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Humanities on the Edge Lecture Review: Gregg Lambert

The crowd in the Sheldon Museum sat slightly perplexed last Thursday as this unsettling recording of Antonin Artuad’s To Have Done With the Judgement of God (1947) played while the lecturer - Gregg Lambert - remained seated:

Lambert, current Dean’s Professor of Humanities at Syracuse University and co-founder of the Perpetual Peace Project, took the podium, explaining how Artaud's piece interrogates the American system of manufacturing its population into soldiers, segueing into the notion of thanatopolitics and the title of Lambert’s lecture: “To Have Done With the State of Exception.” As the theme for this year’s Humanities on the Edge lecture series, the “state of exception” refers to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s modernized understanding of Carl Schmitt's argument concerning a permanent state of order where what was once considered the exception becomes the rule. Of particular interest to Lambert, however, is the collision of sovereign power and its symbolic representation, as well as the “organic choices” made on the part of the sovereign (or more specifically, how those decisions are made). In other words, Lambert doesn’t necessarily critique Agamben or Schmitt on the definition of their terms but, because sovereignty is instantiated when the state of exception comes into being, Lambert critiques how and where Agamben employs his understanding of the sovereign.

Moving to the theories of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Lambert then mapped out how sovereignty had been linked to atomic warfare prior to Agamben’s focus on the camps. For Foucault, this meant highlighting his notion of governmentality along with the suggestion that “politics is war by other means.” But, as Lambert indicated, warfare had undergone two vital modifications shifting Foucault’s meaning of sovereignty: large scale war with permanent armies and genocide. Lambert then brought up Derrida’s prognostication that an arms race or “war of speed” might decide the fate of humanity and other species, calling into question Agamben’s focus on the camp instead of (what could be a more revelatory site of exception) an immediate and seemingly imminent global war.

Lambert bases his premise on what he believes are the effects atomic war has on Agamben’s “zone of indistinction” as mapped out in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. For Agamben, the sovereign creates these zones as a new biopolitical element where zoe and bios become indistinguishable. Agamben describes zoe as “the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods)” and bios as “indicat[ing] the form or way of living proper to an individual or group” (Homo Sacer 1). Lambert suggested that nuclear war destroys this distinction because of the change in decision-making adapted to atomic war, and the lingering impact of earlier modes of choice.

Here the lecture turned to its most nuanced concern: the distinction between a classical conception of the sovereign and a more modernized one. Lambert worked with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and the Hobbesian image of the sovereign as a head and body comprised of smaller human bodies to establish the outdated notion typical of monarchical rule. Contrasting that image is a “new leviathan”, with the same body, but headless; power is no longer vested in a prince à la Machiavelli, but is instead found within technological systems and the exercise of biopower. As Lambert pointed out, the need for organic decision-making remains constant in both constructions, yet the decision made in “nuclear war is always haunted by increasing forms of complexity.” The complication of decision, combined with the smaller window of decision-making afforded by nuclear war, allowed for Lambert to move discussion into the realm of the symbolic.

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Working with Agamben’s suggestion that the camp has become the new hidden modern paradigm, Lambert turned to how the sovereign decision is viewed as a symbol in both accounts of the leviathan. Stressing the temporal importance of the symbol as decision, Lambert argued that the “symbolic creation of the other” leads to a demarcation in time: for example, before the camp and after the camp--a world before, and a world after. But we would not have the symbol of the camp without the technologies that made it possible, and we can imagine anything as long as the apparatus precedes us. While Lambert belabored this temporal impact because of the historical divide it created, the reasoning for its inclusion seemed somewhat unrelated. If the question is how the decision as symbol is impacted due to the political environment in which it occurs, then how important is the genesis of the environment? Ultimately though, this section of the lecture allowed Lambert to raise the problem he sees with the decision as symbol: the hybridization of an organic decision negotiated by technological representations of power, or a network/program of discrete, micro-decisions similar to Deleuze’s control mechanisms. His discussion suggested that, in the absence of a clear subject, there lacked organic choice--which allowed for a moment of levity when Lambert discussed the sovereign symbol in relation to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. The director had said that the cause for the film was to inquire into a hypothetical situation in which President Kennedy might drink LSD-laced coffee. Without a clear subject making decisions, this hybrid representation yields a new type of leviathan more monstrous than its predecessors.

At that point, Lambert argued his new sovereign would have the body as usual, but with the head of a pumpkin. The allusion to the Headless Horseman is apt (albeit goofy) because it successfully connotes both the terror invoked by the new head along with its mysterious re-emergence. As a result, the argument is that we are not only dealing with a sovereignty that is beyond a classical understanding, but even beyond a more modern representation signified by the body without a head. This shift highlights our inadequacy to identify with this new form of sovereignty and, as a result, calls into question the relationship between the current sovereign decision and the possibility for a state of exception as espoused by Agamben. The argument is a valid one: regardless of how comparable the modern nomos is to that of homo sacer, Agamben still derives his theory from Roman codexes that contained no fathomable understanding of atomic warfare (or a state of emergency brought about by an event like 9/11, which Lambert vehemently suggested “changed everything.”) In working with this new type of sovereign decision (as a new symbol), Agamben’s structure of sovereignty and decision-making may indeed be unequipped with the proper tools to correctly handle the state of exception as it exists in the framework outlined by Lambert.

The most striking aspect of Lambert’s critique was the approach it took through the intrinsic elements of the state of exception, as opposed to a critique of the concept itself or of Agamben’s reading of Schmitt. Still, it would be interesting to hear Agamben’s retort, particularly to the claim about his consistent use of Roman law and its homology with how modern political and juridical practices impact the social sphere.

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(visiting lecturer Gregg Lambert with Roland Végső, Humanities on the Edge co-founder)

-Chandler Warren and Zach Mueller

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995

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