Academic journal article Arena Journal

Terrible Security: Bifocal Visions of Horror

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Terrible Security: Bifocal Visions of Horror

Article excerpt

How do we see security? Is it seen in images of peace and safety, or is it perceived in the depiction of the horrors of violence and suffering? The question is not an obvious one, for security is not typically thought to be a quality of vision, or of the other senses. Rather, security is typically thought to pertain to the experience of physical, bodily integrity. The conventional view of security is that it subsists in a 'political relation ... between the individual and the political community' to provide minimum conditions of physical safety and the protection of law.1 Such a view belies a very long history of conceptual uncertainty not simply about who is to be secured from whom, or the structure of mechanisms for providing security, but over the moral and even spiritual value of security itself.2

Thomas Hobbes attempted to sweep away such uncertainties in the seventeenth century by construing security as the purpose for political order and the establishment of sovereignty. By these means, aggressively acquisitive individuals could secure themselves and their properties through mechanisms of government capable of inspiring mutual fear.3 Framing security in Hobbes' way, however, perpetuates an assumption that security should be understood merely as part of a contractual arrangement between subjects and sovereigns, ignoring the discursive strategies by which populations are 'striated' into zones of security and insecurity, and those 'perpetually traversed by relations of war'.4

In this article, I will consider the visual framing of security in order to reflect on how the desire for security is activated in the depiction of its absence. I am not seeking here to study, as Chiara Bottici has, the mediation of politics through images, nor, as Peter Goodrich has revealed, how the law 'looms' over us in emblems and symbols.5 Rather, I want to explore how security is seen and, in particular, how our vision of it is bifocal. On one plane, we see security in the certainty of physical safety. On the other, we see security in the terrible uncertainty of its absence - in the sheer horror of violence and cruelty. Our vision of security switches between both planes of perception. The horror of violence is folded with the peace of security, and the axis along which they are joined in our field of vision activates our readiness to switch from one to the other in sheer terror.

I begin with an image (Figure 1), neither troubled nor troubling in itself, but an image I think should be read as both terrifying and horrifying nonetheless. It is the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes' 1651 masterwork, Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a CommonWealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill.6 The frontispiece was supervised by Hobbes himself, and it conveys in remarkably vivid terms the central elements of his then-revolutionary argument. An earlier preparatory sketch of the frontispiece was produced by either of two of the leading artists working in England at the time, Abraham Bosse, or possibly Wenceslaus Hollar, for presentation to King Charles II (Figure 2).

There are some subtle but significant and interesting differences between the two images that I will come back to shortly. Together, the two images neatly encapsulate Hobbes' argument that at the basis of all civil association, at the heart of any legitimate commonwealth lies the provision of security. Security is the supreme good that we all crave from the mutually violent and mutually acquisitive self-interest of our fellow men and women. Given this relentlessly bleak appraisal of human motivation, Hobbes' answer to the security conundrum was to argue that we should understand our obedience to sovereign power as if it were established by social contract among the members of civil society to surrender their own power of self-protection to an awesome sovereign - king, assembly or parliament, it really didn't matter so long as the sovereign's power vis-a-vis the subjects was awesome. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.