Monday, October 19, 2009

(Dis)Locating- Power and Rights

During this weeks readings I was struck by three principles or issues that were dispersed throughout the arguments. These being power, universality, and agency. While all three issues can be located in relation or as components of all the readings I would like to limit the discussion of power to Lefort's "The Question of Democracy," and employing a discussion of agency and universality in relation to Thomas Keenan's "'Where are Human Rights...?': Reading a Communiqué from Iraq." The notion of power, its conceptualization and theorization especially, is extremely interesting when put in light of the previous readings. For this I am particularly interested in observing the Foucaultian view of power.
Lefort interested in a "revival of political philosophy," seems to offer a question of what Democracy, as a new form of the constitution of power as exercised by political agencies, marks or changes for the order of society. One of his key principles is that democracy certainly marks a shift in the constitution of power. To explain this Lefort employs an argument that its very familiar to the work of Foucault, a historical view of power prior to the age of revolutions and the implementation of democratic regimes as the modern basis of the political sphere. To do this, like Foucault, Lefort examines power as constituted and defined by the regime of the monarch.
Monarchy for both thinkers marks a certain locality of power, an embodiment in the ruler himself. Lefort posits,
Under the monarchy power was embodied in the person of the prince. This does not mean that he held unlimited power...The prince was a mediator between mortals and gods or, as political activity became secularized and laicized, between mortals and the transcendental agencies represented by a sovereign Justice and a sovereign Reason....[The king's embodied power] therefore gave society a body. (17)
This conceptualization is extremely akin to Foucault's observations of the the sovereign monarch, his "double body," and the limits of his power, in the first portion of Discipline and Punish. The point of departure between these theorists is marked by their discussion of power's subsequent dislocation from the body of the king and the regimes that emerge in its absence. For Foucault much of the project is a detailed analysis in the production of knowledge and the systematic formation of a "panopticism" throughout society that marks his work in Discipline and Punish, and the production of varying discourses as subjectivizing systems in History of Sexuality. While Foucault clearly defines power, even as his conceptions of it begins to break from his prior formations, Lefort seems comfortable stopping prior to defining what exactly he means by power in relation to democracy. Rather he posits,
This model [the power formation of the monarch] reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place....The exercise of power is subject to the procedures of periodical redistributions. It represents the outcome of a controlled contest with permanent rules. This phenomenon implies an institutionalization of conflict. The locus of power is an empty place, it cannot be occupied - it is such that no individual or group can be consubstantial with it - and it cannot be represented. Only the mechanism of the exercise of power are visible, or only the men, the mere mortals, who hold political authority. (17)

While it seems that power as seen in its exercise marks the "institutionalization of conflict," power still seems to be some grand transcendent force that "cannot be represented," but is "exercised." This is not only in disagreement with the Foucaultian argument but seemingly does not say much about democracy. Rather, one of Lefort's final points, that, "democracy is instituted and sustained by the dissolution of the markers of certainty," a "society without a body," seems most important in the constitution of a revolutionary model (19,18). It is interesting to note though, that the principle of "the dissolution of the markers of certainty," also can be seen as the way in which democracy is not only constituted by the means in which it seems to ensure and erase its own abuses of power. Thinking back to Paglen, it is the erasure of these "markers" that seem to be the goal of the classified world.

The other principles of universality and agency serve and important component of Keenan's discussion of the discourse of human rights. There is a structural double bind to this discourse in that the "rights" called for and spoken about are seemingly abstract. Despite this it is a particular instance at which the discourse emerges and this is noted to be at the level of the individual. For Keenan notes "the claim to a right, to something by definition shared with never abstract--it comes from a particular place, experience, existence (whether primary or secondary, to respond to a particular wound" (65). The issue of rights therefore are always offered in response to the relation of an individual or individuals denied or without that "something...shared with others." The double bind or "paradox" is the principle of universality. For Keenan it seems that "the claim [for/to rights] is meaningless if it is not universalizable, but it is effective only if it is rooted concretely" (65).
This marks the position of a complex structure in which, the discourse of rights which emerge from the personal "wound" must be dislocated from the individual in order to be argued on the whole, for all of mankind. This is a problem that confronts the issue of agency. If it is from the wound of the individual that the discourse begins, the individual in their move to achieve the status of becoming legible must sacrifice their own intent. Universality seems to mark a fundamental sacrifice of their own position, a hindrance to their agency to act as a subject in order to dissolve the issue into one that can reach the furthest position. This seems dangerously problematic as the instances in which the discourses of human rights begin are marked at the sites of serious transgressions toward individuals. Perhaps the issue is the defining of right by the category of human. It is not that I am attempting to deny that a humanity exists, but merely that the rights fought for are and should be individual in character, otherwise they seek to threaten the intent of the call for rights. For example I would point to Borden's film Born in Flames, in which the rights of all are put forth before the needs of individuals who are truly oppressed.
I hope we can address some of these issues in class tomorrow.

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