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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 303-331

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Did You Pack Your Bags Yourself?
Governmentality after 9/11

Diane Rubenstein
Cornell University

Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society By Mitchell Dean, London: Sage Publications, 1999
Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought By Nikolas Rose, London: Cambridge University Press, 1999
In the expression "Islamic government," why cast suspicion immediately on the adjective "Islamic"? The word "government" by itself is enough to waken one's vigilance. No adjective—democratic, socialist, liberal, popular—frees a government from its obligations.
—Michel Foucault, "Open letter to Mehdi Bazargan"
Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.
—Michel Foucault, Preface to Anti-Oedipus

IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING SEPTEMBER 11, ARAB AMERICAN COMEDIANS found themselves in a more fraught enunciative position than less-targeted [End Page 303] populations of Bush and Ashcroft's America. The modalities of social identity (ethnicity, gender, occupation) previously available to express solidarity, dissent, or grief seemed incommensurate to the unruly materials of biopolitical life. Faced with the unappealing alternatives of resigned silence or contestatory refusal to play stereotypic terrorists in Hollywood action films, Ahmed Ahmed revised his comedy routine. The available airport regulations provided sufficient basis for a monologue intent on addressing racial profiling, ambient post-9/11 anxieties provoked by ethnic others, and the hysterical will to administrative regulation. Ahmed recounts a recent attempt to board an airplane. When asked "Did you pack your bags yourself?" he answers in the affirmative and is immediately carried off by police authorities. I like to think that Foucault would have laughed at this joke and cleverly marked his laughter, as he had in so many other instances dear to his readers. 1 Indeed, I imagine how Foucault would have used this joke to punctuate the pertinence of the airport scenario as an exemplary instance of contemporary "paralegal bio-politics in which administrative measures gradually replace the rule of law" and as a "state of emergency" prevailing over everyday American life during an unending war on terror (Zizek 2002a). 2 Although Foucault's writings on governmentality ostensibly address liberal rationalities of rule (which are extended by Rose and Dean to consider neoliberalism and neoliberalist hegemony), I will focus my review of these books on their contribution to the history of our post-9/11 present.

I have begun this essay by recounting a joke to highlight the political stakes of Bush's biopolitical regime, which, as I have argued elsewhere, is a tutelary form of power intent upon the production of signifier(s) for life. 3 Foucault's essay "Governmentality" (part of the 1978-79 lectures at the Collège de France) was written in a political moment in some ways reminiscent of our own: in response to the political victories of Helmut Schmidt and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (as avatars of economic neoliberalism) after the oil price inflations of 1975 and 1976. Both leaders attempted to provide new rationalities of rule that would take account of economic potentialities and vulnerabilities, and then convey this rationality by any pedagogic means necessary. Foucault's anxieties about proleptic forms of fascism that could activate the fascist in us are forcefully stated in the manifesto-like introduction [End Page 304] to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus. Foucault alerts the reader to the "games and snares scattered throughout the book," which disarm and neutralize the power effects of Deleuze and Guattari's theoretical machine. What is so devastatingly effective is that their snares are not the "familiar traps of rhetoric" that "sway the reader without his being aware of the manipulation and ultimately win him over against his will. The traps of Anti-Oedipus are those of humor" (Foucault 1997, 109). Foucault reminds us that comedians like Ahmed, or Deleuze and Guattari, are deadly serious, relentless in pursuit of all fascisms: from "enormous ones that surround and crush us to the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives" (110). Against the threat...