I. Civil War
A most ambiguous superiority
“To designate ‘sedition,’ revolution in the city, Greeks use the word stasis, which they borrowed from the root most evocative of firmness, permanence, and stability. As if stasis were an institution for them!” -Henri van Effenterre
Allow me to begin with an old myth. It’s a silly story we keep hearing over and over but in different ways. It goes like this: before the Gods, there were the Giants who were more beastly than divine. They gave birth to the Gods. The Gods, angered by a property infraction, turned against them in war. The Gods defeated them in a magnificent battle called the Gigantomachy, “the battle of Giants,” subsequently bestowing the gifts of hospitality, organized warfare, and codified love-rituals to humankind. This is the story the old Greeks told around campfires to remind each other that they brought civilization to a barbaric universe, that they were the ones who won out over the forces of chaos. This was the magnificent triumph of nomos, of norms and law, over anomie, or the lack thereof.
While the original has been mostly forgotten, the West has never ceased telling itself this story with the names changed. In American mythology, we usually tell the story of the rebels who fought against tyranny. Some still tell the now less popular myths about the southern rebels who fought against northern tyranny, or the Western expansionists who fought against “savagery.” American politicians today have a more modern version about monstrous beasts called “terrorists” and the forces of democracy that will defeat them. Activists have a more complex version about triumphing over the “divisions” created to tear them apart. Even the conservatives of the Republican Party talks of its battle against “barbarism” within its ranks.
The most decisive variant of the myth for a political history of Western Civilization, and the one that defines the structure of the rest, is the story of democracy triumphing over barbarism and chaos. This myth ultimately takes us back to two historical events: the victory of the Athenian democrats against the barbarous Persians, and their subsequent victory against the city of Sparta and its allies. This latter event is known as the Peloponnesian War. After nearly 30 years of fighting, during which the tides of war turned multiple times in the favor of the opposing forces, Athens finally surrendered in 404 BCE. Sparta refused to destroy Athens, preferring instead to install an oligarchic regime of the so-called Thirty Tyrants, who brutally suppressed their opposition with a cruelty and violence the democrats found inconceivable. The group was made up of twenty die-hard oligarchs led by Critias, and ten moderates under Theramenes. In addition to killing thousands, the group also confiscated the property of the wealthy landowners, and exiled many prominent democrats. After a year of tyranny, a group of democrats rallied under Thrasybulus and finally rose up to defeat the oligarchs, restoring the city to the people and the democracy they held so dear.
At least, so the story goes. But the myth didn’t hold up. It was complicated by the thousands of democrats —plus their friends and families— who were brought into the inner circle of the much despised oligarchs. The rule of the Thirty was, by all evidence, a trauma for the democrats, and one it would be necessary to put in the past. The democrats found that the only way to ensure peace was to grant amnesty to all except the Thirty themselves. Those who never cease to praise the “Greek miracle” claim with misplaced pride that perhaps it was the first occurrence of amnesty in history. In every possible way, this amnesty resembles amnesia: amnesia of the conflicts, amnesia of the divisions, amnesia of difference. If we still live today within the Greek horizon of truth, we would argue that here, on this practice of forgetfulness, on the foundation of war and its denial, the Greeks were the first to practice what we still call “politics.” If there are any institutions of power in the West, they are only instituted on the condition that they also make a principle of that denial, that they exclude precisely that which founds them and gives them substance.
To understand the force of the amnesty requires us to make first a preliminary sketch of the concept that most terrified the Athenians and cast a long shadow over the cradle of democracy: stasis. A cursory survey of the branches of meaning bound up together in the word reveals its sustained centrality in the Western political tradition. Stasis is a noun derived from the verb histemi, which means to stand (up), or to be standing. It maintains both this active and middle voice simultaneously. From this one word and its variable denotations, two divergent ways of viewing politics emerged. From the tradition of translation centering on the middle voice, we get the word state. In contrast, the active sense of standing up was more predominant in the 5th century, and stasis was commonly understood as sedition, factionalism, and civil war. This meaning was transmitted through the Latin seditio, from which we derive sedition. When Hobbes translated Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, he regularly translated stasis as sedition, and he had good tactical reason to do so. Hobbes was acutely aware of the strategic value of distinguishing a history of the state from a history of political acts. By doing so, he was able to make the state appear as an ahistorical condition of the collaboration and cohabitation of men, while inversely presenting non-sanctioned political and collective acts as setting the stage for a nasty, solitary, and brutish life.
We must retrieve what has been lost in the Latin tradition of translation that makes the two seem worlds apart because — from complete stability to civil war, from constitution to total breakdown — stasis contains within it the threshold of the political itself, its effective limit, and the basis of its existential potential. It was through their experience with this thing the Greeks called stasis, which we are calling civil war, that the West began to talk about “politics” in the first place; it was through their reactions to it that the Greeks produced the political concepts they passed down to us.
The many faces of Ares
The concept of war was not always negative in the ancient world, which, after two world wars, seems perverse and barbaric today. Our own “civilized” ethic of warfare as total defeat, then extermination, and now permanent war with the Middle East has overwhelmed us so that we have trouble imagining a concept of war that does not imply the destruction of one side or another, or its eternal management. The wars of death camps and poison gas are certainly possibilities of war, but not the only ones.
The concept of war in general refers not to battle or series of battles, but to the real possibility, the permanent existential potential, of conflict. War is waged in many ways, but it is that dangerous potential that defines its limits. The liberal and humanist traditions have yet to succeed in effacing that possibility. As they set out to identify themselves more and more with all that is human, pacifist, or rational, their enemies —the terrorists, pirates, rebel militias, and subversives— appear more and more inhuman, irrational, violent, and worthless. The tradition of humanism has progressively developed a concept of man who appears to stand on one flat plane, on one single ethical continuum, so that anyone who adopts an inconceivable ethic appears inhuman and monstrous, and is not so much killed as wiped out and exterminated. Hence the relative apathy today toward extralegal drone strikes, even as details emerge about their unreliability in identifying their targets. Simply appearing to be a potential terrorist in a territory is enough to justify your assassination.
The Greeks —and with them the ancient world as a whole— did not have one word, one broadly cast understanding, for war. “Just as water retains no constant shape,” Sun-Tzu wrote, “so in warfare there are no constant conditions.” Nor was it a special or separate phenomenon. The philosopher Heraclitus laid polemos, conflict, down as the precondition for the cosmos: “War [Polemos] is the father of us all and our king. War [Polemos] discloses who is godlike and who is but a man, who is a slave and who is a freeman.” This is a cosmic warfare, a warfare that decides, through opposition, what can be defined and understood against something else in the first place. War names the encounter or the decision that makes a qualification about something possible at all. German has retained this relation of conflict to conception in their word Auseinandersetzung, which means both conflict and, literally, setting one thing out and apart from another. This is not a war where some party wins, or could win, but the endless process of conflict that reveals difference in the world in the first place.
Even earlier than Heraclitus, Homer “erases the distinction between war and the assembly… he attributes to the assembly a characteristic of war, the kudos, at once a sign of election and a talisman for victory in battle,” and he’s not the only Greek to do so. The Greeks did not make a clean distinction between conflict on the battlefield and conflict of words in the assembly, in the courts, in their competitive games, or in any other public place. Jean-Pierre Vernant writes that “if, in the context of war, the force of arms can replace the force of argument, this is because they are considered the same kind of power.” This is because, for the Greeks, violence was not even formulated as a question. What was essential was conflict, force, and effect.
The Greek understanding of war is even preserved in the word democracy —the kratos, the domination or the superiority, of the demos, the people— itself which was often avoided by political orators and writers at the time to avoid its association with temporal conflict and with war, to avoid being seen as just another party in a basically open conflict.
The greatest misfortune and the art of denial
“Faction [Stasis], which is enmity, is what [lawmakers] are most anxious to banish.” -Aristotle
“We should observe that […] whenever Greek civic thought condemns stasis, it must erase its political origin — for example, by assimilating it to an illness malevolently fallen from the sky — in order to preserve the consensual form of the political, which is supposedly the political itself.” -Nicole Loraux
“All civil government [is] ordained… for the avoiding of Confusion and Civil War.” -Thomas Hobbes
Of all the words the Greeks had for conflict and war, none evoked the repulsion or fear of the founders of politics and democracy as did stasis. Seldom is it mentioned without being contrasted with the just war against the outsider, dispelled with a woeful plea (“don’t speak of such awful things!”) or simply put to the side in the same breath it is mentioned. And yet, despite that, it seemed inescapable and everyone took it for granted. Civil war was a monstrous presence at the dawn of politics.
Stasis was so terrifying for the partisans of democracy that their conceptions of it must be viewed as strategies of limitation, of taming it or assigning it a place to avoid letting it reign as a principle. The thought seems to be: we cannot deny stasis outright; we must affirm it, but if we can establish its exceptionalism, we can cast it into the distance and suspend its appearance to the most unlikely of circumstances. This explains the curious phenomenon in the history of civil war in general where those who fear it most tend to talk about it incessantly, as if they could only rest easy once they felt they really understood it and assigned it a neat orderly place. Nevertheless, the unbreakable connection between law and stasis, between political life and civil war, was so strong that Solon, the great lawmaker of the 6th century, enacted a law which proposed that “anyone who should refuse to place his arms at the disposal of either side [of a stasis], he should be outlawed and have no share in the city.”
Law, the home, and the possibility of confrontation within them are all aspects of the word, but both Aristotle and Plato are attempting to limit the term by characterizing it as solely belonging to one sphere or the other. It is difficult to grasp the full range of what a Greek living in the fifth century would have heard in it all at once. It is, in a way, a word at conflict with itself, and maintains oppositional meanings without resolving them. It evokes both the permanence of the city or of a faction in the city (a thing that is standing) and also of a force that rends the city apart (a thing standing up). It necessarily includes the entirety of the city. Nobody can be neutral where stasis is the principal, hence Solon’s law. Each citizen must choose a side or else they are no longer political in the original sense of the word. And yet, insofar as it involves everyone in the conflict, it also is the thing that tears apart any consistent traits of centrality, any definite center to which every political fact can be related. And it evokes this not as two separate moments, or two separate branches of distinct meanings, but —and this is what is essential— at the same time.
This contrasts sharply with the image of Greek political life passed down to us from the Greeks themselves and from our own political historiography stemming from the Founding Fathers (“What Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude” [Thomas Paine]) to Obama more recently (“Two hundred and thirty-six years ago, a new American Nation was founded on an old Greek principle —democratic rule by a free people”). Let’s review the basic features of this representation: according the popular narrative, the founding of the city destroyed the older kinship or tribal organization of the citizens and established the “artificial” relations of public life. The kinship-based patriarchal rule of the father would now be confined to the household, called the oikos. Freemen would now gather publicly in the assembly, and vote on measures directly. Here, they had the ability to grant citizenship, declare war, elect officials, make decrees, and act as a criminal jury (a capacity later conferred on a court system). Another major institution was the council, made up of 500 individuals selected by lot and heavily vetted. This body drafted the topics of debate for the assembly, advised military strategy, and were given special emergency powers in the case of a crisis.
It is estimated that only one-fifth and maybe even as little as one-tenth of the actual population of Athens was allowed to participate in either of these public institutions. The rest were women, slaves, children, and foreigners who lived in the household (oikos). Athenian democracy made a sharp distinction between the household (oikos) where one organized one’s basic necessities (What will I eat? How? How will I organize my daily life? My property?); and the public sphere, the city (the polis) where one engaged in action and speech, and from which all questions about those biological necessities and the organization of daily life are banished.
To rule by brute force was from this perspective considered either something pre-political, in other words the way “barbarians” managed their affairs; an aspect of the household, the oikos, where the despot, the head of the household, had the right of coercion over his slaves, wife, property, and children; or it was associated with “oriental despotism,” represented mainly by the Persian model of rule. Consistent throughout all the different self-representations in Western political history is this production of a pure outside, the monstrous other: the “orientals” and “barbarians” who take on merely the negative attributes of the West’s self-representation. So powerful was this representation of the outside that when the foreigners who fought to take the city back from the oligarchy of the Thirty and restore the democracy applied for citizenship, the Athenians voted against it.
Since the Greeks defined their “new political sphere” as being one where one dealt with issues using speech, rhetoric, (what we call a politician was then called a rhetor, one who uses rhetoric) to be non-political meant to be devoid of the capacity not to speak in general, but more precisely to be devoid of the capacity to use speech to solve conflicts.
The other side of the complex that recognizes in the “outsider” only a “foreigner” was the impulse to externalize all forms of conflict. War, for the Athenians, was necessary. Athens was a colonial power. It was also a sparsely populated mountainous region. Slaves, who outnumbered citizens in Athens, were mostly acquired through military conquest, and the resources they required —grain and metal— were primarily obtained through colonial extraction and tributes from colonized cities. Thucydides, Aristotle, and others acknowledged that the longer a war raged on, the greater risk there was for the formal structure of the conflict to break down, and for personal, factional, or intra-city struggles to replace formal intercity conflicts. By all accounts, then, the Peloponnesian War was an unmitigated disaster. And it carried this risk right from the beginning, since a polemos was only properly waged against barbarians or anyone who didn’t speak Greek (literally, those who say “barbar,” apparently the sounds Greeks heard in foreign languages). Now the Greeks and their allies were killing each other, in brutal and unimaginable ways, and the war encouraged colonies to rebel to take advantage of the weakening of the two great powers in the Greek world. Thucydides remarked with horror that, unlike the “greatest war” —the Persian War against the outsiders— the Peloponnesian War “brought unprecedented suffering for Hellas.”
According to Aristotle, politics is what begins when civil war ends. It serves to reason then, that if civil war never “ends,” political life as the West has imagined it never truly began either. This would amount to saying that all the relations —between oikos and polis, between civil war and external war, and between disease and health— referred to above as the foundations of Western political thought must be reimagined and rethought. The last relevant question here is: how did the Greeks manage to confine stasis and construct an image of an ideal political life?
At this early stage of the banishment of civil war, the maneuver was quite transparent and intentional: after banishing the Thirty from the city, the democrats returned victoriously to their city armed with a ban and an oath. The ban stated: me mnesikakein, “it is forbidden to recall the misfortunes.” The oath: ou mnesikakeso, “I shall not recall the misfortunes.” The “misfortunes” of the ban and the oath was the stasis of Athens during the Peloponnesian War, the division of the city between the oligarchs and the democrats, where no-one could be neutral, citizens threatened the political order, colonies rose in rebellion, women threw stones from rooftops, and slaves left their homes.
“To not recall” does not make an absence. The democrats made forgetting the necessary prerequisite to political harmony, and in so doing, they placed the forgotten thing, civil war, at the very core and foundation of civic life. Far from casting civil war into the distant past as they hoped, the founders of our politics constantly brought it to the fore as they fabricated their civic identity. Insofar as the citizen begins on that foundation of forgetfulness, they made civil war the most, or perhaps even the primary, productive concept in the tradition of Western political thought —the one all the other require in order to have any concrete meaning. Far from “ending” war, the Athenians found themselves in eternal war with it: evading it, managing it, decrying it.
By this account, civil war was the original political experience in the West. This is the matrix in which every “political” force must situate itself within to exist as such. The first act of naturalization occurs on the battlefield of memory. Prior to every discursive regime is a reorganization of the conflicts that preceded it. After neutralizing the enemy, all effort must go towards forgetting that fact, and claiming to begin “as equals.” If we understand that “to banish,” “to exclude,” “to constitute,” and “to forget” all only make sense within the context of war, then democracy can be seen in its original light as a peculiar form of civil war that fights with exclusion and neutralization by means of their discursive opposites: “inclusion” and “active participation.”
In the Athenian ban against remembering civil war, the verb “mnesikakein” did not signify a recalling to oneself, but rather a recalling against. The verb requires the accusative object. The ban was not so much on “bringing civil war into your memory,” rather, the ban was more precisely on “using memory as a weapon.”
We must learn to wield memory like a weapon in this hostile terrain of forgetfulness.
Civil war as pathology
“The One is always in revolt against itself” -Gregory of Nazianzus
When the economy isn’t doing so well, we say it is “crippled.” When it is doing well, that means it is “healthy.” When politicians propose to fund counter-terrorist programs, they cite the “plague of radicalism” taking root. At the same time, when doctors and researchers spend more time on looking for cures or treatments for a new disease, they have “declared war” on it. Why are politicians and economists talking like doctors, and doctors talking like generals?
The mixture of epidemiology and politics (of treating political problems like medical ones, and medical ones like political ones) goes back to the very beginning of Western politics and has remained ingrained in our language. “The art of legislation is but the art of healing practiced upon a large scale,” wrote Jeremy Bentham, “It is the common endeavor of both to relieve men from the miseries of life. But the physician relieves them one by one; the legislator by millions at a time.” Not that long after him, one of the first modern men of medicine, Rudolf Virchow, would say that “Medicine is a social science, and politics nothing but medicine at a larger scale.”
Stasis and civil war are the concepts around which this mixture of medicine and politics coalesces. Stasis, in addition to its connection with stability and civil war, also meant “disease.” It actually still survives today as a term for diseases or infections in medical expressions like “stasis of the blood.” In the ancient world, this meaning was often applied as a metonym for civil war where the seditious factions would be understood as a “disease that befalls the city.” In both its political meaning and its medical meaning, stasis here is understood as that which destabilizes the unity of a body, or that which scrambles or halts the circulation between the parts of a body. But groups of people aren’t literally a body, and they can’t actually have a disease. What are the implications then of imagining that the political can be imbued with a disease? Carl Schmitt, who tried to position the outsider or the foreigner as the true political enemy, believed that “stasis is a self-laceration… it is the dissolution of the state as an organized political entity, internally peaceful, territorially enclosed, and impenetrable to aliens.” How will it influence political action when political unity is said to be infected with a disease it can’t do away with, a disease which operates like a question mark to all clean notions of internal unity and external antagonism?
If a political problem like civil war or stasis could be seen as a disease, it’s because the civilian population as a whole could be conceived as a functioning body. It was not at all problematic for the Greeks to think of the city as a subject. Aristotle, for example, does not feel the need to explain to his audience how he can attribute desire to a city when he writes “the city desires to be composed, as far as possible, of equals.”
Likewise, when Greeks would refer to stasis, they would more often say the citizens were “fighting themselves” rather than “fighting each other.” Any attack on the city is reflexive: the citizen harms himself. This leads us into Plato’s Republic, where an unstable correspondence and relationship is set up between the individual citizen and the city. A series of reversals in the text makes any simple or temporal relationship impossible. At some points, he refers to “polis kai idiotes” or “city and individual,” granting each their own simple existence and implying a relationship of participation. Of course, we think, it must be so. Even Socrates seems to agree. “Do you suppose,” he asks, “that constitutions spring from the proverbial oak or rock and not from the character of the citizens?” And even more emphatically: “it would be absurd to suppose that the element of high spirit was not derived in states from the private citizen [idiotai].” The citizen gives birth to the city and it emerges from him. But the citizen is not just the beginning of the city, he is also the end, for the city must aim to be in a condition “most like that of an individual man.”
The city emerges, then, from the private citizen only to ultimately aim back towards him for a model. Simple enough, except that the opposite is simultaneously put forth. We are still far from liberal contract theories of the state. Here, the city becomes, in the same text, the paradigm and the end of the private citizen:
If we found some larger thing that contained justice and viewed it there, we should more easily discover its nature in the individual man. And we agreed this larger thing is the city, and so we constructed the best city in our power, well knowing that in the good city it would of course be found.
Here, “in a very Greek way,” writes Loraux, “the city gives meaning to everything. Thus, if we take Plato at his word, the whole Republic […] would constitute a simple prolegomenon to understanding the individual.” And just as the city is split by factions and threatened by civil war, so too is the individual citizen. The soul, like the city, becomes home to a variety of parties who threaten it from inside and out. Anger, reason, and the stimulation of outside objects are all presented as contentious parties in the same soul. And so, in the end of the Republic, Plato can say that the perfect city exists in the soul where harmony rules, but “make no mistake: if harmony rules, it is because Plato has firmly installed a kratos [a dominating force], that of reason, in the inner city of the soul.”
When the body is threatened by conflict from within and the harmony is disrupted, this is called disease. And since neither the body nor the city come first, but rather emerge together and end together, disease was used to refer to perceived dysfunctions and disharmonies of the city. Stasis becomes, then, a disease, and, like a disease, it needs to either be eradicated or managed. This relation was probably more fluid than ever in the 5th century, since, in the midst of the Peloponnesian War, around 426 BCE, Athens was beset by the plague while its citizens took refuge from the Spartans behind city walls. Present day commentators and historians of medicine have had particular difficulty diagnosing the plague described by Thucydides, so much so that attempts to identify the plague with a modern disease were said to be “at best seriously inadequate, at worst meaningless.” The modern epidemiologist is disturbed by the fluidity in his account between the disease and what he would consider its separate social and political effects. After prayer did not heal the disease, many turned away from organized religion. With Thucydides, this breakdown of belief is presented as a symptom of the disease and not a social consequence. Thucydides does not make a clean distinction between the breakdown of the body and any social breakdown that potentially occurs. Both are referred to as elements of a “disease.” Health management for the earliest democracy was already political management, and political management was already seen as health management.
Although they may be disturbed by Thucydides’ frankness in maintaining a spectrum between physiological and political health, the founding texts of modern science and medicine were not able to escape such a spectrum. Georges Canguilhem’s The Normal and the Pathological historicizes that very spectrum in the works of the scientists, physiologists, and philosophers who variously claimed to have achieved an “objective” or “purely scientific” conception of disease. He begins by describing two tendencies in the history of medicine and its relation to disease: one is localizing, the other dynamic. The localization tendency holds it as a truism that “in order to act, it is necessary to localize,” and has thus created a “vulgar hierarchy of diseases […] based on the extent to which symptoms can —or cannot— be readily localized, hence Parkinson’s disease is more a disease then thoracic shingles, which is, in turn, more so than boils.” Canguilhem traces the dynamic understanding of disease to the Greek Hippocratic tradition of medicine, which sees the body as a dynamic totality, characterized by its own internal harmony and equilibrium. The disturbance of this harmony is disease, and it is not present only in symptoms, but in the whole of the organic body. Both interpretations metaphorically imagine disease as a polemical force: “either a battle between the organism and a foreign substance, or an internal struggle between opposing forces.”
Canguilhem then gives the reader some examples of this attempt to establish the quantitative and objective criterion for normality from 19th century medical writing. Auguste Comte was one of many writers who have tried to equate disease and health by making the former merely a quantitative diversion from a norm. There were thus therapeutic benefits to making such an equalization: if they are merely measures of degree, then studying a diseased man can tell us about how normal men’s bodies function. We can measure normality by measuring the deviance of the diseased body. Such a method is laden with problems. For one, he was not a physician and provided no specific medical examples to illustrate his point; second, he claims that pathological phenomena are merely an intensive divergence from the “norm” of health, but he provides no tools or criterion with which to establish what that “normal” state is or how one could identify it.
Further, “when it comes to defining the limits of pathological or experimental disturbances compatible with the existence of organisms, Comte identifies these limits with those of a ‘harmony of distinct influences, those exterior as well as interior’” (Canguilhem). Now we can see how Comte centers his discourse: by linking health or the natural/normal state to the concept of “harmony,” he is showing that, although there may be quantitative traits discovered after the positing of a center with which to establish those quantities, the center itself, harmony, is a qualitative term based on his interpretation of a specific norm of existence. His supposedly quantitative terms are likewise more aesthetic and political than scientific:
the vagueness of the notions of excess and deficiency and their implicit qualitative and normative character is even more noticeable, scarcely hidden under their metrical pretensions. Excess or deficiency exist in relation to a scale deemed valid and suitable —hence in relation to a norm. […]This normal or physiological state is no longer simply a disposition which can be revealed and explained as a fact, but a manifestation of an attachment to some value.
Comte wants to have it both ways by simultaneously laying out the “objective criterion” for medical notions of disease while also “scientifically” creating a political science of the “normal” state. A revolution, like a disease, does not really alter or change anything, but is rather merely an excess that needs to be treated with political therapy to return back to the normal harmony.
What Canguilhem’s book makes so clear is the fact that there is no concept of health that is not also a value statement, or, in other words, “the concept of health is not one of existence, but of a norm whose function and value is to be brought into contact with existence in order to stimulate modification.” As time goes on and medical theory becomes more consistently attached to clinical practice, the problem with establishing a “really objective basis” for disease does not disappear. Claude Bernard, the celebrated physician of 19th century France, is the next writer whose notions of health and disease are highlighted by Canguilhem. Bernard writes
In reality, between these two modes of being [health and disease], there are only differences of degree: exaggeration, disproportion, discordance of normal phenomena constitute the diseased state. There is no case where disease would have produced new conditions, a complete change of scene, some new and special products.
Canguilhem points out first that there are in fact cases where a new quality does appear in the body in the case of a “disease.” For example, he points to the presence of sugar in the urine of the diabetic making it qualitatively different from urine with no sugar at all. He also highlights the fact that the quantitative notions being utilized here by Bernard as scientific measures are all qualitative, and make sense only in relation to a norm invested with value. Dis-proportion and dis-cordance obviously imply that one begin with a non-controversial and positive notion of what good proportion and equilibrium are from which one could measure the negative deviation. But, Canguilhem posits, if one establishes a continuity between health and disease, divided into small intervals of degree, as Bernard does, one effectively erases both health and disease. If the extremes are “perfect health” and “disease,” then that can only mean that all people are sick, or else that nobody is sick. Again, there is no objective state of perfect health, and even the practitioner must always have a point of view from which to judge what is normal and pathological.
Just as the normal has no existence outside of the normalizing relation with that which is called abnormal, so to does health exist only in relation to disease. Disease is experientially first, in that health would be unnoticed and meaningless if it was all life experienced all times. In this sense, health requires disease in order to have something to overcome and be experienced as such. The demonization of sickness and disease —the attempt to banish it and prevent it from the body like a civil war from the city— does not eradicate sickness, but ultimately destroys life. Life is normative in that one produces norms in living in constant balance with disease. It is when one fixes on a single notion of health, one based on the abstraction of an image of health and then the purported expulsion of disease that health as the experience of hardship and breakthrough morphs into health as constant management. For the managers of social health, disease is not an experience or a passage but a mistake, an error of nature to be corrected. The civilized laugh at their images of savages who use magic to conjure away the inevitable experience of negativity while they seek every assurance against the threat of the disease that surrounds them at all sides.
How is stasis a disease in the political body? For those obsessed with order, with clean divisions, with consensus and purity, the disease of civil war is something to be expunged, eradicated. But it keeps on appearing. It’s a losing battle. Some will continue on in fury, burning infections and cutting off infected limbs, but signs of the infection keep coming back. The adversary, the deviant, has appeared again and again as diseased, mentally ill, sick. The purists will cut off the tumors, self-medicate and manage their precarious health with no end in sight. Such is their infernal harmony. The disease of civil war affects all bodies and their bodies of discourse. A simple question, even a questioning look, can be a mark of a disease.
What would happen if we held that no person is objectively diseased, that no one even “has” disease, but rather that all experience both disease and health at all times? What would a politics that assumes these concepts require each other to be experienced at all look like? Instead of fearing breakdown, could we accept our restless repose, the impossibility of completion, as the beginning of a prospect — a prospect of welcoming difference?