When I saw the sign at the entrance of the White Box gallery stating that the space had been closed by the Cultural Bureau of the Office for Homeland Security, my eyes blinked in very slow motion as if attempting a second chance at grasping the meaning of the statement. In between my two glimpses, precisely during the brief moment when my eyes remained closed, an image made itself perceptible to my brain. This image occupied the precise gap between my two glances, not as an effect of the movement created by the dislocation of my eyes, more like an image formed in the irrational interval between my attempts at intelligibility. As if undergoing a subliminal experiment, I was not aware that I had registered that instant. It is only now, upon attempting to reconstruct that moment, that is, upon actively remembering it, that I have in fact become fully aware of it. The image produced in my mind was the one of a traffic sign. On this sign, we see an octagonal red shape accompanied by a black arrow. Both are contained by a black line and are painted over a yellow plate. This sign is like any other traffic-sign, except that its referent is yet another traffic-sign. In spite of its cryptic appearance, the message is simple and clear: the arrow indicates that a stop sign, which is represented by the red shape, lies ahead. Most traffic signs are introduced along the way prior to the circumstance they are to call attention for. This one is not different in that regard, except that this sign is situated further away in the signification chain from the situation it refers to. Its function is like that of an eye-opener, it alerts about the coming presence of another sign which, if noticed, will then provide a direct description of the matter at hand. While my body was still there, outside the gallery, temporarily frozen in front of a sign that stopped my flow into the space, my mind went elsewhere.
A couple of years ago I was asked what I thought had been the most formative events in my life, meaning what public events had shaped my perception of the world. I recalled two interrelated events that left a lasting impression on me because of the way in which they worked retroactively, reordering what up to the point of their occurrence had been deemed to be the accepted truth. The first was the military dictatorship in Brazil, the second the Freedom of Information Act in the United States. The former attempted a self-serving reconfiguration of the historical facts that had preceded the military coup’s coming into power by suppressing information from freely circulating in the media and in the educational system, i.e., by direct censorship. The latter facilitated the correction of a misperception of the United States’ role in international affairs, by allowing access to documents that show how interventions in foreign territory were designed to favor U.S.’s national interests at the cost of enormous repression of civil liberties in those foreign countries. Both of these events had the ability to change the nature of my relationship to prior events. To that I would add a third event, the morning of September 12. I spent that morning experiencing this most uneventful of all events: television watching. As news after news, commentator after commentator, passed in front of my eyes, I saw the meaning of what had occurred the day before change. Like the famous flashback of the moments of a person’s life often reported as occurring when someone is between life and death, I saw footage of various events throughout the world flashing by my eyes. It was as if the tv programming were in rewind mode, as if were looking for something in particular, something that could be not the cause but the easy target with which to conflate the anger and distress caused by the events from the day before. During this editing process, without my full awareness, without my granting it my consent, I was robbed of my certainty about the meaning of a prior event and was offered another, more simplified, even mechanistic, version of the same story. In this new version, only one movement took place, the one that went from the part who committed the aggression to the part that suffered its impact. No cause and effect is allowed in this rationale, except of course, the action that follows from it, that is vengeance. The narrative is ungrounded from any foundation. What is complex is the way in which this narrative replaces our prior links between words and things and their contextualization in the actual historical terrain.
Still at the door, I inventoried my two thoughts. On the one hand I had a sign that referred to another sign. On the other, I had an event that changed my relationship to prior events. But how are these thoughts related to the sign in front of me? It didn’t quite synced. One of the things that puzzles me about today’s event, and makes me not accept the notice on the door at face value, is the discrepancy between the activities of the Bureau and those of the gallery. While the Bureau’s stated goal is to care for national security, the art space’s declared goal is to exhibit its artist’s work for public viewing. The incongruity between their assumed interests was beating me over the head to the point of obfuscating the almost obvious connection between the violent action of closing the space and the subtle work on representation deployed by the artists in the gallery in re-articulating received notions of security. It would be very tempting, if it weren’t short sighted, to qualify the violence deployed in the abrupt closing of the space, an action in sync with the current generalization of the police apparatus onto various spheres of public life, as a retrograde maneuver, a leftover of a faded McCarthyism. The risk in thinking this way is that we would discard this tendency as a fad, an annoying but nevertheless passing nostalgic moment that is ultimately understandable given the traumatic events of our recent past. But what if instead of a simple recurrence of things past we were confronting a new arrangement of power, or at least a new stage for a configuration already on the make for a very long time?
In order to look at this matter more fittingly, we need to frame things in slightly more general terms and ask: what is the nature of the relationship between blunt violence and the more sophisticated mechanisms of subjectivization at work in the contemporary world? Taken out of context, Foucault’s statement that “in itself the exercise of power is not violence” immediately sets up an opposition between the two terms. Of course he meant, as his work thoroughly demonstrates, that although violence might be, and indeed often is, an instrument of power, power itself is exercised over a free subject who have choices as opposed to the violence imposed upon a captive subject who has absolutely no choice. In other words, power is not the work of repression, i.e., it is not solely a negative force; it also works productively through the shaping of our ways of being in the world.1 In spite of Foucault’s positing of the relationship between power and violence not as mutually exclusive terms but as correlative elements, we insist in seeing them as each identified with a distinct historical moment. Certainly, in comparison to the very sophisticated operations of power through our bodies and minds, the crass police apparatus appears to be a relic of a remote past. But to sustain this thought is to subscribe to a very ingenuous notion: the evolutionist understanding of society which neatly organizes our development from barbarian times to today’s advanced form of organization. Clearly, violence as a practice of control has never disappeared. Although except for isolated demonstrations of its most dramatic face in the first world, it has been pretty much insulated in the third world. Now that blunt violence has made its way more nakedly into the first world, we can say without a doubt that the relationship between power and violence cannot be simply presented as a ‘new versus old’ type of problem. Power and violence are definitely contemporaneous to each other. But, are they mutually exclusive? In other words: is the use of violence only deployed by lower, unethical, forms of organization? If only our recent history could negate that bloodbaths and democratic states were not in fact sharing the same dining table we could at least fantasize about this old western logic of ‘good guys versus bad guys.’ The examples are too many to count in our hands. Chomsky’s inventory, based on research in large part allowed by the Freedom of Information Act, along numerous other sources, provides a meticulous account of our recent past, a history replete with examples of the relationship between democratic societies and the brutal violence they committed mostly elsewhere. We might have to look for the logic of the liaison between power and violence in a place not so distant from our own.
Agamben’s input to this debate, comes in the form of a study that outlines the relations between law and violence. He locates the formative nexus between law and violence at the beginning of western civilization, already present in Ancient Rome’s inseparable figures of the consul endowed with imperium and the lictor closest to him, who carried the sacrificial ax used to perform capital punishment.2 From this contiguous relationship, Agamben traces the consistent path of its development all the way to its most radical outcome, the concentration camp, the place where control over the naked life of human beings is exerted in absolute fashion. If he is right when he says that the camp is not an isolated exception but only the most obviated sight of power and the very condition toward which we have moved, then we can begin to reformulate the question of why a hegemonic power ever more involved in the production and regulation of subjectivities3 would still deploy the brute force of the police. The question should not any longer be ‘why’ but ‘how.’ Understanding how power simultaneously deploys subtle technologies of subjection in conjunction with blunt demonstrations of violence can prevent us from the mistake of fighting the wrong enemy. The sign might be in front of our eyes, but if we don’t know how to read it, we will fail to see that it is merely pointing to another sign. And the actual function of its message might be indeed to focus our attention in the wrong direction. Perhaps we can start by doubting the sign. Rather than asking: can the gallery be closed? Along with the related set of question that would naturally follow, like: Who authorizes it? Is it legal? These are types of questions that operate within the provided framework after all. Instead, we could ask, in a Foucauldian manner, how has this come to be possible? What conditions were fulfilled that allowed this state of things to come into being? In other words, what are the conditions of possibility for this event? Perhaps, if we can spot the fragile lines that connect the various pieces that sustain this hegemonic puzzle, we will be able to reassemble its parts in more favorable ways for most people. We might still be far from a solution but at least we can start by asking more pertinent questions.
- Foucault, Michel “The Subject and Power,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation (New York: The New Museum, 1984), 421.
- Agamben, Giorgio. Means without End: Notes on Politics(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 104.
- Hardt, Michael and Toni Negri. Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 321.