Friday, 30 November 2012

Victor Hugo on the Guillotine and the Agency of Things

Much has been written on the "agency of things". Yet the notion always used to puzzle me. Currently, however, I am reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and in this utterly enthralling novel I came across a passage that provides a most vivid illustration of what my colleague Andy Pickering might call the "dance of agency". It is a comment on the death penalty, public executions and the role of the guillotine. Here it is:

"A scaffold, when it is erected and prepared, has indeed a profoundly disturbing effect. We may remain more or less open-minded on the subject of the death-penalty, indisposed to commit ourselves, so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But to do so is to be so shaken that we are obliged to take our stand for or against. (...) The guillotine is the ultimate expression of Law, and its name is vengeance; it is not neutral, nor does it allow us to remain neutral. He who sees it shudders in the most confounding dismay. All social questions achieve their finality around that blade. The scaffold is an image. It is not merely a framework, a machine, a lifeless mechanism of wood, iron, and rope. It is as though it were a being having its own dark purpose, as though the framework saw, the machine listened, the mechanism understood; as though that arrangement of wood and iron and rope expressed a will. In the hideous picture which its presence evokes it seems to be most terribly a part of what it does. It is the executioner's accomplice; it consumes, devouring flesh and drinking blood. It is a kind of monster created by the judge and the craftsman; a spectre seeming to live an awful life born of the death it deals." (p. 32 in the Penguin edition).

The law assumes a concrete, material form in the blade that cuts off heads. Once created, it demands that it be used and imposes its logic on us. It uses us just as much as we use it. We create things, but we are also created by them. And sometimes the things that we create are so powerful and terrible that, in creating us, they may eventually destroy us.

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