World catastrophies where the whole point was to produce a scoop of some gruesome detail: Somalis dying of hunger, raped Bosnian women, men with throats cut. These shots were always accompanied with the advance-warning that “some of the images you will see are extremely graphic and may hurt children” — a warning which we NEVER heard in the reports on the WTC collapse. Is this not yet another proof of how, even in this tragic moments, the distance which separates Us from Them, from their reality, is maintained: the real horror happens THERE, not HERE? /”2

So it is not only that Hollywood stages a semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality — in the late capitalist consumerist society, “real social life” itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in “real” life as stage actors and extras… Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian de-spiritualized universe is the de-materialization of the “real life” itself, its reversal into a spectral show. Among others, Christopher Isherwood gave expression to this unreality of the American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: “American motels are unreal! /…/ they are deliberately designed to be unreal. /…/ The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate.” Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of the “sphere” is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. Years ago, a series of science-fiction films like Zardoz or Logan’s Run forecasted today’s postmodern predicament by extending this fantasy to the community itself: the isolated group living an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real world of material decay. Is the endlessly repeated shot of the plane approaching and hitting the second WTC tower not the real-life version of the famous scene from Hitchcock’s Birds, superbly analyzed by Raymond Bellour, in which Melanie approaches the Bodega Bay pier after crossing the bay on the small boat? When, while approaching the wharf, she waves to her (future) lover, a single bird (first perceived as an undistinguished dark blot) unexpectedly enters the frame from above right and hits her head.3 Was the plane which hit the WTC tower not literally the ultimate Hitchcockian blot, the anamorphic stain which denaturalized the idyllic well-known New York landscape?

The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic mega-computer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins — what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real” — to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions.

When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the XXth century, that of Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the XIXth century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold also for these bombings? Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested — just recall the series of movies from Escape From New York to Independence Day. Therein resides the rationale of the often-mentioned association of the attacks with the Hollywood disaster movies: the unthinkable which happened was the object of fantasy, so that, in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise.

One should therefore turn around the standard reading according to which, the WTC explosions were the intrusion of the Real which shattered our illusory Sphere: quite on the contrary, it is prior to the WTC collapse than we lived in our reality, perceiving the Third World horrors as something which is not effectively part of our social reality, as something which exists (for us) as a spectral apparition on the (TV) screen — and what happened on September 11 is that this screen fantasmatic apparition entered our reality. It is not that reality entered our image: the image entered and shattered our reality (i.e., the symbolic coordinates which determine what we experience as reality). The fact that, after September 11, the opening of many “of the blockbuster” movies with scenes which bear a resemblance to the WTC collapse (large buildings on fire or under attack, terrorist actions…) was postponed (or the films were even shelved), is thus to be read as the “repression” of the fantasmatic background responsible for the impact of the WTC collapse. Of course, the point is not to play a pseudo-postmodern game of reducing the WTC collapse to just another media spectacle, reading it as a catastrophy version of the snuff porno movies; the question we should have asked ourselves when we stared at the TV screens on September 11 is simply: WHERE DID WE ALREADY SEE THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER AGAIN?

It is precisely now, when we are dealing with the raw Real of a catastrophe, that we should bear in mind the ideological and fantasmatic coordinates which determine its perception. If there is any symbolism in the collapse of the WTC towers, it is not so much the old-fashioned notion of the “center of financial capitalism,” but, rather, the notion that the two WTC towers stood for the center of the VIRTUAL capitalism, of financial speculations disconnected from the sphere of material production. The shattering impact of the bombings can only be accounted for only against the background of the borderline which today separates the digitalized First World from the Third World “desert of the Real.” It is the awareness that we live in an insulated artificial universe which generates the notion that some ominous agent is threatening us all the time with total destruction.

Is, consequently, Osama Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind behind the bombings, not the real-life counterpart of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the master-criminal in most of the James Bond films, involved in the acts of global destruction. What one should recall here is that the only place in Hollywood films where we see the production process in all its intensity is when James Bond penetrates the master-criminal’s secret domain and locates there the site of intense labor (distilling and packaging the drugs, constructing a rocket that will destroy New York…). When the master-criminal, after capturing Bond, usually takes him on a tour of his illegal factory, is this not the closest Hollywood comes to the socialist-realist proud presentation of the production in a factory? And the function of Bond’s intervention, of course, is to explode in firecraks this site of production, allowing us to return to the daily semblance of our existence in a world with the “disappearing working class.” Is it not that, in the exploding WTC towers, this violence directed at the threatening Outside turned back at us?

The safe Sphere in which Americans live is experienced as under threat from the Outside of terrorist attackers who are ruthlessly self-sacrificing AND cowards, cunningly intelligent AND primitive barbarians. The letters of the deceased attackers are quoted as “chilling documents” — why? Are they not exactly what one would expect from dedicated fighters on a suicidal mission? If one takes away references to Koran, in what do they differ from, say, the CIA special manuals? Were the CIA manuals for the Nicaraguan contras with detailed descriptions on how to perturb the daily life, up to how to clog the water toilets, not of the same order — if anything, MORE cowardly? When, on September 25, 2001, the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar appealed to Americans to use their own judgement in responding to the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rather than blindly following their government’s policy to attack his country (“You accept everything your government says, whether it is true or false. /…/ Don’t you have your own thinking? /…/ So it will be better for you to use your sense and understanding.”), were these statements, taken in a literal-abstract, decontextualized, sense, not quite appropriate? Today, more than ever, one should bear in mind that the large majority of Arabs are not fanaticized dark crowds, but scared, uncertain, aware of their fragile status — witness the anxiety the bombings caused in Egypt.

Whenever we encounter such a purely evil Outside, we should gather the courage to endorse the Hegelian lesson: in this pure Outside, we should recognize the distilled version of our own essence. For the last five centuries, the (relative) prosperity and peace of the “civilized” West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the “barbarian” Outside: the long story from the conquest of America to the slaughter in Congo. Cruel and indifferent as it may sound, we should also, now more than ever, bear in mind that the actual effect of these bombings is much more symbolic than real: in Africa, EVERY SINGLE DAY more people die of AIDS than all the victims of the WTC collapse, and their death could have been easily cut back with relatively small financial means. The US just got the taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Grozny, from Ruanda and Congo to Sierra Leone. If one adds to the situation in New York rapist gangs and a dozen or so snipers blindly targeting people who walk along the streets, one gets an idea about what Sarajevo was a decade ago.

When, days after September 11 2001, our gaze was transfixed by the images of the plane hitting one of the WTC towers, all of us were forced to experience what the “compulsion to repeat” ans jouissance beyond the pleasure principle are: we wanted to see it again and again, the same shots were repeated ad nauseam, and the uncanny satisfaction we got from it was jouissance at its purest. It is when we watched on TV screen the two WTC towers collapsing, that it became possible to experience the falsity of the “reality TV shows”: even if these shows are “for real,” people still act in them — they simply play themselves. The standard disclaimer in a novel (“characters in this text are a fiction, every resemblance with the real life characters is purely contingent”) holds also for the participants of the reality soaps: what we see there are fictional characters, even if they play themselves for the real. Of course, the “return to the Real” can be given different twists: one already hears some conservatives claim that what made us so vulnerable is our very openness — with the inevitable conclusion lurking in the background that, if we are to protect our “way of life,” we will have to sacrifice some of our freedoms which were “misused” by the enemies of freedom. This logic should be rejected tout court: is it not a fact that our First World “open” countries are the most controlled countries in the entire history of humanity? In the United Kingdom, all public spaces, from buses to shopping malls, are constantly videotaped, not to mention the almost total control of all forms of digital communication.

Along the same lines, Rightist commentators like George Will also immediately proclaimed the end of the American “holiday from history” — the impact of reality shattering the isolated tower of the liberal tolerant attitude and the Cultural Studies focus on textuality. Now, we are forced to strike back, to deal with real enemies in the real world… However, WHOM to strike? Whatever the response, it will never hit the RIGHT target, bringing us full satisfaction. The ridicule of America attacking Afghanistan cannot but strike the eye: if the greatest power in the world will destroy one of the poorest countries in which peasant barely survive on barren hills, will this not be the ultimate case of the impotent acting out? Afghanistan is otherwise an ideal target: a country ALREADY reduced to rubble, with no infrastructure, repeatedly destroyed by war for the last two decades… one cannot avoid the surmise that the choice of Afghanistan will be also determined by economic considerations: is it not the best procedure to act out one’s anger at a country for which no one cares and where there is nothing to destroy? Unfortunately, the possible choice of Afghanistan recalls the anecdote about the madman who searches for the lost key beneath a street light; when asked why there when he lost the key in a dark corner backwards, he answers: “But it is easier to search under strong light!” Is not the ultimate irony that the whole of Kabul already looks like downtown Manhattan?

To succumb to the urge to act now and retaliate means precisely to avoid confronting the true dimensions of what occurred on September 11 — it means an act whose true aim is to lull us into the secure conviction that nothing has REALLY changed. The true long-term threat are further acts of mass terror in comparison to which the memory of the WTC collapse will pale — acts less spectacular, but much more horrifying. What about bacteriological warfare, what about the use of lethal gas, what about the prospect of the DNA terrorism (developing poisons which will affect only people who share a determinate genome)? In contrast to Marx who relied on the notion of fetish as a solid object whose stable presence obfuscates its social mediation, one should assert that fetishism reaches its acme precisely when the fetish itself is “dematerialized,” turned into a fluid “immaterial” virtual entity; money fetishism will culminate with the passage to its electronic form, when the last traces of its materiality will disappear — it is only at this stage that it will assume the form of an indestructible spectral presence: I owe you 1000 $, and no matter how many material notes I burn, I still owe you 1000 $, the debt is inscribed somewhere in the virtual digital space… Does the same not hold also for warfare? Far from pointing towards the XXIth century warfare, the WTC twin towers explosion and collapse in September 2001 were rather the last spectacular cry of the XXth century warfare. What awaits us is something much more uncanny: the specter of an “immaterial” war where the attack is invisible — viruses, poisons which can be anywhere and nowhere. At the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions, and yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates… We are entering a new era of paranoiac warfare in which the biggest task will be to identify the enemy and his weapons. Instead of a quick acting out, one should confront these difficult questions: what will “war” mean in the XXIst century? Who will be “them,” if they are, clearly, neither states nor criminal gangs? One cannot resist the temptation to recall here the Freudian opposition of the public Law and its obscene superego double: are, along the same line, the “international terrorist organizations” not the obscene double of the big multinational corporations — the ultimate rhizomatic machine, all-present, although with no clear territorial base? Are they not the form in which nationalist and/or religious “fundamentalism” accommodated itself to global capitalism? Do they not embody the ultimate contrafiction, with their particular/exclusive content and their global dynamic functioning?

There is a partial truth in the notion of the “clash of civilizations” attested here — witness the surprise of the average American: “How is it possible that these people display and practice such a disregard for their own lives?” Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life? When, after the bombings, even the Taliban foreign minister said that he can “feel the pain” of the American children, did he not thereby confirm the hegemonic ideological role of this Bill Clinton’s trademark phrase? It effectively appears as if the split between First World and Third World runs more and more along the lines of the opposition between leading a long satisfying life full of material and cultural wealth, and dedicating one’s life to some transcendent Cause. Two philosophical references immediately impose themselves apropos this ideological antagonism between the Western consummerist way of life and the Muslim radicalism: Hegel and Nietzsche. Is this antagonism not the one between what Nietzsche called “passive” and “active” nihilism? We in the West are the Nietzschean Last Men, immersed in stupid daily pleasures, while the Muslim radicals are ready to risk everything, engaged in the struggle up to their self-destruction. (One cannot but note the significant role of the stock exchange in the bombings: the ultimate proof of their traumatic impact was that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for four days, and its opening the following Monday was presented as the key sign of things returning to normal.) Furthermore, if one perceives this opposition through the lenses of the Hegelian struggle between Master and Servant, one cannot avoid noting the paradox: although we in the West are perceived as exploiting masters, it is us who occupy the position of the Servant who, since he clings to life and its pleasures, is unable to risk his life (recall Colin Powell’s notion of a high-tech war with no human casualties), while the poor Muslim radicals are Masters ready to risk their life…

However, this notion of the “clash of civilizations” has to be thoroughly rejected: what we are witnessing today are rather clashes WITHIN each civilization. Furthermore, a brief look at the comparative history of Islam and Christianity tells us that the “human rights record” of Islam (to use this anachronistic term) is much better than that of Christianity: in the past centuries, Islam was significantly more tolerant towards other religions than Christianity. NOW it is also the time to remember that it was through the Arabs that, in the Middle Ages, we in the Western Europe regained access to our Ancient Greek legacy. While in no way excusing today’s horror acts, these facts nonetheless clearly demonstrate that we are not dealing with a feature inscribed into Islam “as such,” but with the outcome of modern socio-political conditions.

On a closer look, what IS this “clash of civilizations” effectively about? Are all real-life “clashes” not clearly related to global capitalism? The Muslim “fundamentalist” target is not only global capitalism’s corroding impact on social life, but ALSO the corrupted “traditionalist” regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc. The most horrifying slaughters (those in Ruanda, Kongo, and Sierra Leone) not only took place — and are taking place — within the SAME “civilization,” but are also clearly related to the interplay of global economic interests. Even in the few cases which would vaguely fit the definition of the “clash of civilisations” (Bosnia and Kosovo, south of Sudan, etc.), the shadow of other interests is easily discernible.

Every feature attributed to the Other is already present in the very heart of the US: murderous fanaticism? There are today in the US itself more than two millions of the Rightist populist “fundamentalists” who also practice the terror of their own, legitimized by (their understanding of) Christianity. Since America is in a way “harboring” them, should the US Army have punished the US themselves after the Oklashoma bombing? And what about the way Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson reacted to the bombings, perceiving them as a sign that God lifted up its protection of the US because of the sinful lives of the Americans, putting the blame on hedonist materialism, liberalism, and rampant sexuality, and claiming that America got what it deserved? The fact that very same condemnation of the “liberal” America as the one from the Muslim Other came from the very heart of the Amerique profonde should give as to think. America as a safe haven? When a New Yorker commented on how, after the bombings, one can no longer walk safely on the city’s streets, the irony of it was that, well before the bombings, the streets of New York were well-known for the dangers of being attacked or, at least, mugged — if anything, the bombings gave rise to a new sense of solidarity, with the scenes of young African-Americans helping an old Jewish gentlemen to cross the street, scenes unimaginable a couple of days ago.

Now, in the days immediately following the bombings, it is as if we dwell in the unique time between a traumatic event and its symbolic impact, like in those brief moment after we are deeply cut, and before the full extent of the pain strikes us — it is open how the events will be symbolized, what their symbolic efficiency will be, what acts they will be evoked to justify. If nothing else, one can clearly experience yet again the limitation of our democracy: decisions are being made which will affect the fate of all of us, and all of us just wait, aware that we are utterly powerless. Even here, in these moments of utmost tension, this link is not automatic but contingent. There are already the first bad omens, like the sudden resurrection, in the public discourse, of the old Cold war term “free world”: the struggle is now the one between the “free world” and the forces of darkness and terror. The question to be asked here is, of course: who then belongs to the UNFREE world? Are, say, China or Egypt part of this free world? The actual message is, of course, that the old division between the Western liberal-democratic countries and all the others is again enforced.

The day after the bombing, I got a message from a journal which was just about to publish a longer text of mine on Lenin, telling me that they decided to postpone its publication — they considered inopportune to publish a text on Lenin immediately after the bombing. Does this not points towards the ominous ideological rearticulations which will follow, with a new Berufsverbot (prohibition to employ radicals) much stronger and more widespread than the one in the Germany of the 70s? These days, one often hears the phrase that the struggle is now the one for democracy — true, but not quite in the way this phrase is usually meant. Already, some Leftist friends of mine wrote me that, in these difficult moments, it is better to keep one’s head down and not push forward with our agenda. Against this temptation to duck out the crisis, one should insist that NOW the Left should provide a better analysis — otherwise, it concedes in advance its political AND ethical defeat in the face of the acts of quite genuine ordinary people heroism (like the passengers who, in a model of rational ethical act, overtook the kidnappers and provokes the early crush of the plane: if one is condemned to die soon, one should gather the strength and die in such a way as to prevent other people dying).

When, in the aftermath of September 11, the Americans en masse rediscovered their American pride, displaying flags and singing together in the public, one should emphasize more than ever that there is nothing “innocent” in this rediscovery of the American innocence, in getting rid of the sense of historical guilt or irony which prevented many of them to fully assume being American. What this gesture amounted to was to “objectively” assume the burden of all that being “American” stood for in the past — an exemplary case of ideological interpellation, of fully assuming one’s symbolic mandate, which enters the stage after the perplexity caused by some historical trauma. In the traumatic aftermath of September 11, when the old security seemed momentarily shattered, what more “natural” gesture than to take refuge in the innocence of the firm ideological identification? 4 However, it is precisely such moments of transparent innocence, of “return to basics,” when the gesture of identification seems “natural,” that are, from the standpoint of the critique of ideology, the most obscure one’s, even, in a certain way, obscurity itself. Let us recall another such innocently-transparent moment, the endlessly reproduced video-shot from Beijing’s Avenue of Eternal Piece at the height of the “troubles” in 1989, of a tiny young man with a can who, alone, stands in front of an advancing gigantic tank, and courageously tries to prevent its advance, so that, when the tank tries to bypass him by turning right or left, them man also moves aside, again standing in its way:

“The representation is so powerful that it demolishes all other understandings. This streetscene, this time and this event, have come to constitute the compass point for virtually all Western journeys into the interior of the contemporary political and cultural life of China.”5

And, again, this very moment of transparent clarity (things are rendered at their utmost naked: a single man against the raw force of the State) is, for our Western gaze, sustained by a cobweb of ideological implications, embodying a series of oppositions: individual versus state, peaceful resistance versus state violence, man versus machine, the inner force of a tiny individual versus the impotence of the powerful machine… These implications, against the background of which the shot exerts its full direct impact, these “mediations” which sustain the shot’s immediate impact, are NOT present for a Chinese observer, since the above-mentioned series of oppositions is inherent to the European ideological legacy. And the same ideological background also overdetermines, say, our perception of the horrifying images of tiny individuals jumping from the burning WTC tower into certain death.

So what about the phrase which reverberates everywhere, “Nothing will be the same after September 11″? Significantly, this phrase is never further elaborated — it just an empty gesture of saying something “deep” without really knowing what we want to say. So our first reaction to it should be: Really? Is it, rather, not that the only thing that effectively changed was that America was forced to realize the kind of world it was part of? On the other hand, such changes in perception are never without consequences, since the way we perceive our situation determines the way we act in it. Recall the processes of collapse of a political regime, say, the collapse of the Communist regimes in the Eastern Europe in 1990: at a certain moment, people all of a sudden became aware that the game is over, that the Communists are lost. The break was purely symbolic, nothing changed “in reality” — and, nonetheless, from this moment on, the final collapse of the regime was just a question of days… What if something of the same order DID occur on September 11?

We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war, this event will have, but one thing is sure: the US, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of things only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. So the alternative is: will Americans decide to fortify further their “sphere,” or to risk stepping out of it? Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the deeply immoral attitude of “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen HERE!”, leading to more aggressivity towards the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out. Or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdued move from “A thing like this should not happen HERE!” to “A thing like this should not happen ANYWHERE!”. Therein resides the true lesson of the bombings: the only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE again is to prevent it going on ANYWHERE ELSE. In short, America should learn to humbly accept its own vulnerability as part of this world, enacting the punishment of those responsible as a sad duty, not as an exhilarating retaliation.

The WTC bombings again confront us with the necessity to resist the temptation of a double blackmail. If one simply, only and unconditionally condemns it, one cannot but appear to endorse the blatantly ideological position of the American innocence under attack by the Third World Evil; if one draws attention to the deeper socio-political causes of the Arab extremism, one cannot but appear to blame the victim which ultimately got what it deserved… The only consequent solution is here to reject this very opposition and to adopt both positions simultaneously, which can only be done if one resorts to the dialectical category of totality: there is no choice between these two positions, each one is one-sided and false. Far from offering a case apropos of which one can adopt a clear ethical stance, we encounter here the limit of moral reasoning: from the moral standpoint, the victims are innocent, the act was an abominable crime; however, this very innocence is not innocent — to adopt such an “innocent” position in today’s global capitalist universe is in itself a false abstraction. The same goes for the more ideological clash of interpretations: one can claim that the attack on the WTC was an attack on what is worth fighting for in democratic freedoms — the decadent Western way of life condemned by Muslim and other fundamentalists is the universe of women’s rights and multiculturalist tolerance; however, one can also claim that it was an attack on the very center and symbol of global financial capitalism. This, of course, in no way entails the compromise notion of shared guilt (terrorists are to blame, but, partially, also Americans are also to blame…) — the point is, rather, that the two sides are not really opposed, that they belong to the same field. The fact that global capitalism is a totality means that it is the dialectical unity of itself and of its other, of the forces which resist it on “fundamentalist” ideological grounds.

Consequently, of the two main stories which emerged after September 11, both are worse, as Stalin would have put it. The American patriotic narrative — the innocence under siege, the surge of patriotic pride — is, of course, vain; however, is the Leftist narrative (with its Schadenfreude: the US got what they deserved, what they were for decades doing to others) really any better? The predominant reaction of European, but also American, Leftists was nothing less than scandalous: all imaginable stupidities were said and written, up to the “feminist” point that the WTC towers were two phallic symbols, waiting to be destroyed (“castrated”). Was there not something petty and miserable in the mathematics reminding one of the holocaust revisionism (what are the 6000 dead against millions in Ruanda, Kongo, etc.)? And what about the fact that CIA (co)created Taliban and Bin Laden, financing and helping them to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why was this fact quoted as an argument AGAINST attacking them? Would it not be much more logical to claim that it is precisely their duty to get us rid of the monster they created? The moment one thinks in the terms of “yes, the WTC collapse was a tragedy, but one should not fully solidarize with the victims, since this would mean supporting US imperialism,” the ethical catastrophy is already here: the only appropriate stance is the unconditional solidarity will ALL victims. The ethical stance proper is here replaced with the moralizing mathematics of guilt and horror which misses the key point: the terrifying death of each individual is absolute and incomparable. In short, let us make a simple mental experiment: if you detect in yourself any restraint to fully empathize with the victims of the WTC collapse, if you feel the urge to qualify your empathy with “yes, but what about the millions who suffer in Africa…”, you are not demonstrating your Third World sympathize, but merely the mauvaise foi which bears witness to your implicit patronizing racist attitude towards the Third World victims. (More precisely, the problem with such comparative statements is that they are necessary and inadmissible: one HAS to make them, one HAS to make the point that much worse horrors are taken place around the world on a daily basis — but one has to do it without getting involved in the obscene mathematics of guilt.)

It must be said that, within the scope of these two extremes (the violent retaliatory act versus the new reflection about the global situation and America’s role in it), the reaction of the Western powers till now was surprisingly considerate (no wonder it caused the violent anti-American outburst of Ariel Sharon!). Perhaps the greatest irony of the situation is that the main “collateral damage” of the Western reaction is the focus on the plight of the Afghani refugees, and, more generally, on the catastrophic food and health situation in Afghanistan, so that, sometimes, military action against Taliban is almost presented as a means to guarantee the safe delivery of the humanitarian aid — as Tony Blair said, perhaps, we will have to bomb Taliban in order to secure the food transportation and distribution. Although, of course, such large-scale publicized humanitarian actions are in themselves ideologically charged, involving the debilitating degradation of the Afghani people to helpless victims, and reducing the Taliban to a parasite terrorizing them, it is significant to acknowledge that the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan presents a much larger catastrophy than the WTC bombings.

Another way in which the Left miserably failed is that, in the weeks after the bombing, it reverted to the old mantra “Give peace a chance! War does not stop violence!” — a true case of hysterical precipitation, reacting to something which will not even happen in the expected form. Instead of the concrete analysis of the new complex situation after the bombings, of the chances it gives to the Left to propose its own interpretation of the events, we got the blind ritualistic chant “No war!”, which fails to address even the elementary fact, de facto acknowledged by the US government itself (through its postponing of the retaliatory action), that this is not a war like others, that the bombing of Afghanistan is not a solution. A sad situation, in which George Bush showed more power of reflection than most of the Left!

No wonder that anti-Americanism was most discernible in “big” European nations, especially France and Germany: it is part of their resistance to globalization. One often hears the complaint that the recent trend of globalization threatens the sovereignty of the Nation-States; here, however, one should qualify this statement: WHICH states are most exposed to this threat? It is not the small states, but the second-rang (ex-)world powers, countries like United Kingdom, Germany and France: what they fear is that, once fully immersed in the newly emerging global Empire, they will be reduced at the same level as, say, Austria, Belgium or even Luxembourg. The refusal of “Americanization” in France, shared by many Leftists and Rightist nationalists, is thus ultimately the refusal to accept the fact that France itself is losing its hegemonic role in Europe. The results of this refusal are often comical — at a recent philosophical colloquium, a French Leftist philosopher complained how, apart from him, there are now practically no French philosophers in France: Derrida is sold to American deconstructionism, the academia is overwhelmed by Anglo-Saxon cognitivism… A simple mental experiment is indicative here: let us imagine someone from Serbia claiming that he is the only remaining truly Serb philosopher — he would have been immediately denounced and ridiculed as a nationalist. The levelling of weight between larger and smaller Nation-States should thus be counted among the beneficial effects of globalization: beneath the contemptuous deriding of the new Eastern European post-Communist states, it is easy to discern the contours of the wounded Narcissism of the European “great nations.” Here, a good dose of Lenin’s sensitivity for the small nations (recall his insistence that, in the relationship between large and small nations, one should always allow for a greater degree of the “small” nationalism) would be helpful. Interestingly, the same matrix was reproduced within ex-Yugoslavia: not only for the Serbs, but even for the majority of the Western powers, Serbia was self-evidently perceived as the only ethnic group with enough substance to form its own state. Throughout the 90s, even the radical democratic critics of Milosevic who rejected Serb nationalism, acted on the presupposition that, among the ex-Yugoslav republics, it is only Serbia which has democratic potential: after overthrowing Milosevic, Serbia alone can turn into a thriving democratic state, while other ex-Yugoslav nations are too “provincial” to sustain their own democratic State… is this not the echo of Friedrich Engels’ well-known scathing remarks about how the small Balkan nations are politically reactionary since their very existence is a reaction, a survival of the past?

America’s “holiday from history” was a fake: America’s peace was bought by the catastrophes going on elsewhere. These days, the predominant point of view is that of an innocent gaze confronting unspeakable Evil which stroke from the Outside — and, again, apropos this gaze, one should gather the strength and apply to it also Hegel’s well-known dictum that the Evil resides (also) in the innocent gaze itself which perceives Evil all around itself. There is thus an element of truth even in the most constricted Moral Majority vision of the depraved America dedicated to mindless pleasures, in the conservative horror at this netherworld of sexploitation and pathological violence: what they don’t get is merely the Hegelian speculative identity between this netherworld and their own position of fake purity — the fact that so many fundamentalist preachers turned out to be secret sexual perverts is more than a contingent empirical fact. When the infamous Jimmy Swaggart claimed that the fact that he visited prostitutes only gave additional strength to his preaching (he knew from intimate struggle what he was preaching against), although undoubtedly hypocritical at the immediate subjective level, is nonetheless objectively true.

Can one imagine a greater irony than the fact that the first codename for the US operation against terrorists was “Infinite Justice” (later changed in response to the reproach of the American Islam clerics that only God can exert infinite justice)? Taken seriously, this name is profoundly ambiguous: either it means that the Americans have the right to ruthlessly destroy not only all terrorists but also all who gave then material, moral, ideological etc. support (and this process will be by definition endless in the precise sense of the Hegelian “bad infinity” — the work will never be really accomplished, there will always remain some other terrorist threat…); or it means that the justice exerted must be truly infinite in the strict Hegelian sense, i.e., that, in relating to others, it has to relate to itself — in short, that it has to ask the question of how we ourselves who exert justice are involved in what we are fighting against. When, on September 22 2001, Derrida received the Theodor Adorno award, he referred in his speech to the WTC bombings: “My unconditional compassion, addressed at the victims of the September 11, does not prevent me to say it loudly: with regard to this crime, I do not believe that anyone is politically guiltless.” This self-relating, this inclusion of oneself into the picture, is the only true “infinite justice.”

In the electoral campaign, President Bush named as the most important person in his life Jesus Christ. Now he has a unique chance to prove that he meant it seriously: for him, as for all Americans today, “Love thy neighbor!” means “Love the Muslims!” OR IT MEANS NOTHING AT ALL.