-Bruno Gullì (2012)[Paper read at Left Forum 2012; Panel: Forms of Sovereignty, Instances of Violence]
In my book Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor (2010), I introduce and stress the notion of ‘dignity of individuation.’ I say that this dignity of individuation is the same as the concept of singularity, admittedly a difficult concept. The dignity of individuation is a hybrid concept. It relates to the principle of individuation, one of the most important concepts in philosophy. For instance, we find it in John Duns Scotus’s great notion of haecceitas (thisness), that is, what makes something the something that it is; we also find in Leibniz’s concept of the notion of an individual substance (and Leibniz himself relates his concept to Duns Scotus’s haecceitas; but we also find it in Aristotle’s tode ti (this something or some this). From principle of individuation I cross out, as it should be done and as others have done, the word (and concept) ‘principle’; we are then left with individuation, the idea of what it is to be something, anything, whatever. This, without a ‘principle,’ which might re-inscribe everything into a hierarchical order, left to itself…, individuation as such, is horizontal, and it is the seed of democratic thinking. Not just the seed; it is democratic thinking and practice in its unstoppable unfolding.
In Earthly Plenitudes, I combine ‘individuation’ with ‘dignity.’ This latter concept, dignity, I say, relates to at least two great traditions: on the one hand, it is a Kantian concept. Immanuel Kant famously distinguishes between ‘dignity’ and ‘price.’ In the kingdom of ends, he says, where everyone is a legislator and thus sovereign, there is dignity and there is price. Whatever has a price (later, we know, that will be a commodity) can be replaced (by whatever has the same price; or as Marx will say, exchange value, for value and price are different). But what has dignity is irreplaceable. Dignity itself cannot be replaced. It is a ‘such this,’ ‘this this,’ which ‘that this,’ another this, will not be able to replace. On the other hand, dignity is an important concept in the great Zapatista tradition, as well as in many other revolutionary discourses and situations. The struggle is for dignity, against the dubious dignity of dignitaries, the political class for instance, which must go.
However, after writing Earthly Plenitudes, and certainly in the wake of the Arab Spring and then here the Occupy Movement, I realized that all talk of dignity alone may simply be misused, abused, and also belittled, or looked at in a condescending way. I realized, in other words, that dignity is too precious to be given away, wasted, in contexts that are by their very nature undignified and undignifying: just like poetry is. What dignity can you talk about with an Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying women who are already in police custody, with a John Pike pepper-spraying students who are peacefully demonstrating? And of course the list goes on to infinity. Dignity will come, that’s for sure, but it will have the force of a political and cultural tsunami, an upheaval; it will come at the end of this sudden movement. In itself, dignity is not the ‘such this’ of the movement, its current and manifest form of individuation; it is instead its mystery, which must remain hidden, concealed, as its own secret power, its subterranean potency. What then must (and will) manifest itself, as dignity remains concealed, is precisely this power, this potency. Thus, before we can even speak of the dignity of individuation, we must be able and willing to speak of the power of individuation, the potency of individuation. It is this power, horizontal and democratic, the power of any such this, which will be able (if any power can be) to destroy and overcome all forms of sovereignty, neutralize all instances of violence; being that revolutionary, pure and divine violence of which Walter Benjamin speaks, and which he still calls “sovereign violence,” but which is really neither sovereign nor is it violence. It is instead something that belongs to a new order altogether; and order that can so far only be perceived as disorder; as Hobbes says in his Leviathan, the disorder of the disunited multitude.
This power, this new power, which is grounded in dignity and aims at the destruction of what blocks dignity from fully actualizing itself, is similar, I believe to the new nonsovereign power sought by Michel Foucault. In “Society Must Be Defended”, his 1975-1976 Lectures at the Collège de France, Foucault says that “we should look for a new right that is both antidisciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty” (p.40). I believe that this new right is the dignity of individuation, as well as the power of individuation (a sort of anti-power, or counter-power, or what Hardt and Negri call biopolitics in their recent book, Commonwealth). Without the power of individuation, any talk of dignity may simply change nothing. To be sure, Foucault’s new and nonsovereign power is not necessarily, certainly not immediately, a counter-power and the power of individuation. In fact, this new power is disciplinary power, which at one point (in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he holds) replaces or complements sovereign power (which Foucault sees as a more traditional form of power). Foucault is not very consistent in his views of whether there is a substitution of one form of power with another (disciplinary power taking the place of sovereign power) or whether the two forms coexist, but the latter view seems stronger, and indeed applicable even in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The shift from one form of power to the other is also a shift from sovereignty to domination, many forms of domination. Personally, I don’t think that they are mutually exclusive. True, there is always domination in sovereignty, though there can be domination without sovereignty. However, every instance of domination, every instance of violence, brings with itself a residue of the paradigm of sovereignty, which always includes a structure of separation. Formally, there may not be sovereignty, but only sheer domination and raw violence, as is the case with episodes of police brutality. Indeed, there are situations in which the classic formula of transcendence and separation which gives sovereignty its name is simply not there. However, in order to legitimate sheer domination and raw violence one always goes back to the logic of sovereignty; one uses sovereignty to justify the event of domination and violence. And of course this ‘one’ is mainly and most notably the State. Yet, the State is not the only one. We find the same situation in the family, for instance, in the workplace, and even in interpersonal relations that are (or may be) beyond the family or the workplace.
We can then say that, one way or the other, sovereignty is always part of the picture. When there is ground for legitimizing the exerted violence, the sign of sovereignty is explicit. When on the other hand there is no way of legitimizing violence, the sign of sovereignty is there perhaps only implicitly. I will give an example for each case, though there is sadly an immense quantity of possible situations that could be used to exemplify this. For the former case let’s think of when in September of 2011 many faculty members of the City University of New York gathered in front of Baruch College (where the CUNY Board of Trustees meets) to protest the elimination of health insurance for a large number of adjuncts. This was around the same time that the Occupy Wall Street movement began. We were met with a disproportionate and unbelievable display of force by the NYPD. Plastic handcuffs hanging from the trousers of so many police officers that one wondered what was going on in their minds, as well as of course in the police commissioner’s and in the mayor’s minds. Were they ready to arrest those who educate
people who worked for the same agency, the City of New York City (our city), were placed in a hierarchical
order of superior to inferior, and the ones against the others. This order,
which wasn’t neutral, was based on violence. The officers’ menacing posture, of
disciplinary power and surveillance, was already and abuse of power, as
violence always is. Yet, from the point of view of the established order, it
did of course have legitimacy. Similar situations would soon be repeating
themselves in the following months in New
and other cities. Oakland
An example of the latter case (in which the sign of sovereignty is only implicitly there, but in which it is harder to make a case for legitimacy) would be any clear episode of police brutality. Here one will immediately recognize the abuse of power in the violence of the police: there is no legitimacy, yet the sign of sovereignty (the separation typical of it) is still there. Of course, this is also the structure one finds in those situations of violence that are considered, in a straightforward manner, criminal acts. Here, too, whether is it a random act of violence or a more deliberate and intentional one, we can detect the sign (however temporary and fleeting, thus perhaps the shadow of a sign) of sovereignty. What I am trying to do here is highlight the separation of sovereignty (whether it’s really existing or simply illusory: a delusion in someone’s mind) as the relation of a superior to an inferior, and thus inherently racist. Sovereignty is a racist concept, and if it is not sovereignty that creates violence but perhaps the other way around, violence creates sovereignty, yet sovereignty gives violence a basis, a firm support, an illusory affirmation of itself as somehow necessary, or an outright sense of legitimacy and rightfulness.
Foucault speaks of racism, and State racism (p.239), in terms of biopolitics, a “new nondisciplinary power…applied not to man-as-body but to the living man, to man-as-living-being; … to man-as-species” (p.242). This means, to a multiplicity of human beings. These human beings are now not simply “disciplined, but regularized” (p.247). It is the power of regularization, the norm, the power of normalization, although the norm of discipline and the norm of regularization intersect (p.253). For Foucault, racism is the modality whereby sovereignty survives in the regime of normalization: “If the power of normalization wished to exercise the old sovereign right to kill, it must become racist. And if, conversely, a power of sovereignty, or in other words, a power that has the right of life and death, wishes to work with the instruments, mechanisms, and technology of normalization, it too must become racist” (p.256). Basically, “[o]nce the State functions in the biopower mode, racism alone can justify the murderous function of the State” (ibid.). And here Foucault means “also every form of indirect murder,” and not “simply murder as such” (ibid.).
State racism becomes common, informing and supporting not simply the strongest instances of institutional violence: war, capital punishment, the prison, the police; but also those instances that still take place within yet perhaps at the margins of the institutions: atrocities in war, abuses in the prison system, and cases of police brutality – not speak about the generalization of violence (racist violence) in society as a whole.
It is important to ask the question of what power can alter this racism that, as Foucault says, “first develops with colonization, ..., with colonizing genocide” (p.257). The power of individuation, pointing to its source (or motor) and end, the dignity of individuation, is an altering power of this type. The power of the 99%, to use the language of the Occupy Movement, of those who have “nothing to sell except their own skins,” to use the Marx of “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation” (chapter 26 of Capital, Vol. I), when he ironically retells the fairy-tale of how it came to pass that we have a world of property and propertylessness, wealth and poverty, rights and mere, bare skin: a racist world of sovereign violence. In fact, Marx continues, “[i]n actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force [violence], [played and] play the greatest part” (p.295).
Benjamin, Walter. 1978. “Critique of Violence.” In Reflections. Trans. Edmund Jephcott.
: Shocken Books. New
Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”. Lectures at the Collège de France 1975-1976. Trans. David Macey.
Gullì, Bruno. 2010. Earthly Plenitudes: A Study on Sovereignty and Labor.
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri.
. Belknap Press
of Harvard 2009.
Marx, Karl. 1977. Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes.
: Vintage New