Don Moore, Phd candidate, McMaster University icon

Don Moore, Phd candidate, McMaster University


Don Moore, PhD Candidate, McMaster University MOORE

Ethics in Empire: The Human Subject of Ethics after 9-11

In his Very Short Introduction to Ethics (2001), Simon Blackburn proposes that ethics should be thought of in the contexts of different “ethical climates” in which humans make judgments and decisions. Arguably, the most important recent events to mark the global “ethical climate” are the terrorist attacks in the U.S. of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror” by the U.S. and its allies. What my paper will explore are: 1) the ways in which George W. Bush’s ethical rhetoric of 9/11 and its aftermath might be read as symptoms of the contemporary discourse of globalization which Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have dubbed “Empire,” and 2) how this ethical rhetoric and the Global War on Terror it is designed to authorize are working as particularly dominant, arguably the most dominant forces currently shaping the global discourse of humanity and the rights and ethical limits attached to the subject of that universalized humanity.

Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s model of globalization as Empire, for me, offers a useful method of reading late-globalization and its symptoms differently; in particular, on the infrastructural level of biopower. Their (nearly) totalizing concept of Empire as biopolitical totality I view as an infrastructure – or a kind of structural ground that calls attention to its own finitude or “limit;” the tain of its subjectivizing mirror – because their project employs a two-fold method that plays one fold against the other: The first part of their critique is a deconstruction of Empire that pinpoints its dangerous supplement in the subject position of “the multitude,” comprised of everyone who lives in Empire and whose multiple, heterogeneous desires are both the productive fuel upon which the machinery of Empire depends, as well as its most dangerous element which must be biopolitically contained and managed for Empire to maintain its integrity as a hegemonic system and to protect the illusion of its having “no outside.” The second part of Hardt’s and Negri’s methodology, the more “positivistic” or ontological part, is their taking up the discourse of Empire for its liberatory potential as the flawed, self-contradictory home of the multitude. Together, these competing, yet unified strategies form an aporia that, for me, invokes a kind of strategic reading practice – a reading of Empire that involves the accorporation of Empire as the more anti-ontological, or “finite” form of multitude/Empire. Empire as multitude is thus reduced to (or rather revealed to be) a collection of multiple, heterogeneous, ever shifting desires and singularities with the provisional, strategic collective aim of working through to the “end,” or finite limit, of Empire.

One of the ways in which Hardt’s and Negri’s project achieves this (anti-)ontological critique of late-globalization, I argue, is through their book’s bifurcated, aporetic structure. For example, scattered throughout ^ Empire and Multitude are short, italicized sections at the end of the chapters which Imre Szeman and Nicholas Brown explain are meant partly as an homage to Spinoza’s use of scholie in the Ethics. These “impassioned, utopian bursts of highly charged language” (Brown and Szeman, 84) offset the more deconstructive sections, offering alternative ways of reading the book. Another part of this strategically schizophrenic structure is that imbedded in Empire’s and Multitude’s very terms are what I call the spectral remainders of major critiques of power and ontological unity such as Spinoza’s, Derrida’s, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s, Nietzsche’s, Nancy’s, Agamben’s, and Butler’s, which are thereby both invoked and put hauntologically at play in, through, and against each other as part of Hardt’s and Negri’s method. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus mainly on Hardt’s and Negri’s spectral invocation of Nancy and Agamben as examples of this haunted method.

Hardt and Negri argue that with the shift to the new “turbocapitalist” context of late-globalization, older modernist institutions designed around national and international structures and containment strategies with which to order and manage their political subjects, or “the people,” are over with. The new subject of Empire, for Hardt and Negri, is managed and contained through the biopolitical production of human life itself, and exists not so much within solid, defined political entities, but as so many shifting nodes without central affiliation connected through virtual network systems of global sovereignty. In short, the subject of Empire, for them, is less mediated and more immanent. This is not to say that for Hardt and Negri, the nation and modernist international institutions are no longer relevant, but rather that their functions and efficacy as sovereign collectivities have dramatically changed, such that they can no longer be seen in isolation from their nodal functioning in the wider biopolitical matrixes of Empire.

While Hardt and Negri allow that with Empire’s new global form of sovereignty, “the United States does indeed occupy a privileged position in Empire,” they argue, nonetheless, that the U.S. “does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project. Imperialism is over” (Empire, xii). (Perhaps someone should tell that to George Bush!) Instead, Hardt and Negri argue that “Empire establishes no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers. It is a decentered and deterritorializing apparatus of rule that progressively incorporates the entire global realm within its open, expanding frontiers. Empire manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command” (Empire, xii-xiii). In their follow-up book to Empire called Multitude, Hardt and Negri emphasize and expand upon the way Empire is comprised, not of “peoples” in nationally territorialized regions, but of multiple, heterogeneous “nodes” interconnected by “biopolitical network structures.”

One of the key historical examples that Hardt and Negri provide to demonstrate how network structures work is the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle Washington where a well organized multitude comprised of many different interests, walks of life, political, and subjective affiliations came together – not against “America” or any other single nation – but to protest the World Trade Organization and its neo-capitalist, neo-liberal policies. Perhaps an even more dramatic example of the effects of Empire’s biopolitical network structure, however, is the “global” nature of the “terror” threat that the Bush administration saw itself faced with after the 9/11 attacks, and the “new kind of war” that the Bush administration felt they had to wage in order to deal with this threat. As Bob Woodward reports in his book Bush At War (2002), a “key component [of the war in Afghanistan, which was staged in direct retaliation against al Qaeda for its attacks on U.S. targets, said CIA Director George J. Tenet,] was to ‘use exceptional authorities to detain al Qaeda operatives worldwide’,” and to “approve ‘snatch’ operations abroad, truly exceptional power” (76). This strategy, Woodward goes on to report, was outlined in the days following the 9/11 attacks in a CIA document called “the ‘Worldwide Attack Matrix,’ which described covert operations in 80 countries either underway or that [Tenet] was now recommending. […] It was stunning in its sweep – a secret global war on terror” (78). Without an identifiable (meaning identifiably modernist state or “national”) enemy to target, the Bush administration, purportedly speaking on behalf of the collective interests of “the people” of its nation, redefines the playing-field of international conflict as, quote, “a monumental struggle between good and evil” (45). These so-called “national” interests, however, as many critics including the linguist Sandra Silberstein have pointed out, tend to construe the American “way of life” in largely neo-capitalist, neo-liberal terms (i.e., the conflation of patriotism and consumerism in post-9/11 American propaganda campaigns [Silberstein, 107-26]). This conflation points to both “national” and supra-national sovereign interests that are apparently driving U.S. foreign policy, an ambivalent source of sovereign power that seems less national and more global in character. And just as the highly abstracted enemy – terror itself – defies easy demarcation within national borders or by any one ideological/political “center,” the Bush administration likewise broadens and abstracts its own sovereign authority to encompass “the world,” a U.S. sovereign exceptionalism that Bush sees as authorized by God himself.

The War on Terror is thus a war about ethics, and for Bush, a war in defense of a certain infinite, idealized subject of universal humanity. As he later tells Woodward in interview material, “there is a human condition that we must worry about in times of war. There is a value system that cannot be compromised – God-given values. These aren’t United States-created values. There are values of freedom and the human condition and mothers loving their children. What’s very important as we articulate foreign policy through our diplomacy and military action, is that it never look like we are creating – we are the author of these values. ‘It leads to a larger question of your view about God.’ And the lesson, he said, was, ‘We’re all God’s children’” (131; emphasis added). In other words, any attack on the United State and/or its “freedom” is, for Bush, necessarily also an attack on God and on freedom in-itself.

Bush repeats over and over that he is defending “freedom” itself, and by inference, a certain universal human subject of freedom. In Bush’s words, as transcribed by Bob Woodward, “either you believe in freedom, and want to– and worry about the human condition, or you don’t” (340). Much like Hegel’s paradoxical concept of an infinite, universal spirit of human freedom to which we are all individually subject, George Bush’s ethical rhetoric (and the leviathan-like “force of law” backing this rhetoric) subjects the whole human race to a particular, finite concept of its own freedom – the end of history that somehow justifies the means by which it must be defended – of which Bush and his administration become the sole authors and arbiters; God’s “elected” defenders of freedom itself.

Intriguingly, Hardt and Negri seem to invoke at least two key critiques of just such a neo-Hegelian subject of freedom in their book Multitude with their concept of multitude as comprised of singularities. “The multitude[, they write,] is composed of a set of singularities – and by singularity here we mean a social subject whose difference cannot be reduced to sameness, a difference that remains different. The component parts of the people [(“the people” of the older modernist national model)] are indifferent in their unity; they become an identity by negating or setting aside their differences. The plural singularities of the multitude thus stand in contrast to the undifferentiated unity of the people” (99). The spectral remainder of Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of singularity haunts this passage, but in a distorted, or hauntologically “exorc-analyzed” way. That is partly because Hardt’s and Negri’s term also invokes Giorgio Agamben’s concept of singularity which he lays out in The Coming Community (1993), a book translated by Michael Hardt and obviously in dialogue with Nancy’s project.

For Nancy, singularity represents the beingness of a non-subject who lacks identity or identifiable community. A community of singularities, for Nancy, is thus more accurately a kind of immanent being-in-common that comes about despite one’s existence receding from any essence of politics or community. Nancy proposes in his book The Inoperative Community that “the thinking of community as essence – is in effect the closure of the political. Such a thinking constitutes closure because it assigns to community a common being, whereas community is a matter of something quite different, namely, of existence inasmuch as it is in common, but without letting itself be absorbed into a common substance” (xxxviii). In Nancy’s relentless pursuit of what he sees as the immanent themes that doggedly haunt philosophy, such as “freedom” and “community,” he exhausts these terms, enacting a kind of framing of the political that denies any infinite essence to politics. In Christopher Fynsk’s words, “Nancy is attempting to expose what still speaks in a term like ‘community’ when we assume the closure of the metaphysics of subjectivity – any communion of the subject with itself, any accomplished self-presence – and with it the closure of representation or signification[…] He is trying to work a thought of difference, or a thought of finitude, into political terms that continue to speak to us as imperatives despite their loss of philosophical meaning” (Inoperative Community, Foreword, xi). In his book The Experience of Freedom, Nancy explains that “freedom” is ex-istence, which “signifies simply the freedom of being, that is, the infinite inessentiality of its being-finite, which delivers it to the singularity wherein it is ‘itself’” (14). Thus, far from President Bush’s neo-Hegelian, universalist notion of freedom which implies an infinite, and definite human subject of freedom, Hardt’s and Negri’s invocation of Nancy’s equally all-encompassing notion of freedom nonetheless denies essences or a defined political existence with which to map human subjectivity.

But this is not quite Hardt’s and Negri’s usage of the term singularity, even though the specter of Nancy’s concept is certainly invoked and put into dialogue with their more ontological, utopic concept of the multitude. And Hardt’s and Negri’s term is certainly meant to be in the spirit of Nancy’s quasi-Marxist political critique of state politics, which brings us to the second remainder at play in their concept: Giorgio Agamben’s (re)thinking of Nancy’s concept of singularity in The Coming Community.

Whereas Nancy sees the realization of being-in-common only in the “ecstatic” moments of loss (of community) or birth, moments that, for him, come closest to articulating the inarticulability of singularity, Giorgio Agamben rethinks singularity in what Antonio Negri sees as more “positivist,” strategically utopic, quasi-ontological terms. Similar to Nancy’s concept, Agamben views singularity as “neither apathy nor promiscuity nor resignation. These pure singularities communicate only in the empty space of the example, without being tied by any common property, by any identity. They are expropriated of all identity, so as to appropriate belonging itself” (10-11). What is slightly different here from Nancy’s project is the strategic force of the linguistic “example,” which, for Agamben, holds the political potential for resistant utopic politics. Thus, through the example, singularity becomes “whatever singularity, which wants to appropriate belonging itself, its own being-in-language, and thus rejects all identity and every condition of belonging, [and] is [therefore] the principal enemy of the State. Wherever these singularities peacefully demonstrate their being in common there will be a Tiananmen, and sooner or later, the tanks will appear” (87). Whatever being – simply, the thing with all its properties, none of which, however, constituting difference (Agamben 19) – reclaims a politics of being-in-common without actually “being” anything through the strategic linguistic ontology of the example – the banner, or “multitude” under which these singularities-in-common can congregate against the state’s sovereign exception over political association, over its ontological demarcation of what counts and doesn’t count as viable human life itself.

Thus, through Hardt’s and Negri’s spectral juxtaposition of Nancy’s and Agamben’s concepts of singularity which are set at play with, in, and against their own singular subject of multitude, this one term, in Hardt’s and Negri’s text, contains within it the aporetic, dual structure of deconstructive critique set against utopic, ontological politics that characterizes their project. The sovereign exception over what counts as biopolitically viable human life, which Hardt and Negri invoke as a symptom of Empire through the specter of Agamben who haunts their concept of singularity, is nowhere more clearly demonstrated than in George W. Bush’s 2005 innaugural address in which he melds political (or Wilsonian) idealism (read moralism) and political realism as unproblematically one-and-the-same. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one” Bush proclaims in that address. He goes on to assert that the “survival of liberty” in the U.S. “increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands.” He then takes on a threatening tone, warning that the U.S. “will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right” (Bush 2005, n.p.). The presupposition that the moral values of freedom and liberty as construed by U.S. law and enforced by its sovereign exception, or “force of law,” are “eternal,” God-given moral imperatives and thus universally applicable to the rest of global humanity lends Bush’s Global War on Terror the self-authorizing ethical alibi of divine authority. But this (almost) totalizing biopolitical map of universal collective consciousness that Bush’s speech lays out with which to chart his Global War on Terror, Hardt’s and Negri’s project remind us, is riven with singularities and irredeemably haunted by the spectral remainders of former Empire’s that have already passed through to the other side of their own hegemonic finitude.

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Coming Community. Trans. Michael Hardt. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.

Blackburn, Simon. A Very Short Introduction to Ethics. New York: Oxford UP, 2003.

Brown, Nicholas and Imre Szeman. "'Subterranean Passages of Thought'; Empire's Inserts." Cultural Studies 16.2 (2002): 193-212.

---. "The Global Coliseum: On Empire." Cultural Studies 16.2 (2002): 177-192.

Bush, President George W. “President Sworn-In to Second Term [2005 Inaugural Address].” The White House. Online. Avail:

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Gasché, Rodolphe. The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1986.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000.

---. Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Experience of Freedom. Trans. Bridget McDonald. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford UP, 1993.

---. The Inoperative Community. Trans. Peter Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Negri, Antonio. “The Ripe Fruit of Redemption [Review of Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception].” Online. Avail:

Silberstein, Sandra. War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Szeman, Imre. "Plundering the Empire: Globalization, Mediation, and Cultural Studies." Rethinking Marxism 13.3/4 (Fall/Winter 2001): 173-188.

Woodward, Bob. Bush At War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Žižek, Slavoj. "Have Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Rewritten the Communist Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century?" Rethinking Marxism 13.3/4 (Fall/Winter 2001): 190-98.

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