- Revolting Alone
BY GEOFFROY DE LAGASNERIE
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017
Whether Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden are traitors or heroes is one of those "debates" that is yet to be settled, judging by the never-ending stream of op-eds, polls, interviews, and the like. The question has almost become a rite of passage: are you with us or with them, left or right? Geoffroy de Lagasnerie's The Art of Revolt is not an account of these whistleblowers' deeds, but rather an interrogation of the categories and assumptions implicit in such questions. To couch the discussion in terms of legality or illegality, loyalty or disloyalty, is to accede in advance to the authority of the law or the state and to one's own position as their legal subject. Lagasnerie, on the contrary, insists on the novelty and singularity of the movement represented by Assange, Manning, and Snowden, in that it repoliticizes these fundamental assumptions, puts them back on the table, and invites us "to imagine other modes of relation to the law, the nation, citizenship" (6). The book, therefore, is not limited to a case study. Lagasnerie's gesture is more ambitious: to investigate "our political unconscious" and throw it into relief by outlining, similar to Foucault, something like the "advent of a new episteme" (6) that challenges the architecture of liberal democracies. Although, as Lagasnerie concedes on several occasions, the whistleblowers might themselves have deployed the language of civil disobedience to justify their actions, he argues that they nevertheless are symptomatic of something entirely different: a potential for the emergence of a "pure" kind of politics, which is anonymous, nonrelational, and free of ethics. Herein will lie the least digestible part of the book. [End Page 240]
Lagasnerie calls for a politics of flight or sedition: a refusal to make demands on the authorities' terms—since such demands are doomed in advance—and a shaping of social change from the "outside" of the established political categories. The proposal, in this sense, is not particularly new and belongs to the lineage of politics of flight perhaps most fully articulated by Deleuze and Guattari but also, to various extents, by Benjamin, Blanchot, Butler, Derrida, Arendt, and Agamben. However, the route Lagasnerie's argument takes, as well as some of his conclusions, are distinct enough to deserve some attention.
One of the central theses of The Art of Revolt concerns the efficacy of civil disobedience as a form of political action. The book's argument is that Assange, Manning, Snowden, and others similar should not be construed as subjects engaged in civil disobedience, despite the efforts of the politicians and mass media to reinscribe them into this familiar political framework. For Lagasnerie, the problem with civil disobedience is that it might contest a law but leaves the legal structures as such intact. It preserves, in other words, the authority of the state, ideas of nationhood, and the form of belonging constituted through citizenship. Civil disobedience "goes as far as possible within what is permitted within the bounds authorized by liberal democracy as we know it" (43), but "the subject of civil disobedience is a subject of the state through and through" (47). This is because modern legal subjects (or citizens) are expected to be identifiable, to be visible, and to act openly in the public forum. They expect and are expected, in short, to bear responsibility for their actions. "Subjects who engage in civil disobedience do not seek to escape sanction. They recognize its legitimacy and allow themselves to be punished" (47). But for Lagasnerie, the whistleblowers in question are precisely not that. Snowden, for instance, by fleeing to Hong Kong, leaking classified NSA (US National Security Agency) documents, and eventually being granted asylum in Russia, questions not only the legitimacy of a secret state surveillance program, argues Lagasnerie, but also the legitimacy of state power as such, insofar as he chose not to remain in the United States and face punishment. "Flight and disobedience represent the two extremes of the art of revolt, for they imply opposite modes of subjectification: different ways for the subject to relate to...