Monday, June 29, 2009

Thursday April 23-- Tapping Philosophy: Biopolitics

Hi Tapping,
Thanks for everyone last week who came out for time. Sorry for the late email this week. Charles and Brendan are responsible for this week's topic, which is below. We'll be meeting at 7:30 in Connelly for Rides, and 8:00 at Yeats. I hope to see you all there!

Best,
Frank


- Hide quoted text -

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Charles P Myers
Date: Tue, Apr 21, 2009 at 5:55 PM
Subject: Tapping This Week
To: Francis Prior


Frank,

Bach and I were talking and this relatively short essay by Giorgio Agamben looks like it could provide a fair amount of discussion fodder.

-Charles

GERMAN LAW JOURNAL Vol. 05 No. 02
Bodies Without Words: Against the Biopolitical Tatoo
By Giorgio Agamben*

I have read in the newspapers that foreign citizens, when travelling to the United
States on a Visa, will undergo a data registration and have their fingerprints taken.
Not willing to submit myself to this treatment, I decided therefore to cancel my
guest lectures at New York University for March 2004. At this time, I would like to
provide reasons for my decision – a decision that I find necessary and unavoidable
in spite of my sympathies for American students and professors with whom I have
for many years felt connected both in friendship and professional life. This is a
decision that I would hope to be adopted also by other European Intellectuals and
Teachers.

In fact, we are not concerned here solely with the sensitivity of an individual in the
face of a procedure that for many years was imposed upon those who found
themselves under suspicion for an alleged crime or who were suffering political
persecution. If it were only that, one could even imagine facing these degrading
conditions, if only out of solidarity with those that find themselves otherwise
subjected to them. But, the problem before us goes far beyond individual
sensitivity. This problem concerns nothing less than the normal, legal-political
(better: biopolitical) status of citizens in the so-called democratic states in which we
live.

For many years now, at first only occasionally and barely perceptibly, then
increasingly more openly and persistently, there has been an attempt to accustom
citizens to supposedly normal and humane procedures and practices that had
always been considered to be exceptional and inhumane. Today’s electronically
enhanced possibilities of the state to exercise control over its citizens through credit
cards or cellular phones were unimaginable in the past. But there is one threshold
in the control and manipulation of bodies, the transgression of which would signify
a new global political condition. It would equal a next step towards what Foucault
has referred to as the progressive animalization of man through extremely refined
techniques. The electronic registration of finger prints, the subcutaneous tatoo and
other such practices must be located on that threshold.

We ought not to be confused by the security reasons that are being put forward as
their justification. Experience has taught us that practices, at first only applied to
foreigners, were gradually applied to everyone. The question we are concerned
with concerns this new “normal” biopolitical relationship between the citizen and
the state. What we are witnessing is no longer the free and active participation on
the political level, but the appropriation and registration of the most private and
unsheltered element, that is the biological life of bodies. Media installations
controlling and manipulating public speech equal those technological instruments
that identify and appropriate bare life.

In between these two extremes – a word without body and a body without word –
the room that was referred to as politics is increasingly becoming scarce and
narrow. Paradoxically, the citizen is thus rendered a suspect all along, a suspect
against which all those techniques and installations need to be mounted that had
orginally been conceived of only for the most dangerous individuals. Per
definitionem, mankind has been declared the most dangerous of all classes.
A few years ago, I wrote that the city had ceased to be the founding political image
of the West and that it had been replaced by the concentration camp – not Athens,
but Auschwitz. Certainly, this was a philosphical, not a historical thesis. We are not
concerned with the amalgam of phenomena that need to be kept separate. Yet, I
want to call to memory that the practice of tatooing the inmates in Auschwitz was
possibly regarded as a “normal” and economical form of regulating the
incorporation of the deported ones into the camp. The biopolitical tatoo imposed
upon us today when we want to travel into the United States is the baton of what
we might accept tomorrow as the normal way of registering into the mechanism
and the transmission of the state if we want to be identified as good citizens.

Frank,

How about this:

In the attached essay by Giorgio Agamben, Agamben observes that, "the citizen is thus rendered a suspect all along, a suspect against which all those techniques and installations need to be mounted that had orginally been conceived of only for the most dangerous individuals." Certainly, following the terrorist attacks, this has been the case. But is it a justifiable course of action? Is the state, in treating citizens as suspects only revealing its own impotence when it comes to defending them? Without the ability to guarantee the safety of those under it, can the modern state retain its legitimacy; and, if so, how?

16 comments:

Francis Prior said...

I'm just gonna give a quick opinion that you might want to add to your discussion.

I don't see anything wrong with taking people's fingerprint any more than with taking people's names and social security numbers. I think it's a good idea to keep track of who comes into the country, for security reasons. It's just another form of identification, and actually a more foolproof form than the others. Theoretically, nobody's gonna use this information unless they have a good reason to. I don't see how it's any more dangerous than other forms of identification. It's not like they're installing a tracking device on people or anything. That would be a bad idea. But these are just fingerprints.

-Charles

Francis Prior said...

Charles,

A fair point, but is not the larger problem that the individual is treated as a suspect prior to any evidence of any wrongdoing? In societies founded upon the rule of law, the argument (from Montesquieu) is that the state "ought to treat individuals as better than they are" (I forget the citation from Montesquieu but it is somewhere in section 1) when it comes to matters of criminality ie, the citizens must be presumed innocent rather than as guilty. Yet can anyone reasonably assert that taking measures created for criminals and applying them to ordinary citizens is treating those citizens as better than they are? Or, put another way, would this logic of finger printing also apply to wiretapping without a warrant or the strip-searching of children in schools on the ungrounded assertion that they may have Ibuprofen on them (this is a case before the Supreme Court at the moment)? Could it even be considered differentiable? What is the role of the citizen when treated as a suspect other than as a potential prisoner?

This is the point of the initial questions. I hope this clears things up.

-Charles

Francis Prior said...

Hi All,

I won't be making it, as I have a thing for Kennedys.

I think the point is not the practical application of practices normally reserved for prisoners being applied to all of society, but the application of such practices normally reserved for war-time being permanently put in place. We are concerned that when you have an unending war, you are in a permanent state of emergency. It is worth wondering, Charles, if the line isn't drawn here, then what is too far?

Have fun,
Mark

Francis Prior said...

Charles,

I see what you're saying, but I think it depends on how much it violates the individual's privacy. Obviously strip searching is a violation of privacy and should only be done if absolutely necessary, and wiretapping likewise. I don't see anything private about fingerprints though anymore than any other recognizable aspect of a person's appearance. I wouldn't care if the government had a record of my fingerprints. They have my social security number already. I don't think it's a matter of being treated as a potential prisoner as much as it's a matter of "better safe than sorry".

-Other Charles

Francis Prior said...

Mark,
I wouldn't want to overdiscuss the topic so that it's over before the actual meeting, but just responding to what you said... I personally am not worried about the line being drawn, because I think that if the line gets crossed people will realize it and won't stand for it, and the line will then be uncrossed.

-Charles

Francis Prior said...

Mark and Charles,

That was the argument used by the fans of the Bill of Rights. The argument was such that individuals would not stand for their rights being trampled upon, and would stand against it. This was, in fact, the argument concerning the amendments reserving all rights not specifically dealt with to the individuals. Not to foreshadow my arguments tonight, but I am not thoroughly convinced by the argument. Take, for instance, the not so gradual accumulation of power in the Executive Branch of government.

-Charles

"μεγά βιβλίον μεγά κακόν" -- Callimachus

Francis Prior said...

Hey Charles, Charles, et al.

I was going to respond, but then I saw that Charles did, and I just wanted to bring up the part of the essay that I thought addressed the concerns that you two have raised, and I will just say a little.

"We ought not to be confused by the security reasons that are being put forward as
their justification. Experience has taught us that practices, at first only applied to
foreigners, were gradually applied to everyone. The question we are concerned
with concerns this new “normal” biopolitical relationship between the citizen and
the state. What we are witnessing is no longer the free and active participation on
the political level, but the appropriation and registration of the most private and
unsheltered element, that is the biological life of bodies. Media installations
controlling and manipulating public speech equal those technological instruments
that identify and appropriate bare life."

It seems to me there are a couple parts of Agamben's argument. One is the more general argument that Charles M is making, where a citizen is treated as a suspect prior to wrong doing. Agamben alludes to this with talk of cell phones and credit cards, and certainly the outgrowths of the Patriot Act that Charles is mentioning also qualify for this first argument. There is another part of Agamben's argument that is more radical to me, and that is the idea of biopoltics. Agamben even goes so far as to say that we are treating men like animals, when demand fingerprints, which is an explicit reference to Foucault. For Focault at least, institutions collect knowledge which is used to represent individuals as part of that institution, usually based on scientific or political authority. In other words, you are a citizen because of a body of knowledge that exists with relation to you within an institutional framework allows you to be accessed and codified as such. Part of Agamben's argument in this essay seems to center around the capacity for natural criteria to be used as part of socio-political criteria, in the case of identification. In some senses it seems to me at least that for Agamben this is a NEW dangerous manifestation of an OLD problem.

I see there have been responses to this email in the time that I have been writing mine, and much of what Charles Z says confirms my suspicions, in that the difference of category of finger print, cell phone or credit card, is not that big of a deal, and that the more radical aspect of this essay is somewhat overdramatized. In this case, I agree, that it's not a new category.

However, it doesn't mean that the category of state control and invasion of privacy is just as much of a problem in the case of fingerprints as it is in cell phones or credit cards, and I agree with Mark and Charles in the sense that this is an area ripe for discussion.

Nevertheless, I have to disagree with the last point you (Charles Z) made about the line being crossed. It seems relatively clear to me that lines have been crossed and will continue to be crossed by various democratic regimes and that people will not do that much about it.

Francis Prior said...

Frank,

Something to chew on in response to the last line of Frank's email.

"Democracies and Aristocracies are not free states by their nature" (Spirit of the Laws, XI-4).

Francis Prior said...

I can think of examples of where people do and do not stand up against lines being crossed. The accumulation of power in the executive branch (and for that matter the accumulation of power in two bipoloar political regimes, and the accumulation of power in lobbying groups), people have not stood up enough to uncross those lines. In the case of the Patriot Act, it was pretty much all over the place that nobody was happy about it, so for that example people did stand against it. Then again, people do often complain about lobbying groups and political bipolarism, which probably had a large influence on the most recent presidential election. If that actually makes a difference has yet to be seen though. I guess you all can work out how this line-crossing phenomenon works over beer and fried calamari tonight.

-Charles Z.

Francis Prior said...

Charles,

People stood up. No one else cared. And, as Zizek once observed "everybody in power loves a moralistic protest that does nothing" (Democracy Now, May 12 2008). What he means, of course, is what have these protests accomplished. The regime is still in place and it is still considered legitimate. As long as it retains its legitimacy, which it will, these moralistic protests about what some consider abstract privileges (which is the way an atomized society considers its rights -- the rights are not our rights but are instead their rights), will accomplish nothing. There are a few solutions which are designed to prevent liberal republicanism from degenerating into despotism, but we'll get into them tonight. Personally, I don't find any particularly appealing.

-Charles

Francis Prior said...

Good point. That's part of why I'm not a big fan of politics. Or economics. But that's how the current system works. Oh well. Have a good discussion tonight.

-Charles Z.

Francis Prior said...

I would just like to add the protesting has accomplished a lot and we wouldn't have many of the rights that were fought for without them. Where do you think the US would be if their was no civil rights movement, womens rights movement, and (now) gay rights movement?

In addition, Charles, you're contradicting yourself by saying that people have not stood up enough to change anything in politics, yet you think things will be different when the line gets crossed regarding taking peoples fingerprints and social security numbers.

"If you don't like the way the world is, you change it. You have an obligation to change it. You just do it one step at a time."
-Marian Wright Edelman

Francis Prior said...

Christina,
I don't know where the US would be if "their" was no civil rights movement. I wasn't contradicting myself, I was pointing out that sometimes it makes a difference and sometimes it doesn't. Also, I said nothing about "when the line gets crossed regarding taking peoples fingerprints and social security numbers", because I don't think that's where the line is.

-Charles Z.

Francis Prior said...

Charles Z., et al.
Um, could we be a little more relaxed here? E.g., not pick on a typo: did you understand what was being written? Yes. You're right, sometimes protest makes a real difference, sometimes not. So, the question is WHY sometimes, sometimes not. I don't have any great answer, but some factors are whether the protest is sustained, the numbers remain (or better, grow), the very tenacity of the protesters, how informed poeple in general really are, and--of course--the media slant.
Just some side thoughts.
Pax,
Michael Prosch

Francis Prior said...

Way to step in Dr. Prosch! Hope you're doing well.

Everyone,

It's been almost a year since I've graduated, and I've never been to a tapping philosophy. However, I've always read the e-mails as a silent by-stander. But not today! I realize my e-mail does not follow the current line of e-thought, but I really felt like commenting on 'Bodies Without Words'.

The biopolitical contract as an accepted norm seems to be the real focus of Agamben's argument here (although some may seem to have taken the particulars of his case out of context). With a world population so large, it is highly probable that a certain percentage of that population will be 'trouble-makers'. Additionally, a large population inherently blurs the individual into a massive sea of faces. How is a government supposed to protect its citizens from the criminals if there is no way to distinguish the criminals? What I'm trying to say is that it seems like tracking individuals in a mechanized way seems like an unavoidable result of logical thinking. (I.E. There are 'trouble-makers' in our country. They are causing problems. How do we find them amongst the masses? Who are they? We need a record of people to know who they are. Let's get their fingerprints at the door. Done.)

It's not a humane thing, I agree. But gone are the days when a new man comes to town and the whole town knows it. It might be suggested that as the human population grows larger, it becomes less humane., and functions as a giant biological body (like a virus or parasite). Either way you look at it, injustice to innocent citizens will be done. Either they will be subject to the vices of criminals, or they will be treated like animals by the government.

I hope this isn't too off-topic, and I do wonder if any of you will present solutions to this presented dilemma tonight.

Sincerely,
Amanda D

Francis Prior said...

Hey Amanda, it's been awhile,

I think you make some good points. The world population is definitely much bigger than it ever was, it's more than 6 times what it was 200 years ago. It's hard to keep track of that many people. The thing you say about the population become like a giant biological body, I've made that point before (maybe you've read the emails), about how as the population grows and technology makes the world more connected, people become more like the cells of an organism. Likewise, cells were originally their own organisms (and still are as microorganisms), but at some point a bunch of them ended up working together to form a higher-level entity. It's like a fractal; the pattern repeats itself on multiple levels. Fractals are all over the place in nature, so why not in the organization of society, which is itself a part of nature?

Why not have a record of who comes into the country? It's an effective control measure. It's only "inhumane" if you start saying things like like "but that's what they do to criminals!". So what, they also get their names and date-of-birth. Is it inhumane to do those things? Fingerprints are just like a form of ID. I have no objection to registering my fingerprints. I don't understand why someone would be uncomfortable about it, unless they're just not thinking logically, or think the government is out to get them, or some other crazy conspiracy theory that makes them feel more important than they actually are out of the 6 billion people in the world.

I think that you're right that it's the unavoidable result of logical thinking... which some people might say with a negative connotation, with some kind of whim about it being too "cold and calculated" or something. But how can you do -anything- important without using logic? Logic is nothing more than weighing the facts and producing the best conclusion from these facts. If you're not using logic, you're not grounded in universally accepted reality (as far as it can be defined), and definitely could be considered acting extremely selfishly, since your feelings and whims are your own and no one else's. Sure there's a time and a place for casting aside logic... just not when you're making important decisions. There's a time an a place to drink beer... not while driving.

Anyway, like you were saying, I agree that there needs to be a balance between protecting citizen from criminals and protecting citizens from protection from criminals. I think that overall, in the big picture, over the long term, it will behave like a negative feedback loop in that when it goes too far to one side, it will go back the other way. Kind of like what just happened with the presidential election where the government had been on the far right for 8 years and reached the tipping point, and now it's decidedly left-leaning.

-Charles Z.