Security Letters

How's this for some political analysis. Which country is referred to here:

There was no difficulty in obtaining the counter-signature, since the psychiatrists regarded themselves not so much as doctors--in the sense we understand it today--as civil servants concerned with public hygiene: that is, their job was to supervise whatever was in a state of disorder, whatever presented a danger. In the end it is this notion of "danger," which was introduced at that time, theorized in psychiatry and criminology...that you find again in Soviet legislation. This legislation may say: you're claiming that a patient is being put in prison (or a prisoner put in hospital), but that's not at all the case! Someone is being confined because he has been "dangerous." They even reached the point of describing as an offense in the penal code the fact of being perceived as dangerous...

We haven't reached that point here yet. But in the British, American, Italian, German and French practice of psychiatry and of penal law, we see that the notion of "danger" is still the guiding thread. And all these things--police, psychiatry--are institutions intended to react to danger.*
Emphasis in original. Actually it's the French writer Michel Foucault talking about 19th century France and something called "lettres de cachet" which people could write to get other people (eg., family members who were bugging them, or your enemies) put away in institutions.

I like the twist at the end. If you're perceived as dangerous you're breaking the law. And dangerousness is judged by what group you are deemed to be a member of. There is a keen relevancy of this political thinking in America today. Lettres de cachet were originally only issued by or on behalf of the king, the sovereign.

So what happened? Well instead of committing an offense against the sovereign, you were now deemed to commit it against society. The end of pure sovereignty meant its replacement by society, by a "people" living together and sharing in its benefits and disadvantages. It also meant a switch from trhe criminal as someone who has committed a crime, to a criminal as someone who has not committed a crime, but is risky. Modern society must be protected then, from, well, from risk and dangerous people, either as individuals or increasingly as members of certain risky groups (the mad, bad, deviant, abnormal). Risky groups threaten homeland security (security of the group's territory).

This meant the need for surveillance in order to monitor these potentially risky groups. Surveillance is therefore a necessary invention of the modern state. But whereas we get most bent out of shape by the thought of tracking individuals, the greater impact of the modern logic has been in surveillance of groups, populations, and races.

This is one explanation for the development and persistance of racism, anti-immigration legislation and speech, the incursion of security procedures into everyday life, the politics of fear, and of course warrantless wiretaps and other mass surveillance.

*From the book Politics, Philosophy, Culture, p.188.

(See previous entry).

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