JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

10. Los Angeles in the world

Will we recognize Daniel Jones when next we see him? The problems of intelligibility, of trauma, of history, of futurity, is considerable. Inspectors of Daniel Jones’ autobiography demanded an identification: sniper, deranged, HIV+. But he fired the gun at his head, destroying his face, leaving his body exposed, inert, and in the open. The human head: creator of form, receiver of phenomenal experience. The face: figure of both public recognition and personal identity. Suggestively, Agamben ([1995] 2000) writes,

“The face is the only location of community, the only possible city.”

The difficulty in recognition here has to do with the logic of abandonment through which we live. We are unable ultimately, given our need to hold on to loss and make it meaningful, finally to differentiate suicide from deliverance, mourning from anguished hope, self-dismissal from defiant anger.

The varying responses to Jones’ death make the contrary communicativity of medial agency clear. Those responses suggest that we would like to make Daniel Jones responsible for this contrary communicativity as a failure of resolution. We would like to take hope in “his” death (our continuing deaths), or to continue to make “him” pay for it (our continuing deaths), or a variant of making him pay, to abandon his act (and our continuing deaths). Instead we should make him responsible for the eventuality of this communicativity’s becoming visible. If Jones received himself in a literally ecstatic exit that cannot know the form of life of which his image remains but from which he has departed, our responses, on the other hand, are uniformly abject because his loss is not for him but for us. The appearance of our abjection, our abandonment, is the symptom of his disturbing disappearance, a disappearance enacted and embodied to say: Bodies meant to be seen and to speak are being destroyed.

This relationship between disturbance and abandonment articulated by a medial agent requires further determination of its communicativity, its place as entity and event. In Jones’ radical critique of HMOs for their harmful effects on public health has to do with the phantasmatic quality of HIV, as Roman observed, to upstage the body. What does this mean within mediatic communication systems?

Sturken (1997) has argued that our narratives about HIV center around the technological representability of the virus in medical contexts, and she points to the resulting catastrophic equation of the virus with the body that harbors it and through whose tissues it is glimpsed. To see the virus

“will reveal its truths, imaging the immune system will reveal how it functions” (231).

Within the regime of medical imaging, the camera, capable of both aerial views and microscopic views, has been historically granted the power to “capture” reality. Inner and outer space become accessible in spite of the fact that the human eye cannot see either of them. The representation of the HIV virus, then, is structured in a conflation between imagery of inner and outer space, of life within the body and the world beyond it. The body itself is featured as the terrain of a battle which marshals space age technologies to hunt out the hiding places of the virus ( 231).

“The microscopic images of the immune system depict a universal, unmarked body, one stripped of gender, race, sexuality, or age—precisely the kinds of differences that have marked bodies in the AIDS pandemic. They let us inside the body as if we have not wrenched past its borders. These images operate with an anchoring context, profoundly distanced form touch, smell, sight, and other everyday bodily functions.”

“Into this ‘sacrosanct’ and distanced landscape comes HIV, which popular graphics and microphotographs depict as visual chaos. [....] In these images the virus looks huge and lethal, as if it would explode if dropped on one of its prongs, which tend to resemble detonators. The coils in the center of the image have prompted some critics to describe it as a ‘grenade’ that would explode if the coil were pulled.” (238)

As medicine goes to war against chaos, the body thus stripped of its identifying features can become confused with the virus, with blame displaced from the virus to the body which the virus attacks (247). This displacement is all the more inevitable given that the diagnostic transparency achieved in medical imaging of HIV is unfortunately not reflected in the therapeutic reach of combination therapies. While reducing the existence of the virus in the patient’s circulatory system, combination therapies currently are unable to eradicate the virus in its “hiding places” in the lymphatic system in which it continues to reproduce.

So, even if the territory to be won might have been his own body, Daniel’s refusal to take up arms is significant. To fight on that terrain is to risk locating himself as enemy ground, both topology and figure of blame. Instead, the ex-Air Force emergency medical technician sets up camp for a last stand on a freeway overpass, invoking a topological view of a vast urbanity only seen in its full expanse from the air, from networks of cameras—a virtual geography of reportage that, as the responses from viewers which I surveyed reveal, is nonetheless well-traveled and much feared. The choice of this locale places a defense of the self against the popular fears of the dangerous outsiders that are believed to be running amok in the city, and so presumably justify the escalating surveillance and militarization of the megalopolis.

Davis’ Ecology of Fear (1998) maps what Davis calls the “scanscape” of Los Angeles, in which new technologies monitor the city’s high-value structures and shut down institutional access to those who are, effectively, non-persons in that environment (366). Davis situates the circulation of high cost high tech surveillance systems into the home market within an urban environment that increasingly fights its battles virtually and remotely. Davis argues that the disavowal and ignorance of the natural environment evinced in the sprawl of Los Angeles coincides with the disavowal of the needs of those who work there. He tracks the representational catastrophes visited upon Los Angeles in fiction and cinema to show that routinely, invading hordes and natural disasters stand in for the violence of exclusion, containment, and neglect by which the environment is destroyed and workers (like Jones) exploited.

He adds the category of fear to a classical sociological model of urban decay which shows L.A.’s simultaneously rich and decayed urban center radiating through zones occupied by workers, and continuing into richer belt cities surrounded by a prison archipelago at the very fringe of the region. Adding in “fear” to the sociological analysis of class and zoning allows Davis to map child molestation free zones, drug free zones, neighborhood watch zones, gang free parks, and prostitution abatement zones to an urban planning scheme that is as much concerned with “riot tectonics” as the protection of corporate headquarters and the privacy of gated cities. Similarly, in the pulp fictions that depict the city, Davis maintains that non-whites, workers, and sexual minorities bear the fictional brunt of the developmental forces that have polluted and overdeveloped the region even as they have sacrificed it to the very dynamics unleashed in that process (364-365).

In The Turner Diaries, Davis, notes, the notorious pulp fiction which inspired Timothy McVeigh, right wing warriors “cripple LAX, blow up freeway overpasses, set the harbor ablaze, and cut the aqueduct” after slaughtering Jews and Blacks (333). Independence Day, Davis argues, ranks America’s top cities in terms of destructive appeal. Aliens first tragically destroy New York, then parodically destroy Los Angeles, which appears as “a caricatured mob of hippies, new agers, and gay men” dancing ecstatically atop a skyscraper as they await vicious aliens (277). Televisuality, what Davis calls a “scanscape,” functions as a relay in Los Angeles’ virtual topography to help provide a popular view of this city as urban chaos. This virtual topography, a phantasmatic one projected in the relative absence of public space, is the locale of Daniel Jones’ autobiography. Jones’ “last stand,” then, staked out a space from which to expose the chaos of HIV within his body to the chaos of the megalopolis outside it. He left his body exposed in a mediatic state of exception to a state of medical emergency—AIDS as corporeal chaos—counterposed against a juridical one—the Los Angeles region as political chaos.

Foucault’s ([1978] 1994) observations on the concept of the disturbed individual, rather than the work on sexuality that informs just about all of the treatments of AIDS and identity discussed above. provide some insights here. It is in neither the medicalization of the homosexual nor the disciplining of the prisoner that the significance of Foucault’s late theory of biopolitics emerges. Rather it is in the regimes that emerge between them:

“[…] Since the great crimes without reason of the early nineteenth century, the debate did not in fact revolve so much around freedom, even though the question was always there. The real problem, the one in effect throughout, was the problem of the dangerous individual. Are there individuals who are intrinsically dangerous? By what signs can they be recognized, and how can one react to their presence? [Contemporary] penal law did not evolve from an ethic of freedom to a science of psychic determinism; rather, it enlarged, organized, and codified the suspicion and the location of dangerous individuals, from the rare and monstrous figure of the monomaniac to the common everyday figure of the degenerate, of the pervert, of the constitutionally unbalanced, of the immature, and so on.”

“It must also be noted that this transformation took place not only from medicine toward law, as through the pressure of rational knowledge on older prescriptive systems; it also operated through a perpetual mechanism of summoning and of interacting between medical or psychological knowledge and the judicial institution” (198- 199).

Foucault’s critique of institutions is accompanied an account of “technologies of subjectivization” through which individual bodies, in relating to the self in terms of social identity, also bind the self and its consciousness to external sovereign power. Foucault’s suggestion that what is distinct about modern state power is its inclusion of the biological life force of the individual within its operations of power. Foucault’s point, of course, is that individualization and political sovereignty operate in a double bind. Techniques of power operate along with those technologies of the self that allow the subject movement, transformation, speech—broadly, for my purposes here, the poesis of the corporeal.

But as many critics have observed, the nature of the way Foucault formulates this double bind that poses difficulties for theorizing cultural memory, collectivity, or community—or autobiography. Kaplan’s “out-law” narratives and Smith and Watson’s interest in “collaborative mediation” are only two theorizations of autobiography that respond to the challenge Foucault posed.

In his critique of Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics, Agamben ([1995] 1998) offers a revision that is useful to this discussion of the mediated, voluntary death of a “disturbed individual” positioned between medicine and law. Agamben points out that Foucault’s analysis of sovereign power concentrates largely on juridical models even while attempting to overthrow them. This concentration makes it difficult to see, even if we grasp conceptually the double bind within which Foucault argues that individuals are caught, that is difficult to identify its (figural or physical) location.

“Where, in the body of power, is the zone of indistinction (or at least, the zone of intersection) at which techniques of individualization and totalizing procedures converge? […] Confronted with the power of the society of the spectacle which is everywhere transforming the political realm today, is it legitimate or even possible to hold subjective technologies and political techniques apart?” (6)

Agamben pursues just this question of the figural location of power, locating it not in the body of the individual but rather in the location of individuals in states of exception: the “camp.” In the camp, a permanent state of exception is established. Life is stripped bare under an absolute sovereignty. Humanity is asserted as a biological condition at most (10). Agamben is thinking here of the concentration camps of Fascist Germany but is prompted in his thought by the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the former Yugoslavia during its dissolution into smaller states. But the camp is not, as the prison or asylum were for Foucault, simply a place of confinement (20).

In opposition to Foucault’s thesis that biopower is a relatively recent mutation achieved in institutional confinements, Agamben places its origins in the founding of the sovereign power of the state to which individuals are bound. Agamben argues that the sovereign power of the Western state was originally established by means of the anterior exemption of the sovereign from the laws which the sovereign will enact (15). (Agamben is careful to note that this exemption continues today. He cites the example of the American constitution which allows impeachment to remove the president from office but which results in no legal punishment in and of itself [103].) In the mirror image of the sovereign who is beyond the law, archaic law allowed the killing of persons who for whatever reason had been sacrificially consigned to the underworld. This person, abandoned to the social order, was no longer of the living, and therefore could be killed (71). The agency of the sovereign, then, is mirrored by the abjection of the subject precisely in terms of their sacred status in relation to the law.

Homo sacer denotes this non-person, as Agamben puts it, this “bare life.” It is a life which becomes exposed to power even as it is “banned” by the state.

“He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply set outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, become indistinguishable” (28).

If sovereign law is established in a “ban,” the law’s operation operates not in terms of logos but rather in terms of abandonment. Homo sacer is the one who can be killed by those who are subject to the sovereign state, and who themselves are potentially subject to the ban of exclusion which in its most extreme form is the punishment of death (84).

Such citizenship, of course, comes with the privilege of the free man:

“It is as if male citizens had to pay for their participation in political life with an unconditional subjection to a power of death [….]”

Further:

“The sovereign tie is more originary than the tie of the positive rule or of the social pact, but the sovereign tie is in truth only an untying. And what this untying implies and produces—bare life, which dwells in the no-man’s-land between the home and the city—is, from the point of view of sovereignty, the originary political element” (90).

Agamben clarifies elsewhere that what he means by bare life may apply today to a range of “social-juridical identities,” all of which re-code the problematic of bare life in contemporaneity:

“the voter, the worker, the journalist, the student, but also the HIV-positive, the transvestite, the porno star, the elderly, the parent, the woman” (Agamben [1993] 2000, 7).

The banned figure should be more generally familiar: Agamben suggests the wolf-man, that is, the man who is indistinguishable from the animal (107). Or he refers to the bandit (183).

“...what is banned is delivered over to its own separateness and, at the same time, consigned to the mercy of the one who abandons it.”

It is not difficult to see either Foucault’s prisoner or lunatic in these terms, nor is it difficult to see Jones in these terms—the man taken at first for a sniper, who brought the police and the media out in force, who, according to one Internet respondent, might well have killed himself, but did he have to kill his dog too?

Agamben argues further that instead of either the prison, the clinic, or the madhouse (those institutions through which Foucault tracked the particular epistemic ruptures of modernity), the state of exception which calls our attention to the abandonment of the subject takes another form: the camp. The camp is a “zone of indistinction” where sovereignty abandons bare life, but it belongs to centrally to modernity, not the classical origins of biopolitical being.

The camp, then, refers not simply to the physical forms of concentration or refugee camps, but any “de-localized location” in which those who do not fully qualify as “people” or rather, those who have already become merely “bare life,” are to be kept. The camp is not a physical or natural place. It is a liminal space, coordinated in the name of the sovereign state for the abandonment of the subject whose body will be nakedly exposed to power there. The camp of biopolitical modernity, as much as the refugee camp, is just as much to be found in the hospital room where a patient who continues to breathe and whose heart continues to beat, yet whose brain is already dead.

What distinguishes contemporary from classical biopolitics is that the figures tending to this contemporary zone of abandonment are representatives of modern regimes of knowledge, not direct representatives of the state:

“...the physician and the scientist now move in the zone of indistinction once occupied by the sovereign alone” (159).

Between law and medicine, modernity has produced a new homo sacer:

“When natural life is wholly included in the polis—and this much, by now, has already happened, these thresholds [separating life from what is outside it, political life from non-political life] pass […] beyond the dark boundaries separating life from death in order to identify a new living dead man, a new sacred man” (131).

By claiming in the video tape which he threw over the freeway overpass to police that he was already “a dead man,” Daniel Jones suggested the scene of his freeway suicide as yet another camp, another “de-localized location”. The former Eagle Scout and military medical technician placed his televisual location in the no-man’s land between home and city, between HMO and prison, but also between the marginalized “bare life” that he refused to become and the mediation through which he would communicate the senselessness threatened in his abandonment.

For Agamben, neither the declaration of rights, on the one hand, nor the extension of biologico-scientific principles into the political order can be recognized unless they are understood in the “biopolitical (or thanatopolitical) context” in which modernity has re-established them (123). In this regard, it is important to recall the traumatic masculinity that I have established at work here, above. It is important not to assert Jones either as the “idiot who removed himself from the gene pool” or as a messiah figure who brings hope. As Agamben notes, in the state of exception,

“...it is impossible to distinguish transgression of the law from execution of the law” (57).

In order to properly recognize the sense of Jones’ actions, we concentrate not, finally, solely on the state of exception through which he lived, but that through which he enacted his death: mediation.

In mediating the story of his abandonment as an end to the state of exception, Jones’ life story can be seen, problematically, as autobiography. But the difficulties in taking this life story as autobiography can perhaps be clarified by making the biopolitical, or in Agamben’s alternative term, “thanatopolitical” context explicit here. Jones’ life story, even as it continues to stream on the Internet, can be established not simply as autobiography, but as “auto-thanatography” as well.

Above the city and its viewers, an HIV + worker, displaying a banner condemning his abandonment by the health institutions charged with his well-being, self-destructs as cameras hover, traffic stopped below. Police sharpshooters lower their rifles unused as his body falls, while the image of the bare life he exposed refracts back into the public eye. Ending his life with the weapon of choice of American men, Jones terrorizes popular representations of the AIDS victim. He makes his body unable to perceive this scene and himself impossible to recognize.

In the creation of this irreparable misrecogntion, he upsets the specular rhetoric of visibility and perspective that gives HIV and AIDS their coherence in our popular, legal, and medical imaginations. At the same time, he brings the bare life abandoned in biopolitics, in thanatopolitics, into view. This short-circuit negates the identity of the receptive male as “sodomite,” as named in the homophobic circulation of the murderous abuse of identity often misnamed masculinity. The carnage that results is the remnant of a particular person, not a universal symbol for bodies suffering AIDS. He marks a point of exchange between the orders of speaking and perceiving, of phantasmatic and historical reality, of public and private, of the camp and a state without sovereignty. The message he extends from this point addresses the health care system writ large, to finally say: Born for love and learned of pleasure, this body faced abandonment from ones meant to help. So might yours.

Where the media’s scheduled liveness promises continuity and connection, Daniel’s live broadcast operated through the pause—cessation. In forty minutes and a split second the circulation, not the confinement, of the bare life of the human comes into view, and Daniel is delivered. As bare life releasing himself from a state of exception, suicide and self-deliverance are conflated in a traumatic and traumatizing corporeal poesis. With this sight, we were called to imagine any number of ways to love and live which would not demand that the cost of autobiography be the life that performs it. Autobiography enacted, then, incurs a sacrifice, occurs as autothanatography in the sovereign politics of the abandoned. And to recognize this sacrifice, we must learn to read beyond the imperatives of identity, beyond the constitution of selfhood, and into the ways we destroy these.

Daniel’s freeway suicide renders our world understandable in his death. This transmutation of flesh and the world is what George Bataille referred to in the epigraph above:

“The death that delivers me from the world that kills me has enclosed this real world in the unreality of the me that dies.”

No media stunt, no aspirations of celebrity, and nothing, after all, left to chance. In an autobiography of voluntary death and an autothanatography that continues to write his name on the electronic screen, Daniel becomes a constellation aligned over the virtual and physical world of Los Angeles. In inscribing himself into the constellation of our understanding, he changes a mediated ecology of fear into a terrible performance of life. Our world is inscribed in his body.

“Live free, love safe, or die.” These words, on the other hand, describes the biopolitical imperative from which Daniel Jones delivered himself. That terrible injunction served once as the script for his spontaneous performance, but serves now, to name the system which he made to appear. With the lives of institutions more important than the lives of the humans which animate them, their maintenance more important than our nurturing or our deliverance, their goals more loudly pronounced than our needs—the name of this  system is terror.

Endnotes

Bibliography

Section 10, abstract


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