Norms // Law: Fictions and Theaters of Power—Bellum Primer Zero

“Only a fiction can make us believe a law is to be respected.” -Michel Foucault

a. on gods and activists: the myth of authority

At a demonstration in Minneapolis on November 10th following the election of Donald Trump, demonstrators moved onto I-94, blocking all lanes of traffic, making use of a tactic that has gained popularity in the Twin Cities since late 2015. A small police line quickly appeared to confront the group. The energy was building, and a large part of the crowd seemed ready to push forward. Suddenly, a line of unidentified people wearing orange vests showed up at the front line and began gesticulating and screaming that everyone needs to sit down. Most of the crowd of a few thousand sat down in waves. What happened? Why did the crowd listen to these unknown leaders? What authority did they possess and how did they communicate it to such a large crowd in such a short period of time?

What happened on the highway that day was theater. The marshals performed before the crowd of thousands and, through a variety of visual cues, gestures, and styles of speaking, demonstrated and performed their authority to the group. The fact that the group followed through with the commands—despite it being impossible that the majority of the thousands gathered knew these individuals—shows that this was not only a theater of spectacle and pleasure. This was a theater of power, of establishing power relations. At the same time, many in the crowd had never been to a demonstration before, and seemed to take great pleasure in being part of something greater than themselves. They smiled as they sat on their knees before heavily armed police. Perhaps it would be more precise to say, then, that if it was a theater of pleasure, the pleasures experienced served to establish and enforce specific relationships and flows of power. For that reason, I believe it would be useful here to turn to one of the oldest forms of representation of pleasure and power in the West, namely, mythology, to see if we can extract some method of thinking through this performance and why the crowd so willingly and joyfully played its part.

Georges Dumézil’s studies on Indo-European representations of sovereignty have much to contribute to a theory of the theater of authority. In his book Mitra-Varuna, he found that the basic representations of sovereign power in Indian, Iranian, Germanic, Greek, and Roman thought (in other words, Indo-European thought) had such remarkable similarities to each other that he formed a paradigm out of them. According to him, mythic authority figures don’t rely on respect or prestige within the group, but rather, tend to appear automatically endowed with territory and powers. Dumézil found that sovereign (or absolute) rulership, typically manifested itself in a bipartite structure: first comes the Terrible Magician-King, and then the Jurist-Priest.

This bipartite structure appears in Roman mythological history as the split between Romulus and Numa, the first two Kings of Rome. Romulus was the first king and a terrible sovereign, who killed his brother and colleagues to become the sole ruling king. According to Plutarch, he antagonized the privileged classes, ordered the Sabine women to be abducted, and invited murderers and other villains to live in Rome. Everything he did was warlike and awful. When he practiced religion, he did so to trick his enemies above all. Romulus founded two cults in his lifetime and both were of different forms of Jupiter—the god of sovereignty and rulership—Jupiter Feretrius (“Jupiter the striker”) and Jupiter Stator (“Jupiter the founder”). The first was founded “in thanks or in fulfillment of a vow” [1] after Romulus killed Acro, the king of Caenina in hand-to-hand combat. The second was founded after the Romans were close to being defeated by the Sabine army. Romulus invoked Jupiter in a terrifying cry: “Dispel the terror of the Romans, and stay their shameful flight!” As if by magic, the morale of the enemy was damaged and the Romans won the day. Magical efficacy wins out over traditional ritual religious practice. Jupiter assists Romulus in founding his kingship by rigging battles to assure Romulus’ victory.

Odin, or Odhin, was the Terrible Magician-King of the Scandinavian and Germanic pantheon. Magician-Kings were often portrayed as being one-eyed, while Jurist-Priests were frequently represented as being one-handed. Both probably relate to sacrifices made in the service of their particular function. In Odin’s case, the god Mimir offered to give Odin vast knowledge of the cosmos and the future if he would sacrifice an eye. Odin’s trade symbolizes the trade of profane, everyday vision for mysterious, magic vision. From an 18th century illuminated manuscript from Iceland by Jakob Sigurðsson.

In Roman myth/history, Romulus the Terrible Magician-King rules with senseless displays of might, surprise, and terror. In Germanic myth, Odin, the “one-eyed God” raises his spear and screams to “terrify the enemy.” Fighting is not necessary. The capture occurs as if by magic. In the shadow of terror, the citizens cowed beneath their new ruler. In the myth of the founding of Rome, Romulus simply puts a wall around the prospective territory, defining the space of law. This is an act of magic for which there is no real basis. These acts of capture are neither foundational acts of collective consensus nor dominating acts of military power, but actions of pure force and spectacle.

The American colonizers were magicians of this sort when they set territorial markers on the New World upon setting up their villages and towns. The Comanche referred to this act of placing wooden markers on the ground as black magic when they first came across them. The origins of American territorial power are dazzling and empty—just stakes in the sand. Police powers are not “established,” they just appear. When asked about the origins of these powers, their representatives merely re-state their necessity while doubting the sanity of a mind that would raise such questions. Activists show up at the public space of a demonstration with orange vests and a list of the organizations they are involved with, dazzling the crowd rather than threatening it. Students are funneled into a building already endowed with a myriad of rules and regulations that they must simply learn. Magical capture is a tautological power with no origin and no justification. Meaningless symbols like orange vests or the spectacular ritual of putting measurements on land give actors a magical authority: an authority that is automatic, unquestionable, distant, and effective. Capture simply binds. But this “simply” means only that there is no deeper, true meaning or justification for this power. The power of the sovereign is ultimately tautological and functional. The performance of this power can manifest as a procession of baroque emotional scenes that walk the subject through their binding with power.

To help the subject walk through the binding, there is a second figure of sovereignty, which Dumézil calls the Jurist-Priest. After capturing the subjects with his dazzling magic, this sovereign figure binds them with duties and rituals. Through their service to him, the citizen become involved in the daily life and practice of law through contracts and rituals. They become pious and faithful through their involvement. Hence, the Jurist-Priest is not magical but juridical, moral, and civil. The Jurist-Priest often presents himself as the exact opposite of the Terrible Magician-King, even as he expands and deepens his power structures. Numa, the second Roman king, had no need to terrify and cow the Romans into submission. It is said they “respected his wisdom” to such a degree that Numa was forced by them to reluctantly become the next king. Where Romulus fetishized and made a theater of war, Numa denounced it and announced a theater of peace and contract; where Romulus raised the battle cry, Numa celebrated the alliances he made with his enemies; where Romulus called upon magic to help him best his enemies, Numa praised the principles of justice and was a traditionalist in matters of religion. The Jurist-Priest conceals the arbitrary history of sovereignty behind false notions of equivalence. You are a citizen. You give to the State and the State gives back to you. The Jurist-Priest demands—or asks very politely—that you register your consent, hiding the fact that the political union was founded on terror. To make matters even more complicated, the Jurist-Priest will most often present his demands in the form of rational principles. The Jurist-Priest presents his vision of power as objective, rational, cultural, or natural, depending on the circumstances.

Tyr, the Jurist-Priest of Scandinavian and Germanic mythology, here confronts Fenrir, a monstrous wolf who, according to prophesy, was to kill Odin and destroy the world. In the Prose Edda, all the gods attempted to tie the wolf with various chains, but failed. They then approached the dwarfs, who were in possession of the strongest chain in the cosmos. Fenrir, however, refused to let any god come near him unless the god placed his hand in his mouth as a collateral. Tyr, the god of oaths and law, was the only one to agree. After tying the chain on Fenrir, he chewed Tyr’s hand off. By acting out of faith and fulfilling the gods’ side of the bargain, “he not only procures the salvation of the gods but also regularizes it: he renders legal that which, without him, would have been pure fraud.”

The “free contract” undertaken by the wage-laborer conceals the original capture or appropriation of materials and spaces by the employer. The employer in this case is able to argue that the wage laborers contract is always voluntary or that nobody is forcing the worker to make a contract. What they leave out is how they came to own the building, the business, the raw materials or what have you. The original capture is concealed. Community policing is presented as a civic duty, but conceals the dreadful history of the police mode-of-perception that sees everything as a mere object of management underneath the image of autonomy. It says “we are all equal in managing the inferior criminals and crazies.” The crowd at a demonstration begins to chant “The people united will never be defeated” without asking who the “people” are, who isn’t included in that unity, and what this chant is functionally doing in that space. Is it silencing someone else? Then the “people” are already divided. The school teacher asks the students to share their experience and then asks them to interpret it given a few self-serving conceptual devices—“what did that teach you about responsibility to the community?” In all these scenarios, one finds themselves already captured in a regime of meaning—in a particular rationality. The key elements of the Jurist-Priest’s invitation to a power relation are faith and participation. All one can do is participate or be excluded.

Neither figure resembles a creator god—nor even a founding hero—in the slightest. The Terrible Magician-King desires only to exploit and manipulate groups that already exist, while the Jurist-Priest seduces them with his prestige and exemplary behavior. Neither generates anything, as the God of the book of Genesis did. They can only attempt to capture those that already exist in certain behavioral schemas. If the Laws of God are thought of as the immutable Laws of Nature, then the laws of the sovereign must be seen as mere attempts to influence behavior. “Bow before me!” says the Terrible Magician-King. “Attend to your duties!” says the Jurist-Priest. The Lord, on the other hand, only really says “It is so.” Put another way, the Law of the Lord determines the order of the cosmos and produces life, while the law of the sovereign imposes a requirement on what already exists, and is a tool for normalizing social and political behavior. The law of the sovereign is a tool in the service of norms. If it is a “law,” it is fundamentally different than the “Laws of Nature” or the “Laws of God,” since they are not imagined to be related to organic life in an essential way.

We in no way believe that the Laws of Nature are in some way “natural” or that “organic life” is an uncontroversial concept. Both so called “generative laws” and “normative laws” are fundamentally forms of power, but it is essential that we know when a power claims to be producing new states of affairs and when it is perceived to be reacting to them if we want to understand how laws and norms function. Generative laws (of nature, organic life, ethnicity, physics, etc.) are imagined to produce something so that it could only express itself in a particular way to exist at all. This is power at an ontological or existential level. “Savage” was always defined by its not being civilized, and, by extension, not human. These are ontological constructs, which produce an object as something particular, so that, if it expresses different traits or is represented in a different way, it ceases to be that thing. A “savage” who learned a European language, lived in the town or city, and dressed in European attire was no longer “savage,” but “civilized,” or, more likely, “half-civilized” since these constructs have a way of haunting those who are perceived to belong to them. Normative laws do not usually claim to produce anything, or claim to exist at the level of our existence. Rather, they interact with a world already cast into chaos and seek to rectify it and return it to order. It would be difficult, if not downright impossible, to make a hard distinction between the two, since they operate together and oftentimes indistinctly from one-another, but the distinction is worth bearing in mind.

The relationship of the sovereign to war is complex. It is essential that Romulus did not invoke Mars, the god of war, before entering battle. War is a risk. It is destructive and dissipates forces. It is unstable. The sovereign must at times make use of war to reduce the enemy’s forces, or—when performances of magic fall short and fail—to forcefully capture a space, people, or things, but this warfare opens up their domain to possible dissipation and destruction. The sovereign always prefers magical tricks of terror and binding in a theatrical performance of war over the actual meeting of forces, and hence, as Deleuze and Guattari say, the sovereign has no war-machine of its own, but can only “appropriate one.”[2] The sovereign couple of Indian mythology, Mitra-Varuna, is threatened by Indra’s power of unbinding (Indra’s name has been traced by some etymologists to mean “one who smashes enclosures”), while Mars in Roman mythology threatens the binding powers of Jupiter. Although civil war may perhaps only be appropriate to describe the nexus of power binding citizens to a political union, the threat that war would destabilize power relations appears to lie at the root of Indo-European representations of power. The sovereign authorities prefer to manage, first with cruelty and magic, and then with ritual and participation to avoid exposing themselves to this structural threat. War threatens always at the threshold, held at bay only by effective vital norms.

b. a history of norm

The title of this section is disingenuous. Can the norm have a concrete history in even the cursory and incomplete form that the history of juridical law can take? The answer is assuredly no. Whereas many have lived in spaces without the existence of courts, police, or juridical laws, normativity exists in any group that imposes some form of value on the existent. It is inconceivable to imagine a human group completely free from normative production. So a history of normativity itself is impossible, but we can look at the word itself, some examples of its expression, and the work of some of those who have examined it in the past.

The word “norm” has its root in an ancient tool. The Latin word norma referred to the carpenter’s T-square. It materially refers to “squaring,” the straightening and framing necessary to construction. English borrowed it from the French norme, which had excluded the material meaning of the Latin root in favor of the abstract meaning of “rule” or “ordinary state,” although English also continued to use the Latin to refer to a carpenter’s square at least into the 17th century.

In the 1940s historian of science Georges Canguilhem published his seminal work on normativity and biology The Normal and the Pathological. Ostensibly a critical examination of the concepts in the title, Canguilhem was more-or-less uninterested in the hard laws of biology. His guiding questions were: how do we define the state or experience of pathology? of health? of the ‘normal’ state? This led him to call attention to the more ambiguous norms of biological thought. Twenty years later, he returned to this work in a series of essays to further examine the concept of norm examined there in a broader context. These two works are of particular import for us as we try to outline a method for analyzing procedures of normalization, since Canguilhem, in his investigations into the history and function of biological normativity, produced invaluable tools for theorizing normativity in general while also locating some of its most vital and consistent concepts.

In the later essays, where he returned to the original book to try to expand upon and generalize his theory of biological normativity to connect it to grammatical and industrial norms, Canguilhem attempts to provide a broad and widely applicable definition of norms in general:

A norm, or rule, is what can be used to right, to square, to straighten. To set a norm, to normalize, is to impose a requirement on existence, a given whose variety, disparity, with regard to the requirement, present themselves as a hostile, even more than an unknown, determinant. It is, in effect, a polemical concept which negatively qualifies the sector of the given which does not enter into its extension while it depends on its comprehension.[3]

A norm, according to this definition, does not produce a brand new state of affairs. It is not perceived to be generative. It intervenes in a polemical way into what already exists, shifting or altering a mode of existence. Lastly, it cannot intervene in a linear or simple way, since the environment it is intervening into is diverse and even “unknown” and “hostile” to it.

But how and why do norms appear in the first place? Canguilhem struggles with this question throughout the book. In the conclusion of The Normal and the Pathological, after summarizing and critiquing efforts to firmly establish a consistent biological norm in Comte, Bernard, and others, he makes the surprising claim that “the pathological state can be called normal to the extent that it expresses a relationship to life’s normativity.”[4] What does this mean? That the morbid or pathological represents itself a mode of living with its own preferences, exclusions, needs. In other words, the abnormal is itself normative. Insofar as we strive to live, we make choices that express a dynamic relation with those things we find in our environment. Canguilhem strives throughout the book to make clear that there is no “objective pathology” nor “objective abnormality.” Rather, in a bizarre reversal, it is only because we sense that something is off or wrong, or that we experience some form of negativity and pain, that normativity exists at all.

Disease, or dis-ease, is experientially first. After it is sensed, we enact rituals we believe will rectify this negativity. “Thus,” explains Canguilhem, “it is first and foremost because men feel sick that a medicine exists.”[5] Logically, the ab-normal follows and negates the normal, but how could the normal be normal if it wasn’t in either an exclusionary or a dynamic relationship to what it senses to be abnormal? Perfect health could never be sensed, but would just be. It is only because we know we could get sick, spend our days in a hospital bed or die, that we call ourselves healthy. Logically, the normal and the abnormal exist in a relationship characterized by a dual exclusion. Experientially, the norm does battle with the negativity that summoned it, in a series of operations that could not end without simultaneously eradicating the very basis upon which it is being thought.

Normativity is a fact of life. In some ways, it is the vitality of life itself. Life is life insofar as it establishes dynamic norms in a given environment. Why should one then seek to establish normativity as the basis of a method for thinking power, as we intend to do in our series? First and foremost because we believe that this normative stratum is more dynamic than one that begins with law (whether judicial, biological, or otherwise), and second because there is a particular strand of thought in the normative tradition that has attempted to eradicate the relationship outlined here, and finally establish a pure, or truly objective normal that would apply across the social field. We shall call this hegemonic normativity, since it is the form of normativity that refuses to recognize its relationship to its own negativity and pathology, its limitations and eventual expiration, but desires to outlive itself.

The Shanghai Jiao Tong University produced an algorithm in 2016 that they claim can identify criminals based on average facial features. They claim to have found average features of the criminal and non-criminal in the “curvature of the upper lip, which was 23% more pronounced in criminals, the distance between the inner eye corners, which was 6% smaller in criminals, and the angle between the tip of the nose and the corners of the mouth, which was 19% smaller in criminals.” See this article and this one for more.

The concepts average and error stand out for having a especially long-lasting connections to hegemonic normativity. The first is Quetelet’s average. An astronomer in practice, Adolphe Quetelet became most famous for mixing statistical mathematics he learned from studying celestial bodies with social theory. Quetelet desired to take apparently divergent expressions of traits—and later behaviors—in different people and find their average. By gathering data on human populations, Quetelet believed he could calculate average physical and intellectual traits in groups, and thus find a quantitative proof of what was “normal.” One of his first projects was to take the chest circumference of 5,738 Scottish soldiers (listed in a Scottish medical journal) and calculate the average, which came out to 39 3/4 inches. He called his method “social mechanics” and he soon began calculating as much human data as he could find, dedicating works to the average weights, heights, birth rates, suicide rates, criminal rates, and whatever else he could find. He began touting this growing composite “Average Man” as the ideal type to which others ought to strive, if possible. His statistical ideal was simultaneously a moral mandate, and thus a fixed, or hegemonic, norm.

Francis Galton, the eugenicist, produced composite photographs by projecting photographs of different individuals’ faces onto a single piece of film. He tried to find “average faces” for crime, attractiveness, health, among other qualities and propensities.

What of those who deviated from the Average Man’s perfections? They were an error, a “monstrosity” in Quetelet’s words. Canguilhem dedicates his very last essay on this notion in biology, but the principles are the same whenever it arises in a normative system. In this conception, disease is not a fall or an experience of negativity or doubt, but “an original flaw in macromolecular form.”[6] The error is the rational equivalent of the fall from grace, the original blunder that causes all negativity in the world. What does it say about this theory that only a tiny minority actually fit the average when calculated in any real group, and that an even smaller group finds themselves in the “ideal” when more than one average is calculated? Average and error: despite the impossibility of their adequately describing any real group, they continue to inform hegemonic normative thinking.

The origins of hegemonic normativity lay in the ancient myth of the “golden age” when there was no pain, no hunger, no rules. Adam and Eve enjoyed the fruits of a paradise that required no cultivation, no labor, and no dynamic relation to the land. Everything they needed was simply there. This ancient fantasy became vogue once again with the rationalists of the 18th century who imagined a pure “state of nature,” where savages, uncorrupted by the decadent and chaotic proliferation of rules in civilization, apparently lived in perfect equilibrium with nature without history or conflict. When the young anthropologist Pierre Clastres went to live among the Yanomami in the Amazon, he learned that, with those “savages,” this was far from being the case. Perhaps this is redundant for a modern audience,[7] but Clastres makes it perfectly clear that the Yanomami were in no way “asocial,” but rather had extraordinarily complex social formations and group relations.[8] Far from being ignorant of rule or of civilization, Clastres found that the tribes were perfectly aware of the possibility to develop their social formations further into hierarchical forms of organization or what we would think of as a state formation, which for him meant a “total sign of division”[9] where society is “divided into those who exercise power and those who submit to it.”

It was the possibility of this formal regimentation that the Yanomami fully recognized and resisted. And they were able to do so not because they were organically more “noble,” as Rousseau or Diderot may have believed, but because they invented vital norms to prevent its arising. Each role in the tribal society had a part in reducing or even attacking the others, in a dynamic and differential relation. In Clastres’ words, they invented a “centrifugal force,”[10] or a force that pushes everything outwards and disperses, to counter the tendency to want to concentrate power in once place. The Yanomami were able to counter the centralization and fixing of power by allowing a multiplicity of norms to exist in a dynamic and irresolvable relation with one-another to prevent one from becoming static. Dynamic or conflictual normativity can be thought of as a multiplicity of centrifugal machines that forever break down before they can complete their tasks.

Hegemonic normativity, expressed as paradise or law, imagines itself as a fount of pure positivity, assailed by evil forces of abnormal destruction. In doing so, hegemonic norms uniquely deny the quality that spurred their production: their relationship to their own negativity and lack. The most common name for “hegemonic norm” is “law.”

c. law: a toolkit of normalization

In The Savage Peace, we discussed three ways in which the West has tried to manage civil war: we called them the democratic consensus machine (homonoia), the normative enclosure (nomos), and depoliticizing administration by police (oikonomia). We strived to reveal how, in each of these forms of management, the discourse around law and even around being is a functional discourse rather than a foundational one. The law in each case serves the norm. This rule is demonstrated by the fact that the concepts, spaces, and subjects of law must at times transgress the law in order to uphold the greater norm. Consensus is said to be the basis of law in a Democratic society, but it conceals the functional means and ends of its exclusions, definitions, and prerequisites. Sovereign or architectural territorial markers are said to impose a physical limit upon the law and its practice, but proved themselves to be complex and shifting processes rather than defined territorial markers. The police power is said to defend the rule of law and punish its infraction or transgression, but showed itself to be transgressive and endowed with virtually unlimited legal authority.

Viewed generally, we might be able to say that authority has been able to normalize by appropriating two modes of capture in the West, one defined by social-behavioral representations of how someone is perceived to act in such-and-such environment, which are primarily managed by the police, and those acting as police (teachers, psychiatrists, welfare functionaries); the other by material-utilitarian potentialities of how such and such thing is supposed to be used, which are primarily structured through physical enclosures and infrastructural circuits. Both attempt to deny any relation to the other, and claim objectivity, neutrality, and autonomy. To take the two most paradigmatic (and yet also broad and abstract) examples: the procedures of normalization separating the “sane” from the “insane;” and the separation of material into “useful” and “useless.” The first claims that the problem lies in the brain—in a pattern of behavior that stems from an interiority of the “insane” mind, from “improper socialization,” or some mixture of the two. Even when more humane medical experts talk about “environmental” or “psycho-social” factors that led to the insanity, they never question the spatial and material circumstances that perpetuate and necessitate the division of people into “sane” and “insane.”

“Hysterical fit in a man”, one of the many chronophotography sequences to come out of psychiatrist Jean Martin Charcot’s (known as the founder of modern neurology) laboratory/theater of “hysterics” at the Salpêtrière hospital. Charcot sought to produce a physical code of symptoms (postures, gestures, expressions) using this photography method.

Likewise, logistics companies and environmental NGO’s may debate about the material “usefulness” of a specific ecological locality. At first glance, this is a solely material question: how can the material best be used sustainably? The former, though seldom explicitly, argue that material is useful insofar as it can turn a profit; the latter argue that damaging a specific environment, say, the Amazon, will decrease the future profitability of that locality. Neither are able to question the mechanisms that determine “profit,” “utility,” or even “material” for a specific group.

The discourse of sanity excludes the political by discursively (“crazy talk”, disordered thoughts, etc.) and materially (a mental hospital, a special education room) relegating manifest difference from the norm to an isolated sphere where it is nonetheless on display and represented to the public as separate. Material utility excludes the political by denying the speculative dimension of its prerequisites, i.e. how is “usefulness” decided, and by whom, and in what context? By forcing these couples to their limits and exposing them to their contingent origins, we can place psychiatry, psychopathology, logistics, and information science in a new light. It would be foolish to believe one could be liberated from norms, neither does that seem particularly desirable, but by examining normalization in the context of civil war, we can return the political element to normality by examining normalizations as decisions made in the context of a variety of parties and interests.

The most basic function of these modes of capture is to subsume “the variable relations among beings, large or small, to a referent that is itself diachronically variable.”[11] The force of this subsumption lies in its ability to appear as if it were self-evident that beings must relate, or could only relate, in such-and-such way to one-another. Rational principles are devices of magical capture because they represent themselves as if there were no other way of relating to one another, no other conception of being. If one were to abandon them, one would find themselves alone in an abyss. A rational principle could also be translated as presupposition. The supreme axiom of the logicians, Leibniz’s principle of sufficient reason, states “nothing is without reason.” This basically means: “Everything has a principle, that is the great principle, which is itself beyond question.” Nothing is without reason? But what about that statement itself, the principle with which one structures the causes and decide what they are? Is it “without reason?” Surely, reason has been immensely productive. Christianity is rational, provided you accept the revelation of God, and the existence of sin; slavery is rational, provided you accept that the African by nature exists as property; civil society is rational, provided you accept a conception of human nature as inherently evil; capitalism is rational, if you accept the abstract theory of equivalence. Each of these is structured with “causes” and “reasons” that make them function. If there is a rational principle and it is internally functional, the system holds. After an original revelation, everything operates well enough. “Nothing is without reason” says nothing except that rationality itself is an indifferent machine, but what keeps the machine running?

At the origin of every rational system, there is the irrational leap, which structures the unfolding of the rest. Every rational system unfolds from the positing of an original irrationality; rationality is a functional pattern of the irrational so dazzling and complete you forget that the keystone in the arch is just a word, mute and nonsensical. If the standard that conditions everything it captures is itself unconditional, that makes it an an-archic standard. It provides the ground for knowledge, but cannot ground itself. “No ground, but say ground.”[12] Power inevitably finds its way back to this extreme limit. The justification or proof of a power lies in its application on bodies, how effectively it appropriates and subsumes them. There is nothing in the center, but there are processes pulling representable behavior towards one. A norm is not a real center, in the sense that there could be something concrete or stable there, but it nevertheless acts as something real. Normativity is the pull towards a central emptiness, an abyss invested with ultimately contradictory meanings when exposed to real experience.

For that reason, any research on norms is faced with an immediate difficulty: the norm eludes delimitation and thematization. Hence, one cannot say, for example, “heterosexuality is the sexual norm.” Not because heterosexuality isn’t the expected average (it is), nor because it isn’t represented as the basic mode-of-sexuality from which everything else is a deviation (it most certainly is), but because heterosexuality is not the essence of sexual normativity. Heterosexuality is a hegemonic sexual norm, but it is not essentially so. Sexual normativity does not need any specific representation of sexuality. It requires behavior classified as sexual, an environment where this behavior is brought out into the open where it can be categorized and analyzed, and mechanisms for regulating this behavior. Pederastic homosexuality was the normal sexual lifestyle of the Ancient Athenians, and that fact did not fundamentally alter an overt patriarchal domestic experience for women, who had little to no public life. Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right celebrity, touts his homosexuality as a sign of his rebellious nature, yet is perhaps the most fierce, influential, and widely recognized public agent of sexual/gender norms (largely at the expense of trans people and women). Milo is the result of the confusion of Law and norm. To avoid this mistake, it is paramount that any writing on norms not center in on a word or concept, which is supposed to stand for the essential norm. Instead, the researcher can only describe the contours of the norm’s effects and the means available for reinforcement. One must at all times keep their eyes on normative processes. Hegemonic normativity has few essential allegiances to any content, but relies on its practices of normalization.

It is always a great danger for the critic of norms to fall into the trap of merely hypostazing a representation of a deviation. To do so puts one into a fixed inverse relation to hegemonic norms. Many anarchists confuse the symbolic representation of power with its application in the world when they take a negative position in relation to fixed or stable representations of power like the State, Religion, or Capitalism,[13] and especially when they claim that their ideal human community is founded on a “real” principle of belonging. What is important is not the lack of a true or original principle in anthropology, biology, sociology, or ethnology. That particular desire has been the trapping of the theologians and the proponents of natural law (we include anarchists in these two groups) who turn toward some barely dressed up mysticism. The truth of government is that there is no homeland, no final truth in the distant past, no revelatory justification, no ultimate law. There are only the norms that function in a territory and the principles that appropriate knowledge. An original law is really a territorial grammar in the physical sense of nomos. This is most apparent in the double bind when two such laws vie for legitimacy in a territory. Antigone was stuck in the double bind of “kinship” and “city.” If she buried her brother and fulfilled her duty to her family, she would be breaking the laws of the city; if she did not bury him, she would break the laws of the family. That conflict, and the impossibility of acting without transgression in that situation, acts as a revealer for their territoriality.

Our analysis of infrastructure in The Savage Peace crystallized around the figure of the city planner, while our analysis around police crystallized around the officer, the counterinsurgent, and the bureaucrat. In the Bellum Primers, we intend to show how these managerial practices do not lie in a stable group, but are applied much wider and are more mobile, so that someone can appear at one moment as an insurgent and at the next as a functionary of police. We do not see a contradiction in this, as these are normative practices and not stable or closed fields residing in a subject group. We intend to discuss the way the norm tends to capture modes of reality. In other words, we will examine the norm as a weapon of capture and binding. We will discuss particular laws only insofar as they function in relation to a norm.

To a large extent, the domains we will examine in the Bellum series are presented as neutral forms of knowledge. In each case, they strive to conceal their prerequisites and applications of force. Because they are presented in this way, they tend to be glossed over or over-simplified in examinations of power relations. While the school, the military, gender, sexuality, and traditional domestic life have (justifiably) been widely thematisized as theaters of normalization in books, essays, and also in movies and TV shows; medico-scientific practices, mental health treatment, transportation management, and communication and surveillance technology tend to be viewed as neutral givens or simple necessities that only demand improvement.

Every norm—hegemonic or dynamic—arises in the context of the relationship to a fiction shared by a group. When we sense that something is wrong, we must appropriate or invent the lens we will view the problem through, and also the means we will use to combat it, manage it, or ignore it. We need fictions. We want more of them—a whole world of fiction. We relate to the world through fiction. The overproduction of local fictions exposes us to the contingency of those central fictions we confuse for life itself. Civil war is entirely fictional, and, for that reason, is more truthful than the tradition of management with its repetitive delusions. What is a magical capture, or a hegemonic norm, but the reduction of potentially problematic local fictions into a smooth and simple super-fiction of social managers? That is the question we pose for ourselves as we explore the warlike terrains of “neutrality” in the segments to come with the understanding that more fictions does not mean more power. We hope, to the contrary, that more fictions means we scatter, ruin, and degrade the super-fictions of Law so that power flows more freely and more unexpectedly.




[1] Dumézil, Georges. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Trans. Derek Coltman. New York: Zone, 1988. pg. 54.

[2] Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1983. pg. 355

[3] Canguilhem, Georges. The Normal and the Pathological. Zone Books: New York, 1991. Pg. 239

[4] Ibid, Pg. 227

[5] Ibid, Pg. 229

[6] Ibid, Pg. 278

[7] In our opinion, enough still talk of the “innocent ignorance” of indigenous peoples to warrant repeating his statements.

[8] We discussed some of the problems of the word “social” in the “Oikonomia” section of The Savage Peace. “Social” is the word Clastres used, so we will use it here. We believe he means it in the sense of coded behavior, and not a general, or universal human kind of behavior. This qualification doesn’t eradicate the problems with the word, but neither does his usage of it change the profundity of his point.

[9] Clastres, Pierre. “Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies.” Archaeology of Violence. Semiotext(e): LA, 2010. Pg 275.

[10] Ibid. Pg. 274

[11] Schürmann, Reiner. Broken Hegemonies. Trans. Reginald Lilly. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003.

[12] Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho. New York: Grove, 1983. pg. 8

[13] We aren’t denying this existence of forces that exist behind these representations, but rather that they are each dynamic and reciprocal forms of power, rather than fixed entities that are actually separate from one another. When anarchist groups (and other leftists) release communiques or report backs, they often list these side-by-side as if these representations were themselves the opponents, rather than the people and devices who perform duties under their names.


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