Monday, November 2, 2009

Public Enemy

"In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates."

With his exceptional acumen and erudition, Daniel Heller-Roazen traces in his new book, The Enemy of All, a painstakingly detailed genealogy of the figure of the pirate. Predominately an analysis of the strange legal status of piracy, the book interlaces texts from the history of political theory, philosophy, and literature in order to show how “the common enemy of all,” as Cicero calls the pirate, morphed in mediaeval times into “the enemy of the human species,” and then, in Modernity, into “the enemy of humanity.”

Traversing the liquid paths of the high seas, pirates operate in a lawless, soveringless state of exception, and they are treated by jurists accordingly: like the “illegal enemy combatants” of the recent “war on terror,” their actions occupy a zone of indistinction between the criminal and the political, and so they are protected by neither the civil law nor the law pertaining to prisoners of war. As a deputy assistant attorney general in the Bush administration once put it, “Why is it so hard for people to understand that there is a category of behavior not covered by the legal system? What were pirates?” Or, as Heller-Roazen phrases it in the closing pages of his book, Why is it still difficult for many to realize that we are currently moving “toward a perpetual war,” where man is a pirate to man, where sovereign power can do anything to whomever is labeled “the enemy of all”?

This book will surely be read by some as an indispensable addendum to Agamben’s Homo Sacer, but it also seems to contain the seed of a yet-to-be-developed radical thought. Enemies, Heller-Roazen explains, are traditionally divided into two categories: private and public. A private enemy (inimicus, a negation of amicus, the friend) is an individual who seeks to hurt another individual, and takes pleasure in doing so. A public enemy (hostis) stands for a nation that does not act with hatred but with a sense of right, making claims against another nation, or refuses its claims, and wages an open war in their name. The public enemy, 18th century philosophers of law claim, is a political figure who fights for a political cause. There is, however, a more ancient distinction that contrasts the public enemy with the bandit. While the former receives a mandate from a sovereign and thus has certain rights, is treated as an equal, and fought against according to prescribed conventions, the latter is literally an “out-law,” or an “unlawful enemy”: he is a pirate to whom no pledge can be made, and with whom no oath is binding. Like a shadow of the public enemy, there is no need to declare war before the bandit or the pirate is attacked, and there are no rules that must be followed in the process of his elimination.

To the modern ear, the expression “public enemy” means something completely different. With a semantic somersault that has to do as much with the mass media as it does with law enforcement, the most wanted criminals in the modern state (most notably American gangsters) were given a name that was reserved until then for the legitimate enemy in a traditional war between nations. In the society of the spectacle, the “public enemy number one” is not just infamous but also, quite plainly, famous. As Benjamin observes, when the army, police, and secret services obtain a complete monopoly on violence, the “great criminals” arouse the secret admiration of the public, no matter how abominable their means or ends may be, simply because they exist outside the law. A great criminal is not just a regular criminal on a larger scale. As a public enemy, he becomes a mythological figure (to use Barthes’s term) that functions as a menace to the social, political, juridical, and economic orders, and evokes, precisely for this reason, a not-so-secret fascination in the minds of so many people. But what is a better paradigm of the “great criminal” in Western culture than the pirate? Could it be that the “enemy of all” and the “public enemy”--two figures that used to be opposite--are closer to one another than they appear?

Though the criminals recorded in the archives of the French police that Foucault gathered in “Lives of Infamous Men” were not always the sort of notorious figures that captivated the attention of an entire nation, Agamben believes that they are perfect examples of how “the encounter with power pulls from darkness and silence human existences that would otherwise not have left any traces.” From private, unknown enemies, they become (usually against their will) public enemies--and here we use the term “public” in the strict Arendtian sense of the word: they are political figures the moment they set sail for the liquid paths of the modern public sphere. By using what society deems inglorious means, public enemies can achieve glory, even immortality, within the shimmering light of appearances (Chuck D was clearly aware of this argument when he named his hip hop group "Public Enemy").

Granted, the juridical no man’s land in which the pirate and his modern descendants dwell is indeed a serious problem with ruinous consequences. Good-old liberals will continue to fight for the inclusion of those “enemies of all” within an agreed-upon legal code, as well as for the restoration of their human rights. Bad-new anarchists, however, know better. What is certain about the Tiqqun affair is that the French government made a textbook mistake that we are well-familiar with since the days of the Greeks and Romans: try to get rid of a “public enemy” like Socrates or Jesus, and the result is a wild proliferation in the popularity of the ideas that these “common enemies” stood for (of course, not all public enemies are born equal; some just idly fascinate us for a while until another one comes along). Not many people cared about the “Invisible Committee” and its philosophy before last year’s events. Now put the word “tiqqun” in Google Trends and see what happens: it is no longer a local curiosity, but a global phenomenon. Assuming that the ideas of Julien Coupat and his friends are indeed “dangerous,” could it be that today they are no longer the enemies of France, but literally the “enemies of all”? And is it fair to say that their incarceration only worked in their favor?

In 1964, Andy Warhol was commissioned to create a mural for the exterior of the New York Pavilion in the World Fair. His submission comprised of enormous black and white silk-screened plates, prepared from mug shots of the thirteen most wanted men on the FBI list. Just before the opening, a word came from above, probably from the office of Robert Moses, the most powerful man in New York and the director of the Fair, ordering the swift and complete alteration of the work. Warhol’s decision to paint on top identical portraits of Moses enraged Philip Johnson, the architect of the pavilion, and so eventually the artist decided to cover them over in a single reflective silvery color. Though Thirteen Most Wanted Man--made by the man who understood the notion of fame better than anyone else--was only seen by a handful of people before it was destroyed, it remains not only one of his most powerful works, but also a perfect meditation on the idea of infamy, and its perpetual persistence in face of the attempts to cover it up.

What makes the public enemy such a potent figure is that any attempt of the powers that be to reduce his being to a bare life, to expose his body to random acts of violence, and eventually to kill him with impunity, is usually not only futile, but also counter-productive. The reason for this is simple: the public enemy’s form of life is a life that cannot be separated from its form.

No comments: