Last Sunday saw the forcible removal of a passenger aboard a United Airlines flight who had refused the airline’s offer to take his seat for one of its employees. Putatively a lawful exercise of the airline’s rights, the violent extraction culminated in the (now ‘viral’) scene of a security officer dragging the man down the aisle as if he were an unclaimed cadaver. The dragging of the inert body, later confirmed to be that of a doctor of Vietnamese descent, terrorised the remaining passengers and, belatedly, the remote viewers.
In ‘Two Versions of the Imaginary’ (1951), Maurice Blanchot suggests that the uncanny image of the cadaver terrifies us because of a certain self-resemblance: ‘the lamented dead person begins to resemble himself’ (82). The dead body is not the Ideal Imago behind which the ‘I’ conceals its imperfections, discontinuities, and dependencies. Rather, it is the neutral image of the image that recalls the impersonality of the person: the incessant dying which precedes, haunts, and survives the living. Signifying nothing but the absence of signification, the present absence of the cadaver shatters the fascinating mirror image that purports to guarantee the presence of truth in the world: the fantasy of the civilised human with universal rights.
But as troubling as the encounter with the impersonal might be, this rediscovery of the aperture in the imaginary is also that which draws us out of ourselves. The strangeness of the cadaver, in its infinite distance, issues a demand for a response from the living. What does the other want from me?
Of course, the man was not ‘really’ dead. But in a very ‘real’ sense, he was forcibly sunk into his image: the image of his image, the impersonal image, which is the image of death. And he and others are perpetually at risk of death in its manifold forms: a risk that risks being screened by the idealising juridical myths (‘dignity’, ‘equality’, ‘humanity’) into which we escape, in spite of all the exceptional spaces of law. If it is legally possible for each of us today to be the cadaver dragged across the aisle, what does it say about our law and its founding myths? Is the juridical language of human rights adequate to advance its claims? Is there no ‘outside’ in which to locate an alternative language to perform one’s responsibility for the other?
For those who have asked, these are some of the questions the law and humanities pathway has urged me to ask.