Editor’s Letter: Whose Fears? Which Life? What Security
These are difficult times, often characterized as times of fear. The discourse on fear disseminated in popular media grips and propels politics and cultures across the world today, but does so perhaps especially in the beleaguered modern West. Alex Gourevitch, in his contribution to the Doxa At Large section, argues compellingly that a politics originating in a climate of fear is in fact an antipolitics that subverts, defers, and obviates politics, especially politics directed at securing social justice, be it at the national or global level.
According to Gourevitch, the politics of fear is pervasive and enduring. Just as its recently dominant species, associated with the war on terror, begins to abate (at least in the presidential rhetoric of Barack Obama), it has found a more potent and possibly less falsifiable vehicle in environmentalism, as evoked and enunciated by the likes of Al Gore. While tracing the genealogy of modern fears from Thomas Hobbes and John Locke to post – World War II liberal theorists such as Judith Shklar and Isaiah Berlin (and even to G. B. Macpherson, a voice from the Left) to contemporary “risk society” theorists like Ulrich Beck, Gourevitch observes a critical, and somewhat chilling, shift. Fears have mutated, along with the security apparatus, both material and ideological, that has arisen to address these fears. Unlike Hobbes and Locke, one no longer fears the loss of that which makes life, social as well as moral, worth living, be it freedom or solidarity embedded in a palpable form of life. Instead, one fears the loss of life itself on a planetary scale. The ensuing politics, or “biopolitics” à la Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, is now geared to secure “the care, control, and uses of bare life.” The security state apparatus that grows out of such an imperative to preserve and foster life is accompanied by a rhetoric of humanity’s common fate that calls upon its addressee to set aside pressing problems related to inequality, discrimination, and social injustice and enlist in the transcendent mission of saving the world from extinction by various threats — proliferation of nuclear weapons, global terrorism, and now environmental degradation. Thus the world of a deliberating citizen who might choose between political alternatives that could shape a collective moral life steadily shrinks under the weight of such an imagined emergency.
While Gourevitch alerts us to the globalized variants of a politics of fear, now incarnated in environmentalism, the three additional essays in the first half of this issue expose the reader to locally bound variations on the politics of fear and the security practices associated with it. These essays seem to suggest that the politics of fear, though pervasive, is not monolithic, nor does it always entail debilitating antipolitics. As one begins to explore the emergent politics of fear, it may be prudent to put in play these detotalizing questions: whose fears, which life, what security?
In the second Doxa, Irit Katz Feigis describes a rather odd space, politically marked and perfectly capable of inducing fear among those who inhabit and traverse it. Until recently, a certain portion of the border between Israel and Egypt ran through the basement of a private house in the town of Rafah. In the surrounding borderland, there is a dense underworld of tunnels and shadows — dense with people digging, paving, hiding, and scurrying, mixing militancy and commerce, as they ferry arms as well as daily provisions under the ever-present fear of detection, demolition, and death. This is a vexed space of fear and loathing but also one of inventiveness and confabulation. How might one read such a space and its politics? Katz Feigis, drawing on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s notion of a “minor literature” based on their reading of Franz Kafka, characterizes the built space of these borderlands as approaching a version of “minor architecture.” According to Katz Feigis, the everyday spatial and architectural syntax of incessant construction, demolition, and reconstruction in the occupied territories of Israel/Palestine is best imagined and understood, analogically, in the way Kafka’s writings in the idiom of the “minor” subverts and survives while coursing through the arteries of a “major” language and literature. Here, while fear is palpably present, it does not empty out the politics of minor actions that quietly undermine the occupying authorities’ regimented spatial order; the sheer density of habitation conceals a labyrinthine underworld of escape, flight, and freedom. Thus minor architecture sets the stage — provides the conditions of possibility — where “minor action evolves, born of a consciousness that is aware of its own limitations, and that allows the refugee the possibility of realizing his freedom.”
In his essay “ ‘Sensitive but Unclassified,’ ” Joseph Masco draws readers even closer to the concerns and sentiments expressed by Gourevitch, perhaps because we are back in the belly of the last superstate. Masco recounts how the “security state” came to be established in the United States in two phases: during the Cold War and during the more recent war on terror. In the first phase, atomic weapons played a key role in preparing the public to yield to the claims and protocols of the security state; in the second, the mystifying ethos of secrecy surrounding atomic weapons was renewed and recalibrated with weapons of mass destruction (including weapons of biological warfare) in another effort to persuade the public to accept a new set of restrictions on the freedom of information precisely at a time when the technologies of information were becoming unruly. In addition to offering this narrative account, Masco identifies a series of troubling consequences stemming from the institution of the security state: society becoming accustomed to a state of permanent war (especially with regard to information control), the repositioning of citizen-subjects into quasi-warriors against an imaginary and ever-present threat, the impairment of the deliberative democratic process, the collapse of the distinction between information and judgment, the impairment of effective and rational policy making, and systemic administrative deception. The most troubling aspect of this development is made evident in Masco’s forceful analysis of an expanding category of government information known as “sensitive but unclassified (SBU)” and the “mosaic theory” that explains and justifies deployment of that category. With SBU designation, information not officially classified as a state secret can be simply withheld from public access and circulation. This can lead to paradoxical situations. For instance, a photographic image of a nuclear device known as B-61, as Masco discovers, is both in the public domain (in a widely distributed publication of the Department of Energy) and also withheld from it. The odd status of SBU gives state agencies enormous power to selectively control public access to information deemed sensitive without having to adhere to the rules and requirements of classifying it as a state secret. The SBU category is, in turn, justified by something called the mosaic theory, according to which any single piece of information alone, the image of B-61, say, may not be sensitive or critical, nor required to be classified, but when combined or pieced together with other pieces of information available to hostile forces could turn lethal and compromise national security. The combination of SBU and the mosaic theory renders virtually any piece of information potentially harmful. Thus, as Masco points out, the secrecy-threat matrix erected by the security state is generative of yet another version of the politics of fear, one that is certainly antiknowledge, if not antipolitics.
In Helene Risør’s essay, the reader is asked to contemplate images not of nuclear weapons but of hanging dolls, twenty at a time, that simulate and announce the scene of the lynching of thieves by los vecinos (the neighbors) in the city of El Alto, Bolivia. Here, once again, there is fear and loathing on the margins of a state — not exactly a failed state, but a corrupt and ineffective one — that allows “civil insecurity” to run rampant, especially among the poor neighborhoods, prompting their inhabitants to take the violent rendering of justice into their own hands. Risør characterizes lynching action and its simulated projection via the hanging dolls (both ostensibly intended to deter crime), collectively calibrated and executed but not acknowledged, as part of a grounded enactment of citizenship.
The action is perverse, certainly, but political nonetheless. Fear is experienced and articulated in different ways by neighbors afraid of being robbed of the little they have by the “strangers,” by those in the “white taxis.” Here fear functions within a restricted rather than a generalized economy of signs. The remedies are specific and targeted, even though misrecognitions and misfirings abound. In the absence of the state, lynching becomes a subaltern security measure.
Clearly, the models of insecurity vary widely from the labyrinthine underworld of Rafah to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to the neighborhoods of El Alto. This variability has much that is related to the power and proximity of the state. Moreover, those who have little to lose appear to be more politically engaged than those who have everything to lose, especially when everything becomes inflated as the “life,” not of this or that individual, but of an imaginary “we,” be it national or global. Hence, when confronted with the ubiquitous politics of fear today, one might insist upon contextualization by questioning: whose fears, which life, what security?
The second half of this issue is a special section — “ Dossier on Sexual Boundaries, National Identities, and Transnational Migrations in Europe” — guest edited by Éric Fassin and Judith Surkis, consisting of four essays (by Fassin, Surkis, Rita Chin, and Agnieszka Graff) and an introductory photo-essay (by Fassin and Surkis). The general thematic frame of the section is generated by contemporary debates over the assimilability of Muslim immigrants in Europe, debates that, as these authors argue, increasingly turn on the issue of the immigrant group’s apparent resistance to sexual modernity (as evident in their alleged homophobia) and to gender modernity (as evident in their alleged patriarchal religion/culture that subordinates women). Each of the essays, including the photo-essay, makes a crucial critical intervention in these unfolding debates. Fassin interrogates the related notions of “sexual modernity” and “sexual democracy” and shows how crucially they shape and position the European immigration debate. Surkis analyzes how the legal concept of “annulment,” deployed ostensibly to deal with two unacceptable types of marriages — “ forced” and “fake,” together with all the slippages between the two types — has become politically charged in the panic over Islamic marriage and immigration. Chin provides a historical account of how gender was deployed as a central category for articulating the incommensurable cultural difference between Germans and Turks in the 1970s and 1980s — and the unintended complicity of West German feminists in promoting that way of differentiating and othering. Graff analyzes how the distinctively nationalist framing of homophobia by right-wing parties in Poland is closely related to its vexed relation to the European Union and the dynamics of EU integration promoting sexual modernity. Contrasting Polish homophobia to that of the Muslim immigrants, Graff trenchantly sums up the problematic of power and identity in play: “To put it crudely: the question is not are you a homophobe, but can you afford to be one?” Finally, the introductory photo-essay by Fassin and Surkis focuses primarily on the controversial Serbian artist Tanja Ostojic´, whose life and works — from “EU Panties” to “Looking for a Husband with EU Passport” — ceaselessly blur sexual boundaries and deconstruct European identities.
With this issue my nearly two-decade- long association with Public Culture in varied editorial capacities comes to an end. During that period, I have had the privilege of working with three brilliant pioneering editors — the late Carol Breckenridge, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Claudio Lomnitz; three creative and wise managing editors — Robert McCarthy, Kaylin Goldstein, and Plaegian Alexander; three dedicated and enthusiastic assistant editors — Ronald C. Jennings, Siva Arumagam, and Stephen Twilley; and an innovative Web editor — Craig Zheng.
The editorial committee that reads, reviews, selects, comments on, and guides manuscripts toward publication is pivotal to the effectiveness of the editorial process. Public Culture has always been fortunate to have a band of brilliant and engaged scholar-intellectuals on its editorial committee. The journal has, in addition, been able to draw on the counsel and contributions of a distinguished array of associate, senior, and contributing editors. It has been my good fortune, and something I will always treasure, to have been able to work closely with so many fine thinkers, especially the members of the present committee — Faisal Devji, Mamadou Diouf, Marilyn Ivy, Claudio Lomnitz, Elizabeth Povinelli, Janet Roitman, Katie Trumpener, and Candace Vogler. I would like to express my gratitude to this extraordinary group of scholar-colleagues.
There are, however, those whose kindness and collaboration require special notice. In the early years, it was Carol Breckenridge who steadily drew me, as she drew so many others, into the orbit of Public Culture and entrusted me with varied tasks and responsibilities. It was her vision and tireless effort in the first decade of the journal’s life that laid the foundation for what it is today, the premier interdisciplinary journal in cultural anthropology, media and cultural studies, postcolonial and subaltern studies, and modernity and globalization studies. With so capacious a horizon, one had little choice but to learn to fly intellectually, with an occasional mishap. Robert McCarthy, who served as the managing editor during some of those early years with considerable wit and wisdom, made sure that mishaps were minimal and innovations were well-paced. In more recent years, the editorial office has been managed with a rare combination of creativity and meticulousness by Plaegian and her three assistant editors. During this transitional year, Plaegian and Stephen have managed the editorial office with unsurpassed grace and humor in the face of continuing uncertainty. For that steadfastness, the entire Public Culture community is indebted to them. Finally, my own inexhaustible debt is to Elizabeth Povinelli and Claudio Lomnitz. Over the last decade, the three of us worked very closely, and I learned a great deal simply by observing how Beth’s roving brilliance was invariably matched by Claudio’s precision-laced depth in our conversations about the direction and contents of Public Culture. There is more to Beth and Claudio than the quality of their minds; they are frank yet kind. Professional collaborations are occasionally generative of friendships. Such has been the fortunate outcome of my association with Beth and Claudio. One could not ask for more.