Prisoners of the Infinite
by Jacques Ranciere
This was the initial name given to the Pentagon's offensive against that
fuzzy-contoured enemy, referred to by the term of 'terrorism'. As we know,
the name was quickly changed. It had been, as we were told, a case of
language excess on the part of a president still inexperienced in the
art of nuances. If he had wanted bin Laden "dead or alive",
it was obviously due to having seen too many Westerns at too young an
Such an explanation left no one convinced. That's because the 'dead or
alive' principle isn't the one from Westerns. On the contrary, it's quite
common to find sheriffs risking their skin to save assassins from a lynch
mob, and hand them over to Justice afterward. Infinite Justice, as opposed
to the Far West's whole morality, means justice without limits. It's justice
that ignores all of the categories by which its practice is traditionally
circumscribed: distinguishing legal punishment from the vengeance of individuals;
separating the law from politics, ethics or religion; separating police
forms by which criminals are hunted down from the military forms by which
armies engage in battle.
From that point of view, there was no language excess. 'Nuances' would
be inappropriate indeed. These traces are precisely what characterize
the retaliatory operations undertaken by the USA. They involve eliminating
the differences that separate war and the police from all the legal forms
by means of which we've sought to specify and limit the action of war
onto justice. We're no longer talking about 'dead or alive', except to
say that nobody knows whether the accused is dead or alive. Yet no one
knows exactly what the charge is under which the American military is
detaining, with the intension of trying, prisoners who benefit neither
from POW status nor from the ordinary guarantees granted to defendants
with proceedings brought against them. 'Infinite justice' states exactly
what's at stake: the assertion of a right identical to the omnipotence
hitherto reserved for the vindictive God. All traditional distinctions
end up by being abolished with the erasure of international forms of law.
To be sure, this erasure is already the principle of terrorist action,
to which political forms and the norms of law are also indifferent. But
'infinite justice' is not only the answer to the adversary's provocation,
thus being compelled to share the same field as him. It translates as
well the strange status that the erasure of the political nowadays grants
to law, within nations and amongst them.
Reflecting on the current state of law reveals an extraordinary inversion
of things. In the 1990's, the undoing of the Soviet empire and the weakening
of social movements in major Western countries were usually celebrated
as utopias being liquidated from real and social democracy to the benefit
of the rules of the State of Right. Whereupon unleashed ethnic conflicts
and religious fundamentalism ended by contradicting this simple philosophy
of history. But identifying Western triumph as the State of Right's has
also proved to be problematic. That's because at the very heart of Western
powers and in their modes of foreign intervention, the relation between
right and fact has evolved in such as way as to tend increasingly toward
erasing the boundaries of law.
In these countries, we've seen two phenomena emerge. On the one hand,
there's an interpretation of law in terms of the rights granted to a whole
series of groups. On the other, legislative practices have aimed at harmonizing
the letter of the law entirely with new lifestyles and workstyles, new
forms of technology, and the family or social relationships.
This is how the political forum, shaped in the gap between the law's abstract
literalness and the polemics over its interpretations, has been found
to have shrunken as much. Thus celebrated, the law increasingly tends
to be the record of a community's lifestyles. Ethical symbolization has
substituted the political symbolization of power and its limits, and the
law's ambivalence. What's now familiar to us is a relation of consensual
inter-expression between the fact of a society's state and the norm of
What the American response asserts is the unmediated likeness of law and
fact in the way a community lives. Yet this is also what the American
Constitution's dominant representation symbolizes: the ethical identity
between a particular lifestyle and a universal system of values. As we
know, 'ethos' means sojourn and lifestyle before referring to a system
of moral values. The recent manifesto issued by American intellectuals
in support of George W. Bush's policies highlighted this point well: the
United States are first and foremost a community united by common moral
and religious values, an ethical community more than one of law and politics.
The Good, by which the community is founded, is therefor the identity
between law and fact. And the crime perpetrated against thousands of American
lives can be immediately considered a crime perpetrated against the Empire
of Good itself.
Yet for some time already this rise of ethics to the detriment of justice
has characterized the forms by which the Western powers have intervened
abroad. Blurring the limits between fact and law has taken on another
face, one opposite and complementary to consensual harmony, i.e. the face
of the humanitarian and 'humane interference'.
The 'right of humane interference' has enabled the protection of some
populations of the former-Yugoslavia from ethnic liquidation. However,
this was carried out at the cost of blurring symbolic boundaries as well
as State borders. It has not only consecrated giving up a structural principle
of international law, i.e. the principle of non-inference--whose virtues
were admittedly ambiguous. It especially introduced a destructive principle
of limitlessness regarding the very idea of the gap separating law and
fact, which otherwise endows the law with its status.
Back in the days of the Vietnam War or of the coups American power engineered
more or less directly in various regions throughout the world, there existed
an explicit or latent opposition between the great principles as asserted
by the Western powers and the practices subordinating those principles
to their vital interests. The anti-imperialist mobilizations of the 1960's
and 1970's had denounced this split between the founding principles and
real practices. Nowadays the polemics over means and ends seems to have
The principle behind this disappearance is represented by the absolute
victim, a victim of infinite evil, forcing a response of infinite reparation.
This 'absolute' right of the victim has come to full fruition in the framework
of 'humane' war. It was backed up during the last quarter century by the
major intellectual movement that worked on theorizing infinite crime.
We've undoubtedly not heeded the specific features enough of what could
be called the second denunciation of Soviet crimes and the Nazi genocide.
The first denunciation had aimed at establishing the reality behind the
facts while also reinforcing the determination of Western democracies
to struggle against an ever-present and ever-threatening totalitarianism.
The second kind, developed during the 1970's as a record of communism,
or in the 1980's when returning to the way in which the European Jewry
was exterminated, has acquired a whole new meaning. Not only have the
crimes been transformed into the monstrous effects of regimes that have
to be fought against, but into the forms whereby an infinite, unthinkable
and irreparable crime was made manifest_the work of an Evil power exceeding
all legal and political measure. Ethics has become the way to think this
infinite evil, which has created an irremediable break in history.
The ultimate consequences of the excess of ethics over law and politics
is the paradoxical constitution of an individual's absolute right whose
rights have, in fact, been absolutely negated. This individual actually
appears as the victim of an infinite Evil against which the fight is itself
infinite. This is the point at which the one defending the victim's rights
inherits absolute right.
The unlimited feature of the wrong perpetrated against the victim justifies
his counsel's unlimited right. American reparation for the absolute crime
perpetrated against American lives has brought the process to its culmination.
The obligation of attending to the victims of absolute Evil has become
identical to the fight without limits against this evil. And this is identified
with deploying unlimited military power, acting like a police force in
charge of restoring order to every part of the world where Evil can find
shelter. This military power is also a legal one, exercising the mythical
power of Vengence in hot pursuit of Crime against all alleged accomplices
of infinite Evil.
As the saying goes, unlimited right is identical to non-right. Victims
and culprits alike fall into the cercle of 'infinite justice'. These days
this translates into the total indeterminacy of the law as it deals with
the status of the American army's prisoners and the way of qualifying
the facts held against them.
Hegel had already sunk into the night of the Absolute in which "all
cows are gray". The lack of ethical distinction, in which politics
and the law drown nowadays, has transformed the prisoners of Guantanamo
Bay into captives of the same type of infinite, with gray being switched
Legal and political symbolization has been slowly substituted by another
ethical and police symbolization of the lives of so-called democratic
communities and of their relations with another world, identified by the
sole reign of ethnic and fundamentalist powers. In the one corner, the
world of good: that of consensus eliminating political litigation in the
joyous harmonizing of right and fact, ways of being and values. In the
other: the world of evil, in which wrong is made infinite, and where it
can only be a matter of war unto death.
Jacques Ranciere's most recent work in translation is Disagreement: Philosophy
and Politics, (Julie Rose, translator) University of Minnesota Press,
1998; and in French: L'inconscient esthetique, Galilee, 2001.
Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz