In 1699, Captain William Kidd, despite having been provided with a letter of marque (essentially a license to pirate in the service of the issuing government) by William III, became embroiled in the inter- and intra-national politics associated with the fine-line between privateering and piracy, and was captured and imprisoned in Boston before being transferred to Newgate Prison in London.
Abandoned by the Whigs who had supported his appointment as privateer, Kidd’s execution was ordered by the High Court of the Admiralty, where he was found guilty of murder and five counts of piracy. Hung successfully on a second attempt, his body was then gibbeted at Tilbury Point ‘as a warning to seamen and pirates‘.
In 1752, the Murder Act was passed by the British Parliament, in which the power to gibbet (called here ‘hanging in chains’) was granted:
…it shall be in the power of any such judge or justice to appoint the body of any such criminal to be hung in chains: but that in no case whatsoever the body of any murderer shall be suffered to be buried; unless after such body shall have been dissected and anatomized as aforesaid; and every such judge or justice shall, and is hereby required to direct the same either to be disposed of as aforesaid, to be anatomized, or to be hung in chains, in the same manner as is now practised for the most atrocious offences.
These most atrocious offences were murder, piracy, sheep stealing, highway banditry, and treason—all activities that interfere with the proper function of a distributed societal network.
Nearly a hundred years before, the body of Oliver Cromwell had been disinterred to be gibbeted before being decapitated, and re-buried beneath the gallows at Tyburn, with the head displayed on a stake on the city wall.
There are certain delusions that can tolerate no interference, even in death.
* * *
In Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari attempt to produce a picture of a materialist psychoanalysis, taking on Freud and Lacan by way of Marx and Plato (amongst others) to produce what they call ‘schizoanalysis’ of capitalist society.
As with Plato’s Republic, where the problem of finding a ‘just’ person is addressed by imagining the individual to be an entire city (before shrinking that thought experiment back down to the individual level), Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus also posits a relation between the body and the state. While the body-as-metaphor-for-state in Plato works to demonstrate that the individual must be ruled by philosophy and reason so as not to be subject to the power of the state, Deleuze and Guattari’s version of Plato’s thought experiment repeats and inverts the metaphor. Society is imagined as a body, except that the body is a delusional model of the human body. It is the ‘body without organs’ of schizophrenic delusion, via Daniel Paul Schreber and Antonin Artaud. They call this process a ‘phenomenological’ one, ‘drawing no conclusions whatsoever as to the nature and the relationship’ between desiring production (the way that they describe human desire and natural being-in-the-world) and social production (p. 10).
Unlike Plato, who paradoxically attempts to oppose Athenian democracy by recourse to an internalized divine monarchy of reason, Deleuze and Guattari are addressing a world economic system that has no clear political shape. It intersects with many different sorts of governments and political systems, but capitalism has no dependence on a particular state for its existence.
The Platonic corporal model of the state became particularly powerful in Roman Stoicism, and then in the Church, also via Stoicism and then (Neo)platonism. The European model of kingship was closely predicated upon this same model. Foucault’s treatment of capital punishment in the Early Modern evokes this, in a way that coheres closely with Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to societal organization:
We must regard the public execution, as it was still ritualized in the eighteenth century, as a political operation. It was logically inscribed in a system of punishment, in which the sovereign, directly or indirectly, demanded, decided and carried out punishments, in so far as it was he who, through the law, had been injured by the crime. In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide. And the regicide, in turn, was neither more nor less, than the total, absolute criminal since, instead of attacking, like any offender, a particular decision or wish of the sovereign power, he attacked the very principle and physical person of the prince.
(Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, pp. 53-54)
When Deleuze and Guattari introduce the notion of the body without organs, they suggest that, although they will be discussing only the body without organs of capitalism, the body of every type of socius is in potential view: ‘This socius may be the body of the earth, that of the tyrant, or capital’ (p. 10). As is often the case, the broad-stroke philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari is neatly complimented by the microscopic focus of Foucault. (Discipline and Punish is another work to depend upon and problematize the Republic—instead of developing a picture of an idealized state as the individual, Foucault produces a kind of anti-Republic by demonstrating that society has become the prison that is imagined in the cave analogy of Republic book 7.)
* * *
Pirates are dangerous. Every empire that has had to depend on the sea from Rome onwards has worked hard to publicize its victories over pirates. It’s not that pirates are responsible for massive losses, but rather that they threaten the network that must be trusted to function.
Networks, however, are always susceptible to disruption.
When Foucault suggests that, ‘In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide’, the particular warning punishment of gibbeting denotes a specific revulsion towards a set of crimes that threaten not merely the king, but the proper functioning of the king’s body, the nation.
But networks are merely patterns of behaviour. ‘Capitalism is continually cutting off the circulation of flows, breaking them and deferring the break, but these same flows are continually overflowing, and intersecting one another according to schizzes [breaks] that turn against capitalism and slash into it’ (Anti-Oedipus, p. 376). For a while—perhaps a long while—the slashes into capitalism are met with fierce and horrific reprisal. Hang him at the crossroads. Let his crime be a warning to all.
Terrorism is a fickle concept.
Networks are exponentially more vulnerable as they gain orders of magnitude in complexity. What arms can never guard, cultural logic will do a much better job to safeguard. Hang him at the crossroads. Show the masses the body. Let them gawk:
Squeamishness was never better witnessed than in the hardening response to the gibbeting of murderers’ corpses, a common spectacle on the commons and highways of eighteenth-century England. The 1752 Murder Act had regularized ancient practice by permitting judges to order murderers’ gibbeting as part of the sentence of the court. On Hounslow Heath up to a hundred gibbets were said to have stood in the 1770s, ‘so that from whatever quarter the wind blew, it brought with it a cadaverous and pestilential odour’ [R. Southey, 1807]. Pepys had been disgusted by a gibbeted body long before this; but it remained a popular spectacle, a place of licensed frisson, and protests from squeamishness before 1800 are difficult to find. London was said to have been a deserted city on the Sunday following Lewis Avershaw’s gibbeting on Wimbledon Common in 1795; for several months his decomposing body provided a favourite Sunday outing.
(V. A. C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868, pp. 267-68)
No society condones murder, or violent crime in general. Of course not. But what course exactly is this following? Murder, piracy, sheep stealing, highway banditry, and treason: gibbeting offences because society breaks down if the network is unsafe. We will catch you. We get our man.
But metaphors are fickle, too. When the network is threatened from another angle, for different reasons, it is only too easy for the body without organs to send the same white blood cells to combat the regicide, the anti-capitalist, the revolutionary as it does the murderer, pirate, sheep stealer, bandit or traitor.
Desire is an exile, desire is a desert that traverses the body without organs and makes us pass from one of its faces to the other. Never an individual exile, never a personal desert, but a collective exile and a collective desert. It is only too obvious that the destiny of the revolution is linked solely to the interest of the dominated and exploited masses. But it is the nature of this link that poses the real problem, as either a determined causal link or a different sort of connection. It is a question of knowing how a revolutionary potential is realized, in its very relationship with the exploited masses or the ‘weakest links’ of a given system.
(Anti-Oedipus, p. 377)
We are all implicated and embedded in a system that many of us would love to leave. Desire is an exile. The passing to the other face of the body without organs is not a departure, but rather, a set of recognitions. Revolutions do not happen in movements, but rather in moments. At some point, the cadaverous and pestilential odour becomes too much, and the many gibbets on the heath become not a symbol of terror but an impetus towards change.
The problem we face today, however, is that the economic and social revolutionaries and theorists of the past 150 years did not anticipate the degree to which our future was one of drastic, exponentially increasing global disaster. The network is not merely a set of Roman roads, but also the shock troops of capital that have vested interest in maintaining the status quo of ever-increasing profit, no matter the cost.
Let him hang as a warning to seamen and pirates.
The Occupy Movement failed to do much more than annoy. Let it swing and then cage its failure for all to see. The Egyptian revolution. The Syrian civil war. Hope and Change. Let their cadaverous odour come from all quarters. Some of them are murderers. Some of them stole sheep.
Some of them are revolutionaries.
The king isn’t dead.