By and large, descriptions of the US federal government shutdown have followed rational, even quantitative models. There are charts, lists, numbers, items, and stories that outline the specific and general effects, both nationally and locally. To be sure, there is much opinion on the shutdown that bears tenuous relation to logic. Sarah Palin, for example, described the shutdown as a “pinprick,” noted President Obama’s statement, referring to proposed military strikes in Syria, that the US “doesn’t do pinpricks,” and said “but sometimes we elect them” – a use of “pinprick” so acrobatic in its logic that it would qualify her statement as more of an emotional tone poem than a didactic critique. But underlying the variety in rhetoric, regardless of its persuasiveness, there is a solid base of concrete information. The media have described the federal government, not comprehensively, but nevertheless in very clear, definable aspects through outlining the suspension of its activities.
When Hobbes referred to the ultimate sovereign authority governing a society as “Leviathan,” he described something much larger, more sublime, and more mysterious than the US federal government in the amalgamation of its departments and services. It is both too easy and too quick to equate Leviathan with a government so concretely conceived. Subsequent discourse has expanded the use of the term to include many different kinds of social authority. So with the partial government shutdown unfolding in its complex but graspable ways, I do not ask after the small “l” leviathan (the pinprick leviathan). Rather, I ask after this larger, ungraspable but eminently palpable Leviathan that infuses reality with its strange and multitudinous forces. I ask what would happen if this Leviathan were to partially shut down. What would that look like? What would open up?
What if we woke up and our subjectivity were not shaped by the discourses through which we articulated our identity? What if, suddenly, reason and violence did not combine to undergird the power of the State? What if the rhetoric of freedom ceased to instantiate a subterranean mechanism of widespread subjugation? What if the structures of consumption did not establish and arise out of cycles of deferred desire? What would we do? How would we get along?
I have no news of angry angels plotting such a shutdown. I know of no long-term shifts in divine demographics that could unbalance the transcendent institutions of authority. What disturbs me is that, if such a shutdown were to occur, we would be like the most uninformed and vulnerable of our own society, pressed so strongly by our immediate concerns that we cannot effectively engage our larger predicament. On this political playing field, we don’t read the news and we don’t vote. If Leviathan were to withdraw the tentacles of its power and support, it’s not even clear how we would know. We might be left, as so many, simply to celebrate or suffer or pray.
Strange that the epochal generation that saw the death of God, and may have even killed Him, nestles so deeply into the folds of Leviathan’s flesh. If it were to die, I imagine we would cling to its corpse.