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Unleashing the Acheron: Sacrificial Partisanship, Sovereignty, and History

From: Theory & Event
Volume 13, Issue 1, 2010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"The dead ride fast."1

"Weapons are the essence of the fighter," argues Carl Schmitt, paraphrasing Hegel and affirming Hobbes, for whom the most dangerous animal is the man who perceives himself to be in danger.2 Man's weapons are more destructive than the natural weapons of animals, but what creates the real difference is man's capacity to put these weapons into the deadly service of his enmity. Even though modern technological developments transform weapons into means of mass destruction, it is man who uses these weapons against the enemy, Schmitt reminds us, in the intense pursuit of political engagement.3 Man's capacity for violence becomes potentially limitless by the attendant devaluation of one's enemies and the commitment to their complete destruction, moral as well as physical, in the name of universal causes. Warfare is transformed into a zero-sum game of annihilation in which, unless one succeeds in eliminating the "criminal" and "inhuman" other, one is doomed to lose his own humanity and face the threat of elimination himself. At stake, therefore, in the absolutization of enmity and its placement in the service of abstract values with pretensions of universality is one's own devaluation and destruction.

What is the relevance of Schmitt's statement in today's political conjuncture in which not only are weapons the "essence" of fighters, but fighters have become the very essence of weapons? This uncanny dialectical reversal is created by contemporary political practices in which human lives are forged into weapons of struggle.4 Human weapons resort to a variety of methods, including starvation, mutilation, immolation, and explosion, inflicting fatal damage on their bodies (and, often times, on others).5 Fighting as part of different movements, with a variety of military-political objectives and agendas, human weapons resort to a specific kind of violence in which their self-destruction constitutes an inherent part of their political intervention. Through their actions, the demand for the sacrifice of life, conventionally assigned to the purview of the modern nation-state, is forcefully mimicked and turned against the sovereign power of existing states in the name of alternative political futures. Conventional political power seems to falter in the face of those who take the power over life and death into their own hands and do not fear dying sacrificial deaths.6 Each fighter's body, transformed into a self-destroying weapon, becomes a new and sacralized arena in which different demands for sovereignty are fought out.

Who are these human weapons? What is the nature of their political practice and how does this practice relate to the state? What theoretical resources can be brought to bear upon their violent performances in order to develop our understanding of their political implications and repercussions? In this paper, I suggest situating human weapons within the historical-philosophical genealogy of partisanship outlined by Carl Schmitt in the Theory of the Partisan. This genealogy, I contend, unwittingly contains many elements for understanding today's human weapons, regardless of Schmitt's own and, undoubtedly, highly problematic political and normative leanings.

There are several reasons for revisiting Schmitt's Theory of the Partisan. First, this is a rich text that interestingly anticipates and evocatively captures some of the current developments in warfare and the fears precipitated by the proliferation and commercialization of weapons of mass destruction. In response to the political context determined by national liberation and decolonization struggles of the 1960s and the Cold War, Schmitt warns us about the imminence of violent upheavals in a world that has become more integrated and yet more stratified and polarized. Schmitt draws attention to the figure of the "motorized partisan," a figure that powerfully foreshadows the threat of widespread and diffused possibilities of destruction and their potential dissemination into the hands of aggressive non-state agents. Secondly, Schmitt aptly embeds the "new warfare" within changes occurring on a global scale. By drawing attention to fluctuations in the economy, international constellations of power, and technological and scientific innovations, he underscores the structural transformations that provide fertile ground for the emergence of new forms of warfare.7 Thirdly, and related to these structural changes, Schmitt also conveys a sense of the more immediate...

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