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The Leslie Center for the Humanities
Dartmouth College
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States of Exception: Sovereignty, Security, Secrecy

A Humanities Institute Co-Directed by George Edmondson and Klaus Mladek. Spring 2009

Increasingly, it seems, we live in a state of emergency no one has declared but to
which everyone subscribes. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, New Orleans, Paris, Lampedusa,
Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Florida: Contemporary politics has
rediscovered the lawless zones — those literal and metaphorical states of exception — to
where the darker practices and fantasies of civilization are outsourced. Sovereignty, once
embodied in the ostentatious pomp of majesty, now gives way to more anonymous
sovereign powers (police, military, security bureaucracies) whose practices, though
muted by comparison, are no less devastating. Moreover, these states of exception have
come to hit home. Have-nots, sans-papiers, refugees across the globe suffer from
expulsion, exploitation, social injustice, genocide, state terrorism, racism, and war.
Spectral and rootless, bereft of formal protections, they import the states of exception into
the wealthy fortresses of the Western world. Meanwhile, the leading statesmen of the
First World, resistant as usual to the transformative potential of the political, have not
much more on their minds than security, order, and secrecy. In the place of democratic
participation or civic debate, we instead get National Security initiatives, so-called
“super-police forces,” intelligence agencies, and invocations of a “unary executive”. We
may have thought that the figure of the sovereign — the ruler who arbitrarily suspends
the law — had disappeared from the West’s political landscape, driven into exile by
scrutiny and revulsion. But we were wrong. The sovereign exception, aided and abetted
by the twin spectres of police intervention and military action, has managed to obtain a
global reach that recently has been called a new imperial power.

The directors of this Institute firmly believe that such grave matters deserve our keenest
attention, not only as scholars and teachers, but also as political beings. We ask
ourselves: Has academia kept up with the rapid political, legal, cultural and social
changes that have taken place in the aftermath of the Cold War? Have the humanities and
social sciences honed their analytical tools to fathom the causes and effects of
contemporary modes of sovereignty, security, and secrecy? Has the complete breakdown
of our political vocabulary, traditionally organized around a binary logic, been
interrogated to the extent necessary? If sovereignty can no longer be understood as the
single point of command above the social field, and if the bodies of the sovereign are
ever more difficult to localize, what new forms and theories of sovereignty must we
develop? What are the differences between legally defined states of exception and factual
states of emergency (for example the state of siege, civil war, famine, and disaster); have
the boundaries between questions of law (quaestio juris) and questions of fact (quaestio
facti) been hopelessly blurred? What happens to democracy and political participation

when the states of exception become permanent and citizens define themselves primarily as potential victims or as mere objects of security measures? How do we explain the emergence of a publicly declared policy of secrecy? And is democracy at all compatible
with an executive power operating in secret? It is no accident that political theorists from
various provenances have, particularly recently, risen from an analytical slumber in order
to present new visions for political engagement. Habermas, Rancière, Nancy, Laclau,
Butler, Nussbaum, Negri and Hardt, Agamben, Derrida, Balibar, Badiou, Zizek,
Bourdieu: The work of each bespeaks the significance of this topic. The problem, then, is
certainly not a lack of awareness or concern. Rather, the challenge is deciding how to
pause, stay calm, and reflect critically on what has happened to the established
parameters of a longstanding political edifice.

One might remain detached when it concerns legal, historical, or metaphysical
figures of sovereignty. Those, after all, are critical abstractions. But can and should we
demand the same cool distance in cases where the power of sovereignty is felt by the
individual? If our answer is a resounding No, it is because the history of the sovereign
exception is also, simultaneously, the history of its passionate critique. Arguably the most
groundbreaking discourse on modern forms of sovereignty begins with a secret dialogue
between Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin in 1922 and ends with Benjamin’s suicide on
the border of Spain in 1940. Schmitt writes of the sovereign exception in 1922: “The
norm proves nothing, the exception proves everything. The exception thinks the rule with
energetic passion.” Benjamin, on the other hand, thinks political passion not from the
standpoint of the resolute sovereign decision, but from below: the suffering of its victims,
the suppressed histories of minorities. In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,”
shortly before his death, Benjamin writes that the “tradition of the oppressed teaches us
that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” Benjamin
then confronts the status quo of a Europe thrust in war and emergency provisions with
the vision of a “true state of exception.” He then urges: “The current amazement that the
things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not
philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge — unless it is the
knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” There could be no
better motto for our Humanities Institute: (1) historiography must continue to rethink its
historicist premises and (2) analysis ought neither begin nor end with an awestruck
amazement or political outrage. To adopt such a motto signals, we hope, that we are
concerned with more than just the shifts and events in contemporary history. On the
contrary, we believe that it is as necessary to learn from past events for a conception of
the present as it is critical to rewrite the past in light of present concerns. Our aim, then, is
to construct a thorough genealogy of the sovereign exception — tracing the concept from
its appearance in antiquity and the Middle Ages to its anatomization in the eighteenth
century to its violent reassertion in the twentieth century — as a means of interrogating
its more diffuse and faceless manifestation today. We believe that our current worldwide
state of exception is neither an anomaly nor a regression. The state of exception, like
sovereignty, security, and secrecy, is inscribed in a powerful history that holds the
potential to mobilize our thinking, acting, and feeling today. This is one reason why we

cannot subscribe to anything so grotesquely ironic as a sovereign theory of sovereignty.

There can be no particular critical framework or set of terms, nor any geographic orhistoric limitation.

The best way of coming to grips with a worldwide state of exception is

to embrace the plurality of scholarly perspectives that help us develop a new
understanding and a better vocabulary for politics in our time.

Our working premise is that states of exception thrive wherever there is a call for
“sovereignty,” “security,” “secrecy” (or even “torture”). These concepts thus assume a
crucial importance, and yet they remain among the most understudied, if overused, words
of our time. This Humanities Institute aims to shed light on this intricate nexus by more
clearly defining the practices, mentalities, ideas, hopes, desires, and theories that enable
the analysis of states of exception as they pertain to sovereignty, security, and secrecy.
We view this Institute as an ideal meeting place for scholars from all walks of life and
from all stages in their respective careers, although junior faculty with backgrounds in
history, political theory, government, philosophy, law, religion, literature, film, art
history, and cultural studies are particularly welcome. Indeed, we have gained a strong
indication that this topic generates a lot of enthusiasm and interest among younger
scholars not only inside the College but also in the academy at large. We therefore see
this Institute as a unique chance to build a long-lasting network of scholars, not only in
the U.S., but also in Europe. As junior faculty, we furthermore perceive this to be a great
opportunity to become acquainted with other scholars from across campus currently
working on similar or related questions.

Although we expect the Institute to generate its own conversational dynamic, we will
initially structure our exchanges around the following cluster of questions:
a) What constitutes a state of exception? What is the role of police and military in
the state of exception? Who do we account for the worldwide withdrawal of law
and the reemergence of torture? Does Benjamin’s “true state of exception” allow
for a different vision of politics and democracy?
b) What is the genealogy of the sovereign exception in a time of more anonymous
manifestations of power?
c) How can we most effectively scrutinize increased demands for security and the
attendant proliferation of secrecy?
d) What would a vocabulary of governance look like freed from such binarisms as
friend versus enemy, peace versus war, public versus private etc.

Last Updated: 2/23/09