Btihaj Ajana – Re-ontologising Danger

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Event Date: 21 February 2011
The River Room
King’s College London, Strand Campus
London WC2R 2LS

Problematising Danger

ESRC Seminar Series- Contemporary Biopolitical Security

Co-sponsored by the Biopolitics of Security Network,
and the Emerging Securities Research Unit @ Keele University


Dr Btihaj Ajana
Centre for Culture, Media and Creative Industries (CMCI) King’s College London
btihaj.ajana@kcl.ac.uk

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talk:

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This intervention starts with an assumption: that ontology has retreated from the notion of danger insofar as the latter and its governmental conceptualisations are less thought of in terms of being and embodied experience, and more in terms of future-oriented managerial and strategic processes that seek to pre-empt danger or even capitalise on it. In this sense, ‘re-ontologising danger’ is a call to bring back the question of being to bear on the notion of danger and on the consequences of thinking danger and dangerous thinking as a way of challenging the mind-sets that govern governance itself.

So, why ontology?

Studies concerning security, securitisation, risk management and other related developments have been largely conducted through the lens of governmentality thesis and that of the risk society. Such analytics have doubtless been instrumental in providing a diagnosis of the hybrid arguments, strategies and modalities of thought and action that underpin security mechanisms and their attitude towards danger, and in revealing how specific forms of subjectivity come into being through the different governmental practices. Yet the focus of such analytics has been mainly based on an ‘empiricism of the surface’ (Rose) and directed towards abstract rationalities and technologies of rule.

In this sense, an engagement with ontology may complement these approaches by providing a different level of analysis. It can allow the issue of danger to be viewed from the very humble layer of the everyday (Jean-Luc Nancy) and to be reconnected to the embodied question of being and to the ways in which it unfolds within the material fabric of life itself. This is particularly important in the current climate where security strategies towards danger and risk are largely based on abstracted calculative technologies of simulation and pre-emption that often lead to the ‘fictionalisation of the world’ (Bigo) and the construction of spaces of simulacra and projections whose ramification has been the paradoxical increase in instances of endangerment and insecurity rather than their total pre-emption. As such, this intervention argues that an ontological approach can help reclaim the question of danger from the fear-driven strategies of security and their regimes of control, and at the same time, placing it (back) within a more embodied material sphere that is present in and to its own actualisations.

In addition, ontology also opens up unique sets of political and ethical questions, questions that challenge the normative assumptions that underpin liberal individualism, reconfiguring the very basis of what counts and qualifies as an ethico-political question in the first place. So in place of the familiar concepts of risk/benefit analysis, agency, rationality, subjectivity, choice and so on, an ontological approach incites the retrieval of and engagement with notions such as relationality, singularity, alterity, affects and embodiment. This can also allow the redefinition of the problem spaces and the reframing of what is cast as a question and solution beyond the technocratic formulations of contemporary modes of governance.

Rethinking danger from an ontological standpoint demands a reconsideration of the foundational categories of governance and with it the rethinking of the political itself. Jean-Luc Nancy’s work provides a touchstone for this task. In his refusal of the dominant articulations of the political as ‘the techno-economical organization or “making operational” of our world’ (Nancy), Nancy provides an alternative vision of the political that is based on a co-existential analytic of ‘being with’, that is, on relationality and acts of sharing between singular beings that are irreducible to projects, programmes and governmental operations.

Nancy’s anti-managerial stance towards the political carries over to his approach towards the future. Whereas governmental approaches vis-à-vis the future are often based on images of otherness and dangerousness, and the belief that one can create ‘a grammar of futurantérieur’ by which the future can be read as a form of the past in order to manage risk and prevent unwanted events (Bigo), Nancy, on the other hand places a demand on politics to reconceive ‘uncertainty’ as a condition that is carved in the heart of human existence itself (Hutchens), and re-imagine the future as a space that is ‘wholly beyond the reach of free agency [and] resulting from incessant surprisings of experience’ (ibid.). This, however, does not amount to a sense of passivity in the face of uncertainty, but to a sense of ‘openness’ towards the future and a responsible engagement with the world-in-the-present.

I argue that both Nancy’s take on the notion of the political and his foregrounding of open futurity have the potential to act as an antidote to the prevailing politics of fear and its stifling systems of control, challenge the “us and them” divide, encourage more generous, accountable, indeterministic and non-assimilationist modes of relating, and incite a careful and mindful examination of how our (in)actions and interactions affect the material fabric of our being-with-others (elements that are crucial to rethinking how danger unfolds within and through politics of immigration, borders and citizenship, for instance).

 

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