Introduction:The Power of Life’s Excess
Before anything else, this symposium is about saying “yes”1 to those forces, experiences, openings and possibilities in our shared modernity that somehow – in their often unnoticed yet disruptive and abundant existence – manifest, express and embody the power of life’s excess over the sovereign order and the processes of sovereign ordering. We chose not to focus either on resistance or revolution (or anything counter-). What we had in mind was a project of joint, interdisciplinary exploration of that “beyond” to sovereign power that claims and asserts a sovereignty of its own. That is, what may be seen, thought, practiced and experienced as life’s untamable, undisciplinable excess and its powers in uncovering and affirming new horizons, new sites, and new possibilities of a world and a politics to come.
The problem of “life’s excess” as a possible interjection into both disciplinary discourses and actual political practices offered itself as a matter of urgency. What this symposium aims to put forward, however, is not an idea of life already encapsulated in the dense network of the social, nor life as a visible, already articulated force in the existing political. We are intrigued by life as such, by the power of that pure existence and radical is-ness that permeates, challenges, and ultimately escapes the sovereign order. Yet our curiosity feeds on and seeks to contribute to much wider debates that concern the government of the present – in particular the government of life. A number of recent publications already began to interrogate the limits of biological life, posing a series of questions regarding the distinctness of natural life over artificially created life. After discarding claims to the superiority of the former what followed was a return to life’s pure potentiality and its political implications either as material or immaterial presence, or animate or inanimate force. Life was further pushed to the forefront by recent developments in technology, which prompted the re-thinking of the technology–politics nexus and the relationship between politics, life and the body (where the body emerges both as a physical and symbolic form). Through these processes and interrogations life has become an important political, social and legal concept. On the side of technological developments the excess of life challenges the sovereign order for it makes claims of being its own God. The horror of life from a test tube testifies to the emergence of a form of life that is independent of human relations. On the side of politics, the excess of life becomes a profound space of contestation in the face of sovereign violence. Asylum seekers, detainees, terrorists, the new precariat or cyborgs are not only accidental political groupings in our shared modernity but also sites of simultaneous emergence of new forms, practices and orders of being through the life of those whose life counts less.
A renewed focus on the relationship between politics, life and the body, we argue, challenges traditional notions of politics. While they continue to frame life as split along classic distinctions between public and private, and campaign to link it decisively to the experience of being human, technological developments unsettle the distinction as they set out to “(re)politicize” what is deemed to be private or apolitical life. Life thus breaks off the chains and frames of being as a “governable object”: it re-emerges as that simple yet powerful expression of existence that provides the contours of jouissance, the excess, the beyond, the Real, the virtual or the Other of sovereign power. Life as such is therefore not the marker of another time and another place but a manifestation of the here and now; an immanent potentiality within the existing political that is often actualized in the form of a mis-encounter in our everyday political discourses and practices.
A privileged site of our daily mis-encounters with life – as the papers in this symposium demonstrate – is “knowledge” in its various forms and incarnations. Knowledge as episteme, a historical order of visibility and articulation is a thoroughly sovereign domain of action, one that also enables and regulates excesses by imposing limits, marking out appropriate forms of transgression and closing down spaces of potential overflows. Yet this is not all that there is to either knowledge or life. Living knowledge or in Georges Bataille’s terms, non-sovereign knowledge2 is also a form and practice of excess, one that poses a challenge to established regimes of what can be said and what can be seen (both in politics and technology). Knowledge as know-how, eroticism or aesthetic, personal and philosophical practice defies utility and valuation in the sovereign order. As Georges Canguilhem asserts, knowledge as excess “undoes the experience of life, seeking to analyse its failures”, mythologies and abstractions.3 In this singular practice of experimentation, dissolution and being otherwise, non-sovereign knowledge becomes life’s ally as it becomes alive.
Our provocation draws on the possibility of alternative, affirmative articulations of life and knowledge as a challenge to sovereign violence and its orders of language and government, in the hope of an encounter proper. One such encounter already took place at the Critical Legal Conference at Aberystwyth University, 9-11 September, 2011. This symposium is born out of an attempt of a cross-disciplinary dialogue to uncover and explore sites, places, objects, emotions, experiences and practices that do not exist in the eyes of the sovereign, ones that succeed in averting the sovereign order’s disciplinary forces or in fact, take on the role of a (self-) sovereign. We started with observing how sovereignty, politics, law, science or the power/resistance nexus fail to capture life and give it form without also giving it a telos, a destiny, a determination that performs a fundamental reduction. Drawing on different forms of representation, various genres of writing and multiple philosophical angles we set out to explore and imagine what life might do otherwise to what it was taught to do and what it can be when thought outside the existing socio-political categories.
In a spirit of experimentation, creativity and invention this collection of papers propose various projects that reengage the possibility of life’s excess to sovereign power, suggesting and performing strategies that mark the horizons of alternative modes of being and new forms of political action. These interventions map the possibilities of life’s excess onto different sites and in a wide array of genres, ranging from the academic to the more poetic. What nonetheless brings together the voices of McDonald, Strausz, Hirvonen, Wright, Shapiro and Zevnik is a concern with a particular scholarly work that elucidates, uncovers, brings things to light rather than offers interpretations. This scholarly attitude is also crucial not only in identifying the potential sources of alternative, non-sovereign forms of knowledge but to a certain extent, also in producing knowledge, know-how and eroticism that grounds itself in life rather than in the sovereign epistemic order. McDonald’s contribution already introduces one such strategy: he proposes a creative, threefold alignment of law, philosophy and literature that correspond to three different movements in and against sovereignty, which are secession, succession and supercession. He reads these three movements not only against the radical philosophy of Bataille, Callois and Baudrillard but also in allegory with three literary figures of the devil: Satan, Lucifer and Mephostophilis. Ultimately, McDonald writes from the post-sovereign position of Mephostophilis: “with knowledge comes hope, the hope of supercession” and in order to outdo sovereignty, perhaps what we all need to do is become sovereign.4 Strausz picks up the potential of different modes of being in the sovereign order and through a series of personal and Foucault-inspired reflections she takes us to the metaphoric “heart” of discourse, turning it inside-out and refocusing on our academic formation as “knowers” as a form of lived experience. The choice of the first-person narrative is part of the experimentation of finding new vistas to know differently, and through that, to be differently in discourse. Hirvonen’s paper dwells even deeper into the poetic. His paper emerges out of that void, that silent caesura that Libeskind’s buildings, Celan’s verses and Zorn’s music make felt (rather than attempt to re-present). It seizes the affirmative forces of those unspeakable absences, negative spaces and silences that resist systemic violence from their “proper” place beyond the sovereign voice, gaze and power. Life, doubtlessly, lives on. This is also where the responsibility of the spectator, the reader, the listener (yours and mine) begins.
Where to go from here? Through the papers of Wright, Shapiro and Zevnik another line of flight emerges. What excess might life take in the face of governmental regulation, the body of the law, life/death dispositifs or scenes of violence? Wright begins his exploration on a reversed perhaps even perverted note – psychoanalysis. Why perverted? The aim of psychoanalysis, as commonly perceived, is to regulate the excess; yet by drawing on the scarcely explored last theory of Jacques Lacan, Wright plays with the thought of the institution of law working as a père-version (as a life without the law). Instead of a strong sovereign law the institution of père-version law (which is congruent to modernity) requires the excess for the law to work. More precisely, as Wright explains, in a modern society where the sovereign (the Other) is weak, justice can only be approached when life engages with the law, when life is responsive to rather than accepting of law. Thus the excess is constitutive of a just legal structure; it sets up each situation as a singular case in yet another (hopeless) attempt to reach justice. Shapiro takes the constitutive force of the excess in a somewhat different direction by delving into the aesthetic politics of life/death dispositifs as a methodological intervention into apparatuses and possibilities of (non)sovereign practice. By making a distinction between macro- and micro-politics Shapiro investigates how macro-political practices of state violence and control produce subjects of resistance and excess on the micropolitical level. As Shapiro powerfully puts himself: “micropolitics is located in the reactions to the forces reshaping life world’s sensoriums [… in] strategies that diverse social types employ to flourish, survive, or react in the face of procedures and structures of surveillance and control.”5 Here it is the aesthetic subject who, while seeking moments of self-fashioning, counters the sovereign order and embraces a life that exceeds social structures. The search for such openings continues in Zevnik’s contribution. Instead of taking refuge in aesthetic practices, Zevnik’s paper mobilizes Bataille’s practice of eroticism and inner experience to re-read and disturb the sovereign discourse in Guantánamo. Through a discussion of interrogation practices and bodily suffering of detainees, Zevnik sees eroticism as integral to the suspension of the sovereign subject and a deconstruction of sovereign power relations. The practice of eroticism/inner experience calls for a dissolution of the subject and an emergence of a non-sovereign being. The excess here lies in the newly constituted non-sovereign being – life – which does not challenge the sovereign discourse but institutes a different logic of thinking and doing politics. With this sixth paper this symposium comes to a full circle. It returns to the question McDonald’s paper inspired at the start: “Is it perhaps that we all need to become sovereign ourselves?” Zevnik’s, Shapiro’s and Wright’s (as well as Strausz’s and Hirvonen’s) response to such a provocation is an unconditional “yes.” To our minds, we need to become our own sovereign(s). Now let us allow new practices of self-fashioning, self-identification, eroticism, or inner experience show the way.
Erzsébet Strausz is Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick. Her current research focuses on the politics of narrative writing, storytelling and aesthetic practices as alternative vistas of knowledge production, subject formation and transformative change. She completed her PhD thesis “Being in Discourse in IR: An Experience Book of ‘Sovereignty’” at Aberystwyth University, which was awarded the BISA Michael Nicholson Thesis Prize in 2013 and has been nominated for the PSA Sir Ernest Barker Prize for Political Theory. Erzsébet can be reached at E.Strausz@warwick.ac.uk
Andreja Zevnik is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, UK. Her current research focuses on a few different strands: the idea of the common as a resistant and mobilizing political force; obscenity as a method of studying politics; and on the nexus between psychoanalysis, anxiety and law in order to think political differently. She is also completing a monograph of the excess of law in Guantanamo and editing a book on Jacques Lacan:between politics and psychoanalysis. She has published in Law & Critique and Millennium: Journal of International Relations. Andreja can be reached at email@example.com
1. Ari Hirvonen, “Sounds of Void: Paul Celan’s and John Zorn’s Hopeful Horizon,” in this issue.
2. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share II & III: History of Eroticism, Sovereignty (New York: Zone Books, 1993).
3. Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).
4. Angus McDonald, “Vanities of Sovereignty,” in this issue.
5. Michael J. Shapiro, “Life’s Contested Dispositifs: Apparatuses of Capture/Exuberant Lines of Flight” in this issue.