What lies beyond lies within: global information flows and the politics of the state/inter-state system.

Author:Lundborg, Tom
Position:Reprint - Report
 
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Abstract

The potential impact of global information flows is commonly framed either by pointing to how these flows transcend the limits of and introduce us to a world beyond the sovereign state and the international system of states, or by showing how these flows are subordinated to the control and static presence of the state/inter-state system. In contrast, this article explores how information flows move beyond while simultaneously being forced within the limits of the state/ inter-state system, in ways that highlight an important paradox shaping the politics and continuous reproduction of the state/inter-state system. Specifically, it demonstrates how the presence of the state/inter-state system depends upon a process of affirming as well as rejecting the possibility of a world of flows and networks located somewhere beyond the state/inter-state system.

Keywords

information flows, the state, the modern international, exceptionalism, sovereignty

Introduction

It can be argued, on one hand, that information flows and networks have vastly improved the social and economic conditions of many parts of the world; that they have brought people and companies closer to each other, made national borders increasingly outdated, and introduced us to a more open world. Traveling through modern information and communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet and mobile phones, these flows open up the possibility of new forms of existence that transcend the borders of nation-states and the international system of states. On the other hand, it can also be argued that information flows and networks have brought us many new and unforeseen dangers, which must be dealt with through more rigorous methods of control, surveillance, and data retention. Terrorists and criminals might be targeting the digital information systems and networks that our societies depend so heavily on. Such groups might also use these networks to communicate and plan their next attacks. In this context we have seen, for example, how the United States in its ongoing "war on terror" relies heavily on gathering massive amounts of data on telephone, e-mail, and Internet traffic. We have also seen how a new European Union (EU) directive on data retention has been passed by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union--a directive that obliges Member States to force communications providers to store all traffic data for up to two years and make it available to national authorities.

These and other similar cases of dealing with the perceived risks and dangers of information flows highlight several important tensions: tensions between the increasingly transnational dimension of everyday life enabled by new ICTs, and the state's traditional monopoly to determine the conditions of "proper" political life within the borders of the state; tensions between, on one hand, the emergence of a world dominated by different kinds of flows and networks, and on the other hand, the continuous relevance of the borders and boundaries of the international system of sovereign states.

Looking at much of the recent literature addressing these tensions, it is possible to find some rather familiar conceptualizations. The tensions between the increasingly transnational dimension of everyday life, enabled by more sophisticated ICTs, and the state's traditional monopoly to determine the conditions of properly political life within the borders of the state is often framed either by pointing to the static presence and near-total control of the modem nation-state, (1) or by referring to its impending dissolution and the creation of other forms of existence and political belonging. (2) In a similar way, tensions between, on one hand, the emergence of a world of flows and networks and, on the other hand, the continuous relevance of the borders and boundaries of the international system of states tend to be framed either by pointing to the static limits of the system, (3) or by highlighting the growing significance of other, more "global" forms of governance, social structures, and power. (4)

This article is motivated by the suspicion that even though these framings might have interesting things to say about the relationship between global information flows, the sovereign state, and the international system of states, they nevertheless fail to grasp some of the most crucial problems underlying those tensions. Specifically, it is motivated by the suspicion that perhaps these tensions are indicative of a set of deeper political problems that cannot be adequately framed by pointing to the full presence and static limits of the state/inter-state system, or by emphasizing their decreasing significance and possible dissolution. In order to investigate what those problems might be, and how the framings above could be seen as limited, the article explores the possibility of analyzing the transnational dimension of information flows side by side with and in relation to the continuous relevance of the boundaries and borders of the state/ inter-state system. In this way, the article especially seeks to move away from attempts to resolve the tensions between global information flows and the state/inter-state system by going in one particular direction or by emphasizing one particular side--more of the state or less of the state, more of the international or more of the global, more of the same or the emergence of something different. Resisting such attempts, the article explores how the two sides of (and the tensions between) global information flows and the state/inter-state system can be used to think about the politics and continuous reproduction of the state/inter-state system. Specifically, the article explores how this reproduction can be thought of in relation to a process that both affirms and rejects the existence of a world of flows and networks, which transcends the limits of and is located somewhere beyond the state and the international system of states. Information flows, in this sense, can be said to move beyond while simultaneously being forced within, and used in order to reaffirm the limits of the state/inter-state system. Crucially, however, rather than reaffirming a clear and static presence of those limits, it is argued that this reproduction depends upon a process of transgressing and making exceptions to such limits. In this way, the reproduction of the state/inter-state system highlights an important paradox, which relates to how the limits of the state/inter-state system are produced in relation to and on the basis of a simultaneous absence of those limits.

Drawing upon two recent examples in the U.S. and EU contexts of controlling the movement of information flows through surveillance and data retention, the article begins by considering how this simultaneous presence/absence of "limits" plays out in attempts to deal with the perceived risks and dangers of information flows. Specifically, the two examples are used in order to show how practices of surveillance and data retention rely on the constant possibility of making exceptions to established "privacy" norms. Following Carl Schmitt's influential reading of sovereignty as a self-referential process of deciding on the exception, it is suggested that the state's presence can only ultimately be affirmed when exceptions to the norms constituting this presence are made. In this sense, Schmitt's reading of the exception is useful for thinking about the uncertainties generated by the constant movement of information flows, and the threats commonly associated with them. Following the discourses of the ongoing "war on terror," for example, the uncertainties and threats of information flows are often linked to the assumption that exceptions may be necessary at any place and at any point in time. Consequently, particularly in the U.S. context, in order to reaffirm the state's presence (and the principles of freedom, liberty, and honoring the rule of law that it is claimed to represent) it may also be necessary to operate in a space somewhere beyond the law.

While the Schmittean exception is useful for thinking about the contingent and ambivalent grounds of reaffirming the state's presence, it is nevertheless limited to a mere concern with what happens at the territorial edges of the state. Therefore, by drawing upon the work of R. B. J. Walker, the second part of the article looks at how it is possible to complement the study of "state exceptionalism" with studying the exceptionalism of the international system of states. This latter exceptionalism is perhaps even more important than the former since it concerns the limits of what can and what cannot be tolerated in a world that is based upon making certain distinctions--mainly between the inside and the outside of the sovereign territorial state, self and other, the internal and the external. The exceptionalism of the international involves, in this sense, a process of trying to reproduce those distinctions while simultaneously transgressing and making exceptions to them.

As well as highlighting the underlying politics and the continuous reproduction of the state/inter-state system, the exceptionaiisms of the state and of the international point to some of the difficulties of thinking about information flows as being somehow outside and separate from the distinctions upon which the state/inter-state system is based. At the same time, however, the article concludes by suggesting that these forms of exceptionalism also indicate that there is always something that goes missing in the state/inter-state system. In other words, the two forms of exceptionalism indicate that there is indeed a world beyond or an excess of the world, which might not always be that easy to control, and which could provoke unexpected outcomes that resist the continuous reproduction of the state/inter-state system, its borders, and its limits.

The Presence/Absence of the...

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