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Introduction: Taking Exception to the Exception

Author(s): Jason Frank and Tracy McNulty


Source: Diacritics, Vol. 37, No. 2/3, Taking Exception to the Exception (Summer - Fall, 2007),
pp. 2-10
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
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Drawing
of
"stage"
(2007)
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INTRODUCTION
TAKING EXCEPTION TO THE
EXCEPTION
JASON FRANK AND TRACY McNULTY
"The
exception,"
Carl Schmitt wrote in Political
Theology,
"is more
interesting
than the
rule. The rule
proves nothing;
the
exception proves everything.
In the
exception
the
pow
er of real life breaks
through
the crust of a mechanism that has become
torpid by repeti
tion"
[15]. Embracing
the
extraordinary vitality
of "the
event,"
while
decrying
the
pale
repetition
of the
norm,
contemporary
theoretical discourses across
multiple
fields and
disciplines?law, political theory, theology, history,
literature,
and
philosophy?would
seem to concur with Schmitt's
high
estimation of the
exception
"in its absolute
purity."
And this
high
estimation has assumed an obvious and
global political urgency
in the
wake of 9/11 and the
ever-expanding
"War on Terror." This
special
issue of diacritics
is motivated
by
our sense that the
contemporary
theoretical and
political imagination
is
captivated by
the dramatic
logic
of the
exception.
A certain
picture
of law and normativ
ity
seems to hold us
captive,
to
paraphrase Wittgenstein,
and our theoretical vocabularies
seem to
repeat
this
picture inexorably.
The
essays
that follow offer critical
analyses
of this
captivation,
while also
providing
resources?theoretical,
theological, literary,
and techni
cal?for
diminishing
its hold
(if
not
definitively refuting
its
claims).
Without
retreating
to a lost
normativity,
foundationalism, formalism,
or
legalism,
the
essays
in this
special
issue raise a number of
pressing political
and theoretical
questions:
What
conceptual
rubrics are maintained and reiterated
by
the
seemingly
inexorable
logics
of norm and
exception?
What kinds of theoretical
investigation
are authorized and
precluded by
this
preoccupation?
How do
they
structure our
political
discussions,
and direct and constrain
our
political options?
The timeliness of these
questions
is
suggested by
a familiar anecdote. In
April
of
2006
George
Bush,
responding
to the
growing
criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld's
planning
and execution of the
Iraq
War, said,
"I hear the
voices,
and I read the front
page,
and I
hear the
speculation.
But I'm the
decider,
and I decide what's best"
[qtd.
in
O'Neil].
This
was not the
only
time that Bush identified with decision and the concomitant
category
of
the
exception;
his administration's embrace of the
theory
of the
"unitary
executive" and
its
unprecedented expansion
of
presidential power
both
domestically
and
internationally
has been
widely
criticized for
suspending
the rule of law in the name of the
higher
law
of "national
security."
Bush's invocation of the
presidential
"decider" was
predictably
lampooned by
some in the media.
Others, however,
saw darker forces at work in this
awkward invocation of
sovereign
decision.
Alongside
the
often-mentioned,
though
sel
dom
theoretically
elaborated,
influence of the work of Leo Strauss on neoconservatives
within the Bush
administration,
some saw the influence of Strauss's interlocutor Schmitt
somewhere behind Bush's remarks
[see,
for
example,
Scheuerman; Wolf].
"Sovereign
is he who decides on the
exception,"
Schmitt wrote in Political Theol
ogy [5].
Sovereign
is he who decides when formal law must be
suspended
to meet the
diacritics / summer-fall 2007 diacritics 37.2-3: 3-10 3
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exigencies
of
extraordinary
circumstances,
especially
those that
pose
"existential threats"
to the
identity
of the state. There could be no doubt that in the wake of
9/11,
not
only
the
administration
itself,
but also
large
sections of the
public, accepted
that we were
living
in
exceptional
times,
and times of
exceptional danger
and threat. This
exceptionality
was
recognized
both
formally
and
informally
in a
myriad
of
legal
and
political developments.
It
was,
for
example, legally
inscribed in the
opinions placing
accused terrorists outside
of the Geneva Convention's
category
of
"legal enemy
combatants" and in the
emergence
of a
stunning array
of
discretionary
executive
powers
to conduct the "War on Terror." It
underwrote the unwarranted surveillance of domestic
telephone
calls and financial trans
actions and the CIA's creation of black site
prisons
in
Thailand,
Afghanistan,
and Poland.
The state of
exception
was also written into the National
Security Strategy,
with its in
vocation of an
underspecified providential enemy,
one that called for
entirely
new forms
of warfare and defense. This
exceptional
state
justified engaging
in
preemptive
war, and,
according
to Ron Suskind's account of the administration's "one
percent
doctrine,"
aban
doning
rational decision
making practices
based on evidence and
intelligence gathering
in favor of
acting
on an
extraordinary presumption
of
merely potential
threats. In a
variety
of
ways
what is
presented
to us as the
"post-
9/11 world" is a world in which
previous
political
and
legal
norms no
longer apply.
British Prime Minister
Tony
Blair wrote that
the terrorist attacks were a "revelation" that
inaugurated
an era that is "unconventional in
almost
every respect" [qtd.
in Warner
27].
As
Giorgio Agamben's
work has
argued,
it is
a world where the
exception
has become the
norm,
a world
presented
as a state of
excep
tion of
seemingly unending
duration
[Agamben
58,
glossing Benjamin's
"On the
Concept
of
History"
392].
This wide
ranging
context,
and the rhetorical
power
of its
invocation,
demands a theoretical
interrogation
and reconsideration of the
meaning
of the
concept
of
the
exception.
Political
theology
is a
particularly important
rubric to think
through
these
dynamics.
When Schmitt declares that the
exception
in
jurisprudence
is
analogous
to the "miracle"
in
theology,
he reaffirms and
recuperates
for modern
political
and
legal thought
the theo
logical
foundations of
sovereign power long
invoked
by European
monarchs
(the
doc
trine of "Christ-centered
kingship"
so
richly analyzed by
Ernst
Kantorowicz).
Even when
theorists of the law or state do not locate
sovereignty
in a
particular
individual,
they
often
derive its
authority
from a source
figured
as "outside
of,"
"prior
to,"
or
"beyond"
the
law
(the
God who inscribes the tablets of the Mosaic
law,
Rousseau's
"lawgiver,"
Sade's
"Mother
Nature,"
Siey?s' "pouvoir
constituant" and so
on). Indeed,
Sigmund
Freud
sug
gests
that even the most
egalitarian
social
arrangements
cannot function without some
implicit
or
explicit
invocation of an
exceptional figure (the
father of the
primal
horde,
the
leader,
the resurrected
Christ)
who founds the
group
in the act of
exceeding
it,
soliciting
the mechanisms of identification that bind the members both to him and to one another.
These formulations
suggest
that
political theology
is concerned not
only
with the
appeal
to a source of
legitimation figured
as
"beyond"
the
law,
but with the
completion
or closure of the law in its annihilation or
displacement.
Schmitt 's
critique
of normative
law
suggests
that there is a
"gap"
in the law that renders it
incapable
of
addressing
such
anomic situations as revolution and the
general
strike;
the
sovereign
acts to close this
gap
in the law
by preserving
its
"spirit" against
its
"letter,"
suspending
the constitution to
maintain the order of law
(or
the existence of the state as
such).
In this
respect,
the ulti
mate
prooftext
for the
strategy
of
exception
is Paul's account of Christ as the "fulfillment
of the
law,"
the
living logos
who
consigns
the "old" written law to obsolescence and who
actualizes in his
person
the transcendent
Kingdom
of God. The
contemporary
theoretical
imagination
has
arguably
not
surpassed
the terms of Paul's
polemic against
the Mosaic
law,
with the result that the stakes of these terms and the
specific understandings
of the
law to which
they
attest are
rarely interrogated.
4
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Freud
points
to the
potential
costs of such a
captivation
when he derives the
psychic
agency
of the
superego
from the lawless
authority
of the
primal
father,
whose unlimited
power
ox
jouissance
is the "force of law" or
"spirit"
that insists in and
beyond
the law as
its ultimate source of
judgment.
He reminds us
that,
even for
Paul,
"slavery
to the law"
gives way
not to
freedom,
but to a
"slavery
to Christ" whose material
support
is the
super
egoic
"voice of conscience" that
emerges
with the Christian's internalization of the law's
"spirit"
[Freud 110-11].
Does this mean that the fascination exerted
by
the
exception
in its
many
forms cannot
be
fully
examined without a more
expansive understanding
of what is
gathered together
and flattened out under the
heading
of "norm"? When the function of law is reduced to
normativity,
what alternative
understandings
of the law are lost or distorted in the
pro
cess? What resources
might they provide
for a critical examination of the
exception?
Wal
ter
Benjamin,
for
example, suggests
that the written law
(the
laws of the Greek
state,
the
written commandments of the Hebrew
decalogue)
offered a first line of defense
against
what he calls the
"tyranny
of
mythic
states,"
distilled in the
"dictatorship"
of
spirit ["Cri
tique
of Violence"
249].
In a similar
vein,
Jacques
Lacan maintains that the Ten Com
mandments are
"nothing
other than the laws of
speech,"
insofar as the condition of
speech
is "distance between the
subject
and das
Ding."
He
argues
that the function of the Hebraic
law is not to forbid or
penalize transgression,
but to erect a barrier
against
das
Ding (the
psychic object
that is the bearer of the death
drive)
and the
"objects"
that
represent
its
deadly
force:
God,
the mother of the incest
prohibition,
the
neighbor
[Lacan 174].
Such
formulations
suggest
that the structures of law are concerned with more than the
prom
ulgation
of
norms,
procedures,
and
codes,
or what Alain Badiou dismisses as the
logic
of
"particularism,"
bound to
worldly objects
and cemented
by
ritual obedience.
They imply
that the role of the
law,
symbolic,
or
speech
is to take
exception
to the
exception,
to cir
cumscribe or erect a barrier
against
absolute
power
or the
superegoic "spirit"
of the law.
* * *
The first three
essays
in this volume consider how these
problematics
have been treated
by
three of the thinkers who have most
profoundly
influenced current debates about the
exception: Giorgio Agamben,
Walter
Benjamin,
and
Slavoj
Zizek.
Jeffrey
Librett,
in "From the Sacrifice of the Letter to the Voice of
Testimony:
Gior
gio Agamben's
Fulfillment of
Metaphysics,"
considers how the Pauline dialectic
against
the "dead letter" of the Jewish law is echoed in the work of
Giorgio Agamben by
an in
dictment of the
"graphocentric"
bias of much
contemporary thought,
and a
corresponding
investment in voice and
testimony
as
expressing
most
fully
the
Being
of
language?an
argument
that
undergirds
not
only Agamben's early
work on
poetics,
but his
hugely
influ
ential Homo Sacer and State
of Exception.
In a
polemic
with the work of
Jacques
Derrida
that Librett reads as one of his
guiding preoccupations, Agamben proposes
that it is the
insistent
privileging
of the letter or
writing,
and not the
voice,
that has most
profoundly
shaped
the
development
of Western
metaphysics.
But while
Agamben's
thesis is
ground
ed in a
reading
of
Heidegger,
Librett
argues
that this
reading
is filtered
through
an unex
amined Christian
theological grid
that at once distorts
Heidegger's
account of the
Being
of
language
and makes
Agamben's
own account of
language uncomfortably proximate
to
the
critique
of the letter in National Socialist
ideology,
which
"attempts
to rid itself of the
letter
by sacrificing
not
only
Judaism but the
(biologically, racially construed)
Jews"
[12].
Agamben's readings
of the
camp
and of the
problematic
of
sacrifice,
he
argues,
fail to ac
count for the
particular logic
of sacrifice at stake in the Final
Solution,
because
Agamben
is blind to the Christian dimension that subtends not
only
Nazi racist
ideology
but his own
understanding
of
language.
diacritics / summer-fall 2007 5
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In "The Commandment
against
the Law:
Writing
and Divine Justice in Walter Ben
jamin's 'Critique
of
Violence,'"
Tracy McNulty
considers a similar
problem
from the
opposite standpoint, arguing
that
Benjamin's
notorious
critique
of
lawmaking
and law
preserving
violence has too often been read as a
generalized
indictment of law as media
tion in favor of a
transcendent,
immutable
authority
or
force,
identified with the
figure
of "divine violence." This
reading,
she
suggests,
tends to
align Benjamin's analysis
with
Paul's neo-Platonic
critique
of the letter of law as a
distorting representation
of an intel
ligible
truth,
the "Law of God" that he identifies with its
living spirit against
its sinful
letter.
Instead,
McNulty argues
that the
key
tension at stake in the
opposition
of
"mythic"
to "divine" violence is not the tension between the letter of the law and its
spirit
or
force,
but between two different
understandings
of law: as a
representation
or mediation of a
force or violence and as a structural limit.
Noting
that one of
Benjamin's key examples
of divine
justice
concerns the function of the
commandment,
McNulty argues
that for
Benjamin
the commandment form?like the first written laws of the Greeks?testifies
to the
indispensable
function of
language (and writing
in
particular)
in
"calling
a halt"
to
mythic
or
lawmaking
violence,
a violence that is in turn identified with the
"tyranny
of
spirit."
Like his
predecessor
Immanuel
Kant,
she
suggests, Benjamin
reads the Jewish
commandment tradition as
proposing
a solution to the
impasses
inherent in all
positive
law,
suggesting
that the
negative
form of the written commandment acts as a barrier to the
tyranny implicit
in the
"imaginary"
dimension of law.
Erik
Vogt,
in
"Exception
in Zizek's
Thought,"
admits that the sheer
proliferation
of
instances of
exception
in the work of
Slavoj
Zizek
might easily
lead one to conclude that
his
thought
tends to universalize the
exception.
But while Zizek is often read as a theorist
who affirms the
exception, Vogt argues
that he is a
persistent
critic.
Beginning
with a
consideration of Zizek's earliest
works,
Vogt
shows that
initially,
the
concept
of
exception
is elaborated in terms of the notion of the
symptom.
Zizek's
reinvigoration
of the
critique
of
ideology argues
for a consideration of the social
symptom
both in terms of its
excep
tional status and in terms of its
phantasmatic
structure,
demonstrating
that an
updated
ideology critique
has to account for both dimensions of the social
symptom
as
exception:
its dimension as
master-signifier
and its dimension as
objet
a. In
subsequent
works
Vogt
shows that the
logic
of
exception
is
again
central,
this time
guiding
the
way
Zizek inter
prets
the relation between Kantian and
Hegelian philosophy,
on the one
hand,
and the
logics
of Judaism and
Christianity,
on the other.
Finally,
even Zizek's interventions into
recent discussions in
contemporary political thought might
be understood in
light
of his
attempt
to formulate a
critique
of
"exceptionalist" politics.
His thesis is that
philosophers
such as
Adorno,
Heidegger,
Badiou,
and
Agamben
all share a "fatal"
misunderstanding
regarding
the relation between the
exception
and the
universal,
in that
they
conceive of
the
exception (symptom)
as an "outside"
intruding
at certain moments
upon
the
existing
social order. For
Zizek,
in
contrast,
the
symptom (exception)
is itself the universal:
and,
conversely,
each universal is an
exception.
In recent
years political
theorists have
typically engaged
the
dynamics
of norm and
exception through
the rubric of
political paradox, emphasizing
the
precarious
self-suf
ficiency
of norms and their
(frequently disavowed)
reliance on
unjustified
heteronomic
supports.
Democratic theorists in
particular
have
repeatedly
returned to the
paradoxes
inhabiting projects
of collective
self-authorization,
dwelling
on
how,
in Alan Keenan's
words,
"the
very
conditions of freedom and
autonomy?the
lack of
natural,
unquestion
able
grounds
for
judgment
and action?seem to rule out the
possibility
of full
political
autonomy" [33].
Rousseau's
lawgiver
is the
exemplary
canonical
figure
around which
these debates often turn. On one side stand those radical democratic theorists who affirm
the
productivity
of
paradox,
who see the
legitimation
deficit at the core of democratic au
tonomy
as a
catalyst
of
ongoing
democratic contention and
change. Agonistic
democrats
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like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau are influential
representatives
of this
approach.
On the other side stand liberal democratic theorists like
J?rgen
Habermas who
attempt
to
overcome this
legitimation
deficit
through
an
evolutionary project
of deliberative
proce
duralism. The various iterations of "deliberative
democracy,"
which have become
nearly
hegemonic
in
contemporary Anglophone
democratic
theory, broadly exemplify
this
ap
proach.
While the
essays by Honig,
Frank,
Shapiro,
and Norris are
broadly sympathetic
with those who affirm the
irreducibility
of
paradox, they
also resist the terms in which
these debates are
typically
cast. Each of their
essays
aims to
dispel
the
captivating
hold
that
political paradox?and
its
attending
rubric of norm and
exception?has
on the
po
litical theorists who both affirm and
reject
it. Each of these
essays articulates,
in Bonnie
Honig's
words,
a
position
"between decision and deliberation."
In "The Miracle of
Metaphor: Rethinking
the State of
Exception
with
Rosenzweig
and
Schmitt,"
Bonnie
Honig explores
the democratic resources of Franz
Rozsenzweig's
distinct
conceptualization
of the miracle and the alternative
political theology
it offers
to the
sovereign
decisionism of Schmitt. While Schmitt turns to the disavowed miracle
as a
way
of
undermining
the
purportedly
Deist
presuppositions
of liberal constitutional
ism and
legal positivism, Honig engages Rosenzweig
to
provide
an
alternative
political
theology
to
both,
one that
emphasizes
the
dispositional
attributes of
popular receptivity
over the
procedural
formalism of law on the one
hand,
and the
sovereign imperatives
of
decision and
command,
on the other.
Prophecy
is
democratically refigured
in
Honig's
essay, replacing
the
sovereign
focus on the
prophet/lawgiver
with the
prophetic power
of
the
people
themselves,
understood not
only
as receivers of
prophecy
but as
themselves
an
incipient prophetic power,
a
precarious potentiality
which
invariably produces
remain
ders.
Departing
from the influential
interpretation
of
Rosenzweig
offered
by
Eric
Santner,
and
ultimately departing
from
Rosenzweig
himself,
Honig's essay
reexamines
key
bibli
cal texts to
argue
that
prophecy
is
indispensable
to democratic
politics.
Her focus on the
miracle of
popular prophecy
deflates the
opposition
between the norm and the
exception,
as it draws theoretical attention to the
worldly
conditions under which the miracle is re
ceived.
In "'Unauthorized
Propositions':
The Federalist
Papers
and Constituent
Power,"
Ja
son Frank is also
engaged
with the
worldly
conditions under which the
exception appears
as a
(democratic) problem.
He situates the
theological
dilemmas
surrounding
the
spirit
and the letter of the law within
very
localized
arguments surrounding
the constitutional
crises of late
eighteenth-century
America. Frank turns to the
practices
of
early
American
popular
constitutionalism and to a close
reading
of James Madison's Federalist No. 40 in
particular,
to
argue
that the Schmittian articulation of the
problem
of constituent
power?
the sine
qua
non
of a state of
exception?blinds contemporary
theorists to how the
para
doxes
surrounding
self-authorization were
navigated during
the constitutional ratification
debates?the
"great
national discussion"?of 1787-89. Frank
argues
that there are les
sons to be learned from this
productive
historical
example
that
significantly depart
from
Schmitt's
theological understanding
of both the norm and the
exception.
Frank takes issue
with Schmitt's affirmation of constituent
power
as "an absolute
beginning"
that
"springs
out of normative
nothingness
and from concrete disorder"
[Schmitt,
?ber die drei Arten
23-24],
instead
emphasizing
lines of normative
continuity
that
accompany
the
disruption
of
legal
order and assist in
navigating
the transition to a new
legal
order. In Madison's
invocation of the "informal and unauthorized
propositions"
of the
Philadelphia
Conven
tion
(that is,
the "unauthorized
propositions"
of the United States Constitution
itself)
Frank finds an alternative
way
of
understanding
these dramas of
self-authorization,
one
that diminishes the
epochal significance
of the
founding
and attends instead to how "the
extraordinary
inhabits and sustains the democratic
ordinary,"
how constituent
capacities
"are
continually
elicited from within the midst of
political
life"
[118].
diacritics / summer-fall 2007
7
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Frank concludes his
essay
with a reexamination of the
lawgiver
of Rousseau's Social
Contract,
and Kam
Shapiro begins
"Politics Is a Mushroom:
Worldly
Sources of Rule
and
Exception
in Carl Schmitt and Walter
Benjamin"
with a
provocative
discussion of
the same
figure.
For
Shapiro,
however,
Rousseau's attunement to the immanent "virtual"
sources of
normativity
and to the
"virtuosity"
of the
lawgiver
in
tapping
those sources is
analogous
to the
arguments
of Schmitt himself.
According
to
Shapiro,
there are imma
nent resources in Schmitt for
overcoming
the latter's own
tendency
toward
"metaphysi
cal
exceptionalism." Shapiro
is
particularly
interested in the
dynamic interplay
between
the "virtual" sources of
normativity
in the
receptive dispositions
of the
people
and the
"virtuosic" enactment of these sources in the
figure
of the
lawgiver.
Like
Honig, Shapiro
focuses on
dispersed popular
sources of
sovereignty
and decision instead of the
unitary
and transcendent
figure
of the
sovereign.
Walter
Benjamin's
work
provides Shapiro
with
examples
of what he calls "democratic
virtuosity." Benjamin's rejection
of the Schmittian
scenario of
lawmaking
and
law-preserving
violence "in favor of an
ongoing
collective
habit-formation"
[122] suggests
that attention to
techniques
is one
way
to diminish the
hold of the formal rubric of norm and
exception
and the
sovereign
and
juridical concep
tion of the
political
that underwrites it.
In
"Willing
and
Deciding: Hegel
on
Irony,
Evil,
and the
Sovereign Exception,"
An
drew Norris also finds resources in Schmitt to combat the
uptake
of Schmitt in contem
porary
theoretical discourse.
Pursuing arguments
first offered
by
Karl
L?with,
Norris
argues
that Schmitt's
early critique
of romantic occasionalism in Political Romanticism
can be
productively
mobilized
against
Schmitt's own influential later work on decision
ism. In order to elaborate on this
claim,
but also to offer an alternative
way
out of the
normative dead end of Schmitt's
decisionism,
Norris reconstructs
Hegel's analogous
cri
tique
of
Schlegel's
occasionalism. Like
Schmitt,
Hegel
does not
deny
the
necessity
of
the moment of the decision and the confrontation with the
exception
it
entails; however,
neither does he surrender all normative considerations to it.
According
to
Norris,
Hegel's
discussion of this issue has the
great
virtue of
relating
to much more
broadly accepted
notions of
subjectivity
and freedom. Norris
provocatively
finds
Hegel's navigation
of
these
problems
neither in the
subjectivism
of Kantian Moralit?t nor in
Sittlichkeit,
but in
Hegel's critique
of the "sickness" of modern ironism. Instead of
reading Hegel
as a
statist
reactionary,
Norris
emphasizes
the movement in his work between
particular,
universal,
and
individuality:
"To move
through particularity,"
Norris
writes,
"entails a confrontation
with the
exception
but makes that confrontation
part
of a
larger process
if what is
sought
for is a set of universal
concepts
that will allow us to become the individuals that we are"
[154],
That
is,
Norris
emphasizes
the
process
of mediation itself between the universal
and
particular
in order to situate the
exception
within a broader normative
project
irreduc
ible to a
given
norm or law.
Finally,
the third set of
essays
considers a
problem
that is
implicit
in
many
of the
preceding
contributions,
even if none addresses it
centrally:
the aesthetics of
power,
or the
indispensable
role of
figuration
and
visuality
in
securing
the
metaphysics
of the
excep
tion. While the critical literature on
sovereignty
and the discourse of the
exception
has
long
underscored the
complicity
of
metaphor
and
image
in the
myth
of
sovereign power
and the
metaphysics
of
meaning
on which it
depends,
the final three contributors insist
that
figurai language
and visual
representation
also have the
capacity
to undercut these
myths,
to
deallegorize
narrative and render the
exception unexceptional.
In "'Above and beneath classification':
Bartleby, Life
and Times
of
Michael
K,
and
Syntagmatic Participation,"
Gert Buelens and Dominiek Hoens
point
out that
despite
their
many differences,
what
every
discourse on the
exception ultimately exposes
is that
the rule cannot do without the
exception,
and that the
exception
is
equally dependent
on
the rule.
They propose
to consider how this
problem
affects
literature,
and in
particular
8
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how literature is read:
suggesting
that in the
literary
context,
"the rule
goes by
the name
of
'allegorical reading'
and the
exception by
that of
'singularity'" [158]. They
focus on
two critical texts that have
attempted
to theorize the
literary interplay
of rule and
excep
tion,
with
very
different results: Derek
Attridge's
recent
attempt
in /. M.
Coetzee
and the
Ethics
of Reading
to determine what he has called literature's
"singularity,"
and Gilles
Deleuze's
reading
of the ?ventai dimension of literature in Melville's
"Bartleby
the Scriv
ener." While
they
share
Attridge's suspicion
of
allegorical
modes of
reading,
Buelens and
Hoens
question
his
nonallegorical
alternative,
which
they
see as
relying heavily
on a
pro
cess of identification between readers and
protagonists
that
actually
amounts to a varia
tion on the
allegorical
theme.
They
maintain that
"[literature
is not
something
that
simply
exists?waiting
for a theoretician who will use it as an
illustration or for a reader who will
only
understand what he or she
already
knows?but is an
event,
something
that
brings
something
new into a
given
situation"
[159]. They
find the
building
blocks of this more
persuasive nonallegorical
alternative in Deleuze's
reading
of
Bartleby,
which
emphasizes
the readers'
syntagmatic participation
in the text rather than
paradigmatic
identification
with its
protagonists,
and in the
process suggests
that readers can
"experience
a condition
divorced from
any perspective
...
a
singular perspective
that is in the
process
of
being
formed"
[158].
Susan Buck-Morss offers a
fitting
close to the issue with "Visual
Empire,"
a rich
and
wide-ranging
examination of the relation between the
image
and
sovereign power
that asks
"why
it is so difficult to cut off the head of the
king
so that it
stays
off, [and]
why popular sovereignty consistently
resurrects an aura of
quasi-mystical power
around
the
sovereign figure" [172].
The first
part
of the
essay
traces the
emergence
of an ico
nography
of
sovereignty
in
Byzantine
visual
aesthetics,
where the
iconocity
of
imperial
Rome
merged
with that of the Incarnation to create "an immense force-field of affective
power"
[178]
whose
potency
is echoed
today
in the
iconographie power
of
global
media.
But while she
argues
that the events of 9/11 could be read as an iconoclastic
attempt
to
destroy
"the visual
economy
of
power" [182],
Buck-Morss cautions that
they
also
expose
the extent to which iconocrat and iconoclast are
equally
invested in the
political power
of
the
image: they
differ
only
in their
ways
of
managing
that
power
and
directing
it for their
own aims.
By way
of
contrast,
the second
part
of the
essay
turns to a
trilogy
of recent
films
by
Russian director Alexander
Sokurov,
each
dealing
with a different twentieth-cen
tury
ruler who was an icon of absolute
power: Hitler, Lenin,
and Hirohito. Buck-Morss
argues
that these films "are not about the
sovereign power
of national
leaders;
they
are
about the
sovereign power
of the
visual,
the
experience
of the
image
and how it relates to
political
belief
[186].
Sokurov
depicts
these modern icons not at their
heights
of
power,
but as
impotent, powerless,
and
dying
men: not the
exceptional tyrants
we
expect,
but
men
absolutely unexceptional
in their visceral
humanity.
If "the iconoclastic desire is for
evil rulers to be
responsible
for historical
catastrophes,
so that true
sovereignty
can be re
stored,
and
humanity
redeemed"?a desire that
ultimately
sustains the
myth
of
sovereign
power?Sokurov
"turns this
logic
inside out. The
sovereign
is not
responsible.
Absolute
rulers are
powerless.
And the audience
disappointment begins
to set
up
its own
economy"
[186].
The
emphasis
here is on the
popular dispersion
of
power
instead of its
mythic unity
in the
figure
of the
sovereign
ruler. Buck-Morss's
summary understanding
of the chal
lenge
of Sokurov's films
may
therefore be
applied
to all of the
essays
in this
special
issue;
they
each offer
up
for critical examination our
complicity?theoretical
and
practical?in
the construction of
sovereign power through
its
captivating apotheosis
of the state of
pure
exception.
diacritics / summer-fall 2007 9
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