Three Perspectives on Death, Suicide and Mass Murder – Part I

Achille Mbembe – Necropolitics

Mbembe’s hugely influential paper presents theorizes the relationship between the constitution of sovereignty and “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations”. For Mbembe, as for Agamben (after Schmitt), these kinds of figures of sovereignty (e.g. categories of life and death), constitute a nomos in that they undergird a political order by delimiting a spatial topography, “founding” an inside and an outside that orients the customs of the law, the state and interrelated questions of decidability which legitimize these institutions.  Mbembe argues that these figurations cannot be mapped to a simple dialectic between reason and unreason, or between the civilized discourse of state subjects and the barbarism of terror (or alike constellations of Manichean colonial logic). After Bataille, “politics is not the forward dialectical movement of reason. Politics can only be traced as a spiral transgression, as that difference that disorients the very idea of the limit”. It follows that “politics is the difference put into play by the violation of a taboo”.

As I’ve suggested, Mbembe is elaborating on the work of Agamben, and before him Foucault and Schmitt. Central to his argument is the question of the “relationship between politics and death in those systems that can function only in a state of emergency”.  He develops a critical genealogy of the figuration of categories of enmity as a technique of racism, after Foucault, that foregrounds the warlike constitution of the body politic in a variety of historical and theoretical contexts (as in the Nazi figuration of the disposability of undesirables, or Susan Buck-Morss’ critique of the master-slave dialectic in Haiti).  Crucially, Mbembe locates the colonial periphery as the site where the suspension of law or juridical order yields to a situation of limitless war, and argues that the historical facts and conditions of imperialism produced in the modern political imaginary an enduring legitimation for the forms of sovereignty (that is, juridical mastery over the disposability of human subjects) that these suspensions enacted and underwrote.

Consider Schmitt’s theory of the state of exception and its relation to the Jus publicum Europaeum. This order assumes the juridical equality of all “states”, guaranteeing a right to wage war (and therefore to both kill and conclude peace) to all territorially-individuated entities recognized on that basis. The dual implication of a right to wage war and sue for peace effectively “civilized” the means of killing by attributing rational objectives to the act.  It follows that

Under Jus publicum, a legitimate war is, to a large extent, a war conducted by one state against another or, more precisely, a war between “civilized” states. The centrality of the state in the calculus of war derives from the fact that the state is the model of political unity, a principle of rational organization, the embodiment of the idea of the universal, and a moral sign.

Of course, the Jus publicum underwrote a clear distinction between the eminent domains of European state and a global periphery available for colonial appropriation. Insofar as the colonies exist at the frontiers or limits of this order, and as the liminal colonies are not organized as states of yet, and as their armies do not constitute a distinct political entity, qualified by a codified reverence for an eminent adversary, they exist beyond the pale.

It is thus impossible to conclude peace with them. In sum, colonies are zones in which war and disorder, internal and external figures of the political, stand side by side or alternate with each other. As such, the colonies are the locations par excellence where the controls and guarantees of the juridical order can be suspended – the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of “civilization”

And so colonial warfare, in which the massacring of “natural humans” (as opposed to rational citizens) isn’t comprehended as murder, “is not a legally codified activity”. It follows that “colonial wars are conceived as the expression of an absolute hostility that sets the conqueror against an absolute enemy”. After Kojeve, the paradox of colonial war “is simultaneously idealism and apparent inhumanity”. For Mbembe, this is a paradox that constitutes enduring relationships between imperial/colonial states and their periphery, even as the raw materials of space are increasingly complicated, deterritorialized, etc, by the intensified machineries of domination and exploitation (as in the camps, the occupied territories, etc).

Complementary to biopower, which produces figurations of sovereignty in aid of the preservation and multiplication of a particular mode of life, necropower corresponds to sovereignty’s means of defining “who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” and is qualified as “terror formation”. Building on Fanon’s analysis of the colonial town, Mbembe points to the colonial occupation of Palestine to qualify how necropower undergirds the colonial state’s fundamental claim of sovereignty and legitimacy:

This narrative is itself underpinned by the idea that the state has a divine right to exist; the narrative competes with another for the same sacred space. Because the two narratives are incompatible and the two populations are inextricably intertwined, any demarcation of the territory on the basis of pure identity is quasi-impossible. Violence and sovereignty, in this case, claim a divine foundation: peoplehood itself is forged by the worship of one deity, and national identity is imagined as an identity against the Other, other dieties. History, geography, cartography, and archaelogy are supposed to back these claims, thereby closely binding identity and topography. As a consequence, colonial violence and occupation are profoundly underwritten by the sacred terror of truth and exclusivity (mass explusions, resettlement of “stateless” people in refugee camps, settlement of new colonies). Lying beneath the terror of the sacred is the constant excavation of missing bones; the permanent remembrance of a torn body hewn in a thousand pieces and never self-same; the limits, or better, the impossibility of representing for oneself an “original crime”, and unspeakable death: the terror of the Holocaust.

Necropolitics, insofar as it complements Foucauldian notions of disciplinarity and biopower, is defined by three characteristics, all evidenced in Fanon’s account of the colonial town as in the example of the occupied territories:

First is the dynamics of territorial fragmentation, the sealing off and expansion of settlements. The objective of this process is twofold: to render any movement impossible and to implement separation along the model of the apartheid state. The occupied territories are therefore divided into a web of intricate internal borders and various isolated cells […] By departing from the planar division of a territory and embracing a principle of creation of three-dimensional boundaries across sovereign bulks, this dispersal and segmentation clearly redefines the relationship between sovereignty and space.

It follows that the second and third characteristics might be described as “vertical sovereignty”, after Eyal Weizman, or the elaboration of schemes of transit and acceleration over and above the occupied territory (UAVs, helicopter gunships, air strike corridors, even underpasses and bridges on settler roads) underwriting a condition of reciprocal exclusivity, and “infrastructural warfare”, in which the sabotage of the enemy’s societal infrastructure (water, land, airspace) intensifies the conditions of siege warfare along the multiplied axes of colonial-military deterritorialization.

For Mbembe, the necropolitical dimension of the Palestinean struggle (circa 2002 or so) reveals two irreconcilable and incorrigible logics in confrontation: a logic of martyrdom and a logic of survival, respectively indexed to a dialogic of terror and death and terror and freedom, respectively.  The logic of survival, which nonetheless retains something of a dialogic of terror and death, can be described in its lowest form as the “satisfaction” of killing an enemy bent on one’s own extinction. After Elias Canetti, “it is the death of the other, his or her own physical presence as a corpse, that makes the survivor feel unique” (and, it follows, more secure).  The logic of martyrdom is epitomized by the suicide bomber, which, in Mbembe’s critique (as in Talal Assad’s), troubles our notions of survival and the “value” or meaning of the act of killing.

This logic seems contrary to another one, which consists in wishing to impose death on others while preserving one’s own life. Canetti describes this moment as survival as a moment of power. In such a case, triumph develops precisely from the possibility of being there when the others (in this case the enemy) are no longer there. Such is the logic of heroism as classically understood: to execute others while holding one’s own death at a distance.

The prior would seem to correspond to Mbembe’s characterization of Hegel’s thinking on death insofar as it seeks to “conquer”, for want of better term, the negative potency of death (the possibility of extinguishing life). The latter (the logic of matyrdom, writ large as suicide bombing) corresponds with Bataille’s perverse thinking on the same:

In its desire for eternity, the besieged body [of the suicide bomber] passes through two stages. First, it is transformed into a mere thing, malleable matter. Second, the manner in which is put to death – suicide – affords its ultimate signification. The matter of the body, or again the matter which is the body, is invested with properties that cannot be deduced from its character as a thing, but from a transcendental nomos outside it. The besieged body becomes a piece of metal whose function is, through sacrifice, to bring eternal life into being. The body duplicates itself and, in death, literally and metaphorically escapes the state of siege and occupation.

For Mbembe, the self-sacrifice of the suicide bomber is properly comprehended as a comic gesture in that it activates a kind of “play” that confounds the delimitation of animal and human life. The victim (or rather agent) of the sacrifice, who “voluntarily tricks himself” in seeing himself die, becomes fully alive. This is, for Bataille, a kind of trick of transgression:

The self-sacrificed proceeds to take power over his or her death and to approach it head-on. This power may be derived from the belief that the destruction of one’s own body does not affect the continuity of being. The idea is that the being exists outside us. The self-sacrifice consists, here, in the removal of a twofold prohibition: that of self-immolation (suicide) and that or murder.

This would seem to imply that “death occurs here as pure annihilation and nothingness, excess and scandal”. Mbembe rebuffs this interpretation:

What connects terror, death and freedom is an ecstatic notion of temporality and politics. The future, here, can be authentically anticipated, but not in the present. The present itself is but a moment of vision – vision of the freedom to come. Death in the present is the mediator of redemption. Far from being an encounter with a limit, boundary, or barrier, it is experienced as “a release from terror and bondage”. [If the lack of freedom characteristic of the servitude of slaves] is the very nature of what it means for the slave or the colonized to exist, the same lack is also precisely the way in which he or she takes account of his or her own mortality. Referring to the practice of individual or mass suicide by slaves cornered by slave catchers, Gilroy suggests that death, in this case, can be represented as agency. For death is precisely that from and over which I have power. But it is also that space where freedom and negation operate.

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