– Lars Schmid and Jeronimo Voss: “All Cops are DJs – Police Sensitivity in the State of Exception”

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All Cops are DJs – Police Sensitivity in the State of Exception, 2008

german version

The police can be gentle and loveable. At the same time it remains not less the opposite of politics.

Jacques Rancière

This can be the police, too: instead of ceasing the disturbence of the peace at night – which was the reason for their appearance in a left-wing house project in Frankfurt/M. – the police takes over the DJ-Set itself. The situation is photographed and the odd pictures has been sent over various mailing lists, not before erasing a crucial detail: The face of the DJ policeman is blacked out. Why? Certainly not in order to be regardful towards the rights over one’s picture, as this would also have to be a gesture extended to the other party guests whose faces are clearly recognisable. What is covered is the ‘mistake in the image’ – which therefore becomes all the more striking. We interpret this black surface as a sign of respect. Respect for the fact that a policeman bends the rules and heats up the party instead of stopping it – whereby he apparently acquires the right of anonymity. But ‘respect’ also for the fact that next time the policed scope of discretion may be used in a very different and less pleasant way. Finally, here the black patch marks the Sovereign who decides on the state of exception.

Talking about police sovereignty first of all means – contrary to the common view and contrary to the self-image of the police – that the police force has in no case only the administrative function of the enforcement of legislation but that it defines justice on itself. Sovereignty thereby articulates itself within the society of spectacle as well as in control over perception. Thus the colourful and seemingly liberalised scene in the picture points up particularly one aspect: what remains visible in the end is what the police allows.

There are three reasons for why we chose to put the image of the police-DJ at the beginning of this text. The first reason is a (textual) strategic one: Sovereign power is exerted situationally and appears from case to case very differently. Hence, a criticism towards police can only be developed situationally based on concrete events: abstract logics of police will only be detected within concrete police practices. The black patch (and this is the second reason) opens up the possibility to make the connection between police and sovereignty visible. Finally the picture directs the view to the fact that questions of police as well raise questions of sensual perception, and that policed exercises of power as well -and precisely- take place in the sphere of gazes and images. Therefore the ‘sensual’ forms of police interest us as we want to setout the area where radical politics of (in)visibility might unfold.

“Low” and “Gentle” Police

From this perspective a wide term of police can be made productive as it was thrown into the debate by French philosopher Jacques Rancière: “The police is thus first an order of bodies […] and that sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and the sayable that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this speech is understood as discourse and another as noise.“[1] In this definition police is not limited to the state apparatus of the same name, but designates all possible forms of power technology operating in the sphere of the sensual that try to determine who in which way can appear where, who speaks what and where, who is visible and who is not perceived at all. In terms of Rancière the “low” police (the police in uniform) is thereby only one specific form of police, maybe something like the rigorous pendant to the almost imperceptibly ‘gentle’ police, that sensually orders the everyday for example by means of architectural strategies placing emphasis on consumer appeals rather than truncheons.


Surveillance plays a central role for the present dispositif of the police – regardless of the specificities of gentle, everyday-invisible or low, uniformed police. Playing no small part, strategies of surveillance determine the current police “order of the visible and sayable”. The growing relevance of surveillance technology can specifically be observed in the sphere of the low police, whose competences and possibilities for action have been considerably expanded in recent years. In the context of ‘police protection’ for protest marches and demonstrations the range of new surveillance strategies is striking: mobile surveillance vehicles broadcasting images live to police headquarters or helicopters equipped with infrared and thermal imaging cameras, and of course masses of police units with DV- and still cameras instructed to document and preserve potential evidences. The police of the German county of Saxony even managed the acquisition of a small pilotless surveillance airplane – a mixture of a toy helicopter and a flying saucer that should help the police to literally keep the overview.

While police forces often deploy masks and very nervously react towards cameras pointed at them, massive actions are taken against disguised or even only supposedly disguised attendees of protest manifestations on the street: Even a pair of sunglasses or a scarf can be confiscated in briefcase inspections. The entrainment of extra clothes can be assessed as an attempt of “identification camouflage”, which can cause to be taken in custody.

Massive surveillance on the one hand and the strict assertion of the ban of face coverings on the other hand belong together. Surveillance is first of all an attempt of broad visualisation: Visualisation of space (omnipresent monitoring of urban everyday life can be seen as an effort to represent the urban throng of people as a manageable performance on the monitors of the CCTV-Units) as well as visualisation of individuals within an anonymous crowd. Individualising visualisation is the precondition of police reaction: the more detailed and sharp-edged the picture of a situation is (the more data is collected, the more knowledge is accumulated), the easier it is to react on future developments and the present situation – at least this is what the logic of the police tells us (reality inevitably shows that this ideal of police control has to fail regularly).

But the basic idea behind surveillance and power technologies does not lie in enabling a ‘subsequent’ reaction. The threat of police reaction causes the preventive (obliging) effect of surveillance. Again citing Rancière the police has the task to give everyone “a name and a place“. Surveillance precisely is the pre-condition for (and as well the threat of) giving every participant of a street protest manifestation a face as well as a name. It is the threat that everything that happens is seen – that everything will be recorded[2], and that the crowd from where one could act is turned into an accumulation of individual faces, that everyone has to anticipate to be identified and to be called to account. This has nothing to do with documentation but rather with preventive detention of a picture of oneself. Next to the threat with the truncheon steps the threat with the camera. According to the logics of the police it is this threat that makes people conform themselves a priori, calling themselves to order and silence before the police must do this. In this way surveillance as well adds authority to the societal imperative of selfmanagement.

Specifically concerning the regulation of consumption the ‘gentle’ police uses surveillance technologies, too. For example – as Harun Farocki shows in his film Die Schöpfer der Einkaufswelten – observation cameras are used in the entrance area of shopping malls to make the customers eye movements visible in order to find out which advertisements at which places gain attention[3]. Based on this data the space within the mall should be designed efficiently. Also strategies like Data-Mining (e.g. with “Payback”-cards) serve to gain a huge quantity of knowledge on consumer behaviour in order to navigate and regulate on this basis. These forms of (consumer) monitoring are less about ‘self policing’ (as outlined in the context of low police) but rather about the sensual constitution of real and virtual spaces animating propensities to buy. This doesn’t mean that inconspicuous everyday surveillance wouldn’t hope for the effect of preventive self-control: Monitoring cameras at public squares, in stores and subway stations function according to this principle of the threat of police reaction, internalising the observation and becoming self surveillance.

Sovereign Police

The current expansion of competences and capacities of the low police (e.g. by new legislations in the field of ‘homeland security’) points out that the diffusions of everyday life with gentle techniques of power obviously don’t succeed in maintaining a police order on its own. Rancière formulates: it is the weakness and not the strength of this order that in certain states causes the swelling of the low police until all functions of police are assigned to it. […] The police officer is thereby doomed to become a consultant and an entertainer, as well as an agent of public order”[4]. Thus this “weakness” of the police is a central expression of specifically bourgeois sovereignty. Giorgio Agamben emphasises that “the Sovereign” is the one “who decides on the state of exception”[5]. The low police holds precisely this competence of temporarily invalidating a legal system. So what defines the police in uniform on the street is its situational sovereignty. At the same time it doesn’t only make use of surveillance (as we have shown). Threatening with brute violence[6] the low police is instructed to implement the legal order also by means outside of this order. Thereby Agamben speaks of the “investiture of the sovereign to the police officer”. In these situations the uniformed police leaves it’s administrative function (executive authority) and begins to judge in it’s situational area of discretion. Thus low police is a living evidence for a basic contradiction of the bourgeois promise of liberty: 1. Bourgeois legal order is based on the separation of powers, 2. Police as being part of the executive power (besides the judiciary and the legislative authority) is indispensable for the maintenance of the bourgeois legal order, 3. In order to function police depends on the mixture of authorities – 1., 2. and 3. contradict each other inevitably. Thus the present discourse on the expansion of police competences and accordant damages of liberties provides the potential to return the basicly unfree character of the sovereign police and bourgeois society in general to mind.

Politics of (In-)Visibility

The outlined police strategies evoke the question with which means the order of the sensual and visible can be opposed. Or asked differently: how is it possible to make politics under these conditions? Rancière connects politics to a break with the order of the sensual and the visible, the dissensus: “The dissensus is the insertion of an actuality into a sphere of sensual experience that is incompatible and runs counter to it”[7]. Politics take place in the rare moments in which something irreconcilable is done, typically commented on by the police in public space with: “Move along. There is nothing to see”. Gilles Deleuze’s answer to the question of what possible forms of resistance and delinquency there are in societies of control goes in a similar direction: ”The most important thing might be to produce in-between spaces of non-communication, disturbing interruptions in order to escape control”. It’s not about opposing the reigning order of the visible with an alternative order, but about politics as a moment of disruption and a form of negation that doesn’t simply impose ones opinion, but that decomposes reigning ways of perception turning the “noise” of the redundant, excluded and unqualified into an unignorable voice. Thus (in)visibility not only means to make oneself invisible (though this would surely be appropriate under the objectives of the monitoring cameras) but also to produce forms of visibility that are not easily identifiable and disperse the categories of an established order. How such a rupture could look is not programmatically definable and has to be developed for and in a concrete situation. This moment will be political when it succeeds in suspending the police division between noise and speech, the ‘worth seeing’ and the invisible and therefore showing that a police order is never total, natural or permanently fixed.

Maybe the most urgent strategy will be to oppose the police colonisation of our everyday life with protective forms of organisation. The capacity to make politics necessitates the preservation of oneself from the assaults of sovereignty with strategies that enable one to confront the police without being identified. The expansion of identification strategies of the police thereby never makes politics impossible but will always cause its radicalisation.

Lars Schmid and Jeronimo Voss, 2008

This text was developed in the postprocessings of a discussion event on the “Criticism towards the Police” of the group demopunk & friends.

[1] Jacques Rancière: Das Unvernehmen. Frankfurt am Main 2002, p. 41.

[2] Cp.: Pauleit, Winfried: Video Surveillance and Postmodern Subjects: The effects of the Photographesomenon – An Image-form in the „Futur antérieur“. In: Levin, Thomas Y. / Frohne, Ursula / Weibel, Peter (Hrsg.): CTRL SPACE –

Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother. Karlsruhe 2002, p. 460-479.

[3] Die Schöpfer der Einkaufswelten, directed by: Harun Farocki, Germany 2001.

[4] Jacques Rancière: Das Unvernehmen. Frankfurt am Main 2002, p. 40.

[5] Cp. G. Agamben: Ausnahmezustand. 2004, p. 7.

[6] “It is factual, that the police – contrary to the common perspective that sees in it a mere administrative function of enforcement of legislation – maybe is that position that most obviously exposes the closeness, even the constitutive permutation, of violence and legislation, which defines the fgure of the sovereign.” Giorgio Agamben: Souveräne Polizei, in: Ders.: Mittel zum Zweck. Noten zur Politik, Freiburg/Berlin 2001, p. 99-102, here p. 99.

[7] Jacques Rancière: Konsens, Dissens, Gewalt. in: Gewalt. Strukturen, Formen, Repräsentationen, ed. Dabag, M. / A. Kapust / B. Waldenfels, (München, 2000), p. 101.

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