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Trauma as exception, exceptional trauma

In Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception, the Italian philosopher defines his object of analysis as “a permanent state of emergency” (2005, 2). For the author, the state of emergency signifies a failure of the state to guarantee security, as well as the dramatic re-organization of political life following a crisis. Noted for their “close relationship to civil war, insurrection, and resistance,” national emergencies reveal the weaknesses of the modern nation-state to protect itself or its citizens against threats, and its subsequent need for resecuritization in the wake of crises. Emergency induced measures, for example, are presented to the populace as necessary provisos, central to protect and preserve the common good, in moments of political uncertainty. Constitutional protections are not only suspended in times of crisis, but they are also sacrificed for the ‘greater good’ of resecuring the nation-state, its governing body, and executive authority from further threat (Agamben 2005, 2). As national security and territorial sovereignty are privileged above all other safety concerns, the state suspends constitutionality in favor of martial law, and a state of siege replaces democratic law and order (Agamben 2005). A condition of governmentality whereby emergency rule replaces constitutional governance, it is the “state of exception” itself that constitutes the real political crisis—not the preexisting event said to invoke it (Agamben 2005). As Agamben elaborates,

The state of exception is thus not the chaos that precedes order but rather the situation that results from its suspension.... chaos must first be included in the juridical order through the creation of a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, chaos and the normal situation. (Agamben 1998, 18-19)

Here, the state subsumes the initial political crisis into its judicial system through its own declaration of emergency, whereby emergency itself eventually becomes rule. As governed populations are thus made to accept constitutional limitations under emergency conditions—suspension of civil liberties or warrantless searches—the initial crisis usurps representational democracy by establishing itself as a “new normal.” The state’s efforts to deter additional chaos are actually what allows for the exceptional to become the acceptable. Sovereign power thus reestablishes itself in the aftermath of crisis, but at the expense of democracy itself.

Radical reorganizations of the social contract between the state and its citizens are, in times of crisis, the consequence of positioning that crisis as “exceptional”—or trauma-inducing for citizens and states alike. For the state, trauma represents a direct wound on the national body and a failure to circumvent it. Citizens, meanwhile, must come to terms with a loss of safety and a newfound sense of vulnerability that accompanies it. It is certainly no coincidence that Agamben’s analyses of states of exception are concerned with what are perhaps the two most salient trauma economies under postmodernity: the Jewish Holocaust (Agamben 1998, 1999) and the events of the September 11th terrorist attacks (Agamben 2005).

In Homo Sacer (1998), Agamben locates a modern-day state of exception within the economic crisis of the 1929 global financial crash. Conceived in the momentary suspension of democratic law and order following the demise of the German Weimar Republic, exception is achieved with the civil acceptance of Nazi rule. The suspension of representational governance by the Nazi regime importantly resulted in liminal categories of political life under the now fractured Westphalian social contract, producing what Agamben refers to as homo sacer, or “life unworthy of being lived” (Agamben 1998, 138)? Homo sacer is a human life pushed outside of Westphalian citizenship until it is legally abandoned by the state on a permanent basis (Agamben 1998, 138). Locating bare life in the embodiments of those ruthlessly detained, tortured, and murdered by the Nazis, homo sacer reveals the centrality of law and legalities in the production and maintenance of states of emergency and their relational constructions of lives—and spaces— beyond law’s reach.

Under Nazi rule, the suspension of Germanic law was achieved through declarations of emergency decree. Here, legal declarations of emergency precede the actual political emergencies that enabled the fascist state to relegate Jewish citizens to “bare life”, or life outside of the rule of law (Agamben 1998). Pushed beyond state conceptions of citizenship, Jewish civilians were stripped of their legal protections and forcibly relocated by the Nazi regime to “pure space[s] of [legal] exception” (Agamben 1998, 134). These resulting concentration camps were spaces beyond constitutionally conferred rights; lawless zones where Jewish lives were no longer subjects of the state. No longer a citizen deserving of state protection—indeed, no longer deserving of the state—homo sacer is stateless, a muselmann, the walking dead: “a life that may be killed but not sacrificed. His killing therefore constitutes ... neither capital punishment nor a sacrifice, but simply the actualization of a mere ‘capacity to be killed’” (Agamben 1998, 114). Through such logics, crimes committed in the camps are not crimes at all as the lives murderously taken in these spaces were no longer politically human. The death camps

9/11 memory and the “trauma economy" 125 thus solidified “zone[s] of indistinction” between bios and =oe—spaces oversaturated with the political machinery of the state and its monopoly over political life, and yet are completely devoid of state protection wherever it called for its violent removal (Agamben 1998,36-39). These were exceptional spaces planned and executed for exceptional times, whereby emergency rule became a permanent fixture of modernity.

The German state of exception incorporated trauma’s representational crisis within its system of Westphalian governance. In the post-9/11 context, indefinite detention similarly denotes the inclusion of the traumatic wound—the state of emergency—into the state’s monopoly on security, order, and control. The creation of spaces beyond the jurisdiction of representational democracy, for instance, equally compels—and is compelled by—the relational bodies that occupy these lawless spaces. When a state of exception was established in the United States in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, for example, places like “black site” prisons, and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, were fortified to uphold the post-crisis judicial order—the exception—in constitutional and international law alike. Such post-9/11 reincarnations of bare life can be found in the “unlawful enemy combatant” or would-be terrorist supporter/suspect (also see Butler 2004, 50-100; and Agamben 2005). The (extra-)legal spaces of exception operationalized by military prisons and court systems (as well as the US Patriot Act and National Defense Authorization Act), construct theses bare lives as beyond both domestic and international jurisprudence. Beyond the reaches of civil and human rights law, bare life is indefinitely suspended from the political community of man.4 These permanent spatial fixtures of the post-9/11 social order thus reveal a political threshold within representational governance as it passes from so-called “normal times” into trauma-time—or an enduring state of exception.

As the state incorporates trauma into its Westphalian relationship with its citizenry, it moves steadily from Wopolitics to thanatopolitics, whose separating line Agamben defines as “the point at which the decision on life becomes a decision on death” (Agamben 1998, 122; also see Butler 2004, 52-56). Diverging from Foucauldian theorizations of biopower that extend state power to life-generating events, such as birth, marriage, family-planning, and social reproduction, Agamben’s thanatopolitics realigns biopower with the sovereign and its authority to withhold death or suspend life during states of exception. For Foucault (1978), biopower occurs at the intimate intersection of birth and citizenship—the place and time where bare life is transformed into political life through its inclusion in the political community. In thanatopolitics, the opposite is true: biopolitical life is no longer arbitrated by the inception of citizenship alone but at the bio-legal precipice whereby life is excluded from it (Agamben 1998). Such pre-post-Westphalian future-pasts are imaginable in the dystopian places and times where torture is not torture, murder is not murder, and, indeed, lives are not lives. Neither legally constituted nor recognizable as human, Agamben’s conception of thanatopolitics is less concerned with the sovereign right to let live or let die. Rather, he is motivated by the vanishing point between the political and the apolitical, the point where the state attributes value to a life—or death—or withholds this attribution.

1 next explore this uneven politicization of life and death in the context of the post-9/11 trauma economy. Engaging the work of cultural producer Pritika Chowdhry and her installation Ungrievable Lives 9HH2011 (Figures 4.14.3), this section theorizes the thanatopolitics of cultural suffering as bare life, “life unworthy of living,” passes into bare death, or death wm-worthy of remembrance. Here, disaster capitalism works in tandem with the post-9/11 trauma economy to reinforce gendered hierarchies of cultural suffering: state vs. citizen, non-Muslim vs. Muslim, First-World vs. Third-World. The political omission of these relational lives from the post-9/11 trauma economy enables the outright dismissal of subjugated histories of cultural suffering. It also allows for the unequal valuation of whose tragic deaths matter in the new political economy of war and terrorism.

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