The recent manhunt of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston was probably quite shocking to many non-Americans — and probably some Americans too — for the anachronism it constituted. The latter was caused by the ability of the Police to empty an entire city, and thus to implement a sort of state of emergency, as well as by the “march of the returning heroes,” the multitude of police officers acclaimed by the crowd after they arrested their prey. There is a profound medievalism in such absoluteness and one has the right to wonder what motivates this disturbing joy.
Let us focus on the urban condition that contextualizes this manhunt. As I have been repeatedly writing in the past, each house, through its impermeability, due to the implementation of private property, is susceptible to becoming a prison for the bodies living inside of it in the case of the sudden legal implementation of a quarantine. For an important part of Boston, the quarantine was not implemented stricto sensu, but it was highly recommend to each resident to stay inside and the context of fear created by the ubiquitous media made such a recommendation a quasi-order. In the areas of Boston where the police and army were actually deployed, the quarantine was very effectual, as looking through the windows seems to have been prohibited and enforced through the threats of weapons.
While this event was unfolding, I was thinking of the descriptions that Michel Foucault makes in his seminar Abnormal (Les Anormaux) at the College de France (1975) of a Medieval/Renaissance city when contaminated by the Plague. Foucault distinguishes two things historically: the negative reaction to cases of leprosy in the same city that consists in the effective exclusion of the sick bodies from it, to the point that they are declared socially dead; and the positive — in the sense that there is an inclusion — a reaction to the Plague that provokes a state of emergency and the absolute reorganization of the city according to a quadrillage. This latter term has been imperfectly translated in English into partitioning. The word quadrillage involves a sort of physical or virtual partitioning of a space, but it also implies a detailed, systematic and extensive examination of this same space by a controlling and policing entity. Such an action is thoroughly described by Foucault in his class of January 15th 1975 in this same seminar:
[…] the practice with regard to plague was very different from the practice with regard to lepers, because the territory was not the vague territory into which one cast the population of which one had to be purified. It was a territory that was the object of a fine and detailed analysis, of a meticulous spatial partitioning (quadrillage).
The plague town-and here I refer to a series of regulations, all absolutely identical, moreover, that were published from the end of the Middle Ages until the beginning of the eighteenth century-was divided up into districts, the districts were divided into quarters, and then the streets within these quarters were isolated. In each street there were overseers, in each quarter inspectors, in each district someone in charge of the district, and in the town itself either someone was nominated as governor or the deputy mayor was given supplementary powers when plague broke out. There is, then, an analysis of the territory into its smallest elements and across this territory the organization of a power that is continuous in two senses. First of all, it is continuous due to this pyramid of control. From the sentries who kept watch over the doors of the houses from the end of the street, up to those responsible for the quarters, those responsible for the districts and those responsible for the town, there is a kind of pyramid of uninterrupted power. It was a power that was continuous not only in this pyramidal, hierarchical structure, but also in its exercise, since surveillance had to be exercised uninterruptedly. The sentries had to be constantly on watch at the end of the streets, and twice a day the inspectors of the quarters and districts had to make their inspection in such a way that nothing that happened in the town could escape their gaze. And everything thus observed had to be permanently recorded by means of this kind of visual examination and by entering all information in big registers. At the start of the quarantine, in fact, all citizens present in the town had to give their name. The names were entered in a series of registers. The local inspectors held some of these registers, and others were kept by the town’s central administration. Every day the inspectors had to visit every house, stopping outside and summoning the occupants. Each individual was assigned a window in which he had to appear, and when his name was called he had to present himself at the window, it being understood that if he failed to appear it had to be because he was in bed, and if he was in bed he was ill, and if he was ill he was dangerous and so intervention was called for. It was at this point that individuals were sorted into those who were ill and those who were not. All the information gathered through the twice-daily visits, through this kind of review or parade of the living and the dead by the inspector, all the information recorded in the register, was then collated with the central register held by the deputy mayors in the town’s central administration.
There is a literature of plague that is a literature of the decomposition of individuality; a kind of orgiastic dream in which plague is the moment when individuals come apart and when the law is forgotten. As soon as plague breaks out, the town’s forms of lawfulness disappear. Plague overcomes the law just as it overcomes the body. Such, at least, is the literary dream of the plague. But you can see that there was another dream of the plague: a political dream in which the plague is rather the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full. Plague is the moment when the spatial partitioning and subdivision (quadrillage) of a population is taken to its extreme point, where dangerous communications, disorderly communities, and forbidden contacts can no longer appear. The moment of the plague is one of an exhaustive sectioning (quadrillage) of the population by political power, the capillary ramifications of which constantly reach the grain of individuals themselves, their time, habitat, localization, and bodies. Perhaps plague brings with it the literary or theatrical dream of the great orgiastic moment. But plague also brings the political dream of an exhaustive, unobstructed power that is completely transparent to its object and exercised to the full. (Michel Foucault, Abnormal, Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975, translated by Graham Burchell, New York: Verso 2003.)
Foucault’s style, as always, reinforces what he says: “Plague overcomes the law just as it overcomes the body.” (“La peste franchit la loi, comme la peste franchit les corps”), “a political dream in which the plague is rather the marvelous moment when political power is exercised to the full.” (“un reve politique de la peste, ou celle-ci est au contraire le moment merveilleux ou le pouvoir s’exerce a son plein”)…
This dream was fully expressed on April 19th 2013, in Boston, when the Police and the Army were occupying alone the public realm, quadrilling the city and searching houses one by one. While trying not to fall into a sort of paranoid interpretation of what happened then, we can nevertheless suppose that the Police were not only searching for a man that day, but were also re-establishing a new administrative cartography of the city, taking advantage of ideal conditions that will not be reproduced for another long time. I am not necessarily suggesting that there was a deliberate plan for such a cartography but the thousands of pages that have probably been filed in the form of administrative reports, have very similar characteristics than a more organized and voluntary data collection. It would be surprising that they would not be used as such.
This voluntary and involuntary construction of an institutionalized knowledge is precisely what Foucault describes as being the foundation of a positive form of power that implements itself through the technique of the norm:
The reaction to plague is a positive reaction; it is a reaction of inclusion, observation, the formation of knowledge, the multiplication of effects of power on the basis of the accumulation of observations and knowledge. (Michel Foucault, Abnormal, Lectures at the College de France 1974-1975, translated by Graham Burchell, New York: Verso 2003.)
In this regard, the city of Boston and its police can be said to have reinforced its power through this exception-al reorganization of the city and constructed this knowledge in a more effective way in one day, than what had probably been done in the few last years. When the political dream that Foucault evokes ended, Boston inhabitants thought that they were going back to a normal life when actually the norm had changed and the normal life would be more logically asserted as a normed life.