"The A, B, Z of the State of Exception: Agamben, Butler, and Žižek”
On September 11, Henry Krips, Professor of Cultural Studies and Andrew W. Mellon All Claremont Chair of Humanities at Claremont Graduate University, spoke on “The A, B, Z of the State of Exception: Agamben, Butler, and Žižek” to a crowded gathering of students, faculty, and community members at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures.
Prof. Krips began his presentation with philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who defines states of exception as temporary suspensions of law created by the political state in order to preserve the body politic during or in response to emergency. Seven years prior to this talk, the U.S.A. established a state of exception in response to the attacks in 2001. Notable legal suspensions include the right to habeas corpus and to privacy as well as the nation’s accordance with the Geneva Conventions, especially with respect to treatment of prisoners of war. Prof. Krips highlighted the similarities between Agamben’s treatment of the phenomenon and Judith Butler’s philosophical understanding of this critical term. She underscores the erosion of legal codes that goes along with the suspension of law.
Next, Prof. Krips discussed Slavoj Žižek’s reading of the phenomenon, which includes striking features absent from the analyses of Agamben and Butler. The declaration of a state of exception—the measure itself—creates the crisis, which is an opportunity for privileging certain aspects of the liberal state and the devaluation, if not total denial, of others. In the current case, Žižek argues that the political state may enact security and emergency measures, but that the state of emergency does not curtail the functioning of capitalism, which he, a post-Marxist, connects with exploitation.
The three theorists that Prof. Krips featured throughout his talk all utilize a prior debate between Karl Schmidt and Walter Benjamin on the nature of revolutionary, or “real,” violence. Agamben explicates the relationship of force to
law as a usually symbiotic connection, wherein force separates unruly people from the rest and the law authorizes that separation. The state of exception undermines this system in that force can operate both sans law and outside of the law. According to Agamben, the state of exception reveals that the legitimacy of force that grounds law is simply an ideological veil. Any state of exception involves illegal violence perpetrated by the state, but the scandal of such violence is obscured. Eventually, a state of exception that effectively becomes permanent exposes the “exceptionality” of the lawless state.
Agamben suggests “studious play” with the law as a way of agitating for revolution and social change. It is worth quoting him here to illustrate the linkages that this idea of play has for the study of scriptures:
One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good. What is found after the law is not a more proper and original use value that precedes the law but a new use that is born only after it. And use, which has been contaminated by law, must also be freed from its own value. This liberation is the task of study, or of play. (State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, 2005, p. 64)
Against Agamben’s call for the irreverent engagement of law Prof. Krips positions Žižek’s strategy for productively responding to the state of exception. Žižek suggests an overconformity to the law—taking it more seriously than intended. He wants to expose the loopholes that are not scripted by law but are nonetheless commonly assumed, such as the ability of authorities to evade minor infractions. Here, Prof. Krips used parking tickets as an example: there is a tacit expectation that the President, for instance, does not have to pay them, though by law he is not exempt. Žižek’s overconformity would mean vesting laws with the brittleness that comes with strict literalist readings. It would contradict the illusion that law, force, and states of exception work to a greater good. Prof. Krips reminded audience members of Sethe, the main character of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who slits her infant’s throat, surrendering the fantasy that the child would be able to escape slave laws. The obscene underside of the law (the loopholes and unlegalized practices) that Žižek advocates exposing is precisely the untextual aspect of the state. An overadherence to textual law therefore promises to expose the unwritten, performative sides of state scriptures, suggesting this sordid underbelly is the glue of the whole system.
Philosopher Alain Badiou agrees with Žižek that combating corrupt states of exception is best endeavored by “traversing the fantasy of the underside of the law,” as Prof. Krips said, and also by maintaining fidelity to justice. Like Agamben, Badiou has recently written at length on the apostle Paul, whom both philosophers read as defining justice as that which one does for no reason. For Agamben and Butler, the path to justice opens through studious play, which gives up the idea of any one authorized, original, or essential meaning for any scripture, legal or otherwise. Žižek, on the other hand, envisions liberation through overconformity paired with a desire for justice. Prof. Krips, seeming to prefer the latter approach, left the audience with a challenge: How might these responses to the state of exception be made practicable and productive?
Prof. Krips’s incisive reading of the conversation between these influential philosophers has profound implications for the study of scriptures and illustrates the importance of theory to that endeavor. He shows how law, our highest secular scripture, can be a target for abstract interrogation of structures of power, and he urges understanding the range of practical, even ritualized, approaches to resistance. Students of religion, and especially of scriptures, are in an enviable position with respect to this conversation because religious communities provide manifold examples of productive, scripture-engaging work in response to changing political and cultural landscapes—the state of exception being one such environmental shift.
To provoke a robust discussion:
What examples of scriptured responses to the state of exception do religious communities offer?
Conceivably, the state of exception also produces responses that may not be as consciously resistant as those that Žižek and company model. What results from unintentional “studious play” and hyperfidelity to laws and scriptures?
The work of Agamben, Butler, Žižek, and Badiou suggests that states of exception can prompt two modes of resistance in particular: playful immersion and performative overadherence. We might add that distancing from law or scripture can also. Does the state of exception, then, engender multiple reactions that can be divisive? Does the state of exception polarize people on scriptured terms? If so, what might that fragmentation produce?