War, Apparatus, Witness

by | 18 Apr 2011

Jean-Luc Nancy’s Philosophical Chronicles, published in 2004, and originally broadcast over eleven months on France Culture radio with the intention to connect ‘philosophy with several nodes of contemporary life’ (xi). One of these chronicles (‘28 March 2003’) was simultaneous with the ‘beginning of what one calls “war”’ (45). The reference, of course, is to the invasion of Iraq, and the philosopher suggests, following Carl Schmitt’s diagnosis of ‘world’ war, that ‘there is no war in the real sense whenever a claim is made to an international policing mechanism’ (47). Nancy takes us, the reader, the hearer, toward an understanding of the ‘assumption of a globally applicable right’ (in today’s terms a devoir d’ingérance, where sovereignty, violation, and human rights intertwine). A right that is asserted as the command and jurisprudence of a single power, aided and abetted by the coalition forces, where ‘reason’ and then ‘rationality’ is sold and, of course, arms (46). A right that seemingly becomes something that is not so much truth, or reason to arm ‘the people’, as ‘a general enterprise of logistics’ where capital ‘informs us better than ever of its anonymity’, where the names of Saddam Hussein, Bin Laden, and now Gadaffi, ‘and so many other political and religious names of the Arab world… become fused together within this anonymity’ (‘25 April 2003’: 48).

Nancy refers us to Hegel and the owl of Minerva in his chronicle of ‘25 October 2002’ – where ‘philosophy appears when a form of life has become old,’ and later suggests that even the car, that most free symbol of freedom, of the industrial west, of the world, is ‘already given over to senility’ (8-9). And what of the mobilizing effect philosophy, what of this? Is it a ‘form of life’, for now? (11) What might the potential energy of Agamben’s Coming Community look like: a world where an ‘improper and senseless form of individuality’ is replaced by ‘a singularity without identity’? (65) And what of Foucault’s salutation to an Iranian people who in 1979 had the “will to renew the whole of one’s existence”? (Foucault quoted in Chronicles: 18) We are cautioned by Nancy not to be ‘too quick to laugh at him,’ and informed that we should, in fact, ‘reread [Foucault’s] statements of this period’ (ibid. 18).

Agamben discusses the process of desubjectification through, amongst other things, the ‘cellular telephone.’ In an essay of 2006, ‘What is an Apparatus?’, Agamben confesses to an ‘implacable hatred’ of the ‘telefonino’, the mobile ‘phone, and suggests that it ‘has made the relationship between people all the more abstract’ (16). Harder still to reconcile Agamben’s little piece of equipment, this dispositif, with its capability for, a Gaston Gordillo coinage, ‘velocities of tweets’ together with, still with Gordillo, the ‘spatial interconnections they continue to generate’ in the Arab spring, that fast-spreading ‘rhizomic synergy’ that has effectively ‘outmanoeuvred states’ and, more surprisingly, despotic heads of state. Agamben would have us destroy or deactivate those telefonini, but he also wonders, jokingly, perhaps ironically, how ‘to punish and imprison those who do not stop using them’ (‘Apparatus’ 16). And yet we might feel that we have caught the author of the ongoing Homo Sacer project in an oddly vulnerable position, as he goes on to say: ‘He who lets himself be captured by the “cellular telephone” apparatus – whatever the intensity…cannot acquire a new subjectivity, but only a number through which he can, eventually, be controlled’ (ibid. 21).

There’s no getting away from the fact that revolutions are generally decided by face-to-face confrontations. Today the telefonini acts as a sort of witness to all of this, and one that due to its lack of authority, particularly in the face of an overwhelmed and overwhelming media, must operate as ‘pseudo witness’, the testimony of which is always called into question because it is never the work of ‘“true” witnesses’, the “complete witnesses”’ (Agamben Remnants of Auschwitz 34). Yet the ‘apparatus’, as Agamben illustrates its meaning, ‘is the part of a judgement that contains the decision separate from the opinion’ (‘Apparatus’ 7), and chimes with a Foucauldian thought linked to the law and onto a ‘theological legacy’ (ibid. 11).

The telefonini can speak in the stead of the real witnesses, by proxy; it is inside and outside, it creates the connection, to us, the ones who are not there to those who are. We, the by-standers, standing on distant shores, witnesses too to the scenes that are themselves testifying to the speed of things, to change, these images that the newsreader warns ‘some viewers might find distressing.’

From such scenes such enunciation brings, which, in Remnants of Auschwitz, ‘refers not to the text of what is stated, but to its taking place,’ and ultimately resonates within the paradoxical state of language, of discourse, that ‘an impossibility of speaking has, in an unknown way come to speech’ (Agamben ibid. 116-17). It seems therefore that ‘the relentless fight between living beings and apparatuses’ must for now call a truce on the alien and “barbaric” telefonino: ‘a foreigner who does not truly know how to understand and speak’ (‘Apparatus’ 114). Much better then to inspire these ‘affirmative velocities’ that speak into the air, these instant forms of communication, these certain shifting somehows that lead to some kind of truth, to something perhaps poetic (according to Badiou); a way of saying ‘I’ and ‘now’ (ibid. 122), as something radical, something tweet.


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