Live Blogging: Seminar in Sociological Theory #12

Burger and Luckmann – by Agamben (p. 66). All societies are built in the face of chaos.

A lot of Parsonian theory hangs on the assumption that if you don’t stay within the functional boundaries…

Agamben feels that Durkheim had succumbed to the “psychologization of religious experience” characteristic of the “European bourgeoisie” of the time (78). It is not clear whether Agamben is suggesting that Durkheim was blindly imbedded in this mode of thought (a function of the hang-over from the long 19th century perhaps), and therefore unable to see the material and experiential aspects of religious ambiguity, or whether Durkheim was merely pandering to the dominant trends that did not take the sacred as a serious category of material experience and intelligibility.

What is the sphere of the political?

For Agamben, the sacred has become bound with ‘the political.’ In this way, he seems to be reading Schmitt as a theological thinker as much as a political theorist.

For deconstructionism: IT is the odd occurrence that gives the truth. If you want to understand the US, you have to look at Guantanimo Bay. How the system works is by understanding what it needs to marginalize.

The exception sustains the whole.

The Mobius strip.

Homo Saver: Leagally dead, biologically alive.

Knight of the Living Dead

By Slavoj Zizek

1023 words

24 March 2007

The New York Times

LONDON — SINCE the release of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed’s dramatic confessions, moral outrage at the extent of his crimes has been mixed with doubts. Can his claims be trusted? What if he confessed to more than he really did, either because of a vain desire to be remembered as the big terrorist mastermind, or because he was ready to confess anything in order to stop the water boarding and other ”enhanced interrogation techniques”?If there was one surprising aspect to this situation it has less to do with the confessions themselves than with the fact that for the first time in a great many years, torture was normalized — presented as something acceptable. The ethical consequences of it should worry us all.

While the scope of Mr. Mohammed’s crimes is clear and horrifying, it is worth noting that the United States seems incapable of treating him even as it would the hardest criminal — in the civilized Western world, even the most depraved child murderer gets judged and punished. But any legal trial and punishment of Mr. Mohammed is now impossible — no court that operates within the frames of Western legal systems can deal with illegal detentions, confessions obtained by torture and the like. (And this conforms, perversely, to Mr. Mohammed’s desire to be treated as an enemy rather than a criminal.)

It is as if not only the terrorists themselves, but also the fight against them, now has to proceed in a gray zone of legality. We thus have de facto ”legal” and ”illegal” criminals: those who are to be treated with legal procedures (using lawyers and the like), and those who are outside legality, subject to military tribunals or seemingly endless incarceration.

Mr. Mohammed has become what the Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls ”homo sacer”: a creature legally dead while biologically still alive. And he’s not the only one living in an in-between world. The American authorities who deal with detainees have become a sort of counterpart to homo sacer: acting as a legal power, they operate in an empty space that is sustained by the law and yet not regulated by the rule of law.

Some don’t find this troubling. The realistic counterargument goes: The war on terrorism is dirty, one is put in situations where the lives of thousands may depend on information we can get from our prisoners, and one must take extreme steps. As Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School puts it: ”I’m not in favor of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval.” Well, if this is ”honesty,” I think I’ll stick with hypocrisy.

Yes, most of us can imagine a singular situation in which we might resort to torture — to save a loved one from immediate, unspeakable harm perhaps. I can. In such a case, however, it is crucial that I do not elevate this desperate choice into a universal principle. In the unavoidable brutal urgency of the moment, I should simply do it. But it cannot become an acceptable standard; I must retain the proper sense of the horror of what I did. And when torture becomes just another in the list of counterterrorism techniques, all sense of horror is lost.

When, in the fifth season of the TV show ”24,” it became clear that the mastermind behind the terrorist plot was none other than the president himself, many of us were eagerly waiting to see whether Jack Bauer would apply to the ”leader of the free world” his standard technique in dealing with terrorists who do not want to divulge a secret that may save thousands. Will he torture the president?

Reality has now surpassed TV. What ”24” still had the decency to present as Jack Bauer’s disturbing and desperate choice is now rendered business as usual.

In a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it. Morality is never just a matter of individual conscience. It thrives only if it is sustained by what Hegel called ”objective spirit,” the set of unwritten rules that form the background of every individual’s activity, telling us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

For example, a clear sign of progress in Western society is that one does not need to argue against rape: it is ”dogmatically” clear to everyone that rape is wrong. If someone were to advocate the legitimacy of rape, he would appear so ridiculous as to disqualify himself from any further consideration. And the same should hold for torture.

Are we aware what lies at the end of the road opened up by the normalization of torture? A significant detail of Mr. Mohammed’s confession gives a hint. It was reported that the interrogators submitted to waterboarding and were able to endure it for less than 15 seconds on average before being ready to confess anything and everything. Mr. Mohammed, however, gained their grudging admiration by enduring it for two and a half minutes.

Are we aware that the last time such things were part of public discourse was back in the late Middle Ages, when torture was still a public spectacle, an honorable way to test a captured enemy who might gain the admiration of the crowd if he bore the pain with dignity? Do we really want to return to this kind of primitive warrior ethics?

This is why, in the end, the greatest victims of torture-as-usual are the rest of us, the informed public. A precious part of our collective identity has been irretrievably lost. We are in the middle of a process of moral corruption: those in power are literally trying to break a part of our ethical backbone, to dampen and undo what is arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, the growth of our spontaneous moral sensitivity.

Terri Schiavo and
the State of Exception

Eric L. Santner

Eric L. Santner reflects on the Terri Schiavo case in light of two new Chicago books on political theology: Giorgio Agamben’s The State of Exception and Julia Reinhard Lupton’s Citizen Saints.

When a series of news items grip the national imagination within a short period of time, one rightly wonders whether there might be connections between them, whether an underlying set of issues animates them. I am thinking of two stories: the Abu Ghraib prison tortures and the Terri Schiavo case. Let us forget for a moment that both stories involve powerful images that don’t simply illustrate the subject matter but actually co-constitute it (the taking of photographs was a tool of humiliation at Abu Ghraib; the images of Terri Schiavo have led many—among them members of Congress—to believe that they know something about her medical condition). What interests me more is how in each story human life is positioned with respect to law and political power.

It is now clear that at Abu Ghraib as well as numerous other detention centers, the problem of prisoner abuse—including clear cases of torture and murder—has not simply been the consequence of a handful of rogue soldiers living out sadistic fantasies on helpless victims. But nor has the problem been one of isolated and contingent miscommunications down the chain of command. The real problem has to do with the legal status of the prisoners themselves and of the sites where they are being detained. With respect to Guantanamo Bay, to cite the most obvious example, the Bush administration has argued that the detention centers there effectively occupy a lawless zone, a site where a permanent (if undeclared) state of exception or emergency is in force. The prisoners have been stripped of all legal protections and stand exposed to the pure force of American military and political power. They have ceased to count as recognizable agents bearing a symbolic status covered by law. They effectively stand at the threshold where biological life and political power intersect. That is why it is fundamentally unclear whether anything those in power do to them is actually illegal.

If places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay represent sites where life, lacking all legal status and protection, stands in maximal exposure to pure political power, then the case of Terri Schiavo—and here I am thinking of the law passed by Congress that was intended to keep her alive—offers us a strange reversal. We find here the paradox of an intrusive excess of legal “protection” that effectively serves to suspend the law (the judicial process running its course in the Florida courts) and take direct hold of human life. A law designed to lift a single individual out of an ongoing judicial process is essentially a form or caprice, law in its state of exception (a sanctioned suspension of legality). This paradox reaches its greatest intensity where the law attempts to take charge of the pure biological life of the human being in question. At this point Terri Schiavo’s life assumes a “biopolitical” dimension in which life and politics can no longer be fully distinguished. To put it simply, if an act of Congress were to lead to the reinsertion of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, it will not be only water and chemical nutrients that enter her system; it will also be the invasive force of political power. This, of course, says nothing about the cynicism at play in this political power. (Many of the most prominent sponsors of the legislation in question have exhibited a shameless disregard for human life in countless other areas of public policy.)

Another way of thinking about the two faces of the state of exception in which political power takes a direct hold of human life is to note the two modes of reduction/amplification at play in each instance. In Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, and other such places, the prisoners are fully sentient beings who in some sense no longer exist in the “book of life”; their legal and symbolic status has been nullified, they have been reduced to a pure point of application of state power (again, how could those in charge of such beings not be confused as to what constitutes abuse?). Terri Schiavo, by contrast, is a no longer sentient being who is having a symbolic status imposed on her (she has become, among other things, the name of a Cause). In the one case we have human life violently stripped of the cover of a symbolic status/value, in the other, the intrusive imposition a symbolic status/value in the absence of sentient life. The results, however, are uncannily similar: the radical exposure of the body to the pure caprice of political power.

With respect to the latter case, one might ask why it matters at all whether Mrs. Schiavo is kept alive by a feeding tube. That is, if it is true that she is in a persistent vegetative state without awareness, without access to pleasure and pain, joy and sadness—and no credible evidence has been brought forward that would cast any doubt on this diagnosis—why should anyone care if her parents take her home and keep her alive artificially? Whom does it harm if this makes her parents happy? I think that many would respond that it harms the soul of Terri Schiavo to be so totally subjected to the will of others even if those others are her parents who no doubt love her (or politicians who at least claim to speak on her behalf). And what greater form of subjection is there than to have the will of others impinge directly on our life substance, our existence as living tissue? Those pleading for state intervention into Terri Schiavo’s persistence as living tissue are pleading for the most radical form of domination one can imagine. And domination does damage to the human soul. I am tempted to say that the effort to keep Terri Schiavo alive is a kind of soul murder.

Of course, the Terri Schiavo case would never have entered the national awareness were it not for certain Christian groups that adopted it as a battleground in the larger cause of defending so-called innocent life. There is much to say about this phrase, “innocent life.” Given the fact that many who oppose abortion also condone capital punishment, one has good reason to wonder whether what is really at stake here is not innocent life but rather living innocence, that is, a fantasy of protecting not a human life but a condition of purity and innocence that can, in turn, only be truly embodied by non-sentient life. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder whether what President Bush has referred to as the “culture of life” only refers to non-sentient life; as soon as one acquires feeling, perception, and awareness one is more or less abandoned to the minimally regulated vagaries of the market place.

Be that as it may, one of the real theological peculiarities at the heart of the Terri Schiavo case pertains to the concepts of creation and creaturely life. As Julia Lupton notes in a wonderful book chapter on Shakespeare’s The Tempest entitled “Creature Caliban,” the word “creature” comes from the future-active participle of the Latin creare, meaning that the “creatura is a thing always in the process of undergoing creation; the creature is actively passive or, better, passionate, perpetually becoming-created, subject to transformation at the behest of the arbitrary commands of an Other.” In its theological sense, then, “creature” isn’t so much the name of a determinate state of being or essence as that of an ongoing exposure, of being caught up in the process of becoming creature through the dictates of divine authority. This dimension of radical subjection—of created thing to Creator God—has induced, in the history of the concept, a series of further articulations, ultimately becoming generalized to signify, as Lupton puts it, “anyone or anything that is produced or controlled by an agent, author, master, or tyrant.” At the end of such a trajectory it makes sense that a word that once denoted the entire domain of nature qua God’s creation comes to be “increasingly applied to those created things that warp the proper canons of creation.” Perhaps the most famous literary example of such a creature is Frankenstein’s monster, itself in many ways an embodiment of an inability to countenance death in modernity, which is no doubt a central feature of the Terri Schiavo case. (Is it not particularly strange that among those who seem to lose all bearings in the face of death, all sense of compassion and reverence, are people who claim deep religious faith?)

What ultimately underwrites this paradoxical passage from the natural to the unnatural in the semantic field of creaturely life is that feature of the “master” I have referred to as the state of exception or emergency. That is, it is not the mere fact of being in a relation of subject to law that generates creaturely “non-nature” but rather the exposure to an “outlaw” dimension of law internal to state authority. Governmental authority in the state of exception marks a sanctioned suspension of law, an outside of law included within the law. Creaturely life emerges precisely at such strange thresholds where the subject is touched by this force of law in excess of law. The decision to categorize the prisoners taken in the “war on terrorism” as enemy combatants without legal status and Congress’s attempt to intervene into the Terri Schiavo case are two instances in which life has been rendered creaturely in this sense.

What is especially disturbing in the Schiavo case is that this process is being performed in the name of a “culture of life” ostensibly consonant with Christian morality. What we find instead is a radical perversion of the order of creation and the theological status of the creature, its conversion, that is, into a purely biopolitical entity. Christianity is being used, in other words, to give cover to the radical intrusion of political power into the sphere of life. A theology that might have provided the resources for deep compassion for a woman in her dying and for the family of this woman, has become instead an ideological tool of political power in a state of exception


Have guns (and helicopters), will travel (review by SCOTT TAYLOR)

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

By Jeremy Scahill

Since 2003, Blackwater has expanded rapidly, adding helicopters and aircraft to the corporation’s impressive arsenal and hiring foreign mercenaries on an unprecedented scale. Defining the exact role of these legions of private security contractors on the modern battlefield has not been easy. Scahill uses the court proceedings of two separate incidents — the Fallujah ambush and a Blackwater aircraft crash in Afghanistan — to illustrate the blurred line between actual military units and gun-for-hire corporations.

In defending Blackwater from lawsuits filed by the victims’ families, its lawyers argue that the company should be immune from any liability since it is part of a “U.S. Total Force that includes contractors.” Since these mercenaries are not subject to U.S. military law and have been granted immunity from prosecution in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they literally operate outside the law, with a licence to kill.

The rapid increase in the demand for Blackwater’s services and the corporation’s profit-driven mandate has also led to contractual disputes with a number of foreign recruits. One group of Chileans was promised $6,000 per month, contracted for $2,700 and then told upon their arrival in Iraq that they would only receive $34 per day ($1,000 per month). If they didn’t like the terms, the Chileans were free to head to downtown Baghdad and pay for their own return flights.

The book also profiles a number of the key players who have helped to elevate Blackwater to its present prominence. The former head of the CIA counter-terrorism centre, J. Cofer Black, and ex-inspector-general Joseph Schmitz share Erik Prince’s right-wing religious beliefs, and since joining the company’s executive team, describe themselves as modern-day knights.

For those who think that the deployment of Blackwater’s mercenaries to far-off war zones is of no domestic concern, think again. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Erik Prince’s operatives were dispatched into the storm-ravaged, chaotic streets of New Orleans. While U.S. Coast Guard officials dispute Blackwater’s claims of rescuing victims, local law officials expressed concern over these guns-for-hire engaging in firefights with looters and “gangbangers.”


Sociology of exception:

Exemption, where people claim an exemption, for whatever reason. Connection between Guantanimo Bay and file sharing.

Dowloading, individuals take a stance of necessity or “it doesn’t matter anyways.” Products that are legal, but use of them forces you to do the illegal.

It’s all just equiptment in the amusement park.

These are all in between. They all have to do with a similar problem – people being claimed as, or claiming for themselves, exception. It does’nt count for “me” – I need, I want – over the nomos.


One doesn’t need to become more plugged in. There can be moments when you become less plugged in. Alot of the dynamics of illness involved becoming less plugged in.

Until you work out where the plug ins are added and withdrawn, you are in trouble.

Durkeim -> some deviance is functional. The nomos is being held by the anomic. (see the boundaries of societies).

Not modern: intensively equipt.

Two features of Sociology: 1. Positivism – facts about how things are and how things could be. Informed based on findings/facts. We’ve forgotten about the “fact-ories” (Latour). It forgets it is trading on mediator (confused with intermediaries). The engineers forget they are becoming actors 2. Critical – demystification. Suggests that however you see things, you don’t understand what is really going on. The false consiousness. Point out the ways in which the doxic version supresses the heterodoxa. The job of social sciences is to demistify.

Dorothy is still a critical sociology – ruling relations is part of the projects (seperating the project with ANT). There is this emmanent relation among ruling agencies that multiplies their forces that will relate to each other and multiply their effects.

IE wants to keep things local as well.

If most work falls in one of these two projects. If both of these are suspect: on what basis do you continue to justify a sociology department?  What about branch planting them around. Sociology teaches a set of skills. People pursue their careers in other departments.


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