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Date Published: 9/20/2007
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Tragic Extremes

Nietzsche and the Politics of Security

Wolfgang Sützl

Dedicated to the memory of Jean Charles de Menezes [1]

I. The New Basic Principle

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Giorgio Agamben published an article that took issue with security as the "basic principle" of state politics. Referring to Foucault, Agamben contrasted security and disciplinary power, describing security as a characteristic of liberalism: "Measures of security can only function within a context of freedom of traffic, trade and individual initiative." He further argued that through the "progressive surrender of traditional tasks of the state, security imposes itself as the basic principle of state activity" becoming the "sole criterion of political legitimation." Further, Agamben argued that "a state which has security as its only task and source of legitimacy is a fragile organism; it can always be provoked by terrorism to turn itself terroristic."[2] The progressive erosion of civic rights that occurs when "security imposes itself" indicates a deep-layered incompatibility between democratic legitimacy and security. To this end, Agamben called for a "revision of the concept of security" as a project of immediate importance.

This article is an attempt to contribute to such a revision by discussing security in terms of the concept of tragedy. There are two reasons why this is useful. The first is the apparently inescapable, "fateful" character of security, that which imposes itself as a final instance of authority, knows no appeal, and delivers no explanations that would not be self-identical. Security knows no radical "other" and therefore, in a tragic turn, security can only be "secured" by insecurity, i.e. its self-affirmation is identical with its self-negation.[3] Secondly, if this is the case, critical statements concerning security are then also in danger of becoming identical with their object. The tragic, then, offers itself as perhaps the only remaining "methodology" of a revision to the concept of security.

II. Passports and Airports

When approaching the question of security, one immediately encounters the difficulty of making reasonable statements about a concept that negates exterior perspectives. In this way, the problem of security in politics resembles the problem of metaphysics in philosophy. This was at the heart of Heidegger's thinking in the period immediately after Being and Time, and led him to the insight that metaphysics cannot be "overcome" or corrected like an error; it must be understood as a fate, or Geschick -- that which can only be overcome like a disease, as reflected in the German verb verwinden (distorting). However, such a "distorting" implies a distancing from one's own purpose as well as the permission of play: it is, in principle, an enterprise that always borders on the ironic and can never be a fully serious, purpose-oriented operation.

With this in mind, one of the very few non-circular and therefore potentially promising things one can say about security is that it is dead serious: its totality seems to fully negate direct opposition, as well as humor and irony. Indeed, where security is the agenda, smiles turn into frowns; security agents are not known for their friendly looks. The latest generation of machine readable high-security passports has even put an end to the friendly smile of a passport photo, since smiles may cause biometric face recognition systems to malfunction. Similarly, the practice of wearing carnival masks in demonstrations -- in order to avoid ending up in police image databases -- has been outlawed in many places. Security is a grim business, as travelers at Houston's Bush International Airport are told over loudspeakers: "inappropriate remarks or jokes about security measures will lead to your arrest."[4]

The grammar of this announcement is interesting, for it is not that joking "might" or "could" lead to a traveler's arrest, it will. What makes this sentence so uncanny, so unheimlich, is the fact that as citizens of constitutional states we are used to choices, to possibilities of difference, to seeing power monitored by mechanisms of accountability. In this warning, there is no longer any possibility or alternative, there is only certainty -- without a question mark. The uncanniness of this phrase results from the certainty implied: instead of a possibility, there is a certainty that we only know from facts; the possible -- the heart of democratic freedom -- is overtaken by a factual mode of security. The factual mode is a mode of total seriousness, whereas the very definition of "inappropriate" requires a space of play and possibilities. In principle, even the expression of consent, the praise of security measures, could be interpreted as an ironic distortion. Therefore, one might ask, is silence the only appropriate way of referring to security? The warning at Bush International Airport indicates the end of the play of possibilities that makes up a democratic political process. The warning demonstrates that security negates all possibilities except its own. It illustrates the shifting of politics from the realm of the possible to the realm of the real, factual, and serious. No play of different realities, no masks, except one: Nietzsche's "true mask of reality."

III. Tragedy: Attic and Euripidean

In Nietzsche's view, it is the "true mask of reality" that allows Euripides to dig the grave of Attic tragedy and to consequently originate the Socratic drama. In The Birth of the Tragedy Nietzsche bitterly notes: "Anyone who recognizes the material out of which the Promethean tragedians before Euripides created their heroes and how remote from them was any intention of bringing the true mask of reality onto the stage will see clearly the totally deviant tendencies of Euripides."[5] Nietzsche views the development of this new, rational drama as the end of Attic tragedy, the end of an ideal Greek culture rooted in authentic experience, in which the Apollonian and the Dionysian -- the two incompatible opposing forces of culture -- were equal in strength. The death of tragedy, according to Nietzsche, gave rise to an era of decadence that led from Socrates to Plato to Christianity.

With the advent of Euripidean drama, the Apollonian and the Dionysian lose their balance; the dark, Dionysian force of chaos, dissolution, intoxication, passion and sound becomes marginalized from culture as the tragic Chorus disappears from stage. Whereas Attic tragedy treated mortality as an unavoidable destiny (while also promising redemption), Euripides brought clear attributions of cause and effect into tragedy, diverting the gaze from chaos and the horrors of mortality. Consequently, as Gianni Vattimo remarks, "if there is a rational structure of the universe, as Socrates believed and taught, the tragic becomes useless."[6] The tragic is subsumed by the "true mask of reality," the only remaining dramatic means available to the stale spirit of rationality taken from Socrates by Euripides. To Nietzsche, therefore, Euripidean tragedy was merely "aesthetic Socratism" that promoted a mediocre individualization, obliterated the difference between actors and audience, paved the way for a hopelessly dull sort of drama caught in repetition and precalculated schemes. A mediocre exercise in sobriety, Euripides was the first "sober" poet, who was no longer considered a poet by Nietzsche precisely for his sobriety. His product was, above all, no longer an "artistic" one, because the dynamic of creativity and critique had been inverted: "Whereas in all productive men instinct is the truly creative and affirming power, and consciousness acts as a critical and cautioning reaction, in Socrates the instinct becomes the critic, consciousness becomes the creator -- truly a monstrous defect." This is the end of Attic tragedy, and it is the end of the "originary dramatic phenomenon" of seeing oneself "transformed before one's eyes and now to act as if one really had entered another body, another character."[7]

But is this originary dramatic phenomenon -- the possibility of stepping outside of oneself, to wear different masks, to construct differing identities -- not a precondition of the democratic ethos of difference? Citizens in modern democracies, unlike traditional or authoritarian regimes, are citizens by virtue of their ability to step outside of themselves and to design their own lives and identities. Democratic communities can claim to be "free" because there is always an "other" to power, the possibility through which it can be confronted.

Euripidean tragedy's reliance on cause and effect ushers in a kind of "drama" that does not require any such other; this is why it no longer needs a separation between stage and floor, actors and audience, and which consequently eradicates the difference. In modern political terminology, the Euripidean tragedy is a "secure" tragedy; in this it traces the problematic of security. The only possibility it opens is its own, and it establishes itself as a fact not to be questioned. The Euripidean tragedy no longer offers a space of different possibilities, but a rationally pre-determined course of events. Unlike Attic tragedy, where mortality is translated into unique possibilities for life, Euripidean tragedy reduces mortality to a stand-alone fact that determines everything else: the only possibility is, therefore, equivalent to its reality. Just as in the announcement at Bush International Airport, there occurs, in Euripidean tragedy, a transition from the possible to the factual as the principal (political, cultural) force.

IV. The Tragedy of Security as Performance

It is in the rise of Euripidean, "Socratic" tragedy that we find the elements at the heart of the politics of security. The suspension of threat (of the possibility of death), the temporary immortality of the rational tragedy is obtained through a suspension of the possibilities of otherness, of stepping outside of oneself, in other words, of change, surprise, and newness. Security as a political principle, therefore, leads to the eternal recurrence of the same as political principle. Newness, surprise and change are considered risks, making even laughter something dangerous: it is with Euripedean tragedy that comedy also emerges as a genre with no claim to truth, a proto form of the "culture industry" or "entertainment" of our day.

In actual practice, the actions through which security is "performed" concern the construction of physical and informational architectures of seriousness and essential "sameness." Here, everything happens the way it happens because other possibilities have been rendered impossible -- or meaningless -- through rational design, i.e. through technology. In keeping with the nature of security, technology-based architectures of control are established primarily in those areas that provide the most fertile ground for the unforeseen: public places, where everyone has access and where the "unforeseen" might occur, and art and science, where the unforeseen, the new, is a characteristic of quality. Public areas are exposed to surveillance, whereas art and science are exposed to the pressures of entertainment and marketability, both within the realm of calculation. However, one of the most fertile areas of surprise and "otherness" is migration; the stranger knocking on our door, as we learn from Derrida, is the one whose questions are the most radical ones -- the question of all questions, and the questioning of questions: "L'hospitalité est donc aussi la question de la question."[8] Indeed, border security and migration control form the core of the political agenda of security. The performance of security, then, means that architectures of control are applied to the areas that are most central to democracy. But, in keeping with the circular and "liberal" nature of security, this application is not so much a negation as a "suspension," a loop, an "eternal recurrence." In this way, rather than directly negating pluralism and diversity, security "suspends" them. It leaves them formally intact while rendering them meaningless. In many situations, this is not immediately noticeable. In fact, security works best when unnoticed -- hence its aesthetics of secrecy.

The question that arises here is: can the rational tragedy of seriousness be seen as dramatic at all? Would the principle of calculability not lead to boredom, to repetition, circularity, to invisibility, to anything but drama? This would ultimately suggest that security cannot be "experienced" in any form, being identical with the script of modern political life. This, in turn, would mean that it could only enter into experience in zones of extreme violence where security is called into question or where the security apparatus encounters radical digression. If security -- as the saying goes -- is for everyone, those who actually experience it are not everyone. Not being everyone means being oneself, and it is not by chance that liberal democracies have built the political subject on the self-determined individual, calling the result "citizen." The potential of liberal democracy includes the possibility of becoming oneself, the so-called "pursuit of happiness." The political "potential" of the politics of security is the elimination of potential citizenship.

Security, then, can be experienced by anyone who claims to be a citizen: trying to cross a border, exercising freedom, even the outcome of democratic elections is already checked by new technologies of "spin" and PR. When security becomes the guiding principle of politics, dissolving its boundaries by controlling -- instead of being limited by -- the potential of citizens, the decision to be at a Stockwell Underground station in London on July 22, 2005 can result in the most dramatic experience of the tragedy of security. Is it not this -- as opposed to an "accident" -- that occurred to Jean Charles de Menezes, the young Brazilian engineer, on that day?

The stage of the tragedy of security, then, consists of "any place" and "any time": places and times are thus rendered meaningless. The transformation of place and time into "any place" and "any time" is the performative plot of the politics of security. As performers, everyone is under the pressure to become "anyone" rather than being "oneself." In this tragedy, freedom and pluralism are reduced to empty forms, resulting in a life reduced to the mere fact of "not being dead" -- a binary of "bare life."[9]

IV. Creativity or Security

Is it possible to think about the security/terror dilemma of current politics in terms other than the Euripidean, rational tragedy whose structure we find as the guiding principle of security politics? This question amounts to asking another: is it possible to defend democracy with democratic means? If one remembers that Dionysos -- whose disappearance from the tragedy was deplored by Nietzsche -- was not only a symbol of intoxication and chaos, but also a powerful symbol of creativity, and when one considers that security is directed against the possibility of something really new, something surprising and unexpected, then one can begin to explore the niches and fissures of politics for Dionysian practices.

In a period marked by a decline of metaphysics in culture -- and a return of metaphysics in politics -- art and culture are sometimes considered the "continuation of politics by other means." Yet, for the same reason it is easy to be misled, and to forget that the Dionysian, unlike the Apollonian, is not about "display" or visibility. Michel de Certeau has been among the most influential thinkers to look for non-representational, Dionysian modes of creativity outside of canonized forms of representation, hidden in the "obscure background of social activity".[10] He considers the everyday practices of users as a form of creativity for which we have no words or representations, because it is directly lived.

In a similar fashion, many artistic practices, including "digital art" or "net art," are experienced and performed at the same time, and thus cannot be represented, know no "original," and are perhaps the foremost example of Dionysian art playing with the Apollonian -- playing with its own visibility and permanence, occurring as constant change. The loose boundaries of the digital work, fragile forms, its constant flux, its distributed character all speak of a Dionysian quality of the digital. On the other hand, the technology on which digital art depends appears to be the ultimate heir of the Apollonian force, with its "determinable images and harmonious and reliable shapes [...] that lend security".[11] Dionysian artistic and cultural practices seem to be capable of hijacking the security of the Apollonian precisely when security is becoming the dominant mode of a politics turned technology. They keep, as Vattimo says of the modern aesthetic experience, "disorientation alive."[12]

When calculations of security become the center of governmental activity, the possibility of change -- the very possibility of democracy -- depends on keeping "disorientation alive." This is what creative processes that resist calculation and representation enable. This is also where we can find the Dionysian spirit without ever being able to "represent" it in a particular form. However, as we have already said, from the perspective of security, such activities are to be prevented. They imply "inappropriate" attitudes towards security and are clearly different from silence. They resemble something more like the noise of "the free spirits running riot" that Nietzsche presents in the Twilight of the Idols, following the discovery that "the real world became a myth." The "free spirits," today, might discover that a "factual" or "realistic" mode of security marks the deepest abyss of what Derrida has referred to as the "mystical foundation of authority".[13]

As Agamben reminds us, security, unlike disciplinary power, does not apply punishment for acts consumed; it controls the potentials. It therefore controls ideas. Security does this, not so much in the traditional form of censorship, but as a broader project of controlling newness and originality. What else might be the function of a strict global regime of intellectual property rights, as it is being established at the moment with legal and technological means? By subjecting the original and the new to the requirements of commerce, security obliterates precisely the possibility of originality and newness. Treating new ideas as economic goods that have owners, markets, and customers is the actual performance of security: fully in line with liberalism, and with the general aesthetization of society and the postmodern lightness of being. Intellectual property ensures that the creative potential of people, the actual nomos of democracy, remains under discrete and pleasurable control. All this is fatalistically performed outside the grip of both culture and politics -- as rationality itself, as necessity, as cause and effect, as demand and supply. Here, the politics of security reaches its most advanced stage. Just as, according to Nietzsche, the role of instinct and intellect are reversed in Euripidean tragedy, the politics of security reverses the relationship between possibility and reality, letting the latter shape the former, and leading to a permanent suspension of the democratic.

The Euripidean tragedy of security, then, is a tragedy without redemption by either life or death: it keeps them both in a carefully calculated endless loop of waiting.


[1] 24 year-old Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police in London, on July 22, 2005, apparently mistaken for a suspect in the failed bombing attack of the previous day. Cf. Wikipedia: Charles de Menezes. Available online at:

[2] Giorgio Agamben, "Security and Terror", Theory and Event 5:4, 2002. Available online at:

[3] McKenzie Wark, "Securing Security", Kritikos, 2:3, 2005. Available online at:

[4] Thanks to Norbert Koppensteiner and Josefina Echavarría for their thoughts on this. Cf. Norbert Koppensteiner/Josefina Echavarría, "Scherze über die Sicherheitsmaßnahmen führen zu Ihrer Festnahme!," in Gewalt und Präzision, Wolfgang Sützl and Doris Wallnöfer, eds., Vienna: Turia + Kant, forthcoming.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Geburt der Tragödie, Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, eds., Kritische Studienausgabe, Vol. 1, p. 76. English translation of this and all subsequent quotations by Ian Johnston, available online at:

[6] Gianni Vattimo, Nietzsche, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992, p. 15 (my translation).

[7] Nietzsche, Geburt der Tragödie, p. 61.

[8] Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalité, Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1997, p. 31.

[9] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Standford: Standford University Press, 1998.

[10] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press 1984, p. xi.

[11] Gianni Vattimo, Nietzsche, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1992, p. 12.

[12] Gianni Vattimo, The Transparent Society, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992, p. 51.

[13] Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 228 ff.


Wolfgang Sützl is a political theorist, philosopher and translator based in Vienna, Austria. His research focuses on the politics of technology and on the cultural critique of violence. He teaches at universities and art schools in Europe and Latin America, including Transart Institute's MFA Program.

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