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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.1 (2004) 211-226

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"I Can't See"

Sovereignty, Oblique Vision, and the Outlaw in Hawks's Scarface

Central Connecticut State University

To call our sight Vision
Implies that, to us,
All objects are subjects.
—W. H. Auden, "I Am Not a Camera"

Carl Schmitt's famous formulation,"sovereign is he who declares the [state of] exception," accompanies Schmitt's view that sovereignty is not only the law-making force, but also the authority that defines the law and the extent of the law (Schmitt 1998, 5). For Schmitt, sovereignty determines the situations in which the law is inapplicable, or to be held in abeyance. Schmitt's term for these situations—such as possible circumstances in a revolution or coup d'état, or in the dismissal of an elected government—is "the state of exception." Thus, sovereign power exceeds the law, being both juridical and extrajuridical, working inside and outside the law. If sovereignty is a declaration of power over a state of exception, how can counterstatements to this claim be figured? Can we express exceptions to the state of exception [End Page 211] visually? That is to say: how can images subvert, and expose the paradox in, the violence produced by a declaration of the state of exception and the state's suspension of "normal" politico-juridical procedure? What are the stakes of producing such subversive images? How does visibility change these stakes? In Howard Hawks's film, Scarface (1932), such questions are given elaborate and problematic visual expression through the figure of Tony "Scarface" Camonte, a Chicago gangster in the early 1930 s. Camonte (played by Paul Muni) is a figure who bears close identification with the wargus ("wolf," "werewolf," the bandit, or outlaw) that Giorgio Agamben and Rodolphe Jhering, among others, identify in German and Scandinavian antiquity (Agamben 1998, 104). I will try to apply Agamben's discussion of the wargus in Homo Sacer to Scarface, while reading the film's figuration of the violence enacted by the outlaw.

The Bandit and the Ban

Agamben notes that "ancient Germanic law was founded on the concept of peace (Fried) and the corresponding exclusion from the community of the wrongdoer, who therefore became friedlos, without peace, and whom anyone was permitted to kill without committing homicide" (104). Agamben goes on to quote a medieval ban that proclaims, "Whoever is banned from his city on pain of death must be considered as dead" (105). Thebandit is, thus, friedlos, a fugitive who has a liminal status, which is underscored by Germanic and Anglo-Saxon sources that define him as "a wolf-man (wargus, werwolf, the Latin garulphus, from which the French loup garou, 'werewolf' is derived . . .) " (105). Agamben also points out that "the laws of Edward the Confessor (1030 -35) define the bandit as a wulfesheud (a wolf's head) and assimilate him to the werewolf" (105). This hybrid creature "is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city" (105). This condition of banishment, forced upon him by the ius exilii ("the law of exile"), makes the life of the bandit "a threshold of indistinction and of passage between animal and man[,] exclusion and inclusion: the life of the bandit is the life of the loup garou, the werewolf, who is . . . neither man nor beast, and who dwells paradoxically within both while belonging to neither" (110, [End Page 212] 105). Enlarging the scope of this discussion, Agamben argues (and I apologize for the lengthy quotation):

Only in this light does the Hobbesian mythologeme of the state of nature acquire its true sense. We have seen that the state of nature is not a real epoch chronologically prior to the foundation of the City but a principle internal to the City, which appears at the moment the City is considered tanquam dissoluta, "as if it were dissolved" (in this sense, therefore, the state of nature is something like a state of exception). Accordingly, when Hobbes founds sovereignty...


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