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Reflections Toward Visibility

The state of exception is the reduction of humanity to the life that can be killed but not sacrificed. The person stripped of citizenship, held at undisclosed locations, possibly subject to torture, unable to make any claim whatever to human rights (inasmuch as those rights are predicated on the power of a nation-state to recognize them) can be killed or disappeared but nothing more.

Nathan Snaza

Issue #63, April 2003


Already in 1985 it was possible to perceive a punitive system operating on our smallest physical and psychic acts, a system that infused our actions with an aura of uncertainty with regard to criminality and immorality. In Between Men, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick wrote:

Not only must homosexual men be unable to ascertain whether they are to be the objects of "random" homophobic violence, but no man must be able to ascertain that he is not (that his bonds are not) homosexual. In this way, a relatively small exertion of physical or legal compulsion potentially rules great reaches of behavior and filiation.

This apparatus of surveillance and punishment, which for Foucault had a normative function, would soon overreach itself and place normalcy itself in constant question. We entered a system where we allowed violence against an "unseemly" minority even while we became less and less certain if that minority could include each of us. When President Clinton initiated the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" plan, the being-in-language of humans was transformed from a communicative being to a being-open-to-interrogation where linguistic acts are inseparable from criminal acts. Judith Butler in Excitable Speech explains:

The utterance is understood not merely to offend a sense of sensibilities, but to constitute an injury, as if the word performed the act . . . The ascription of such magical efficacy to words emerges in the context of the US military in which the declaration that one is a homosexual is understood to communicate something of homosexuality and, hence, to be a homosexual act of some kind.

In this milieu we are, all of us — homosexual or not — are always already guilty and only wait for the correct moment to be betrayed. We can't help ourselves.


We learn that the United States government, under the auspices of protecting domestic security from acts of terrorism, proposes the following:

under Section 501 of the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, an American citizen can be stripped of citizenship if he or she "becomes a member of, or provides material support to, a group that the United States has designated as a 'terrorist organization,' if that group is engaged in hostilities against the United States.
Nat Hentoff, The Village Voice February 28, 2003

It is entirely without precedent for the government to revoke citizenship without a linguistic statement of the déclassé demanding such a status. According to Hentoff, such statements, for the current administration, are irrelevant: "'the intent to relinquish nationality need not be manifested in words, but can be inferred from conduct.'" (emphasis added)

Once again, it is impossible to know if we are in "material breach" of the law, if our actions, linguistic or otherwise, are proof of some unknowable complicity with evil, some terrorist tendency in each of us. This visibility of guilt will not be met with juridical process but with removal from the systems of justice entirely. Citizenship, along with the rights inhering in that status, is revocable. "Inalienable" no longer has any meaning in the state of exception in which we live.


The immediate justification for the current state of exception in the United States and possibly elsewhere, is the terror attack of September 11, 2001. The color-coded alerts, prompting media-frenzied Americans to stockpile duct tape and plastic cloth to protect against chemical weapon attacks, are the visible interpellation into the state of exception. Not that we have a choice.

Giorgio Agamben's discussion of the state of exception in Means Without End is instructive:

(How could we not think that a system that can no longer function at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price?) This is that case also and above all because naked life, which was the hidden foundation of sovereignty, has meanwhile become the dominant form of life everywhere. Life — in its state of exception that has now become the norm — is the naked life that in every context separates the forms of life from their cohering into a form-of-life. The Marxian scission between man and citizen is thus superceded by the division between naked life (ultimate and opaque bearer of sovereignty) and the multifarious forms of life abstractly recodified as social-juridical identities (the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman) that all rest on naked life.

The state of exception is the reduction of humanity to the homo sacer, the life that can be killed but not sacrificed. The person stripped of citizenship, held at undisclosed locations, possibly subject to torture, unable to make any claim whatever to human rights (in as much as those rights are predicated on the power of a nation-state to recognize them) can be killed or disappeared but nothing more. This "recognition" of human rights, the power of the State to see in us a humanity deserving of such rights, is failing under a system where proof of our guilt has become always already visible. Identity papers are no longer visible evidence of rights inasmuch as a piece of clothing, a gesture, an utterance is enough to supercede our citizenship and banish us to naked life.


Even as our guilt is becoming ever-more-glaringly visible, the violence of the State is disappearing. Not that it ceases to function: the bombings, the relocations, the interrogations continue; they may even be expanding. Rather, they are becoming invisible.

What awaits us is something much more uncanny [than the September 11th attack]: the spectre of an 'immaterial' war where the attack is invisible — viruses, poisons which can be anywhere and nowhere. On the level of visible material reality, nothing happens, no big explosions; yet the known universe starts to collapse, life disintegrates.
— Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Verso, 2002

As Zizek continues in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, the greatest task for the new warfare will be to "identify the enemy and his weapons." These weapons are hidden, yet omnipresent: in hotel rooms, car trunks, computer hard drives, shoes, the mail. We are all potential victims and perpetrators in a game where nothing is as it seems.

Hence the rush to displays of patriotism, flags and "Liberate Iraq" signs. Preemptive defense of loyalty, we may call it. We hear again the cries of "we have nothing to hide," as the State Intelligence apparatus demands wiretaps, library records, receipts of charitable donations. The unwillingness to make visible all evidence is irreparable proof of guilt.

Iraqi stampThis is the lesson that we should be learning from the Administration's denouncements of Saddam Hussein: the lack of spectacular innocence is read as the demonic stigma of abjection. Iraq's repeated statements that they cannot produce weapons of mass destruction that they don't have cease to mean anything once we recognize that the administration doesn't require proof of anything anymore; a certain look is enough.


The question of resistance is a peculiar one now, even as it immanently affects our survival. What means of resistance are available to a citizenry whose claim to "citizenship" may be annulled at any moment? Zizek explains that "The excluded are not only terrorists, but those who are on the receiving end of the humanitarian help (Rwandans, Bosnians, Afghanis . . .): today's homo sacer is the privileged object of humanitarian biopolitics: the one who is deprived of his or her full humanity being taken care of in a patronizing way."

Humanitarian help is itself beset by problems of the visible. On the one hand, the costs of war are the justification for cutting aid to the most vulnerable in the United States and abroad, leaving them openly hungry, lost and — at times — secured in encampments. On the other, it has become possible to define any military action precisely as "humanitarian," especially when we can watch the bombing on television without the spectacle of death even flickering on our screens. In a curious move, bombing Iraq is coded as a greater humanitarian good than feeding or educating people.

We should pause a moment when "humanitarian" begins to signify in such a way. The very question of "humanity," when life is everywhere revealed to be naked life and not form-of-life (in Agamben's terms) seems suspect. The naked life, as Agamben tells us in The Coming Community, is related to the greek zoe, while the form-of-life is related to bio. Politics is the proper manner-of-being for bio, but the enactment of State power on bodies is the realm of zoe. If zoe is that which "expresse[s] the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, humans, or gods)," then what does it mean to even speak of the "human" in this context?

For a long time, the condition of being human has been within the purview of the nation-state. Even while lip service has been paid to being "human" above being American, Greek, Muslim, Lutheran, Gay, Conservative, etc., all of the "inalienable" rights of man were possible only where the condition of being this or that nationality preceded one's entrance into protection as human. Identity becomes, and especially national identity, the only possible means of claiming human being.

What is required of us then is a thinking of what it means to inhabit human being without identity, or in Agamben's terms, as whatever being.

Whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, is the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and, sooner or later, the tanks will appear. (Means Without End)

The whatever, which is neither generic nor specific, neither universal nor particular, is for Agamben the "loveable." What Agamben recognizes in Tiananmen as the insistence of the whatever in the face of State violence, we may recognize in the New York peace protest in February of 2003.

David Roediger, in a recent talk, suggested that something happened at this protest in New York that was qualitatively different from what he'd seen at other protests. The marchers all carried hand-made signs proclaiming this or that reason for opposition to the Administration's "preemptive strikes." The un-organized presence, the common presence with no common denominator, was thus asserted. It was met with police violence and tear gas.

Where does this resistance spring from? At least in part, we can propose: love.

And the New Yorkers themselves? For months after September 11 2001, it was possible to smell in downtown Manhattan up to 20th Street the scent of the burning WTC towers — people became attached to this smell, it started to function as what Lacan called the 'sinthome' of New York, a conditioned cipher of the subject's libidinal attachment to the city, so that when it disappears it will be missed. It is such details that bear witness to a true love of the city.
— Slavoj Zizek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Agamben links the idea of love to the idea of a "whatever singularity." We do not, he notes, love a person for being this or that identity. We love them such as they are. The question for us at this moment, then, is can we, perhaps as did New York City, forge a visibility of love/a loveable visibility? A being visible without immediate disclosure of identity, a "whatever visibility?" Can we imagine and construct a world-wide community, or even smaller communities wherever we find ourselves, where we come together and affirm our togetherness such as we are? This may be our only hope.

Nathan Snaza is a graduate student in Curriculum and Instruction at University of Minnesota -Minneapolis. His current research projects include studies of white masculine identity and how "human" is constructed in relation to its Others.

Copyright © 2003 by Nathan Snaza. All rights reserved.