Thursday, March 09, 2006

Punishment Park (States of Exception)

On recently watching Peter Watkins' '71 film, *Punishment Park*, a post-Vietnam documentary-style account of the (fictional) partisan hearings and punishments of late 60's "radicals," I thought of obvious parallels to the current geo-political situation (Patriot Act, Abu Grahib, Guantanamo...) and the debate between Carl Schmitt/Walter Benjamin concerning "states of exception" recently taken up again by Giorgio Agamben and others. Here are some notes I took weeks ago, with the film in mind as a teaching companion to Agamben's short, but seminal book:

Degrees of Exception:
1. Suspension of constitution.
2. Suspension of legal processes founded by constitution.
3. The suspension of laws founding the police as force of law, the law enacted thru punishment.

Thru these three completely related degrees of exception, the prisoners of Watkins' *Punishment Park* are reduced to what Agamben calls "bare life": a state of "natural law" before, after or in the suspension of laws "human". However there is a psychological cunundrum in Punishment, a canundrum we must accept in order to embrace the reality of its diegesis. And this is that the characters *unanimously* choose the park – thus opening themselves to be punished to any end without a constitution or other legal grounds for their punishment. For this viewer, watching the characters choose their punishment (as opposed to not choosing at all, and thereby going to jail) was not unlike watching when in horror films the characters decide to split into groups, or go out on a limb only to meet the monster, ghost, badguy, etc. In choosing punishment park, Watkins' characters affirm both the lawlessness and total juridical-social power of their judges. The only resistances that remain for them: reasonable dialogue (with completely unreasonable parties); to sustain a rhetoric of the courtroom (without legal precedent or established procedure); hysterical outburst, name-calling, childish self-objectification (something Jean Baudrillard, coincidentally, advocates for political struggles in an age of "simulation"); consent to the labyrinthine (however non-Kafkan, insofar as an unpredicatble purposefulfulness remains) law of the oppressor (who should only modify the rules of the game as the game is played) and an accompanying hope for freedom thru this means (to reach the appointed flag if they survive heat/cold of desert, dehydration, natural perils, personal disability); to kill, revolt, act psychotically; to appeal, by whatever of these means, to the camera -- the camera of the film being also the diegetic camera of a BBC television team making a documentary about punishment park: curiously, Watkins’ camera team remains "objective" until the final moments of the film, when a voice I assume to be the filmmaker’s addresses the police and national guardsmen, chastising them for their treatment of the prisoners; and this moment of witness pointing to an extra-legal and moral authority beyond the situation of the characters (the Brits? the rest of world outside U.S.) seems one of the few hopeful throughout the film...

I am particularly interested in the decisions the characters make in this film, and Watkins' creation of a hyperbolic situation both of (in)justice (on the part of the tribunal/police) and false agency (on the part of the prisoners). One that, insofar as it frustrates, brings out contradictions of/in "the law" and the way society functions thru a series of ideologies (the partisan tribunal representing these ideological strongholds)... Yet it is disappointing in its either/or-ness, its binarity. Where thought is not at a level of dialogue, or rhetoric, but in the inability for speech to succeed in the face of a certain despairing situation of the law, and in which hope would seem to lie only outside that situation -- not in the "state of exception" (where law reigns absolutely) nor in the social contract (dialectically substantiated by the exceptional state), but elsewhere -- in an eschaton, in revolutionary violences very much like the ones Watkins' characters are ostensibly being prosecuted for. It is this vicious circle which ultimately frustrates, and its resemblance to our current situation, where everything the characters do -- act reasonably, act out, appeal to an extra-legal situation -- only seem to result in the continuation of a self-fulfilling program of radical misjustice. It leaves me wondering, with Agamben, where a force beyond the law, beyond the state of exception, remains active. What Benjamin himself called tragically "the current messianic elements" and "the straight gate of the Messiah".

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