Tag Archives: Giorgio Agamben

(failed) states of exception

I’ve been an admirer of Christopher Brown’s fiction ever since I bought a two-handed piece for Futurismic that he wrote with Chairman Bruce (“Windsor Executive Solutions”, which is still up and available to read, amazingly enough). I finally got my hands on one of his recent novels back in the spring, and found myself thinking two things, both of which I attributed in some part to the sort of seemingly serendipitous reflections of one’s own ongoing interests that can emerge from a habitual tendency toward overreading—or, to put it more plainly, the tendency for the things that’s you’re reading and thinking about to leak into each other as your forebrain does its work of pattern imposition.

But sometimes, the forebrain gets it right, as with my instinctive tagging of Rule of Capture as a critical-utopian fiction. Here’s Brown in (machine-transcribed?) conversation with Andrew Liptak in the latter’s newsletter:

I come at this from kind of a background of political economy and political theory. I’m really interested in the idea of utopian thinking, I think that most of the political history of the Western world — from the Enlightenment forward — is guided in large part by a series of aspirational utopian visions of how society could be reengineered to create healthier and happier and more just communities, that provided a balance against pragmatic conservatism that sort of sees the world as it is, and assumes as it’s that way for a reason. And that balance produces a certain kind of forward movement around the idea of progress. You saw some of that in our science fiction as well, especially peaking in the 1970s. But then with the so-called End of History, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrival of the boom boom years in the 1990s, I think that the only utopian vision that was left was the utopian vision that was also the vision of conservative pragmatism, which was the vision of neoclassical economics and perfect markets — the kind of whiteboard fantasy of how that could be the path to universal improvement of social welfare.

So I was interested in resuscitate in the idea of utopia, of just what would — especially in a moment where I feel like in the current moment, we can’t even get a handle on the present, and the idea of the future is mostly just kind of a amorphous and scary, especially when you factor in climate. And so, what would a future you would actually want to live in look like? And so that’s sort of the problem it’s trying to tackle as a narrative problem. It is, in many respects, much more challenging than writing dystopias for a lot of different reasons, including the fact that as a writer, utopia is kind of like the Talking Heads song “Heaven”: a place where nothing ever happens.

“[W]hat would a future you would actually want to live in look like?” is exactly the question that informed the recently-released Rough Planet Guide to Notterdam 2045 (about which I keep meaning to write in greater detail, now that it’s actually out in the world); to put it another way, I’m trying to port that understanding that Brown describes (and which shows up in le Guin and others, and in utopian thinkers both prior and subsequent to them) into the rhetorics of (social) science communications, in order to get away from the solutionist and information-deficit paradigms of talking about climate adaptation and mitigation and instead describe plausibly flawed futures in which we haven’t fixed everything, but we’ve nonetheless fixed something, even though we’ve likely uncovered more problems along the way. Which we might think of as science fiction with a sense of political economy, as Brown puts it above… which is also by implication science fiction with a sense of history, a discipline with which the genre more broadly has had a rather instrumentalist relationship, in such cases as it has had a relationship with it at all.

The other thing that I thought about Rule of Capture, to the extent of writing it in my margin notes a number of times, was that it was very engaged with the Agembenian state of exception, albeit quite possibly avant la lettre. Elsewhere in this interview Brown talks about the long legacy of the (still ongoing) state of exception instigated as a response to 9/11 in the US, which is the canonical example (and the one which effectively made Agamben’s career, albeit in a way I expect he’d have preferred to have never happened); given his stated interest in political theory, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that Brown’s at least passing familiar with the same theoretical edifice which, for an assortment of reasons, I was exploring with an online reading group of former colleagues from Sheffield over the summer. Maybe I should just drop him a line and ask him…

Also worth a read is Brown’s recent essay at Tor.com, a slightly more generalist take on the same themes… which offers a polite rejoinder to the blaming of dystopian fictions for dystopian outcomes.

One reason the real world feels yoked to our dystopian imagination may be the failure of other science fictional futures to deliver the goods. The techno-utopian Tomorrowland 20th century science fiction promised us this century would bring turned out to be something much darker. Real life never lives up to the movie version our popular culture and politics teach us to expect. The “End of History” and the birth of the World Wide Web promised us a cyber-utopia of peace, progress and prosperity just around the corner, but the first two decades of the 21st century delivered a very different story, from 9/11 and its dark aftermath to the financial crisis and the resurgence of ethno-nationalism. Now our response to the pandemic has the world looking at the U.S. as a declining nation with some of the characteristics of a failed state. You can’t blame science fiction dystopias for all that, any more than you can blame the mirror for how you look in the morning

Then there’s the novels themselves, which I can confidently recommend on the basis of Rule of Capture alone. Brown’s newsletter is also well worth the sub; less pessimistic than unflinchingly realistic, but leavened with an attentive eye for the environment, as well as hints of that critical-utopian yearning. It’s one of the few newsletters that reliably gets read on the day it arrives in my inbox.

the pool of potential victims appeared limited

Danny Dorling:

The mortality surge lasted for weeks at the start of 2015. It went up suddenly. In one week in January, as the hospitals became overwhelmed, the number of excess deaths rose from 448 to to 4050, then 3721, 3220, 2408, 1719, 1470, not dipping below 1000 until mid-March. It rose again to 1973 in the worst week in April, and to 1290 in the worst week of June. Had every newspaper been reporting the weekly (never mind daily) figures in 2015, we could even have imagined five waves by the autumn. All those earlier figures were far higher than the autumn of 2015; and – so far – the excess deaths for autumn 2015 are far higher than in autumn 2020. The major difference, of course, is that five years ago there was no talk of the numbers soaring exponentially out of control. The pool of potential victims appeared limited, and didn’t include government ministers, newspaper editors, or most of their voters and readers.

Read the whole thing, it’s not long. Then maybe cycle back and read that thing Ryan Diduck wrote way back in March. Then maybe go read Agamben again, and/or think about bioethics.

The virus is a genuine threat. It’s also been a hugely convenient distraction for those whose careers are entirely based upon having taken advantage of hugely convenient distractions prior to this one. No significant progress will be made on either problem until both are understood to coexist in synthesis.

Meanwhile, the Spectacle continues.

the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials

Some cheery theory from Brad Evans…

Giorgio Agamben has been disagreeable on so many points. But his autopsy of the present has led us to one distinguishable truth. As the providential machine of liberalism gasps its final cold breath, the new age, the new normal that has already arrived is a global techno-theodicy. An age where humanity itself has now become the sacrificial object, where the victim is now imagined in the absence of its denials, where we all come face to face with the terrifying void, where the transcendental is purely virtual, where the future is already present, where technology is presented as the only thing that might save us and where the poetic is only of use if it can be already appropriated. Such a condition is necessarily bound up with a post-political imagination, micro-managing every breath taken, turning the intimate into a dangerous reckoning, augmenting a simulated reality in which the forces of militarism will truly thrive, while enforcing the most micro-specific segregations and prejudicial assumptions that venture deep into the souls of all planetary life in the name of sheer survival. 


Guilt and shame have already re-entered with their familiar potency. Deployed by shameless leaders who absolved themselves of any guilt while knowing we would be less forgiving when it came to ourselves, especially to our own behaviours and past complicities, the question of shame proved inseparable to our forced witnessing to this tragedy from our own relatively safe distances. And who didn’t feel ashamed about the conditions of life on earth? Ashamed that we didn’t do more to help? That we could not do more to help, apart from isolate. Ashamed as we continued to watch in a horrified submission the continued number counts of daily fatalities? And who wasn’t slightly relieved it wasn’t them being reported upon, thankful to have survived another day? Ashamed that we weren’t the ones being silently killed by an invisible enemy? Might we have even been the contagious? Unwitting carriers in the premature death of others?

And what of our role in society, which appeared so under-prepared and ill-equipped? Should we have been ashamed that our societies are so incapable of slowing things down? That our lives were so caught up in the frenzy of existence, its only in the face of death we learn about the elderly neighbour who was already slowly dying a lonely death? Were we not ashamed of supporting governments whose worthless investments in guns and bombs and other fancy weaponry for destruction proved so irrelevant in this onslaught upon life? Or even ashamed for buying a plant that was apparently an “unnecessary purchase” or walking just a little too far from home? And what of our leaders, who have been shown to be shamefully compromised, dancing with death in their primary insistence upon business as usual, neglectful in their actions, while woefully out of their depth when it came to show the humanity required?

But let us not forget the world was already engaging in forms of lock-down long before this crisis. From building the walls to Brexit, the conscious policy to enclose life was underway and it was perfectly in keeping with the needs of global capitalism and its strategies for controlling human life by getting the masses to desire their own containment. The virus has provided the conditions to accelerate this. So, it’s no coincidence the real winners are the disaster capitalists, the global-tech giants now tasked with administering all aspects of life, and invariably the pharmaceutical industries. As our life was reduced to a motionless existence, slowed down to the point of a horrified inertia, the mechanisms for power have sped up exponentially.

Having spent the last few months in a reading group looking at and around Agamben’s theory of the state of exception, I’ll concede “disagreeable” in the strict sense of a thing with which to agree brings no pleasure… and perhaps with the more alimentary sense of something that is difficult to digest. But not at all hard-to-agree-with in the sense of (once one has finally grasped it) holding the argument up to the actual and looking for discrepancies… and as Evans points out, disaster capitalism, running hotter than ever on an optimised silicon substrate, has not hesitated to take the territory we willingly left on the table.

No conspiracy is needed to explain this turn of events. As a number of people have noted recently with regards to BLM’s critique of policing in the US (and elsewhere), it’s not at all that “our systems” are “broken”. On the contrary, they are working exactly as designed, and with astonishing efficiency (in the strictly economic sense of that term, which is subtly different to the vernacular usage).