Bard student, Anna Hadfield reviews a new book by Elaine Scarry, Thinking in an Emergency.
Emergency, Elaine Scarry writes in her new book Thinking in an Emergency, is a claim that shuts down thinking in favor of action. When states make the claim of emergency, they are insisting that the nature of the situation requires that all existing procedures and deliberation be bypassed so that appropriate and rapid action can be taken. “The unspoken presumption,” she writes, “is that either one can think or one can act, and given that it is absolutely mandatory that an action be performed, thinking must fall away.” Emergency, therefore, justifies the abandonment of thinking.
According to Scarry, this dichotomy we perceive between thinking and acting is false. This is because, as she writes, “the acts of thinking that go on in an emergency are not recognized by us as acts of thinking.” These acts of thinking are habits, our “internalizing regulating mechanisms.” Like deliberation, which constrains our irrational impulses and forces us to stop and think about what we are doing, habit is a limiting force; it narrows the field of possibility in an emergency because it predisposes us to particular behavior and actions. The habits that take over in an emergency are by no means necessarily arbitrary; they can be consciously learned or practiced prior to an emergency so that they can come into play should one occur. Indeed, Scarry often equates habits with laws, protocols, and procedures, regulatory measures that we deliberate in advance of when we will need them.
The American Constitutional provisions that require particular steps be taken before we resort to military action are such habits; they are structures that are meant to automatically take over in an emergency. Yet these Constitutional roadblocks, or “stop and think” procedures, have been largely ignored since the invention of nuclear weapons. “Complaints are often made that involving Congress and the population in war decisions will slow down the act of going to war because so much energy is needed to persuade them. That is precisely what the Constitution intended,” Scarry writes. This displacement of thinking is not confined to the US alone: all eight of the nuclear powers, for example, have ceded control of nuclear weapons to their presidents or prime minsters, thereby removing legislatures and citizenry from the decision-making process. The practice of public and legislative deliberation has been pushed to the side exactly when deliberation seems most crucial, when just a few quick decisions have the potential to kill tens of millions of people within several hours.
The importance of thinking in an emergency, which is at the root of the constitutional brake on war, is illuminated by Hannah Arendt in her essay Thinking and Moral Considerations. Like Scarry, Arendt comments on the dichotomy between thinking and acting. In her discussion of what she terms “thinking as such,” Arendt notes that there is in fact a paralysis that accompanies the act of thinking and writes that “thinking’s chief characteristic is that it interrupts all doing.” However, while Arendt calls thinking a “resultless enterprise,” she by no means wishes to imply it is worthless. Not only does thinking actualize the “difference within oneself” by alerting us to our own consciousness and creating a dialogue with our individual selves, thinking also liberates judgment, which is the manifestation of thinking in the world of appearances.
Both Scarry (drawing from Aristotle) and Arendt differentiate between two different types of thinking. The first is the perception/contemplation type of thinking (“thinking as such” in Arendt’s terms) which does not aim for practical answers and which will never be able to demonstrate, once and for all, what “right” is and what “wrong” is as abstract notions. The second is deliberation, or, for Arendt, judgment, which enables the taking of action and is how we decide whether to do one thing or another. Deliberation/judgment deals with tangible particulars and ends in tangible results. It is not the ability to know right and wrong abstractly but rather the ability to tell right from wrong, in a given situation.
In an emergency, Arendt writes, “thinking ceases to be a marginal affair” and instead comes to the forefront in all political matters. Thinking as such, which brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and destroys them, is suddenly of much use in dire times, because it enables judgment. When we are confronted with the possibility of war, our primary approach is not to think in terms of what is a “just war” and what is an “unjust war”, abstractly. Rather, we attempt to evaluate whether the war in question is just or unjust, right or wrong. For both Scarry and Arendt, this deliberation, this ability to think, is exactly what is called for in an emergency.
One reason we sideline deliberation in times of emergency is that we think of emergencies as exceptional instances that are necessarily disruptive. Emergencies, as times in which we are forced to confront the possibility of real danger affecting our lives, take on a fundamentally different character than ordinary life. And yet the idea of emergency as an exception, as a break from the norm, may not fit the world today. As Mark Danner writes in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, “…the very endlessness of this state of exception—a quality emphasized even as it was imposed—and the broad acceptance of that endlessness, the state of exception’s increasing normalization, are among its distinguishing marks.” While we may envision the privileging of rapid action over deliberation to be isolated to times of actual emergency, this tendency, as can be seen in the ongoing erosion of law and Constitutional procedures, has become frighteningly normal.
We may indeed be living in a chronic state of emergency, due to two distinguishing markers of our political time: the notion of torture as a legitimate means of obtaining information, as advanced by the Bush administration, and the existence of nuclear weapons. Scarry illuminates the parallels between the two: “Both torture and nuclear weapons inflict their injuries without permitting any form of self-defense, both inflict their injuries without obtaining any authorization from their own legislatures or populations; both starkly nullify even the most minimal requirements of a contractual society; both destroy the foundational concept of law.” Torture and nuclear weapons are tolerated because we believe extreme times warrant extreme responses, but these phenomena end up intensifying and perpetuating the emergency itself; they are not a means for keeping us safe, but a means of endangering our political and social freedom.
In our time of emergency, what should we take from Scarry’s determined emphasis on the role of habit in emergency action? Ultimately, what she is pointing to is that deliberation itself is a habit. It is something that must be practiced: “It could be said that all congressional deliberation during peacetime, no matter how trivial or grand the subject, is a rehearsal, a constant act of practicing, for the moment when it will be called upon to debate the gravest matter of all, the matter of going to war.” This habit of deliberation entails taking responsibility for our own governance, by both Congressmen and ordinary citizens. It is a habit that we cannot afford to lose, and one that may end up, as Arendt writes, preventing a catastrophe.