an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112




Sovereignty and the State of Emergency


Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker




The video game “State of Emergency” offers gamers a chance to be part of an urban riot, a riot that has no aim other than to overthrow an anonymous, vaguely-named "Corporation."  Designed by Rockstar Games in the wake of the L.A./Rodney King riots
and the Battle for Seattle, State of Emergency puts artificial life algorithms to good use. One must carefully navigate the chaotic swarm of civilians, protestors, and riot police. The game has no aim except to incite riot, and it is unclear as to whether the title "state of emergency" refers to the oppressive corporate State or the apparent chaos that ensues. In other words: Is the State of emergency also a state of emergency? Except for military simulation games, rarely do games so explicitly make politics part of their game play. One can imagine the game played from the other side--that of the riot police. Here the goal would be crowd control, surveillance, and military blockading. The computer skills necessary for playing either scenario amount to network management tasks. Either you are infiltrating the city and destabilizing key nodes, or you are fortifying such nodes. The lesson of State of Emergency is not that it promotes an anarchic ideology, but that, in the guise of anarchic ideology, it promotes computer and network management skills. Again following Agamben, modern sovereignty is based not on the right to impose laws, but rather on the ability to suspend the law, to claim a state of emergency.  In a way, State of Emergency is sovereignty through the back door: inside the screen-based rioting, what is at play is the new sovereignty of networks, control, and the fetish of information.

In this sense, forms of informatic play should be interrogated not as a liberation from the rigid constraints of systems of exchange and production, but the very pillars that prop them up. The more video games appear on the surface to emancipate the player, raising his or her status as an active participant in the aesthetic moment, the more they enfold the player into codified and routinized models of behavior. Only eight buttons (mirrored in eight bits) are available for the entire spectrum of expressive articulation using the controller on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A PlayStation running State of Emergency supplements this with a few more channels of codified input. Just as the school, in Foucault, was mere pre-school for the learned behavior necessary for a laboring life on the factory floor, games from State of Emergency to Dope Wars are training tools for life inside the protocological network, where flexibility, systemic problem solving, quick reflexes, and indeed play are as highly valued and commodified as sitting still and hushing up were for the disciplinary societies of modernity.

Epidemic and Endemic

One of the results of the American-led war on terror has been the increasing implosion of the differences between emerging infectious diseases and bioterrorism.  Not so long ago, a distinction was made between emerging infectious disease and
bioterrorism based on their cause: one was naturally-occurring and the other the result of direct human intervention. International organizations such as the WHO and UN still maintain this distinction, though only vaguely. The U.S. government, in the meantime, has long since dispensed with such niceties, and as a result has radically streamlined the connections between the military, medicine, and the economics of drug development. A White House press release outlining the President's 2003 proposed budget discusses how, "in his 2003 Budget, the President has proposed $1.6 billion to assist State and local health care systems in
improving their ability to manage both contagious and non- contagious biological attacks..." Similarly, a 2003 press release describes Project BioShield as a "comprehensive effort to develop and make available modern, effective drugs and vaccines to protect against attack by biological and chemical weapons or other dangerous pathogens." The implication of the word "or"-biological weapons or other pathogens-signals a new, inclusive stage in modern biopolitics. Regardless of the specific context, be it disease or terrorist, the aim is to develop a complete military-medical system for "alert and response" to biological threats. Context and cause are less important than the common denominator of biological effect. It matters little whether the context is terrorism, unsafe foods, compromised Federal regulation of new drugs, or new virus strains transported by air travel. What matters is that which is at stake, and what is always at stake, is the integrity of "life itself." This U.S. program of military, medical, and pharmaceutical governance ushers in a politics of "biological security." Biological security has as its aim the protection of the population, defined as a biological (and genetic) entity, from any possible biological threat, be it conventional war or death itself. What this also means is that the biological threat--the inverse of biological security--is a permanent threat, even an existential threat. It is a biological angst over "death itself" (the biopolitical inverse of "life itself").  This requires a paradigm in which "the population" can be regarded as simultaneously biological and political. As Foucault notes,


…at the end of the eighteenth century, it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else--what might broadly be called endemics, or in other words, the form, nature, extension, duration, and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population...Death was now something permanent, something that slips into life, perpetually gnaws at it, diminishes it and weakens it. [1]


It is clear that, in this context, there is no end to biological security, its job is never finished, and by definition, can never be finished. If there is one site in which the state of emergency becomes the norm, it is this site of non-distinction between war and disease, terrorism and endemic.

Network Being

Information networks are often described as more than mere tools or relations, but as a "World Brain," a "collective intelligence," a "global village," and as "life on the net." What is it about networks that impels us to describe them as somehow being alive? For Heidegger, however, the question of being and the question of being alive are two different questions. Too often an inquiry of the latter presupposes the self-evident existence of the former. The fields of anthropology, psychology, and biology begin their analyses on the question of "life itself," its modalities and characteristics, its laws and behaviors, its properties and taxonomies. Rarely do they ever inquire into the existence as such of "life itself," the almost confrontational factuality of the being of life—what Levinas described as the impersonal "horror of the 'there is'...".  As Heidegger notes, "in the question of the being of human being, this cannot be summarily calculated in terms of the kinds of being of body, soul, and spirit which have yet first to be defined".[2]

But it is precisely this question that the sciences of life jump over, in favor of exclusively anthropomorphic inquiries of psychology or biology. "Life itself" is always questioned, but the existence as such of life, the being of life, is not regarded as a problem. Such knowledge--as in the life sciences--thus continues with an assumption of having understood the very existence as such of living beings. One begins with Darwinian evolution, with developmental genetics, with studies of biological morphogenesis, with the genetic factors in health and disease. "The ontology of life takes place by way of a privative interpretation. It determines what must be the case if there can be anything like just-being-alive".[3] The life sciences thus become, in this regard, reduced to the human sciences. For Heidegger, this absence shows itself as a "missing ontological foundation," upon which "life itself" and specifically human life, is understood, without recourse to the always-mystical and unstated "being of life" on which it is based.

Our question is: at what point does the difference between "being" and "life" implode? What would be the conditions for the non-distinction between "being" and "life"? Perhaps this is where the life sciences get hung up. They are confronted with anomalies, anomalies that cross species barriers, that are at once "faceless" and yet "living": single-celled organisms known as myxomycetes (such as the Physarum or Dycostelium), which, during their life cycles, may be either an amoeba, a motile cell with flagellum, or a plant-like structure giving off spores. Or the famous limit-case of the virus. It is alive? It contains genetic material, and it is able to reproduce (or at least to replicate). It shows a high degree of genetic adaptability in its mutations and its ability to cross species boundaries. But it is not much more than a strand of RNA and a protein coating. Then, on the opposite side of the scale, there is the infamous case of Gaia...

What Heidegger's point makes clear is that the question of "life" has traditionally been separate from, but dependent upon, an unquestioned notion of "being." In away, the example of network science presents us with the opposite case: a concept
of "being" is arrived at by a privative definition of "life." Network science, it would seem, assumes a minimally vitalistic aspect of networks, that informs its studies of networks of all types, networks which all share a being common to
networks: "Whatever the identity and the nature of the nodes and links, for a mathematician they form the same animal: a graph or a network".[4] Network science's reliance on universality, ubiquity, and a mathematical model suggests that it is really a metaphysics of networks. It seeks a universal pattern that exists above and beyond the particulars of any given network. For this reason network science can study AIDS, terrorism, and the Internet all as the same kind of being--a network.

The philosophical impact of this view is that of network being, a Dasein specific to network phenomena. However what it means specifically is confused. Does it mean the experience of being (in) a network, a new network phenomenology? Does it mean
the existence of abstract, mathematical properties across different networks?  Networks are said to have a "life of their own," but we search in vain for the "life" that is specific to networks, except their being as networks. On the one hand, the proof of the existence as such of living organisms is their living. On the other hand, the proof of the living aspects of networks is their existence as such, that is, their being. The question of "life" and the question of "being" seem to always imply each other, but to never meet.



an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 2, July 2005, ISSN 1552-5112


[1] Michel Foucault, "Society Must be Defended" (New York: Picador,
2003), pp. 243-244

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Being and Time” trans. Joan Stambaugh (Albany:
SUNY, 1996), p. 45.

[3] Ibid., p. 46.

[4] Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, “Linked” (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing,
2002), p. 16.