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#8: State of Emergency

Workgroup “What is to be done?” /// Editorial

Definitions of historical concepts: Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity.  Critical moment—the status quo threatens to be preserved.  Progress—the first revolutionary measure taken.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project , trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 474

Not so long ago, the “state of emergency” still sounded like an abstract juridical notion and seemed reminiscent of the last century’s fascist regimes. Yet today, as the result of recent catastrophic changes in the situation, the “state of emergency” is in the process of becoming a quotidian reality, a strange new “norm” that affects all areas of life, a grey backdrop of the everyday. New systems of surveillance are implemented; public space is privatized and placed under strict control; censorship dams the flow of information; passport-controls and travel-restrictions limit freedom of movement; suspicious individuals are searched and detained; elections are falsified, all in the name of the battle for democracy and human rights. But while the governments of the past fought such battles by declaring states of emergency, today’s suspension of the law no longer requires any name: the law’s zone of blindness is spreading unseen.

Definitions of historical concepts: Catastrophe—to have missed the opportunity.  Critical moment—the status quo threatens to be preserved.  Progress—the first revolutionary measure taken.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project , trans. Howard Eiland, Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 474

Not so long ago, the “state of emergency” still sounded like an abstract juridical notion and seemed reminiscent of the last century’s fascist regimes. Yet today, as the result of recent catastrophic changes in the situation, the “state of emergency” is in the process of becoming a quotidian reality, a strange new “norm” that affects all areas of life, a grey backdrop of the everyday. New systems of surveillance are implemented; public space is privatized and placed under strict control; censorship dams the flow of information; passport-controls and travel-restrictions limit freedom of movement; suspicious individuals are searched and detained; elections are falsified, all in the name of the battle for democracy and human rights. But while the governments of the past fought such battles by declaring states of emergency, today’s suspension of the law no longer requires any name: the law’s zone of blindness is spreading unseen.

In the countries of the former USSR, like anywhere else, elements of the classical “state of emergency” are justified by the “war on terror”. Used to solidify the power-base of autocracy, these “exceptional measures” coexist with (far more numerous) elements of yet another undeclared state of emergency, namely plain-and-simple lawlessness. Yet if one begins to uncover this heterogeneous field beyond the law, one inevitably finds the typical processes of global, neo-liberal development, hidden from the public eye by a veneer of rhetoric. In this sense, the countries of the former USSR – and not only these countries – can be described as “testing grounds” for “emergency” technologies, where one can freely experiment to find new possibilities for creating anti-democratic societies.

Art and culture are always a part of a concrete social situation. As important communicative mediators, they inevitably become a part of the system of bio-political control, serving and decorating power with their messages. Yet on the other hand, culture retains an uncontrollable potential for emancipatory autonomy, capable of working against the mobilization of society as a whole in the name of unity with power. In continuing to generate new strategies of disobedience to both the dominant aesthetic traditions and to the discourses of power, art demonstrates the “counter-sovereignty” of culture, uncovering and usurping the state’s meaningless declarations, revolutionizing them . At some point in history, this potential can help to gather a real political force, proving far stronger than the power of the state, which has already lost any and all legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the society that it serves.

The workgroup “What is to be done?”

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