- Introduction: Safe
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Theorizing . . . Un/Safe?
Bubble wrap, helmets, knee pads, protective goggles, liquid hand sanitizer, Lysol disinfectants, vaccines, multivitamins, mammograms, colonoscopies, Ziploc baggies, antislip shoe appliqués, antibiotics, anti-anxiety drugs, antibullying laws, antigravity machines, antihazing hotlines, antifeminism, anti-intellectualism . . . antibankruptcy/antifraud/antitheft/body-party/car/credit/dental/divorce/earthquake/fire/flood/funeral/grade/jewelery/health/home/industrial injury/laptop/legal malpractice/life/medical/medical malpractice/pregnancy/private mortgage/renters’/travel/(drive-through) zoo insurance, sunscreen, car seats, seatbelts, airbags, pensions, life vests, condoms, safe sex, organic food, safe drinking water, safe streets, watch groups, neighborhood patrols, police, prisons, preemptive strikes, the Patriot Act, Securing America’s Future Energy, Stop Abuse For Everyone, Stuffed Animals For Emergencies, Stroke Awareness For Everyone Inc., MIT Student Association for Freedom of Expression, i-SAFE Inc. (Internet Safety Education) . . . Our lives are filled with devices, organizations, institutions, agreements, and other, seemingly countless attempts to keep our minds and bodies, loved ones, as well as detachable belongings “S.A.F.E.” These practices and gestures appease our fears, but what does it mean to be or to feel safe? Is “safe” about security, stability, or stasis? Is “safe” a position or the negation of threat, risk, and danger?
We can never be absolutely safe, however, so why does safety endure as an ideal? For some, safety is a condition of living, as in “better safe than sorry.” For others, “safe” signals the negation of life itself, as in the Nietzschean revision of the Socratic ideal of examined life, “An unexplored life [End Page 15] is not worth living.” What is life of and beyond safety? The multivalent questions of and nervous energies sparked by un/safe are the focus of this issue. Unlike other topics WSQ has tackled in the past—motherhood, citizenship, and market, to mention just the last few issues—there is no literature as such that explicitly theorizes safe outside the administrative, as mal/coordinated responses to actual or potential accidents in time. We may debate means or causes, but being safe and secure seems a still-unquestioned good. Consciously or not, we calculate threats and thrills before leaving the safety of our comfort zones. And such abandonment—risk, daring, transgression—is usually only temporary and often rationalized in the name of some greater or anticipated good, which means it is always already circumscribed and reflexively prescribed by the enduring ambition to be safe.
We tend, it seems, to prefer to play it safe. In our desperation to achieve safety, we devote attention to how such a condition might be achieved through policy design, often neglecting to reflect more deeply on the complex intersection of safe affectivity, ideality, and agency, its very political ontology, let alone its everyday consequences that are both banal and radical, real in the Arendtian sense of the political.
Safety is where the (bio)politics and ethics of intersubjectivity intercut and complicate each other’s conceptual boundaries, including the line between life and death. What sort of politics does the imperative to be safe entail? Can we think, perhaps in a Foucauldian vein, of a collective existence beyond the Hobbesian preoccupation with corporeal safety or the Lockean obsession with protecting private property? In the effort to render all spaces and places safe, we opt, however hesitantly and reluctantly, for security measures that entail locking up those deemed unsafe—criminals, terrorists, raced and ethnicized populations—or locking ourselves in for the sake of home and homeland security. Can we feel safe without restricting ourselves to a prophylactic existence? Should we care about the safety of those restrained in prisons and asylums in the name of “our” safety? What sort of ethics does safe as an ideal enable or reinforce? Is safe preventative (avoiding victimization) or recuperative (getting over it)? We might wish to ask, again with Foucault, what kind of society or nation is to be defended?
If we view safe as an ethical, social, and political value comparable to care, fairness, or justice, or a right, as in “a woman’s right to be safe in her own home,” we can...