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states of exception Arrow vol 5 no 2 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 2, 2006


States of Exception

Jane Mummery
University of Ballarat


1. States of exception cannot be understood in the terms of any otherwise prevailing rules or discourses. They are, after all, exceptional. They mark, by definition, special cases, anomalies, irregularities. And, because of this special status, we may of course take exception to them. Now this is not a new insight, we can all think of exceptional people for whom the rules just do not seem to apply, and exceptional situations where the normal rules just do not seem able to help. However, what a range of thinkers of the political (from Arendt to Schmitt to Agamben to Derrida, to name but a few) have stressed, is first that the idea of the exceptional - and its corresponding suspension of the usual or the norm - in fact underpins and drives the political, and second that this has extremely unsettling implications. For instance, if the exception is the rule of and in the political, then the suspension of the norm is the norm. Furthermore, we are brought to realise that every existing norm depends on the interruption and suspension of all preceding norms. And that every norm not only marks a reordering, but awaits its own reordering by the emergence of what will become yet another norm. To borrow from Georgio Agamben, "In so far as the state of exception is 'willed', it inaugurates a new juridico-political paradigm in which the norm becomes indistinguishable from the exception" (1995: 109), a state which entails, of course, the eventual identification (and inauguration) of hitherto unknown exceptions. This, in turn, problematises borders. After all, the inauguration of a new norm marks the redrawing of borders. What was out may now be in, and vice versa. Further, the whole inside-outside border may come to be seen as not simply contingent but, as Jacques Derrida has taken such pains to show us, porous and problematic.

2. Now although this might seem old hat, these insights point us towards important questions. If borders and identities - the inside-outside - are not as stable as we might like to believe, then they are open to debate and interpretation. Further, they are open to being redrawn, and as such they give rise to inescapeable and complex questions concerning meaning and justification (Derrida, 1987: 61). In their turn, these demand that we pay attention to the complexities of identities and identity claims with regards to such issues as their grounds, interests, representations, scope, and borders, to name but a few of the interlocked issues. They demand that we not only have to accept change and contingency, but perspective. They also remind us that we need to think through the paradoxical implications of accepting as the norm a state of affairs where all states are exceptional insofar as they are all bounded with problematic borders, and where the passing through of borders and the inauguration of new norms both marks and does not mark distinguishable limits and identities.

3. This, then, sets the scene for my consideration below of two inter-related issues. The first, of course, is that of my introduction - on behalf of Borderlands' editorial collective - to the papers that comprise this second issue for 2006, papers that all address the sorts of issues I have outlined above, albeit in different ways and with different driving concerns. The second issue, much broader in scope, is that of the relevance and use of these sorts of insights to engage in discussion of our world post-9/11, a world which we have been assured over and over again is significantly different from how it was. Given that these questions have come to be particularly contentious in recent times - sparking debate in both Australia and the U.S., for example - it is with this latter issue that I wish initially to engage.

4. The desire to understand and engage with our world is, of course, a driving imperative for all of us, not just academics. It is just as uncontroversial to say, as Merv Bendle (2006a; 2006b) does, that academics should - when taken as an overall group - be concerned with making sense of events that affect all of us, such as terrorism. After all, as Carolyn Allport (2006) puts it in a letter to the editor published in Australia's national broadsheet The Australian, "Universities play an important role in providing objective, evidence-based research, analysis and opinion to governments and communities". It is, however, important to note that this imperative does not arrive accompanied by any single proper methodological template beyond that of endeavoring to not - whatever the discipline - let theoretical or ideological presuppositions pre-determine research outcomes. Indeed the idea that any subject as complex and obviously cross-disciplinary as terrorism only admits a single proper methodology is not only reductive, but a serious challenge to academic freedom, as well as forgetful of the rate of change in global-local interactions and configurations.

5. Given this framework, then, what is the role - in current attempts to understand our world - of methodologies that factor in such issues as the "racialised and ethnicised enlisting of bodies and investments in nationalisms, as well as racialised, ethnicised, and regionalised ways of seeing" (Osuri, 2006)? Are such methodologies able to help us in our quest to better understand and engage with our world? These are important, indeed contentious, questions, and in lieu of the sort of detailed response they require - beyond the scope of this introduction - I wish to make two inter-related points. First is to pick up on my previous concerns and to say again that the task of understanding increasingly complex global-local interactions is not only an imperative but should also not be seen as the preserve of specific disciplines only. As Sandra Bilson (2006) of the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter-Terrorism at Australia's Macquarie University stresses, what is needed is "unfettered research", a point also emphasised in recent discussions within Australia regarding academic freedom (see Burke, 2006; O'Keefe, 2006; and Williams & MacDonald, 2006).

6. This, however, is precisely what seems to be currently at stake. The previous months have witnessed the public airing within Australia of what can best be called a culture war within the discipline of security or terrorism studies, a war accompanied by surprisingly virulent calls to restrict academic freedom and research trajectories. More specifically, the past weeks have seen the rise of a debate on the utility of work done by critical terrorism scholars - some of it work published by Borderlands - with a commonly reiterated criticism being that "critical engagement is a euphemism for an assault on the Australian, British and US government responses to terrorism" (Jones & Ungerer, 2006). Less emotively, the debate questions the utility of research that does not fit securely within highly specific - predetermined - constraints, such as those outlined by the Australian Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesperson Kevin Rudd who asserts that

terrorism research, to be useful, need[s] to look at militant Islam within the region and beyond and what strategies worked. "If any research is falling away either side of that, then taxpayer dollars are not being wisely spent," he said. (Ferrari & Edwards, 2006).

This brings us to the crux of the matter. What we see here is an argument that appeals to and has been made in the names of both utility and the 'real', an argument that further assumes that the focus should be on responding to the real, to what is, rather than on trying to explore and better understand broader contextual and historical issues. Unfortunately, though, whilst we certainly need the former, we also need the latter - without both we are, as Anthony Burke reminds us, "acting blindly" (Burke, 2006).

7. The second related point I wish to make here is that this debate of the socio-political utility of certain methodological approaches to explore such issues as terrorism, has in fact been raging for some time under a variety of guises. The work of Jacques Derrida, for instance, has born the brunt of similar criticism, and it is to his arguments that I now turn:

The concepts with which this "event" [September 11] has most often been described, named, categorised, are the products of a "dogmatic slumber" from which only a new philosophical reflection can awaken us ... The prevailing discourse, that of the media and of the official rhetoric, relies too heavily on received concepts like "war" or "terrorism" (national or international). (Derrida, 2003: 100).

Derrida thus reminds us that along with the need for response - and there is no need to establish again that Derridean deconstruction is both responsive and responsible - there is also a requirement to pay attention to conceptual parameters and exceptions, all of which affect our actions, policies, and in turn the 'terrorism' we confront in profound ways. Terrorism, after all, is an "elusive concept" and one that is far from "self-evident", points which serve as a reminder of the risks entailed by the hasty acceptance of any approach that "purposefully avoids facing the conceptual complexities underlying the notion of terrorism" (Borradori, 2003: xii, 2).

8. This work, then, of teasing out conceptual complexities, of tracing their shifting and interconnecting parameters and trajectories, thus needs to go hand in hand with that informed by other research methodologies. And to think otherwise is to risk limiting our critical resources and our ability to understand and criticise current events. This is, of course, also a reiteration of the key objectives of Borderlands itself, where our stated aim is to "promote transdisciplinary work across the humanities, work which might also intersect with diverse practices and sites in culture, policy and everyday life". And - to turn to my second key focus - this is work that the essays presented in this issue are doing well. Taking their starting points from current problematic states of affairs - ranging from the reception of Kurdish refugees in Italy, to the state of political conservatism in Australia, to discursive discrepancies and the inevitable accompanying problems of misrecognition - each essay included here is concerned with borders, with situations where the passing through of the exceptional spaces of borders and the inauguration of new norms mark and do not mark distinguishable limits and identities.

9. Matthew Sharpe's essay starts us off close to home with an analysis of Australian conservatism, arguing that the current political situation in Australia is seeing the emergence of a new post-traditional, post-modern conservatism. Unlike its predecessor forms, however, this conservatism, Sharpe tells us, is far from averse to change, an insight that leads him to contend that it is perhaps to be best understood in reference to the work of authoritarian political theorist Carl Schmitt.

10. Shifting further afield, Raffaela Puggioni traces the the local reception of eight hundred refugees in the Italian province of Catanzaro, Italy in 1998. Critical of existing official politico-legal structures, Puggioni speculates on what may happen if we move away from state-centric reception and analysis, considering instead the possibilities and problematics of localised reception strategies as tried in Catanzaro. As such, Puggioni's close analysis of Italian practices with regards to refugee reception, coupled with Italy's "historical disjuncture between Italian people and the state", is suggestive of new ways we can begin to envisage the provision of safety and the duty of care in providing asylum to refugees.

11. These sorts of problematics of territory and responsibility are also picked up by Jason Adams, in his analysis of the exceptional space designated as border. Prompted by recent upheavals in the United States of America with regards to issues of immigration - the spate of state based bills concerned with controlling migration, the actions associated with the 'Day Without Immigrants' (May 1 2006) - Adams goes on to trace a genealogy of the border and its function in the maintenance of official territory.

12. Claire Sutherland's analysis of human rights discourse in ASEAN politics draws attention to the 'newness' of the concept and the difficulties inherent in bringing about an open dialogue amongst the ten members of ASEAN participating in the development of a specifically South-East Asian construal of human rights. In tracking the evolution of an 'ASEAN way' of approaching human rights, Sutherland is keen to point out the conflicting ideologies in play, and argues that a closer analysis of discourse theory allows us to both reassess the coherence of discursive constructs such as 'human rights', and consider just what a South-East Asian configuration of human rights might entail. Sutherland's is a timely analysis of some dearly held notions of 'common sense'.

13. If these previous papers have explored broad issues of territory and borders with an eye to shifts in national and international regulations and self-understanding, the next three start from what could be described as more subjective insights. For instance, Arthur Saniotis is concerned to explore what he identities as a dynamics of misrecognition since September 11. Saniotis takes the image of the smiling Indonesian terrorist Amrozi bin Nurhasyim and critiques various western portrayals of and responses to him as a fundamental misreading of Indonesian social behaviour. Saniotis argues that the misrecognition of Amrozi's smile is indicative of a larger misrecognition or misreading of Jama Islamiyyah. The article is a timely one given the ongoing misrecognitions that continue to be played out in the Australian public sphere. We draw attention here to the various calls for greater integration of migrants into 'Australian society' and the instituting of English classes for Muslims (compared to arrivals, say, from Greece or Nigeria).

14. In contrast, and prompted by his "being resident in New York City on September 11, 2001, and the two years thereafter", Suren Pillay utilises Michel Foucault's notion of biopolitics, and Georgio Agamben's work on modern regimes of legality and exception, to explore the juridical effects and ethical claims surrounding the dead and the category of death in exceptional space. As he reminds us, it is precisely in such instances of exception that the non-living still need to count, arguing that strategies of discursively denying the dead are also to deny life.

15. Lastly, as a Muslim feminist concerned with women's legal rights and the ways in which they are upheld, reconfigured or eroded, Shakira Hussein's essay is a reflection upon her interviews with members of the women's wing of the Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami (JI). Hussein's essay is not only an insight into the Islamisation of Pakistan's political, social and legal cultures, but her personal encounters with the JI women are revealing both of the ways in which these women are active in Pakistan society and politics, and also of Hussein's own response to these women - which is not without tension - as a western Muslim.

16. To conclude, as should be evident from my preceding discussion and from the papers themselves, all of these papers share in a concern with the problematics of exception, borders, recognition, and identity. They therefore all share in and utilise a certain theoretical framework, one which allows them to trace unstable trajectories - conceptual, regulative, historical, physical - and problematic inside-outsides. It is thus a framework which is methodologically open to change, contingency and perspective, but which does not thereby excuse itself from the need for careful and critical intellectual labour.


Jane Mummery is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ballarat. She is the author of The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics (2005), and her current research turns around the ethico-political possibilities and implications of contemporary European philosophy.


My thanks to the rest of the Borderlands team for all their work on getting this issue together, especially to Anthony Burke, and to Marnie Nolton for all her help in the final stages.


Adams, J. 2006, 'Redrawing the "Imaginary Lines": Exceptional Space in an Exceptional Time', borderlands e-journal , vol. 5, no. 2.

Agamben, G. 1995, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. London: Verso.

Allport, C. 2006, Letter to the Editor, Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 27 September, p. 32.

Bendle, M. 2006a, 'Don't Mention the Terror', Higher Education Supplement, The Australian , 6 Sep., p. 25.

_______ 2006b, 'Status Quo Defence Fails', Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 20 September, p. 31.

Bilson, S. 2006, Letter to the Editor, Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 27 September, p. 32.

Borradori, G. 2003, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Burke, A. 2006, 'Declaring War on Academic Freedom and Independence', Opinion, The Canberra Times, 23 September, p. 11.

Derrida, J. 2003, 'Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides'. In Giovanni Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 85-136.

_______ 1987, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Ferrari, J. & Edwards, V. 2006, 'Research "Blames West for Terror"', The Nation, The Australian, 15 Sep., pp. 1, 4.

Hussein, S. 2006, 'Among the Other Sisterhood: Reflections on Encounters with the Women's Wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami (Pakistan)', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Jones, D.M. & Ungerer, C. 2006, 'In an Idealist World', Inquirer, The Weekend Australian, 21 October, p. 29.

Mummery, J. 2006, The Post to Come: An Outline of Post-Metaphysical Ethics. Bern: Peter Lang.

O'Keefe, B. 2006, 'Ruddock Barriers Impede Research', Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 4 October, p. 22.

Osuri, G. 2006, 'Regimes of Terror: Contesting the War on Terror', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no.1.

Pillay, S. 2006, 'Thoughts on the Government of Death in War: The Elusive Search for Afghanistan's Dead', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Puggioni, R. 2006, 'Refugees Reception and the Construction of Identities: Encountering Kurdish Refugees in Italy', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Saniotis, A. 2006, 'Why is Amrozi Smiling?: "Misrecognition" and the Politics of Terror', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Sharpe, M. 2006, 'A Coincidentia Oppositorium? On Carl Schmitt and New Australian Conservatism', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Sutherland, C. 2006, 'ASEAN Discourse: The Rhetoric of Human Rights and Asian Values', borderlands e-journal, vol. 5, no. 2.

Williams, G. & MacDonald, E. 2006, 'Fear of the Law on Terror', Higher Education Supplement, The Australian, 20 September, p. 30.

© borderlands ejournal 2006



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