- Affect, Ethics, and the Imaginative Geographies of Permanent WarAn Interview with Derek Gregory
As Foucault famously laments in The History of Sexuality, in "political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king."1 For Foucault, the figure of the sovereign, whose power is exercised as an exceptional prohibition of freedom, continues to organize the ways we attempt to intervene in the field of political power. As long as we continue to read power solely in terms of the juridical theory of sovereignty, Foucault argues, we will be unable to confront the mechanisms of exclusion and regulation that persist in the guise of formal equality and liberal humanism. But if we are to move our analyses beyond this theory that legitimates the institutions of political modernity, how then are we to conceptualize politics? Foucault suggests that the first task would be to invert Clausewitz's famous aphorism, "War is a continuation of politics by other means."2 That is, what it would mean to think of politics as permanent war?
Of course, as Foucault readily admitted, he was far from the first thinker to pose the question of the utility of conceiving of history as constituted by the permanent roar of battles, or whether the language and tactics of war would be more effective in waging political struggle than simply pursuing legislative and normatively "political" institutional channels. However, what Foucault's suggestions bring to light is precisely the idea that rhetoric itself has long been viewed as a weapon in the battle. "Permanent war" in this way functions both as a historical discourse whose instrumental uses must be interrogated, as well as a present reality that gives us a way of analyzing, and intervening in, the political present. Or, as Foucault writes, historical knowledge "becomes an element of the struggle; it is both a description of struggles and a weapon in the struggle. History gave us the idea that we are at war; and we wage war through history."3
The research collective "Public Rhetorics and Permanent War"(PRPW) initially grew out of a series of conversations between graduate students at the University of Washington over this problematic that Foucault and many others have elaborated, conversations that tended to shuttle between the language of the academy and our own vernaculars.4 Versed in the traditions of Black British Cultural Studies, we have attempted to think about how popular cultural formations could serve as impetus for political activism, sites of commodification, and new methods of racialization that both disrupt and consolidate the social hierarchies of our present—a moment diagnosed across the political spectrum as one constituted by permanent war. Our imaginative geography for these processes of cultural intervention has been shaped by the long tradition of efforts to forge effective political formations in times of global crisis, efforts with transnational ambitions that have profoundly shaped the history of the 20th century—including, in particular, the legacies of anti-colonial movements and Black internationalist thought.
Hence the concern of PRPW has been to generate conversations with the work of artists, performers, and activists whose audiences may not be situated within the confines of the university. If we are conventionally taught to view activists, artists, and scholars as figures doing socially critical work from within distinct spaces, we have attempted to stage the possibilities for articulation across these spaces. That is, we ask how different forms of cultural practice can be linked together through the proliferation of opportunities and rhetorical spaces emergent in late modernity, even with a complex awareness of the rhetorical and disciplinary gaps that normally cordon them off from one another.
To that end, since 2005 PRPW has engaged these questions in a variety of sites and spaces, including graduate and faculty reading groups, undergraduate classes, a campus research cluster, a conference seminar, a number of works in progress by members of the collective, and a lecture series involving scholars, activists, and artists who have in some way been in dialogue with the problematic we had set forth at the start of this process. These have involved poet Suheir Hammad...