A child is fingerprinted by a U.S. Search and Rescue officer
In January 2004, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben did what very few people who pontificate for a living do and put his money where his mouth was. The professor at the University of Venice had been invited to teach a course in New York, but learned that all visitors to the U.S., irrespective of their visa status, would now have to undergo fingerprinting at the border.
Refusing in advance to undergo the procedure, he promptly cancelled the course and tore up his tickets. The move puzzled many: was this the petulant fit of some professorial ego not wanting to submit to a process formerly reserved for criminals, they wondered?
In an essay for French daily Le Monde, Agamben set about explaining his decision, claiming it was not only necessary and “without appeal”, but that he hoped it would be shared by others.
It was not, he wrote, the immediate and superficial reaction some had suggested it was to a procedure that has long been imposed on criminals and political defendants.
“If it were only that, we would certainly be morally able to share, in solidarity, the humiliating conditions to which so many human beings are subjected.”
The essence, Agamben wrote, does not lie there. The problem exceeds the limits of personal sensitivity and “simply concerns the juridical-political status (it would be simpler, perhaps, to say bio-political) of citizens of the so-called democratic states where we live.”
The decision, he wrote, was taken in the light of attempts over the last few years
To convince us to accept as the humane and normal dimensions of our existence, practices of control that had always been properly considered inhumane and exceptional.
The boundaries even the most tolerant of intrusion would consider close to home were being transgressed by the state, he claimed, and this was a breach not just simply of generally accepted buffers between private and public life but symptomatic of something more disturbing.
A man's right eye as shown in a retinal scan. Pic by Flickr user Hobbs Luton.
As he wrote:
It wouldn’t be possible to cross certain thresholds in the control and manipulation of bodies without entering a new bio-political era, without going one step further in what Michel Foucault called the progressive animalization of man which is established through the most sophisticated techniques.
Electronic filing of finger and retina prints, subcutaneous tattooing, as well as other practices of the same type, are elements that contribute towards defining this threshold…
…What is at stake here is nothing less than the new normal bio-political relationship between citizens and the state. This relation no longer has anything to do with free and active participation in the public sphere, but concerns the enrolment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity: I mean the body s biological life.
These technological devices that register and identify naked life correspond to the media devices that control and manipulate public speech: between these two extremes of a body without words and words without a body, the space we once upon a time called politics is ever more scaled-down and tiny.
Thus, by applying these techniques and these devices invented for the dangerous classes to a citizen, or rather to a human being as such, states, which should constitute the precise space of political life, have made the person the ideal suspect, to the point that it s humanity itself that has become the dangerous class.
These were prescient words in 2004, for just five years later the transgressions by the state into other regions of the individual’s life have become more prominent, more unapologetic and more oppressive and humanity as “dangerous class” looks increasingly like becoming the norm.
Playground or prison?
I thought of Agamben’s essay while reading that a local council in London had banned parents from play areas, fencing them off with six foot high steel and wooden fences. Only council-vetted “play rangers” will be allowed inside the perimeter.
Council mayor Dorothy Thornhill was unapologetic in defense of the move.
“Sadly, in today’s climate, you can’t have adults walking around unchecked in a children’s playground and the adventure playground is not a meeting place for adults. We have reviewed our procedures, so although previously some parents have stayed with their children at the discretion of our play workers, this is not something we can continue to do.”
Let me repeat this for you slowly: a council mayor thinks she has the right to keep parents and their children separated by a steel fence in a public playground! Bear in mind that this is not a private school play area, but space provided by a democratically elected body for the public good.
Her comment is worth deconstructing step-by-step:
1: “In today’s climate” And what climate would that be? One of paranoia in which every adult in contact with a child, (even their own!) is suspected of harbouring paedophiliac impulses. Does building a cage around playgrounds not exacerbate this climate of suspicion?
2: “You can’t have adults walking around unchecked in a children’s playground.” But surely the safety of children is the responsibility of the adult accompanying them, not that of the state? Or does the state not trust parents to ensure appropriate supervision and feel it is necessary to supersede the traditional role of the family?
3: “The adventure playground is not a meeting place for adults.” Why shouldn’t parents strike up friendships where their kids are playing? It has been happening since time immemorial…
4: “Although previously some parents have stayed with their children at the discretion of our play workers, this is not something we can continue to do.” A mayor thinks they can impose, in a blasé manner, physical boundaries between parents and their own children in a public place? Is this not obscene?
Never has so much garbage been uttered in less than 50 words by one petty official.
The criminalisation of parenthood, intrusion into the natural relationship and proximity of parent and child and substitution of “risky” mums and dads for “safe” and “vetted” council play-guides epitomise the reconstitution of citizen/state relationship as sketched by Agamben (and presents them in terms that would do Orwell’s Oceania proud).
I mentioned Jenny Bristow’s book “Standing up to Super Nanny” before and her call for child-rearing to be reclaimed from those who seek to ‘professionalise parenting’. The key to this, she emphasises, is to insist on the privacy of family life – and to push back against the state’s attempts to insinuate itself into family life: as she writes, parents are not and should not be mere partners of a government in the project of childrearing.
So tear down those fences, parents of Watford! The state has no right to separate you from your children in while they play. It’s a fucking disgrace and people’s passivity in the face of such creeping oppression has gone on too long: “Aux swings, slides and barricades…”