the myth of the state



Atlanta, Friday, June 6, 2003


That the Iraqis have looted and defaced all state institutions and symbols is understandable. But that the looting was widespread to other humanitarian institutions such as hospitals, schools, universities and museums, is less so. If, as Durkheim once famously proclaimed, that “The State [with a big S] is above all, supremely the organ of moral discipline,” could it be then that the Iraqis—in all their ethnic, confessional and geographic divisions—are mimicking their own corrupt state? Did the moral corruption of the Iraqi state cause the immoral orgy in the wake of the regime’s sudden collapse? Or is it, following the common Marxist dictum, that such institutions are as repressive as the police and army—due to their so-called bourgeois underpinnings—and hence are worth the wrath of the undisciplined mobs? In that case, the U.S. troops, criticized for their passivity, must be congratulated—together with the undisciplined Iraqi mobs—for their “revolutionary” zeal: they both deconstructed the symbols of a ruling order. But is it possible to undermine with such a zeal the foundations of a corrupt state without undermining society too? In other words, can society be “moral” when the state is not?


To begin, we need to ask how does the State—with a big S—become a “moral agent”? In the Durkheimian tradition the process is not simply a “mental” one, but one where both society and state act like a “thing” (res) in the eyes of their beholders. In other words, state and society which are not a thing per se, become fetishized and hence act like a thing. They become fetishized through their identification with totemic objects: Founding Fathers, flags, borders, national emblems, monuments, highways, constitutions, courthouses, etc. In the long history of medieval civilization, which we’ve become accustomed to link to the Greeks and Romans, a “revolution” occurred by the tenth/eleventh century, and which irreversibly separated the classical world of antiquity from its medieval counterpart. Rulers became concerned with “connecting” to individuals, groups, regions, and mobs, and hence institutions whose modus operandi was originally purely coercive—such as the Monarch’s divine right to punish—were gradually transformed in the process of Europe’s democratization. The Foucauldian discipline and punish motto was supposed to normalize individuals by subjecting them to objectivized disciplinary norms. But by doing so, the discursive thought process—which the Marxists insist is purely ideological, and hence an “inverted consciousness,” but upon which Foucault was adamant that it was “real”—becomes ingrained within the body. Herein lies the difference between the western states and all those that did not evolve along generalized disciplinary norms.


One can perhaps perceive such a difference in the mass graves that the Iraqis are discovering weekly. When state and society do not behave along strictly disciplinary norms, their relationship is brutalized by individualized acts of killings, whilst their personification into the persona of the leader. The opening of the mass graves has become all by itself an act of publicizing crimes and incorporating them within the public sphere. In effect, the state did not as much “hide” its crimes as much as privatize them by leaving them in the private memories of the victims’ families. Now that the regime is gone, and the mass graves are discovered one after another, the crimes of the ancien régime are finally mourned and receive their publicity through the public sphere. In other words, the Saddamist state, unable to afford the luxury of Foucauldian disciplinary norms, acted by denying the benefits of a Habermasian public sphere while leaving the memories of terror vivid into the victims’ families bodies. It therefore ironic that the war was launched with the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in mind, while only mass graves have been discovered thus far. But while the WMD preoccupied the international community, the Iraqis for their part internalized the horrors of mass killings. Thousands of bodies have been exhumed, haphazardly identified through the errancies of memory, and then properly buried. When was the last time we saw him/her? What was he/she wearing? As memories resurface, they move from the private to the public, and the public sphere becomes populated with the stories of the dead.


The mystery here is indeed the thingness of society—and that of the state. By postulating that society acts like a thing—la société comme chose en soi—Durkheim realized that society does not merely persevere through its institutional networks, which tend to remain invisible, but through the visibility of its emblems—totems, rituals, ceremonies, signs, all of which act as signifiers that freely float above the bodies of the signified. Now that the Iraqi state and its institutions are in shambles, the coalitions forces thought that the regime is finally over. They did not realize, however, that such states survive less through their institutions and more through their emblems. Even the apparatus of terror did not survive from terror per se, but from the emblematic force of terror: the trauma of being all the time under (a fictional) surveillance, even by neighbors, friends, and family members; of living terror individually and privately; and by being denied even that fundamental ability to alleviate the trauma through (public) narration and mourning.


To be sure, the coalition forces are now trapped with the memory of Saddam. Like the fetish commodity, which for Marx constitutes the essence of capitalism, Saddam’s body turns into a quintessential fetish object—an emblem of state—even more valuable and effective than the body per se of the ex-head of state. Having finally realized that a vanished body creates even more authority and more havoc than an actively visible one, the U.S. forces in Baghdad have just sealed this past week the area in the Mansur district where the remains of Saddam and his two sons had been allegedly buried under the rubbles for the past six weeks. But even an optimistic view would imply at best a successful DNA test, one that would at least confirm Saddam’s death (if not that of his two sons). My guess is that, in the absence of the real body as evidence of death, such a “test” would render Saddam’s body even more of an emblem. On the long run, it is not a “discovery”—DNA or otherwise—that would “seal” the issue once and for all, but the healing of the trauma through a discursively constituted public sphere.


Like the twelfth Shi‘i imam, Saddam is now in a state of occultation (ghayba). It is therefore ironic that the Shi‘is have publicly reinitiated their rituals of the martyrdom of Husayn (the third imam) once Saddam has vanished himself. In effect, the Shi‘i rituals represent the most visible example in Islam of political authority being fetishized, hence transformed into a thing through the emblems that carry it.




copyright © 2003 zouhair ghazzal