Pandemics and Protests | Bregham Dalgliesh

by Critical Asia

by Bregham Dalgliesh, Dec. 2020】

As the world emerges haphazardly from a state of emergency that locks down our primordial freedom of movement, we might take a moment to imagine what it is like to live permanently immobilised in a state of exception. While the former confers temporary extra-legal powers on the government to manage a crisis, the latter allows a whimsical sovereign to suspend the rule of law altogether. Fortunately, most of us reside where rights are respected, but within each society quasi micro-states of exception give carte blanche to persecution. It leeches off the norms that circulate in the capillary networks that constitute the social, where laws are either historically silent, or their capacity to guide our conduct through an appeal to reason is no match for the purchase of the norm on our prejudices.

Because norms circulate on the quiet, they provide a fertile ground for the violence that upholds domination in modern societies across the globe. For groups perpetually locked down in marginal zones, life is reduced to the status of a virus. Prejudicial norms that seek to contain it subject these marginal lives to a “regime of socio-spatial relegation and exclusionary closure” (Wacquant 2008, 2). Barred from any sense of belonging to the collective imaginary, marginalisation gnaws its way through self-esteem, too. Yet deviation from the norms that uphold social order is often inadvertent. The abnormality which is the pretext for bulldozing groups into the margins is often out of our hands, as well as the reason they are tied (Bauman 2000). Deviation might be due to what we are (black under a pigmentocracy), our lack of fit in an order designed by others (foreign faculty in a national university), or a deficiency in the cultural capital necessary to live up to the norm that polices the order (women under patriarchy). Although exclusion ranges from the ethical quandary of recognition to the political violence of a knee on the throat, the generalised form of structure is the common denominator. It links protests in Hong Kong over a clash of sovereignties, or Japan regarding the rights of refugees, with demonstrations in Indonesia over the stigmatisation of sexual minorities, or Latin America (GAR 2020), South Africa (Ramaphosa 2019), the Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia (WHO 2017) against the epidemic of gender violence, which is more deadly for women than COVID-19 (Weil 2020).

With Black Lives Matter, for example, protestors constantly refer to “systemic racism.” Likewise, Indian Muslims (as well as those in India) speak out against “Hindu nationalism,” while silenced employees endure “organisational culture.” These are all shorthand for structure. But why did it disappear from our explanatory repertoire in the first place? A neo-liberal discourse that turns on freedom of choice is one reason, with the flipside of the coin the transformation of structural constraints from a collective, political challenge into an individual, private problem. The political has evacuated structural norms from its remit through the promotion of individualisation, which both compels us to choose and abandons us to face the consequences alone. It liberates structurally anchored norms as well, which impose the direct or symbolic violence that characterises micro-group exclusion under a state of exception. Yet the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to rehabilitate structure in the form of a benign global biopolitics to stave off a virus that is indifferent to the territorial attire of the human body. COVID-19 induces an emergency, but it is also an event that disrupts our present and cajoles us to revaluate our norms (Baudrillard 2003, 4). On this note, we might hope COVID-19 awakens us from our slumber and prepares us for the mother of all emergencies, that of the earth’s clothing and constitution. Indeed, if the Gaia hypothesis stands and the planet auto-regulates at the interface between the living and the inorganic, COVID-19 is an antibody against the human form of life that threatens all existence on earth, including its own (DA 2020). At the very least, COVID-19 forces us to rethink who we are from the biological to the imaginary. And it trains us to stand firm against the protagonists from whom structures are now claiming their wages, viz., the gerontocratic patriarchs of America, China and Russia, as well as their wannabee friends and allies (primarily) in the North, who will be the first to rail against the quarantining of movement – although in its unbridled form it is long overdue for a spring clean – when the global state of emergency over our planetary future is declared.

For some, structures sound the death knell of agency, albeit in that negative mode of liberty beloved of the Anglo-Saxon, which operates out of earshot of the law (Hobbes 1985, ch. 21). Of course, the power of the norm embedded in structure does induce performative acts that shape who we are. They also seduce us to see determinism in the structural order. Yet in “its very character as performative resides the possibility of contesting … [and] a different sort of repeating” (Butler 1988, 520). It is thus important to stress that structure here is in fact more akin to a dispositif, which is less a determining cause than a condition of possibility for the strategies of power and forms of knowledge that constitute our ontological practices (Foucault 1980, 184-195). The dispositif is us but – equally and crucially – we are it (Deleuze 1992). Despite its intangible nature and the sense of the dispositif as exogenous to our actions, it only exists because humans perform it in the name of an order. Likewise, the dispositif can seem beyond the reach of renovation, but that is due to the long baking process of history that induces a forgetting of the contingent struggles that birthed it.

What recent events underline is that the next time somebody throws up their hands in response to an inquiry about why things are as they are and says it has always been that way, it is beyond their control or we just have to accept it, it is likely they have a vested interest in the structural dispensation that stymies their will to change and blinds them to how its norms produce exclusion. If “it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate … a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it” (Phoenix 2020), it behoves us to ensure they do not rest on their laurels. It makes critique a permanent task, as Michel Foucault reminds us. In the shadow of Immanuel Kant, it is always a gesture at enlightenment, rather than proof of its arrival, which is why Friedrich Nietzsche lights lanterns each morning (Dalgliesh 2017). They shed light on practices framed by the dispositif that have passed their sell-by date and whose pigment no longer enraptures our imagination. Just as the right of women to access elite universities in Japan has existed since 1946, so black lives have mattered in American law since 1863, yet the lack of progress on the ground suggests a spanner in the works. Again, what makes formal equality enshrined in law merely a token gesture are the norms that rule our perceptual roost, which can only be shaken up by a Gramscian war of position, or critique that targets cultural hegemony (Gramsci 2007, 168). Otherwise we remain pinned down and unable to speak out, except when it is too late and we gasp, “I can’t breathe!”

The dispositif that harbours norms and shapes conduct also reminds us that politics is the continuation of war by other means. If the legitimacy of the liberal legal order derives from the sovereign subject who consensually constitutes justice, politics as struggle shows how norms are deployed as its underbelly in a “silent war to reinscribe … [the] relationship of force [in] … its institutions … and even the bodies of individuals” (Foucault 2003, 16). As a tragic case in point, take the micro state of exception in all but name between Reconstruction (1865-1877) and World War II in the USA. It witnessed the lynching, that is to say, the extra-judicial killing, of over 6,500 black people (EJI 2017), which continues in police violence today because the same racist norms that dehumanised black people – despite the 14th Amendment of 1868 that guarantees equal protection of the laws – endure into the present as imperial debris (Stoler 2016, 5-7). They ensured the law turned a blind eye until the smartness of the phone forced it to see. Out of sight, out of mind, the marginalised do not warrant a blink of the moral eyelid for the self-entitled who surf structures that enable people to be snuffed out because of the colour of their skin, underrepresented at a ratio of 1:5 because of their sex (Ueno 2019), or incarcerated in re-education camps because their faith contravenes central committee orthodoxy. There’s the rub, yet the events of 2020 proffer cautious optimism. Perhaps they are the harbinger of a long overdue politics of love, in which every act is a singular rupture and a creation of the common at the same time (Hardt and Negri 2009, 181-187). In tandem with a politics of the heart wherein the orchid is a becoming-wasp and the wasp a becoming-orchid, critique highlights the anomalies of structures that condition our possibilities. It proffers their caresses, too, through the engagement of citizens in freedom worth that name: the decision to act on the public stage of the common is an ethical question of who you are in relation to the limits of the political and how you recognise others around you (and they you in return). It is also a choice essentially made by our moral intuitions without the crutch of reason. As Desmond Tutu (quoted in McAfee Brown 1984, 19) implies, to be enmeshed in the lives of others is the ethical engagement par excellence, which means when “an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” Whether we become a bridge between the ethical and political depends on our conviction: do or do not do, and even if we fail in the doing – like the tight-rope walker above Zarathustra – our down-going would have answered a calling beyond ourselves and in so doing made a vocation of danger on behalf of the over-going for Greta and the becoming-generations.

Bregham Dalgliesh, University of Tokyo, Japan


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