The Political Myth of the Humanized State II: The State’s Selfies

Has the state been cleansed of the exciting but freakish-looking cosmic mythology we find in the ancient Near East? Drastic shifts in form and political economy, intertwined with critiques such as those of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza, seem to have left this gory political theology far behind. But there is something to Schmitt’s leering suggestion that Hobbes did nothing but reanimate the Leviathan and give it a new role.

Today, states can now seem more human than actual people. Logistically, it is easier for mass media to portray a state as a person than to portray groups of actual stateless people this way. After all,  they can communicate, spend, save, and fight on far larger scales than, say, refugees. This explains much of the struggle to mediate pictures of victims; the injuries and deaths of the stateless become harder to believe since they lack a home address.

But if states are cast in daily news dramas as unassuming persons with a natural, even God-given set of rights, a look at the history of this figure can disrupt the naturalness of such assumptions. Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies shows that in the European Middle Ages, states were very different kinds of persons, providing a powerful contrast as well as analogy to ancient and modern notions. The king was thought of as two entirely different kinds of persons that met temporarily in any specific king: he had a human body but like Jesus Christ he embodied something that was in reality entirely nonhuman and eternal. The medieval political theology of Christendom flowed from Christology. Unlike modern idealizations of the state, the king’s eternal body did not, for example, include the people, and was perfectly capable of being opposed to his physical body, as in the famous case when Parliament, acting on behalf of the eternal royal body, convicted the physical instance of the king of treason and sentenced his body to death (a moment of acute interest to Hobbes).

Personification of the state as a body–with its purest example in fascism’s unity of people as hierarchically placed organs and limbs– is very old. There seems to be an Indo-European myth of the ordered world as sacrificed body, which needs a priest to repeat the killing. But this state was only personified as an agent–it did not feel or hurt; it only took victims. 

 A set of new myths and practices around the individual, no less than developments in technology and the social organization of media, suggests a great modern innovation. This is the state as patient: feeling, sensitive, even hurt.,  The State That Takes Selfies.

 

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