Infinite Threat, Infinite Regress

2008



2 channel video, sound

In the moment of shock and fear following the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11th 2001 the US Patriot Act was passed, stripping citizens, let alone non-citizens, of many civil liberties, and giving the government unprecedented access to private information and secrecy. On March 12th, 2002, the US government unveiled what it claimed was a “clear and easy to understand” way to communicate to the public, the level of threat posed by terrorist attacks to the country. “The advisory system [was] based on five threat conditions or five different alerts: low, guarded, elevated, high and severe” and they were to be “represented by five colors: green, blue, yellow, orange and red.” Since the implementation of this system the “threat level” in the US has remained between “elevated” and “high,” occasionally rising to “severe.”

Here we are presented with a government that has kept its citizens continuously in a state of fear by manipulating an unknown quantity – “Threat.” Furthermore the public is warned that anyone can be a terrorist and hence citizens become either spies or suspects. When the “enemy”, the “other,” becomes a diffuse, unidentifiable entity always nearby and always a threat, the citizens reconcile themselves to the role of the victim, always under attack. In this state of “infinite threat” the public relinquishes all control to the State and the public sphere crumbles. In the absence of politics, democracy becomes ineffectual.

For those of us who resist this state of exception, this indefinite state of emergency, another problem is equally pressing. In this state of political manipulation where does one locate “truth”? After all in order to create a counter-hegemonic movement we must also locate ourselves within an ideology. How do we go about doing this if our skepticism deconstructs every ground for truth? The challenge posed to the left therefore is to protect against an “Infinite regress.” How do we escape this labyrinth of mirrors where the self collapses on both sides without recourse to agency? How can we locate and collect around contingent truths while still remaining self-reflexive?

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Footnotes:

“Remarks by Governor Ridge at Announcement of Homeland Security Advisory System” March 12, 2002;
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/03/20020312-11.html
Chronology of Changes to the Homeland Security Advisory System
March 12, 2002 – Introduction of Homeland Security Advisory System At Yellow; September 10, 2002 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; September 24, 2002 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; February 7, 2003 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; February 27, 2003 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; March 17, 2003 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; April 16, 2003 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; May 20, 2003 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; May 30, 2003 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; December 21, 2003 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; January 9, 2004 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; August 1, 2004 – Raised from Yellow to Orange; November 10, 2004 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow; July 7, 2005 – Raised from Yellow to Orange for mass transit; August 12, 2005 – Lowered from Orange to Yellow for mass transit; August 10, 2006 – Raised from Yellow to Red for flights originating in the United Kingdom bound for the United States; raised to Orange for all commercial aviation operating in or destined for the United States.; August 13, 2006 – Lowered from Red to Orange for flights originating in the United Kingdom bound for the United States; remains at Orange for all domestic and international flights.; July 3, 2008 — The United States government’s national threat level is Elevated, or Yellow. (http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/history/editorial_0844.shtm)

“Infinite regress” in optics is the formation of an infinite series of receding images created in two parallel facing mirrors.
“Infinite regress” in philosophy refers to one of the three parts of Agrippa’s Trilemma which states that all truth claims need proofs, and since all proofs need further proof ad infinitum it is impossible to prove any certain truth.

Arjun Jayadev’s text for this piece:

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday.

 

The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
From Ingeborg Bachman- Every Day

In Sreshta Premnath’s sharp and humorous send up of the global war on terror (“Infinite Threat, Infinite Regress”) Bruce Lee comes face to face with the nature of modern warfare. The artist’s concern here is with the neuroses of the individual in the face of the state of perpetual war in which the enemy is said to be an omnipresent unseen menace, always potentially ready to strike. Invoking a famous cultural icon in one of his most famous scenes from “Enter the Dragon”, where the enemy hides in a room of mirrors, this video loop expunges the villain so that Lee becomes an interpellated subject, constantly in a state of tension, unsure where to look to end the nightmare of fear and unable to do so. The only source of information is the ordinal scale of the U.S. terror alert, a flag of ascending colors, near comical in its inability to convey any information of use for action. Like Borges’s famous list of animals, the arbitrariness of the colors and the false order it compels calls to mind the desperate need to classify, control and manipulate; to divide and name in order to control.

Yet, here the categorization is not innocent; the subject is driven to intense fear and paranoia as the colors ratchet up, unsure of how to react. The colors become then a source of a dual regress for the subject. One is the childlike regression and obeisance to a greater authority, a Panopticon whose motives we trust or hope to be benevolent. Another is a more nihilistic regression towards a lack of belief in anything real, driven by the cynicism with the state of things.

The challenge posed is then one of action. The Bruce Lee of “Enter the Dragon” breaks out of the trap by smashing the mirrors, separating the true enemy from this shimmering reflections and eliminating him. But the consolations of a different easier time are no longer available in a time of universal deceit and fear and one in which the very notion of ‘true enemy is’ contingent. How now does one find a way out of the hall of mirrors…?