Auctoritas, Potestas, and the Talibanistic Imaginary (Part 1-6)*

(This is a provisional summary of what I have written on this topic so far)

In discussing the complex concept of the “State of Exception” Georgio Agamben traces the origin of current normative and central role of the State of Exception through a discussion of the two competing Roman concepts of Auctoritas and Potestas.

Auctoritas, in the sphere of private law, Agamben explains, “is the property of the auctor, that is, the person sui iuris (the pater familias) who intervenes . . . in order to confer legal validity on the act of a subject who cannot independently bring a legally valid act into being” (76).  The term, Agamben further suggests, “derives from the verb augeo: the auctor is is qui auget, the person who augments, increases, or perfects the act–or legal situation–of someone else” (76).

Having discussed the term itself, Agamben asks the following important questions: “But where does the ‘force’ of the auctor come from? And what is this power to augere? His answer provides the most important explanation of auctocritas as a signifier of a specific juridical power. He suggests that auctocritas has “nothing to do with representation” (77) nor is the “auctor’s act” “founded upon some sort of legal power vested in him to act as a representative” (77). This power to augere, Agamben suggests, “springs directly from his condition as pater” (77). Important also to note is that Agamben argues that “auctoritas is not sufficient in itself” (76), its very existence also depends on an “extraneous activity that it validates” (76). Thus the act of the auctor reaches fruition only when it, in concert with an other, completes a perfect act by validating the act itself. That is why Agamben goes on to define the perfect act as follows:

It is, then, as if for something to exist in law there must be a relationship between two elements (or two subjects): one endowed with auctoritas and one that takes the initiative in the act in the strict sense. If the two elements or two subjects coincide, then the act is perfect. However, if there is a gap or incongruity between them, the act must be completed with auctoritas in order to be valid. (76)

Thus the role of the auctor is to fill the gap between the two parties, or elements, by adding his legal weight in order to erase the inequality that might make the transaction imperfect.  The auctor, whose power is inherent to his person, thus erases the deficit in a contractual act simply by inserting his will into the act itself: like the father giving consent to marry or the teacher providing an answer. This discussion is still only pertinent to the function of auctoritas in the sphere of private law. The next part of Agamben’s discussion touches upon the role of auctoritas in public law. But before I discuss that it is important to dwell on potestas. Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the laws normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace.

Generally speaking, while auctocritas deals with the anomic aspects of the law, potestas deals with the law’s normative functions and in Roman law both are supposed to function in a sort of dialogic embrace. Traditionally in the Roman sphere of public law, potestas was the legal power vested in the magistrates who exercised it within  the law. Imperium, military power, was the highest form of potestas. Thus, while auctoritas (the anomic aspect of the law) performed the private function of the law and was associated with all those who could claim the status of pater, potestas (the normative aspect of the law) was always related to the magistracy and could not be claimed by virtue of one’s social status. A healthy and dialogic tension between the two was necessary to maintain the social order.

Agamben further complicates the discussion of these two concepts by re-reading the interpretations of yet another Roman practice: Iustitium. Agamben explains: “The term iustitium. . . literally means ‘standstill’ or ‘suspension of the law’.” (41). In most modern assessments of the term, the term is interpreted as an act of public mourning, but Agamben explains the term against this much traversed terrain of explication. First, he explains the material circumstances within the Roman history when an iustitium was proclaimed:

Upon learning of a situation that endangered the Republic, the Senate would issue a senatus consultum ultimatum [final decree of the Senate] by which it called upon the counsels . . . and even, in extreme cases, all citizens, to take whatever measures they considered necessary for the salvation of the state. (41)

Agamben also suggests that such a decree was contingent upon a real situation that could qualify as tumultus: like an invasion or internal resurrection. So how does this practice, Agamben asks, come to be understood as public mourning? Here is what he writes about the usual readings of the term:

Indeed, with the end of the Republic, iustitium ceased to mean the suspension of law in order to cope with a tumult and the new meaning replaced the old one so perfectly that even the memory of this austere institution seems to have entirely vanished.  . . . But how did this term that was used in public law to designate the suspension of law in situations of the most extreme political necessity come to assume the more anodyne meaning of a funeral for a death in the family? (65)

While discussing several misreading and explanations of the concept as mourning, Agamben finally suggests a particular explanation of this transformation of meaning of the term from a concept related to tumult to a concept signifying a public mourning. Agamben explains this subtle meaning by discussing Augustus’s conflation of auctoritas and potestas into one person, the figure of Caesar Augustus.  By having combined the private function of auctoritas and by absorbing the public aspects of potestas unto himself, Augustus had become the very body of the law. As Augustus had made auctoritas public by ascribing to himself the role of the pater of the nation and had arrogated to himself the powers of the magistracy, in him then, the anomic and normative functions of the law are made to reside in one person and the state of exception becomes the law. His, death, therefore, is also the death of law, the death of the state of exception, as the law resides in him. Agamben describes this, while discussing Agustus’s death, as follows:

The correspondence between anomie and mourning becomes comprehensible only in the light of the correspondence between the death of the sovereign and the state of exception. The original nexus between tumultus and iustitium is still present, but the tumult now coincides with the death of the sovereign, while the suspension of the law is integrated into the funeral ceremony. (68)

In a way, then, Agamben explains, by appropriating all powers and by making exception the norm the sovereign becomes “living law”, “nomos empushkos” (69) and thus can assert himself to be above law (69). Thus, the reason isutitium is read as public mourning is because literally the death of the sovereign itself becomes a tumult as law has died.

For Agamben this conflation of the normative and anomic aspects of the law and the creation of a permanent state of exception is a dangerous combination, and he asserts:

But when they [auctoritas and potestas] tend to reside in a single person, when the state of exception, in which they are bound and blurred together, becomes the rule, then the juridico-political system transforms itself into a killing machine. (86)

With this discussion of the state of exception, auctoritas, and potestas, I will now move on to discuss the sort of juridico-political world created by what I call the Talibanistic imaginary.

First, a brief explanation of what I mean by Talibanistic imaginary. Talibanistic imaginary is a worldview constructed within modernity, is shaped by the material, cultural, and political conditions, and relies on a literalist, reductive, and exclusionary definition of tradition. A Talib, the subject of this particular imaginary, views modernity itself as a threat to the body and soul and attempts to alter modernity by attempting to overwrite it with a premodern explanation of the real.

Though I use the term Talib and Taliban, I do not use it in its reductive usage from the US media as a signifier specific for the Afghan/Pakistani Taliban movement. In my theorization, the term signifies the Talibanistic trends on both sides of the global division of labor. With this brief explanation of the term, I will now discuss the Talibanistic imaginary as it develops on two opposite ends of the global division of labor: Afghanistan/Pakistan and the United States.

The term Taliban entered the metropolitan vocabulary in the mid nineteen-eighties, and it is only apt to first dwell on this term itself with a reference to its place of origin, Afghanistan. Taliban as a linguistic unit is plural of “Talib,” which literally means a seeker or a student in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. The pluralization, Taliban, however, is in Pashto. Thus as a signifier, the term Taliban is overloaded with its semantic origins but also with the traces of the Pashtun culture and politics. The term Taliban used in the popular vocabulary specifically tends to signify the kind of politics and worldview practiced by the followers of the Taliban movement, but I intend to stretch its usage to cover a particular countermodern imaginary and praxis that defies any regional locus and explanation.

The Afghan Taliban movement, I suggest, is an apt example of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas under a perpetual iustitium, and I will now elaborate on this claim by dwelling a little on the rise of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid nineteen-eighties. There is an important passage in Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban where the author touches upon the popular myths about the rise of Taliban, and that particular passage is the starting point of my argument. Rashid writes:

There is now an entire factory of myths and stories to explain how Omar mobilized a small group of Taliban against the rapacious Kandhar warlords. The most credible story, told repeatedly, is that in the spring of 1994 Singesar neighbours came to tell him that a commander had abducted two teenage girls, their heads had been shaved and they had been taken to a military camp and repeatedly raped. Omar enlisted some thirty Talibs . . . and attacked the base, freeing the girls and hanging the commander from the barrel of a tank. (Rashid 25)

This is the moment when Mullah Omar, a teacher and a pater to his students, is approached by the community simply because he possesses a form of auctoritas in the private sphere. His help is sought in the face of a permanent state of iustititum caused by the post-Soviet-Afghan war internal strife. His act to enter the political arena can also be read as his assumption of the regulatory responsibilities by instituting a state of exception in which auctoritas and potestas are conflated in one person, and, by extension in his followers. The purpose of their actions: to seek justice at a time when law is at a “stand still.”

The rise of the Taliban cannot just be attributed to the Qur’an and the Islamic texts, for after all these texts had been there for centuries without spawning something such as the Taliban. The rise of the Taliban is inherently connected to the material conditions and the perpetual state of tumult that existed in Afghanistan in the mid-eighties.

When the Taliban finally oust their opponents and capture Kabul, the final phase of the conflation of auctoritas and potestas is completed. The way in which Mullah Omar defines his official position is analogous to that of  Octavian declaring himself “Augustus.” Mullah Omar takes on the title of Ameer-ul-Mominin, the leader of the faithful. Traditionally, this title was designated for the early caliphs of Islam. By declaring himself the leader of the faithful, Mullah Omar can conflate his private role as an auctor with that of the “law-giver”, thus creating a perfect and perpetual state of exception in which his person becomes the law. This title also makes him into a supranational figure, for by declaring himself the leader of the faithful he becomes the leader of all those Muslims willing to join his cause regardless of their national or cultural origin.

But the situation is further aggravated also by a perpetual state of tumult in which each of his followers is given imperium to regulate life. This imperium is granted to them under the rules of behavior governed by the tradition of “Am’r bil ma’roof wa nahi anil munkar–to encourage the correct actions and to stop the wrong actions.” In the streets of Kabul, this guiding formula gives the Taliban foot soldiers the power to regulate and punish all actions that may not fit their particular definition of “right” and “wrong.” Thus, just when the law is at a stand still, a permanent state of exception is established in the shape of a power to regulate life through a popular imperium granted by the authority of the “Ameer” in whom the law has become embodied in one person. The result of this conflation of auctoritas and potestas, amidst a perpetual tumult, of course, is the creation of a “death world.”

It is no wonder, then, that the Taliban rule in Afghanistan is inextricably linked with a permanent state of iustitium as the country, for so many reasons, was and is in a perpetual tumult. Furthermore, since the Taliban had mobilized a purist past in order to cope with the present, their entire political philosophy is linked with this perpetual tumult of modernity that, in their view, threatens their world view. The result:  a system of law in which the state of exception is the norm. Thus, the anomic aspects of law are conflated with the normative functions of the law to create a stable but anomic legal order, an order in which even the foot-soldiers have, in some ways, an absolute imperium over their fellow citizens.

Furthermore, since the Talibanistic imaginay is connected to this permanent tumult, even in absence of a material danger to their rule, an ideological tumult–modernity, corrupting influences, deviations, must be constantly invoked to create a state of ideological siege in which the state of exception can no longer  be erased but becomes a permanent system of law. In fact, under such a scenario, maintaining a permanent state of tumult is a perfect strategy to continue the Taliban rule. The actions of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan these days are a perfect example of this strategy: they do not have a viable long-term plan but their immediate goal is to alter the ground realities in a way that both Pakistan and Afghanistan  either stay in or transition into a permanent tumult. And it is here that the policies grounded in the American Talibanistic imaginary come to play the most crucial role in, probably unintentionally, maintaining the material conditions ideally suited for the Taliban movement. [More later]

* (All citations are from Georgio Agamben’s State of Exception. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2005).


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