CTheory Books: Born Again Ideology
The New Biometric State
Strategies of Bodily Purification
In the new biometric state, your history is embedded in a card; your future is scanned; and your life is imprinted. Biology is security. Framed by a dialectic of security and terrorism, set in motion by a technological alliance between biology (biometric identifiers) and digitality (database surveillance), and circulating through the body in the form of bio-power, the new biometric state is the decisive product of the war on terrorism. Sweeping aside traditional protections of privacy and civil rights in the name of combating terrorism, the new biometric state takes full advantage of the spectre of terrorism to install a fundamental regime change in the future of political culture. Populated by biometric subjects, tracked by electronic scanning, and invaded by the sign of biogen, from food to surveillance, the new biometric state represents that epochal moment when the language of biology, fleeing its previous association with the history of epistemological struggles, allies itself with a form of power which speaks in the name of absolute security in a dangerous world.
Today, different regimes of bodily purification are at work: the “trusted traveler” program at American airports with its pre-scanning of frequent business travelers in the telematic form of iris identification and fingerprinting; the immunization of the body politic from the threat of domestic and foreign terrorism, with state orchestrated campaigns of mass hysteria directed at the scapegoating of any signs of difference, Muslims and political dissidents and civil libertarians and artists; the protection of the “American homeland” from the threat of viral contagion, with the bunkering down of America from the always threatening “outsider;” the proliferation of “biometric identifiers,” as the newly emergent form of surveillance in the culture of preventative security. In each instance, the libidinal politics of panic security attempts to immunize two orders of bodies: the national-symbolic body of the “American Homeland” which now finds itself beleaguered and threatened by transparently politically orchestrated fantasies of “alien” attacks: from radioactivity, chemicals, atomic bombs in suitcases, airplanes as missiles; and the apparently threatening body of the individual citizen which is viewed as requiring preventative certification in advance as to its safe security status.
The Biometric Subject
Could it be that the rhetoric of the war on terrorism may ultimately prove to be a convenient trompe-l’oeil hiding from view the rapid ascendancy of the new biometric state? And perhaps, not simply hiding from view, but something more. Is it not probable that the discourse on terrorism is the objective political preparation necessary for setting the stage for the appearance of the biometric state? Here, the dialectic of security and insecurity sets in motion a closed circle of action and counter-reaction: biometric identifiers, full body scanning, data tracking, biogen data bases, full spectrum surveillance have the real consequence of calling into existence the spectre of terrorism as both their fatal object and ultimate justificatory condition. Not limited to politics, the discourse of the war on terrorism is deeply biological. Dominant markers of the new biometric state, viral war and viral terrorism channel the perception of the anxious body, directing its feelings, anticipating its fears, monitoring its behavior, certifying its trustworthiness, provoking its deepest worries, and limiting its modest ambitions. Once begun, the dialectic of security and insecurity can never be unraveled to its primary origins. Once activated by the war on terrorism, the biometric state quickly justifies in the name of state security a sweeping ideological agenda effecting a decisive change in democratic institutions. In the United States, the new biometric state is established by the U.S. Patriot Act; in Canada by the Anti-Terrorism Act; in Britain, by the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill.
Slipping into the Bloodstream of the Body Politic
In the new biometric state, the body, whether collective or individual, is the object of a double anxiety: intense fear about surprise attack from an always threatening, imminently dangerous external world; and ideological fantasies concerning the psycho-ontological threat within, whether in the form of unidentified political dissidents who have managed to slip undetected as sleeper cells into the bloodstream of the American body politic; or individual bodies of the traveling public which can never be absolutely eliminated as security threats because fantasies of uncontrolled mayhem, destruction, and apocalypse are so indigenous to the production of the spectacle of the nomadic traveler. The sign-system of panic security has its privileged fetish objects — scissors, shoes, belts, nail files — just as much as it has an impossible dream: bringing out of concealment the hidden intentionality of the potentially threatening body by hyper-technological methods ranging from electronic pre-screening, biometric scanning — humiliating, probing, stripping, and imaging. Maximal preventative deterrence for a guaranteed minimum of public security.
The State of Suspicion
“If you suspect it, report it.”
Message on podium at press conference by British police, July 23, 2005
With this, we enter the era of the new biometric state: a form of bio-governance which systematically links primitive collective emotions of fear and anxiety with postmodern technologies of surveillance. While the aim of the new biometric state is to immunize itself from direct internal and external challenges by means of the creation of a bunker society fused together by fear; its ideological method is to foment in the mass psychology of the population a constant state of suspicion, both by reporting any “strange behavior” of others, and monitoring our own suspicious thoughts for possible signs of imminent subversion. In the citizen’s army of the new biometric state, individuals are thus expected to play the role of the policeman without as well as the policeman within. Not content with the relative passivity and defensive nature of the bunker state or the state of suspicion, the new biometric state also goes on the attack: it engages in preventative wars as ways of destabilizing potential sources of viral terrorism; and, finally, it becomes a bio-terrorist itself — garrisoning the world; creating zones of extra-juridical, extra-constitutional incarceration; installing secret torture prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, Diego Garcia; seeking to “Git-moize” the outside world now, and probably the domestic population later. Quite literally, we live now under the terrorism of the sign of (absolute) security. Possessing no definitive limits because of the objectively limitless character of the psychological projections of fantasy, illusion, and anxiety upon which the dream of perfect security is based, the signs of panic security can only expand in the future, exploding in relationship to the perception of imminent danger; taking possession of every orifice of the anxious body, collective and individual. So it is that we enter into the feverish, inventive imaginary of panic security where viral war replaces cold war, where the threat of terrorism substitutes for the menace of communism, where preventative security measures are presented as protection from surprise attacks, where traditional ideology is eclipsed by fears of viral invasion, and where Homeland Security is the new Body McCarthyism of the 21st century.
The Seduction of Terrorism
But if the terrorism of the sign reaches its moment of apogee in the desperate search for the state of absolute security, this political totalization cannot be sustained for long. Mythologically, it is in the deepest nature of any sign-system to always seek to cancel itself out, to collapse into the welcoming arms of the sign-slide that is its forbidden, transgressionary side. Power is seduced by chaos; sexual purity by perversion; absolute order is energized by secret dreams of crash; technological prowess is confirmed by its fatal accident; the inversions hinted at by the god of nemesis trace a minimal element of ruin within the otherwise solid spectacle of the absolute referent. As in mythology, so too now in contemporary media history. Consider the following stages of rapidly evolving media rhetoric as panic security shifts from being the universal signifier of a symbolically unified American homeland to the present state of high security satire: that is, as the sign of security reverses from absolute primacy as the universal sign of a deeply unified American population to the satires and comedies and policy divisions that mark the recent entry of the sign of security into the fascination of absolute insecurity. First, under the sign of 9/11, the American political community, and most of the world, was momentarily symbolically unified by pervasive images of the flag as the universal signifier of the moral desire for absolute security. Second, as a symbol of public acceptance and civil passivity before the power of the sign of security, dominant media symbols became those vaunted images of pervasive surveillance at every chokepoint in the system of social circulation. While images of the flag morally ground the sign of security, images of surveillance transform the symbolic exchange of the sign of security into the deepest materiality of culture, society, politics and economy. Here, the sign of security is literally reincarnated as the flesh and blood of civil society. At this point, we are suddenly in a state of viral security, wherein technologies of surveillance attach themselves as probing, invading parasites to host-bodies. However, at some point, perhaps under the pressure of failed foreign military adventures or uncontrollable internal changes in political economy and domestic politics, the sign of security begins to falter as an absolute serial signifier. It cannot totalize the social field. It runs up against the bedrock resistance of television satire, viral cinematic critique and increasingly bitter policy divisions among elite planners of the neo-imperial state. Or perhaps, as in the mythological dissolution of all sign-systems which strive for absolute hegemony, the eye of total security, bored with the ease with which it has attained absolute hegemony over civil society, finds itself one day seduced by the until now suppressed signs of its own undoing. The new biometric state begins to undermine itself. Panic fear mutates into panic anxiety. What acquires real fascination in mass media are stories of broken borders (immigration), militarized border patrols, and the spectre of imminent global viral epidemics, with the much-anticipated bird flu epidemic leading the way.
Tactics of Stereotypy, Scapegoating and Ressentiment
In each case, political tactics of stereotypy and ressentiment are deployed for purposes of scapegoating targeted populations. What emerges is a domestic population mobilized around the thematics of panic security: distrust of the threatening Other; belief in the moral necessity of the high-security state; intense anxiety concerning breached (territorial) boundaries; fear about any threat to order; deep psychological receptivity to officially directed campaigns of mass hysteria; and the perceptual division of the world into the until now superceded binaries of good and evil. Confronted with the fluidity, indeterminacy, and mobility of postmodern capitalism, panic security represents a sustained psychological reaction-formation aimed at the resurrection of the binaries.
Moreover, as in the halcyon days of the dot.com bubble with its double ideology of facilitation and control as ways of solidifying the popular reception of virtual ideology, the ideological agenda of panic security is also doubly secured: first, by facilitating smooth circulation within the system for those members of privileged elites (professionals, military, business travelers, etc.) who, in return for surrendering certain rights to personal privacy, are eliminated in advance as security risks; and second, by an ideology of control whereby what was once presented as a special privilege available only to the new elites of the high security state quickly becomes a practical obligation of political citizenship. Now it is considered a privilege to be a “trusted traveler” in order to facilitate business travel. The business class actually feels privileged — in TV images, business faces become giddy with the status differential of iris scanning and fingerprinting — to give up certain privacy rights to speed up business. Perhaps the “trusted traveler” is the prototype of a new ideology of bio-control. In the near future, could it be that everyone will be obliged to be certified in advance as trustworthy? What was introduced as an experiment in facilitating business travel would thus culminate as a control mechanism over nomadic bodies.
In essence, the ideological apparatus of the new biometric state depends on a twofold moment: normalization (whereby one is authorized as a speed body fit to travel through the circulatory systems of the social); and criminalization (whereby the act of being certified as a speed body moving through the gateways of the high security state requires background security investigations, iris scanning, fingerprinting, declarations of loyalty). That the new biometric state is capable of orchestrating the movement of domestic populations as a whole through this double movement of normalization and criminalization depends, in the first instance, on surfacing the “fascist within” which is always imminent to the bourgeois ego.
Thus begins the era of cold security whereby the search for an always unattainable state of security purges its way through the coded passages of the system, setting impossible standards of proof of (security) origin, establishing permanent security garrisons in the portals of power, economy and culture, channeling individual anxieties through the carefully orchestrated gateways of mass media, here refusing entry to immigrants, there hunting down perceived internal security risks: now scapegoating artists, dissidents, activists; in the future, applying the science of biogenetics to the maximal security demands of the high security state. Based on a language of preventative deterrence, the liquid sign of cold security knows no limits. As the dominant sign-form of the high security state, cold security freezes the normal circulatory movements of culture and life at the speed of surveillance. Indeed, as the epochal sign of panic security, cold security signifies that the long-suppressed crisis of the bourgeois ego has broken out again. The immediate historical precursor of the collapse of the bourgeois ego supported the triumph of Nazi Germany. Here, the ontology of the “fascist within” formed on the basis of a double psycho-political alliance: fear of loss of class privilege in an era of global economic depression; and anxiety concerning the loss of identity in a crisis-situation wherein the bourgeois ego, having no confidence in the foundational identity of liberalism, quickly follows the fascist path of ethnic scapegoating and charismatic “strong man” leadership. In the new era of cold security, the double alliance necessary to activate the fascist within reappears in historically new form: fear of loss of class privilege in an empire economy which has suddenly been challenged by the until now successfully suppressed resistance of the vanquished; and very real psychological anxiety, particularly in the case of the United States, at the realization that the until now unchallenged belief in the “American dream” as the universal signifier has met its limit in a form of viral terrorism that is contemptuous of American claims to sovereignty in the theatre of freedom. Consequently, while there may be no actual security crisis, there is most definitely a crisis of panic security: a cold crisis of contagious proportions where security and terrorism are the mirror of power in the postmodern state, both only superficially antagonistic, both always requiring the other’s presence as the necessary sign of its own existence, authorization, violence.
Ideology, Terrorism & the Body
Seemingly everywhere now, the threat of terrorism has quickly justified the security regime of the new biometric state. What were once only dystopian warnings concerning the slide of the liberal-democratic state from the protection of civil rights to police-sanctioned despotism has quickly taken place. Most remarkably for all the public discussion concerning multiculturalism, the redivision of society along racial lines has taken place instantly. Not only among the extreme right, but among the majority of the population.
One thing is certain. Under the double impact of the war on terrorism and its political resistance, the very meaning of the body is in play again. In the closing years of the 20th century, there was much discussion of the supposed disappearance of the body — into signs, simulacra, images, screens. Culturally, it was maintained that in the age of simulation, the body had outlived its usefulness, its future fate that of a passive appendage of a cyberculture moving at the speed of light. Politically, it was argued that the body was nothing more now than an empty text across which would be written all the signs of dominant ideologies. Aesthetically, it was maintained that the body now splits into a radical semiurgy of images: half-data/half-flesh. What a surprise then that at the precise moment the passing of the body is most mourned that trickster history has suddenly flipped the poles, foregrounding the born again body as the essential battleground of contemporary politics and culture. Specifically, within the context of the new biometric state, the born again body is suddenly the object of two very different strategies of power: one exported by the new biometric state for use only outside the borders of the United States (Bodies & Torture); and the other internalized by the new biometric state as the political basis of its domestic tutelary (Rings of Saturn/When Technology Crashed to Earth). In the latter, information technology itself becomes a terrorist — a body invader tracking the circulatory movements of its increasingly biometric subjects by technologies ranging from data mining to RDS mobile chips.
Globalizing the Biometric State
Bodies & Torture
Consider what might be called the torture documents, the lengthy series of legal opinions which circulated among the Attorney-General of the United States, White House and State Department debating the pros and cons of the use of torture in the cases of detainees, first at Guatanamo and later as we now know at many American military prison facilities, from Iraq to Diego Garcia. Far from being hidden, the torture documents are accessible on the Internet, the legal theorization governing the administration of American power literally externalized for witness by a watchful world. Far from being silenced, the author of the most chilling of the torture briefs — Alberto Gonzales — now serves as the Attorney-General of the United States.
To read the torture documents is to be in the presence of talented legal theorists, the spearhead of official American justice, whose concerns have to do with protecting not only the President and his cabinet but also interrogators in the field from future war crimes trials. Haunted in advance perhaps by future memories of themselves as Pinochet-like figures accused of human rights violations, the authors of the torture documents are concerned with preempting future legal proceedings. There are human rights codes lurking in the background and sometimes even in the foreground of legal inquiry: provisions in the Geneva Convention protecting combatants from undue physical and psychological force, worries by the Bush administration concerning, in its terms, “rogue prosecutors” from the world court. What is silent in the documents, but present to thought, are the physical bodies of prisoners effectively disappeared under the weight of the simulated sign of “unlawful combatants.” “Lawful combatants” fall within the legal jurisdiction of officially authorized human rights. The Geneva Convention focuses on the jurisprudential status of “states.” The legal solution is straightforward. American official discourse will now only speak about Afghanistan and Iraq as “failed states.” In the simulated language of the torture documents, “unlawful combatants” from “failed states” fall outside the protective provisions of the Geneva Convention. The bodies of detainees in the so-called “War Against Terrorism” are held to be legally available for torture. From the perspective of power, it’s really only a question of semiology. Once excommunicated semiotically from the body of law, once signified as “unlawful combatants” from “failed states,” the physical bodies of officially designated “terrorists” are transformed into a sacrificial field of torture. About this the torture documents are explicit, almost painstaking.
What the torture documents do not discuss is why this is so acceptable, not only to the Bush Administration but also to the majority of the population. Are we witness again to a reenactment of medieval traditions of Christianity which justified bodily torture as a way of liberating souls from the fallen matter of corporeal flesh? Or is this a violent spasm of revenge-taking, fueled by panic insecurity and widely publicized by the media as a warning to dissident elements in the domestic population? Like Germany in 1933, how did it happen so quickly and with such prosaic normalcy that the United States changed so quickly from a self-proclaimed beacon of democracy and civil rights to an assertive defender of the instrumentalities of torture? How did the language of freedom mutate so seamlessly, so suddenly into the vocabulary of torture?
This is not meant naively. Politically, there is always only a rough calibration between formal cultural values and actual political practices, between democratic rhetoric and the hard, cold necessities of the struggle for power. The administration of power operates in an actual material context of class divisions, political inequalities, and social justice strained through the uneven language of human prejudice and cultural stereotyping. To speak of power is to know cruelty at first hand. To think of exceptionalism is always to recognize that the state speaks first and foremost in the cold language of Nietzsche’s “blond beasts of prey.” But for all of the formal hypocrisy necessary to sustain at least the illusion of human justice in the context of a politically-driven society that yearns to be a universal empire, it must be said that there was always about the United States the promise of something better — a lingering, recalcitrant spark of human hope midst the gathering darkness that America truly would seek to realize its visionary dream of what Lincoln’s political rhetoric once described as the “better angels” of its nature.
Of course, it could be that the legitimation of torture as official policy may be viewed by the American mind as a necessary instrumentality of power. Here we would have to think like a medieval Christian churchman, obsessed with the application of fire and the rack to the confessing body, convinced that the death of the body was ultimately necessary for the liberation of the soul. However, I am not convinced that this is the case. The Protestant language of Rapture explicitly excludes the Catholic hope of universal salvation. The language of exceptionalism outlaws the body of the unlawful combatant as an alien other. The torture documents are not a struggle between fallen flesh and the redemption of the unlawful soul. The body of the “unlawful combatant” is not viewed as a negative binary. It is acted upon as pure nothingness: no rights, no self, no identity. With the torture documents, we are in the presence of the completed logic of nihilation.
Could it be that the body of the tortured victims of American power, of redemptive violence, are being made to pay the price for America’s own panic fear? Panic fear has no necessary object because it has no objective enemies. Panic fear is about the dissolution of boundaries — the boundaries of sexuality, marriage, immigration, religion, ethnicities. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche said of the last man: “I’m feeling ill. Someone must be to blame for this.” Is Nietzschean ressentiment perhaps the reason for the routinization of torture in American military justice: a displaced sign of the revenge-taking necessary to pacify panic fear — someone’s going to pay for America’s feeling ill about itself? I do know this: de Toqueville’s Journals concentrated upon the prisons of the United States as the emblematic sign of a politial culture where control would have everything to do with the disciplining of communication. For example, Alcatraz could be situated so prominently, and so perfectly, in the San Francisco Bay since its presence also served as a mute warning to the American population of its political origins in the logic of the carceral. Equally, those so-called “unlawful combatants” in Guatanamo Bay can be so publicly paraded from their torture interrogations of stress positions, sexual tauntings, cigarette burns, strangulation, sensorily overwhelming lights and sound, because, like de Toqueville’s prison walls before them, they are also a silent, but effective, media sign of the punishment to come for dissenters from the moral tutelary of the Republic. Which is perhaps why today in its otherwise liberal media and even in its great universities, a silence of very real fear has fallen upon the twilight shadows of the American dream. For the rest, there’s always the yearly bonfire of all those Superbowls of the American soul where pathos runs deep and true, where simulated patriotism is all the rage; and where all the last men at all the last tail-gate parties in the parking lot outside the stadium celebrate their way, the American way, as just that tiny, fleeting moment of Rapture under the Jacksonville sun.
Domesticating the Biometric State
The Rings of Saturn
Why the immense media fascination with the Rings of Saturn? Simply a fascination with technological prowess in navigating from the near-time of earth to the deep-space of Saturn, or awe at the sheer beauty of the amazing ultraviolet optics of those perfectly formed rings circling a gigantic gaseous planet. Perhaps. Or maybe it’s what astronomers immediately announced as the perpetual lure of deep-space travel to Saturn: namely that in exploring this gaseous planet at the distant edge of the solar system, we are actually time-traveling to our past, to an earlier earth history when gaseous space had not yet congealed into earthly matter.
Or could fascination with the Rings of Saturn have its origins less in scientific or historical reasons than in a mode of world-attentiveness that is subliminally mythological? Are the Rings of Saturn really an astronomical story of our past or future? After all, we do know this about those concentric rings horizoning Saturn against the cold darkness of the void of space: first, that their incredible aesthetic symmetry follows from, and perhaps is almost preordained, by the normal laws of gravitational physics. The Rings of Saturn crystallize in the always night-time sky of deep space the immutable theorems of quantum mechanics having to do with gravitation, velocity, and the chromatics of light. In the artificial form of our technological prosthetics — ultraviolet cameras, deep-space exploration vehicles — we find ourselves deeply linked to the fate of Saturn by a common scientific framework. Consequently, while our earthly gaze upon the Rings of Saturn can express “astounded surprise” at the elegance of its aesthetic symmetry, there is another part of human consciousness which finds itself oddly comforted by this preternatural gift of astronomical confirmation of the magic of science. But there is also something more to the seduction of the Rings of Saturn; this having more to do with dark futurism as the dominant mood of earthly spacetime. From a strictly observational viewpoint, the famous Rings of Saturn are permanently frozen signs of decay and ruins, splayed out orbits of lost worlds. In this account, the rings are most probably the remains of lost moons, which having at some point in the recesses of the past been imploded by proximity to the immense gravitational pressures of Saturn, now circle its sky in thin, flattened ice sheets stretching indeterminately into the darkness. Not really only a fable of our lost past of perfect aesthetic symmetry, the Rings of Saturn evoke a more primal, and quintessentially human, emotion: namely an ineffable tension between symmetry and decay. Consequently, looking towards the Rings of Saturn we can find a mythological story of presence and loss, aesthetics without and ruins within; but is it really so different from another story, a story this time of the tension between postmodern intimations and posthuman realities as the Rings of Earth? Once again, the astronomy of light-through space and light-through time lights up the cultural imaginary to reveal a more abiding story of the strange entwinements of our past and future.
When Technology Crashed to Earth
Or something else? Could fascination with the Rings of Saturn be a displaced sign of a more imminent political tension between symmetry and decay, lucidity and irrationality as the essence of the contemporary human condition? Today the human condition is the war on terrorism. The spectre of terrorism is the media air we breathe, panic alerts punctuating the daily rhythms of life, the transformation of the circulatory systems of the social into zones of intense surveillance, biometric identifiers tagging the orifices of the body, spyware tracking our electronic footprints, the proliferation of the vast machinery of cyberwar, the bunkering down of the privileged citizens of digital societies behind the walls of the high-security state, the resurfacing, on a global scale, of the politics of scapegoating, the resurrection of ancient memories of the fatal clash of cultures, religions, ethnicities.
Accordingly, to the question concerning the relationship between technology and the human condition, I would hold that information technology, in the contemporary (techno)political context, is not understandable outside the rhetoric of the war on terrorism of which IT is both its most indispensable ally and active agent. Increasingly placed at the disposal of the militarization of civil society, viral in its cybernetic logic, and potentially dangerous in terms of its radical implications for facilitating the political suppression of traditional freedoms of speech, privacy, gatherings, movement and now, even videotaping, information technology has quickly become the permanent framework of the war on terrorism. IT enters the bloodstream of the social in the form of technologies of surveillance; invades the privacy of the body in the language of bio-power; overwhelms private perception with new media technologies of liquid propaganda; and facilitates attempts to seize global power with all the hyper-weaponry of cyberwar. Inseparable from the real world of politics, the question of technology is permeated with the language of terrorism. I do not mean this only in the sense of instrumentality. Technologies of optical surveillance, electronic tracking, computer guns shooting chips into the flesh of demonstrators for later harvesting by state security agencies, iris scanning, and media manipulation: these remain instrumentalities of information technology — ethically disturbing in themselves but still not the essence of the problem of information technology.
However, what happens when stimulated by the viral logic of the war on terrorism, IT becomes a digital terrorist itself probing, harvesting, scanning, humiliating human flesh? What happens, that is, when IT, understood in the actual political context of the war on terrorism, no longer remains simply an instrument of policing — a means of domination — but is transformed into a technology of domination so powerful in its pure technical superiority, so closely ideologically aligned to the prevailing language of power, so superior to the vulnerabilities of human flesh, so interventionist in the human condition in the name of upgraded security that IT becomes an emblematic sign of the spectre of terrorism itself? If it be objected that technology is only instrumental — a means controlled by the vicissitudes of power — I would call to mind Martin Heidegger’s elegant insight that in the society of “completed nihilism,” which was his term for the last phase of the historical project of technology, everything now has become a means to the will to technology, the wielders of power in the era of the war on terrorism as much as the increasingly objectified remains of the human species. Is Heidegger’s dark vision of “completed nihilism” a premonitory shadow, announcing in advance the rapid emergence of the new biometric state as the real product of the war on terrorism?