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Jay Murphy: Visited Last Sunday. It was the Heart of Darkness

“Visited last Sunday. It was the heart of darkness.”(1)

Before any talk of the “disaster” or “catastrophe president” there was a series of emergencies. At some point in that series it became a dim continuum—“trouble every day.” The malaise is visible, even if often there are not words for it. Novelist Francine Prose illustrates it this way: comparing her and her friends’ alarmed and daily email chatter to sound engineers sharing notes on strange, squealing engine noises as the plane crashes to the ground. A friend tells of her brother watching the news on Mexican TV, which freely shows the men, women, and children of Fallujah stacked like cordwood. For domestic consumption, even American flag-draped coffins have been hidden from view; and as for civilian Iraqis, you have to go count the dead yourself. The English journalist Robert Fisk, did just that, finding 26 dead by midday in just one mortuary, and discovered official figures giving a total of 1,100 violent deaths for the month of July in Baghdad alone.(2) It’s one of the running threads or questions of this composite exhibition, with its title that echoes ancient biblical injunctions of caring for one’s neighbor— when do images matter? When do people matter? When are we dispensable? And how do we become indispensable?


Susan Sontag, who left us last year, was forced to revise her earlier assumption that people simply become inured to photographic depictions of atrocity and war and disaster. Rather, “there are pictures whose power does not abate, in part because one cannot look at them often,” they remain “the indelible sample.”(3) This is true even when they present horror in an inevitable chain-link—the 1992 Serbian death camp in Omarska, Bosnia, resembling nothing so much as the 1945 Nazi death camps, or the piles of skulls in mass graves in Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, El Salvador, Guatemala, or Afghanistan and Iraq where the bones eventually become indecipherable in a le rond of extermination. Sontag felt the unphotographed atrocities were bound to remain more remote, memories more difficult to claim and care for, although we still know they happened. But even given the constant stream of images on the worldwide web, relaying suffering and combat from the farthest points of the globe, the “global citizen” prophecies of cyberspace haven’t aged so well. With the rapid-fire chain-link of incident comes the danger of getting lost in the interval. This even applies to those one would think it inapplicable: A Palestinian writer in East Jerusalem whose family has lived there since the fourth century, battered by permits and permissions coming and going, in a surround of strife, still feels the peculiar disconnect or disabling of the media. Typing away in a loft off New Gate in the Old City, the incident or atrocity is there on the screen, and then it’s gone, replaced by a more palatable tragedy, or fun and games—“Is a 3-D King Kong in the Works?”: “Kirstie Alley no longer a fat actress.” As columnist Bob Herbert put it after more of the revelations about secret CIA-run gulags, “black sites” often using the actual compounds in Eastern Europe of the Soviet predecessors, “Worse stories are still to come. . . . We’ll watch them unfold the way people watch the aftermath of terrible accidents.”(4)

We are continually stunned. The cloak on images that often cover the worst in Iraq, has been broken sporadically by the handicam parade of Abu Ghraib, which Sontag suggested was itself a sort of symptom of digital desensitization,(5) and Gabriele Zampirini’s documentary for Italian television on the use of white phosphorus and other chemical agents on the population of Fallujah, so graphic many found it difficult to watch.(6) Quite in contrast, the floods that ravaged New Orleans, one of America’s oldest and most culturally prized cities, that truly a one-of-a-kind metropolis, were accompanied by a flood of imagery that found it incapable of concealing the worst. There were some whites, to be sure, like the man who gamely swam across Lake Ponchartrain to find a highway out, but most of the faces calling for help on rooftops, or floating facedown in the tidewaters, were unmistakably black. That “other America” that decades ago had once inspired a massive government intervention called a “war on poverty” was unmistakably revealed, still in place, in full force, unleashed in our midst. And the official response showed the chaos and instability prescribed for the Middle East—the World Bank in 1995 called for a “shake-down period” in the region preparatory to “democracy”—a stance reaffirmed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the spring of ‘05 during the warm-up to the “elections” in Egypt, when she advised that a little chaos is a salutary thing, is a feature of domestic life as well. The outside and inside of the American “empire” have become a moebius strip, so to speak. Now America is becoming the site of the same rumblings as Iraqi street talk, that Americans can’t be “that incompetent,” or the conspiratorial conjuring of what the Haitians, recently counseled by Rice concerning who they could and could not elect, term the “plan Amerikan.”

Eerily reminiscent of the Iraq adventure, now already in year four, the accusations of irresponsibility in the fiasco of disaster management that followed Hurricane Katrina, of what did they know and when did they know it, centered around “incompetence.” There was incompetence, that is incontrovertible, but it was often a result of policy. Not only had the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) been downsized, removed from cabinet status, and three-quarters of its budget devoted to flood, storm, and natural disaster protection reallocated to counter-terrorism schemes, but director Michael Brown’s last day job was as head of the International Arabian Horses Association, a post he left under a cloud. FEMA’s previous director under President Bush, Joseph Albaugh, characterized disaster assistance as “an oversized entitlement program.”(7) Those who supported, in President of Americans for Tax Reform Grover Norquist’s phrase, drowning the government like a “baby in the bathtub” were responsible this time for some real drowning.

We found all the food that we could and we cooked and we fed people. But then, things started getting really bad.
By the second day, the people that were there, that we were feeding and everything, we had no more food and no water. We had nothing, and other people were coming in our neighborhood. We were watching the helicopters going across the bridge and airlift other people out, but they would hover over us and tell us “Hi!” and that would be all. They wouldn’t drop us any food or any water, or nothing. . . .

And I want people to realize that we did not stay in the city so we could steal and loot and commit crimes. A lot of those young men lost their minds because the helicopters would fly over us and they wouldn’t stop. We would make SOS on the flashlights, we’d do everything, and it really did come to a point, where these young men were so frustrated that they did start shooting. They weren’t trying to hit the helicopters, they figured maybe they weren’t seeing. Maybe if they hear this gunfire they will stop then. But that didn’t help us. Nothing like that helped us.(8)

With Hurricane Katrina, as with Operation Iraqi Freedom, we need to look at what Middle East scholar Mark LeVine calls the “three circles” of incompetence. There is a circle, indeed, of sheer stupidity and ignorance (Richard Perle’s essays on the Arab world that could in no way pass any Arab History 101), but it is surrounded and carried by circles of military and corporate suasion where the “incompetence” left in their wake is more to a point, more of what LeVine terms “sponsored chaos,” or what Colgate University Professor Nancy Mies, referring to the Iraqi occupation, calls “planned chaos.” In the wake of the “shock therapy” globalization initiatives often driven by the U.S. abroad, there is a new international vocabulary for it. In Kazakhstan and many of the republics of the former Soviet Union, it’s bardok. The Palestinians call it fawda. Italians visiting or working in these lands speak of it in the specialized phrase or sense of è un casinoi, where anyone or anything is for sale, usually with direct reference to the brothels and sexual trafficking “globalization” that has vastly expanded wherever it has gone, including now into pious Shiite Iraq.(9) It is the fearsome maelstrom of what in more polite company is commonly called “privatization.”
In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them—Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17 miles of the camp.(10)

Such chaos can be lethal for those who cannot climb into their SUVs or helicopters to move on to their other address, who are condemned to the frightening disorder of the convention center, or trapped in makeshift camps surrounded by soldiers who treat them as the enemy. This terrible juggernaut was present before, but Katrina revealed it in all its inane glory. It even moved Senator John Kerry to characterize the Gulf Coast reconstruction plans as an attempt to turn “the region into a vast laboratory for right-wing ideological experiments.”(11) Before FEMA had anyone on the scene, Joseph Albaugh and other hucksters were already getting contracts signed for Halliburton, the Blackwater mercenaries, the Shaw Group, and like leagues, to visit upon New Orleans the neocon utopia that had formerly been the Coalition Provisional Authority’s mission de civilisation in Baghdad. The “incompetence” was so striking that it is confusing to figure which of the three circles to consign it to. House speaker Dennis Hastert’s exclamation that nature had finally bulldozed the Ninth Ward, what policies had failed to do, at least had the virtue of honesty. Columnist David Brooks of The New York Times proposed to scatter the denizens of the city across the country, “to integrate people who lack middle-class skills into neighborhoods with people who possess these skills and who insist on certain standards of behavior.” While the black and poor are to be “culturally integrated,” Brooks urged the white middle class to move back into the center city they had generally fled decades earlier, “even knowing that their blocks will include a certain number of poor people.”(12) Brooks provokes what theorist Avital Ronell has called “traumatic stupidity,”(13) but the stupidity or stupor here is not so much Brooks’s (whose characterization of New Orleans’s poor as a “blank slate” smacked of a leaf from Chairman Mao’s playbook), as blind, cloistered (and contradictory, for one who decries “grandiose . . . failed” social initiatives, the stereotyped “social engineering” of the ‘60s like the “war on poverty”) as he appears to be, as it is ours, that such a breathtaking column could appear in a mainstream, “newspaper of record” American newspaper. Brooks was far from alone in heralding Hurricane Katrina’s act of ethnic cleansing: effective population transfer as an answer to the disorders of economic and racial apartheid.

Just restored email capabilities after two weeks. Went into Jeff Parish last week, and it is a total war zone: military copters overhead, checkpoints, curfews. We’d go to [the] civic center to get daily ration of ice, H2O and MREs. This is the kinda stuff that Clash-Jam-Pistols sang about, but it’s real.(14)

In our “staying with the stupor of unaccountable excess and regressive brutality”(15) it is difficult for us to see which catastrophe gives rise to the “emergency state” and which is provoked by it. Yet it is certainly the “crisis state” or “state of exception” that steps in to cast a military solution for each calamity, whether it be the avian flu or a category 4 hurricane. The president professed to have no knowledge that the Louisiana levees could break although it had been a topic of discussion for many decades and named a number one priority/possibility by his own federal disaster agencies, even as the ongoing construction on them was radically de-funded (hurricane prevention projects around Lake Pontchartrain were slashed by 79 percent in the year 2005 alone; flood prevention projects were cut 53 percent). He was quick, however, to call for a curfew and “zero tolerance” for looters, which the rest of the nation who watched television (the president claims his main source of “news” is his own court) could see were desperately scavenging for food and supplies. The BBC would later show the Afghan and Iraq veterans ramming down doors for the New Orleans stay-at-homes not too differently than they had weeks previously in Ramadi or Najaf. Increasingly any social symptom or emergency reveals this frightening degeneration of “public governance” or “public interest” into naked force and obsession with control. It is not a question of the foibles or “incompetence” of one American administration, however odious it may seem. At the time of this writing the governments of Argentina and France alike are using the police to suppress exploding social and political discontent expressed in day after day of rioting.(16) It could well illustrate a more generalized crisis of governance, as in the argument of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who maintains the “camp” has replaced the city-state as the paradigm of our politics.(17)

Agamben is continuing the explorations in the late work of philosopher Michel Foucault, where he examined the meaning of “biopower,” the need, as he saw it, for contemporary regimes to exercise control over hitherto unimaginable realms of life and death.(18) For Foucault the transition from the ancien régime to more modern capitalist forms of power involved inducing “disciplinary” regimes, especially regarding the body and the biological. The transition from those “disciplinary” states (associated by Foucault with his analysis of “confinement” in the 18th and 19th centuries through the beginning of the 20th ) to our contemporary “societies of control,” signal forms of domestication operating not from the conventional “outside” but rather from “inside” the body politic, constituting it in fact, and completely cutting across social relations of all sorts, making previous forms of control look static and partial, with simpler relations of opposition. Foucault wrote, “Life has now become . . . an object of power.”(19) If the origin of Western politics and metaphysics demanded a separation of “natural” or “bare life” from properly political existence, the modern era seamlessly melded them. As Foucault explained, “For millennia, man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with the additional capacity for political existence; modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.”(20)

One reason for the continuing fascination with the regime of Nazi Germany has to be due to its eminently biopolitical nature. As modern and contemporary politics bring about a “symbiosis” with “bare” or “natural life” (hence the critical debates on euthanasia, abortion, cloning, Terry Schiavo, the death penalty, torture) the classical modes of understanding politics lose their relevancy. As Agamben puts it so succinctly, “Only because politics in our age had been entirely transformed into biopolitics was it possible for politics to be constituted as totalitarian politics to a degree hitherto unknown.”(21) Although for many theorists this history creates a clear dividing line between “liberal democracies” on the one hand and the “totalitarian” states on the other, for Agamben it is the basis for their “contiguity.” He argues:

only because biological life and its needs had become the politically decisive fact is it possible to understand the otherwise incomprehensible rapidity with which twentieth century parliamentary democracies were able to turn into totalitarian states and with which this century's totalitarian states were able to be converted, almost without interruption, into parliamentary democracies. In both cases, the transformations were produced in a context in which for some time politics had already turned into biopolitics, and in which the only real question to be decided was which form of organization would be best suited to the task of assuring the care, control, and use of bare life.(22)

Nazi Germany remains exemplary here, since for Agamben in this instance the difference between the terms police and politics disappears, and “the care of life coincides with the fight against the enemy.”(23) It is here one can find the “full sense” of the attempted extermination of the Jewish people—that police and politics, eugenics and ideology, health, and complete defeat of the foe—are all calls and missions that merge indistinguishably.

In a sort of cliché way, this is an edifying experience. One is rapidly focused away from the transient and material to the bare necessities of life. It has been challenging to me to learn how to be a primary care physician. We are under martial law so return to our homes is impossible. I don't know how long it will be and this is my greatest fear.(24)

Perhaps that's why the Nazi experience is still so stubbornly resistant to our understanding,(25) it is even now too close to us, and our threatening, booming, ever more complex biopolitical field. What Agamben calls the “zone of indistinction” between politics and “bare life” is precisely that no-man's land where the “state of exception” comes into play and finds its role: think Guantanamo Bay detentions; “secret renditions”; the suspension of habeas corpus, the 1679 writ often heralded as the basis for modern democratic rights; open, governmental defense of torture; dismissal of the Geneva Conventions, instituted, lest we forget, as an international response to Nazi crimes, as “quaint.” The San Francisco poet Kevin Killian riffed on these lawless liminal spaces as exemplified by the airport duty-free shop, but he did so in the late last century before they so frightfully accelerated and careened past the powers of satire. The sight of “bare life” crosses a zone of life and death and is often incommensurable for that reason: the poignantly moving sight, by all accounts, of Guantanamo hunger strikers in the tropical sun; Ninth Warders waving for aid; or “Chechen war victims”; “Afghani refugees”; the human stuff deformed by Agent Orange. Sometimes it is in the simplicity that they exist: Ethiopian Jewry; a guajiro in Cuba. Indelible evidence. It appears linked to Agamben's claim for “the refugee” as “perhaps the only thinkable figure for the people of our time and the only category in which one may see today . . . the forms and limits of a coming political community.”(26) It was an extremely prescient moment in the thinking of political theorist Hannah Arendt, Agamben reminds us, when she wrote of how the “refugees driven from country to country represent the vanguard of their peoples.”(27) Refugees have often lost all possession and relation except their simple status as human. Simply human: impossible to integrate in the old order, receding from us at lightening speed.


This essay was written on November 2, 2005, the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of Norman Morrison. Although, according to many, consciousness of the Vietnam war in America in 1965 was still very limited, a marked escalation was in progress, and news stories were already reporting U.S. napalm raids in “the land of the burning children.” Morrison, a longtime Quaker activist, on the day of his action, sitting on a wooden stool, had calmly asked his wife during lunch “What more can we do?” Later that afternoon, Morrison sat down cross-legged at the Pentagon, and, releasing his daughter Emily at the last moment, set himself on fire. He was almost directly under the front window of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. The next day his wife received in the mail Morrison's goodbye note:

Dearest Anne,
Please don’t condemn me. . . . For weeks, even months, I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was shown, as clearly as I was shown that Friday night in August 1955 that you would be my wife . . . at least I shall not plan to go without my child, as Abraham did. Know that I love thee but must act for the children in the priest’s village.

A November 1 newspaper article titled “A Priest Tells How Our Bombers Razed His Church and Killed His People” had moved Morrison. That year nearly another dozen Americans followed his example, and of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam who had earlier protested the Diem regime with their flaming bodies.

In an era where the “state of exception” wields such seemingly absolute power, from monopoly of weapons of mass destruction, dramatized especially by the nuclear option, to the shaping of society and media apparently detached from any accountability or responsibility, it can be forgotten that even such power needs its subjects. Morrison's extreme suicidal gesture robbed the American state of its power over life and death, asserting the autonomy of the body through its freely chosen destruction. In that, it shares a continuum with its opposite polarity of the suicide bomber.(28) Even if it has an ancient pedigree (Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling describes the story of Samson pulling down the temple as a similar impulse), this similarly extreme move appears the new weapon of choice from Sri Lanka to Palestine, from Chechnya to New York, Barcelona, and London. Often a response to a hopeless asymmetry in military power, the suicide bomber likewise through terrorist sacrifice eliminates the state's absolute decision it has claimed over death.

Yet there is another martyrdom option, tantalizingly raised but not really delineated in the grand synthetic work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude, and that is “the republican martyr . . . from the heroes of Plutarch to Martin Luther,” the martyr “as a kind of testimony—testimony not so much to the injustices of power but to the possibility of a new world, an alternative not only to that specific destructive power but to every such power.”(29) In this tentative, the martyr is indeed struck down by the “violence of the powerful,” but that is not his or her project. It would be absurd to seek such a fate, rather it is “only a by-product of real political action and the reactions of sovereignty against it.”(30) We realize that acting in concert, realizing the commons, in this most gregarious and compulsively communicating of societies, is often a crime. It is tempting to see the recent reconsideration of a figure like John Brown carried out in David S. Reynolds's study,(31) quite apart from the portraits of the “fanatic” we are used to in Stephen B. Oates, Robert Boyer, or even Russell Banks, as an attempt to rethink or reimagine such martyrdom. Hardt and Negri evoke the specter of Lysistrata and the “biopolitical strike,” claiming “A one-week biopolitical strike would block any war.”(32) There are numerous ways to jam the gears, beyond the older dialectics of nonviolence and violence. As activist Mario Savo exclaimed at the beginning of another era of often complete and unavoidable risk over 40 years ago, we must invent new ways and means of throwing “your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. . . . And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” In short, there are plentiful ways to become indispensable.

Jay Murphy—November, 2005.

Jay Murphy resides in New York City, USA and is Director and Founder of the internet site Soul City (



1 Caroline Senter: Personal communication. September 22, 2005.

2 Robert Fisk, “War is the Total Failure of the Human Spirit,”

3 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2003), pp. 83-84.

4 Bob Herbert, “Secrets and Shame,” The New York Times, November 3, 2005, p. A27.

5 Susan Sontag, “Abu Ghraib Is Us,” The New York Times Magazine, May 24, 2004.

6 Zampirini's documentary La strage nascosta (The hidden massacre) can be found at The French newscast, Le Journal, reported that the film has been banned from the U.S. news media.

7 Mike Davis, “The Predators of New Orleans,” October 25, 2005, Le Monde Diplomatique, (English version)

8 Charmaine Neville, “How We Survived the Flood,” September 7, 2005,

9 See Mark LeVine, “Where Chaos is King,” October 25, 2005, mhtml?emx=x&pid=30881; also LeVine's 2004 column “Whose Chaos Is This Anyway?”, and his “Echoes of Oslo,” In These Times, September 19, 2005.

10 Jordan Flaherty, “Notes from Inside New Orleans,” September 2, 2005. Retrieved from worldwide web.

11 John Kerry's September 19, 2005, speech can be found at room/speeches/spc_2005_09_19.html.

12 David Brooks, “Katrina's Silver Lining,” The New York Times, September 8, 2005, A29.

13 Avital Ronell, The Test Drive (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) p. 108.

14 David Rivé: Personal communication. September 14, 2005.

15 Ronell, ibid.

16 For France, see “9 Nights of Rage.” disturbances continued for over 13 days. In Argentina at Mar del Plata demonstrators trashed shops, fought with police, and burned a bank in protest of the neoliberal policies promulgated at the Summit of the Americas conference, where Bush administration attempts to win Latin America over to its version of “free trade” largely collapsed.

17 Agamben develops this line of thought in a projected four-volume series, of which three have been published: Homo Sacer. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998; Remnants of Auschwitz. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books, 1999; State of Exception. Trans. Kevin Attel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. A collection of his political essays is Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Cesarino. Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. A well-taken critique of Agamben is Malcolm Bull's “States don't really mind their citizens dying (provided they don't do it all at once): they just don't like anyone else to kill them,” London Review of Books (December 16, 2004): 3-6.

18 Foucault broached some of these issues in volume one of his The History of Sexuality, (Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1978), as well as Power/Knowledge. Ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980). Yet the notion of “biopower” was rarely developed explicitly as far by him as by Agamben, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri, to cite only the better known examples.

19 Michel Foucault. “Les mailles du pouvoir,” Dits et ecrits. Vol. 4. Paris: Gallimard, 1994, p. 194. An analysis of the transition from disciplinary to control societies is provided in Gilles Deleuze's “Postscript on Control Societies,” in Negotiations. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

20 Foucault. The History of Sexuality, p. 188.

21 Agamben, Homo Sacer, p. 120.

22 Ibid., p. 122.

23 Ibid., p. 147.

24 Greg Henderson, “Letter from New Orleans,” September 1, 2005. Retrieved from worldwide web.

25 One thinks of Jacques Derrida's caution that we know what we are referring to when we say “Nazism,” or Jean-Luc Nancy's alluding to its “revolutionary” nature—“I know that Fascism and Nazism were also revolutions; as were Leninism and Stalinism. It is therefore a question of revolutionizing revolutions.” Jean-Luc Nancy, The Experience of Freedom. Trans. Bridget McDonald. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 164.

26 Agamben, Means Without End, p. 16.

27 Arendt, quoted ibid.

28 However offensive to both parties, there is a strong common relationship in terms of spectacle and representational politics, between pacifist civil disobedience and forms of terrorist action. See the analysis in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Labor of Dionysus (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

29 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 346.

30 Ibid. p. 347. Hardt and Negri delight in limning the eccentric figure of resistance. In their earlier Empire they discuss St. Francis of Assisi in practically the same breath
with the Wobblies as an ideal “militant . . . in opposition to nascent capitalism.” See Empire (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 413.

31 David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist (New York: Knopf, 2005).

32 Hardt and Negri, Multitude, p. 347.