What is a “state of emergency”? Etymologically, “state” derives from the Latin word “status”, which refers to a “matter of standing”, a condition. “Emergency”, from “emergere”, to “arise, bring to light”.
Like an augmented-reality navigation app revealing things that were already there, but just hadn’t been noticed, a state of emergency is much more than an exception to the normal rules, as central as that meaning is. It is also a means by which the normal rules are revealed as misrepresented in the first place. It is an alteration, an arising, a bringing to light, of the manifold political, economic, and cultural conditions that we are already exposed to—at a minimum, in potentia. It is a generalized shift in the perceptible.
Of course, that’s just the etymology. More commonly, a state of emergency is understood to refer to a state of dictatorship, helmed by an autocratic ruler.
And, as Comedy Central host Trevor Noah recently put it (invoking the imagined popular opinion of TV land), “when you think of America, you don’t think of an autocratic ruler.” But, maybe we should. The US, after all, has been in a continuous state of emergency since 1979, the result of dozens of separate declarations that not only multiplied and intensified following 9/11, but have continued to do so through the present. It’s true though, that few, if any of these declarations, have been used primarily as a means to circumvent the will of Congress.
In his Daily Show sketch, Noah runs through a truncated history of declared states of emergency in the US, reaching back to Carter’s 1979 declaration in relation to the Iran Hostage Crisis and Obama’s 2009 declaration over swine flu. None of those resulted in dictatorship or autocracy, per se — George W. Bush’s “I’m the Decider” aside. But Noah points out that the specter of this declaration is being used by Trump to centralize legal authority in the office of the President, and not over a situation that seems like an emergency at all.
While a 1934 Supreme Court ruling held that, for it to be legal, the situation a state of emergency responds to must be urgent, infrequent, and unexpected, migration numbers have not evidenced some sudden “surge”. But because the definition was left open-ended to account for the unknowability of the future, the President can now declare one over pretty much whatever he chooses to. For this reason, amongst others, Noah asserted that, in the current moment, Trump works as a “blacklight on American democracy.“
Blacklights function, of course, by illuminating phosphors, including those normally imperceptible in the ultraviolet spectrum. When one is turned on in a darkened room, the dust and lint on your clothing, or the phosphors in your gin and tonic, become visible. The psychological accommodation to this shift however, is not immediate. It involves a perceptual readjustment that is assimilated over time by your consciousness.
As Homi Bhabha wrote in The Location of Culture, “the state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” When he did so, he was referring specifically to colonized and formerly colonized third world countries, and to the state of emergency imposed through colonial occupation. While the occupation attempted to freeze becoming, he suggests, it also installed conditions of possibility for alternate becomings precisely in the resistance to it, and in its fraught, complicated overcomings.
Post-1979, in the first world US, everyone lives, officially speaking, in a state of emergency — a permanent one that Republicans and Democrats alike have extended and intensified, year by year. People of color, queers, indigenous people, cis women, migrants, trans and non-binary people, homeless people, and non-property owners have experienced a permanent state of emergency even prior to this, as have colonized peoples like those Bhabha refers to.
But while Bhabha’s subtle approach is highly relevant for the contemporary moment, it is Giorgio Agamben who is typically cited with respect to the state of emergency as a philosophical concept. Agamben’s primary contribution is the insight that the state of emergency produces categories of life that can be killed without contravening the law.
Trump’s defense of the border wall proposal created a de facto state of emergence. Despite Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s claim that Trump simply “chose fear” (an image suggesting fear of the outside), what the Oval Office broadcast actually involved was a more complicated, approach. While fear was one element, Trump evoked frames of protection and compassion far more often, including for those invoked by Pelosi as having been left out by him: “women and children at the border.”
Indeed, in his Oval Office broadcast, as in his later retweets of Obama using the same terms, Trump reframed the need for a border wall as a matter of “humanitarian” concern. Specifically including US people of color, women, children, and also, even non-citizens, Trump defended his case through a rhetoric of care, a paternal concern that the children amongst those who wish to reach the US would be used by gangs, or that the women amongst them would be assaulted. And, he emphasized that his request to Congress was one that sought the provision of “humanitarian assistance”, and the “safety of migrant children”.
In terms of concrete individuals, his first example was a person of color: Indian-American police officer Ronil Singh of the Newman Police Department in California, killed the day after Christmas by Mexican national Gustavo Perez Arriaga. A different kind of blacklight then, was switched on, illuminating his hierarchical inclusion of US people of color, rather than their simple exclusion.
Later, using the metaphor of the home, Trump compared the US as a nation-state to a rich (Democratic) politician’s estate, which he claimed are walled-in not because they hate the poor on the outside, but because “they love the people on the inside.” Trump’s inside, in contrast, is a national one that evokes modes of exclusion and inclusion simultaneously for every subject position imaginable.
By not extending their love for the people on the inside of their own walls to others, Democrats are represented as allowing African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, and also, non-citizen Central and South American women and children, to be “horribly victimized.” Because he pinned the cause of the shutdown on those who won’t fund the border wall rather than on himself, he was able to project sympathy for those impacted, even while evoking fear of them, at once.
It is in this sense that the specter of a state of emergency can be understood as an emergent bringing to light of the politico-legal order as it actually exists, below the register of conscious perception. Like a twentysomething in a nightclub, adjusting to the ultraviolet illumination of a previously invisible world, the US too, is undergoing a shift in perception. One potentially capable of recognizing that, if today’s official politics function through the full-spectrum mobilization of affect, so too should that which seeks to transform it.