Le dispositif avenir: On the Weaponization of Deconstruction

On April 15, 2013, emergency responders were called to the house of Kevin Harris – twice. At first, paramedics were dispatched because Harris was seen lying on his front lawn. When they arrived, the man refused to go to the hospital and went back into his house. As his shadow slipped into the foil-wrapped walls of his house, the world saw Kevin Harris alive for the last time. The police then were called in response to an explosion at Harris’ house. It was believed that one of his many traps was set off, but it is uncertain if it was an accident or a suicide. Along with this ambiguity, Harris has left us with a lengthy manifesto entitled The Pricker: A True Story of Assassination, Terrorism and High Treason. While many have skimmed this text only to identify Harris as a schizophrenic, it is our current task to meticulously pick through the text as it reveals itself as text. The text, which is, as revealing, also a technical apparatus (dispositif), can only be understood with-in (or with-out) its deconstructive context. 

The Pricker begins with a simple statement: “There are weapons and techniques that kill in ways which appear natural.” Although there are certainly weapons that can kill in natural ways (e.g., a dagger), Harris concerns himself with those weapons that can kill while only appearing to be natural. Immediately, we can align the subject of the manifesto with a basic tenet of deconstruction: “One of the gestures of deconstruction is to not naturalize what isn't natural – to not assume that what is conditioned by history, institutions, or society is natural." The weapon discussed throughout the text is named “the pricker.” As we will see, Harris deconstructs apparently natural symptoms (e.g., cancer) and locates their cause in the victim's contact with the pricker.

What, then, is the pricker? Harris defines it as “an assassin’s weapon that deposits biological agents into a victim’s skin, on contact, without their knowledge.” A long list of diseases and bacteria are associated with the biological agents deployed by the pricker, including AIDS, malaria, yellow fever, African sleeping sickness, rabies, and cancer. What is crucial about the pricker is that it injects these toxins without the “knowledge” of the victim. However, this presents Harris with a problem: if the pricker is so discrete, how does Harris himself know about its existence?

The Pricker is not only the publication of a serious threat to the population. It is also an instruction manual. To provide unequivocal proof of the pricker’s existence, Harris tells us: “You can prove that the pricker exists by building one for yourself.” The only way to verify its existence is by constructing one. Harris is essentially claiming that the only way to construct the pricker is by deconstructing it - as something always already there. Even though the pricker cannot justify itself in its own discourse, its already-there-ness haunts the text. In this way, Harris has much in common with the anthropologist:

In his laboratory, or rather in his studio, the anthropologist too uses this dream [of self-presence], as one weapon or instrument among others... The only weakness of bricolage – but, seen as a weakness is it not irremediable? – is a total inability to justify itself in its own discourse. The already-there-ness of instruments and of concepts cannot be undone or reinvented (Of Grammatology, 138-139).
Image © 2005 Kevin Harris.

Not only is the weapon always already present, but so are the binaries it embodies and relies upon: friend-enemy, poison-antidote, etc. Harris notes that viruses can be “divided” so that they do not become fatal until later combined in the victim. Deconstruction is the act of re-tracing the path of the virus, which has no end (“the virus has no age”). The pricker itself, however, is never found. It is situated in the text as the undiscoverable origin, a sort of transcendental signified. Thus, the victims are conditioned by an epistemological opacity: “Pricker victims never know what killed them.  Properly made and used the pricker is usually not seen, heard or felt.” Like the binary oppositions of Western metaphysics, the pricker is not present in its very presencing.

Yet the pricker relies on partial knowledge of its operation: “The victim can be made intensely aware of their dependence on – and vulnerability to – ‘the system’. Thus they are controlled even as they are killed.” The “system” yet to come (le dispositif avenir), that is, to be acknowledged as such, presents itself by means of some future device (le dispositif avenir). This device is none other than the pricker, which only comes into existence after one has built it. Similarly, the practice of deconstruction is always already operative on texts, but a text can only come to be deconstructed through this personal, singular intervention that resists all iterability. To quote Derrida precisely:

Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology. That said, at the same time I have tried to mark the ways in which, for example, deconstructive questions cannot give rise to methods, that is, to technical procedures that could be repeated from one context to another. In what I write, I think there are also some general rules, some procedures that can be transposed by analogy – this is what is called a teaching, a knowledge, applications – but these rules are taken up in a text which is each time a unique element and which does not let itself be turned totally into a method. In fact, this singularity is not pure, but it exists. It exists moreover independently of the deliberate will of whoever writes. There is finally a signature, which is not the signature one has calculated, which is naturally not the patronymic, which is not the set of stratagems elaborated in order to propose something original or inimitable. But, whether one likes it or not, there is an effect of the idiom for the other.1

For his part, Harris cannot accept the legitimacy of any text that has not been established in its singularity through his own personal encounter with it: “I have learned personally that regardless of what kind of incriminating evidence is found, there is no one to report it to. No newspaper would publish it, and no broadcaster would broadcast it, even in California. For example, my proof of the existence of the pricker is absolute.”

One can never be sure which text may issue a call to arms. Like the phone calls that straddle Harris’ death, the text can announce itself (in the form of an explosion, for example) or it can quietly listen. Harris notes just this: “Modern telephones have good, sensitive microphones, suitable for room monitoring.” The phone plays a magical role in The Pricker. Almost more powerful than the pricker itself, the phone acts predominantly as a receiver rather than a transmitter. At one point, Harris remarks that some of the government’s secret technologies can only be explained to the public through reference to “alien magic.” There is no doubt that Harris believes the phone to be an apparatus utilized for magical transmissions. Yet these transmissions are always postponed and delayed until the future. One must first come to realize the call as it takes place as calling before anything can be returned. The phone is a device for future use, a future device, un dispositif avenir. Harris comments on receiving confirmation of successful transmissions of The Pricker through the phone: “Although she was a Muslim her funeral was held at the church of, and attended by, the only person in New York City to whom I had confirmed delivery of The Pricker by reading out loud over the telephone.” You are even encouraged to utilize a phone to check if you have indeed received your authentic copy of the text: “It is easier to monitor and tamper with e-mail, so you may want to read a sample of this document out loud over the telephone if you want to assess its arrival, as sent.”

At the end of the manifesto, Harris invites the reader to his house, but warns that it would be dangerous:

I am at 3152 Bermuda Dr., Costa Mesa, CA, USA.  You can tell it’s me because I am the only one who can get into my house.  I think it may be dangerous for you to come to my house alone.  My only reader to come alone lives nearby, and so, would have been hard to identify as a visitor.

This circular logic that both invites and disinvites the reader is characteristic of any text. The reader is both pulled in by the signifiers and repelled by the signifieds, as if to say, “Come see what I have to say, I will tell you what to say.” In a similar way, deconstruction fluctuates between opposing terms to reveal their irreducible difference, while at the same time revealing how the terms penetrate and envelop each other. Harris says that his only visitor (“my only reader to come”) is also “hard to identify as a visitor.” Enigmatically, Harris decides to sign, shortly after this aporetic passage, his name under “your neighbor.” While this may just be a formality brought about by the fact that Harris was distributing The Pricker around his neighborhood, it begs of a deeper reading considering the passage above. Harris positions himself as the neighbor, the Other with the closest proximity to the Self. The neighbor both demands identification and requires ambiguity. One is only able to “love thy neighbor” insofar as one leaves the neighbor in peace to live out her own autonomous existence. Thus, this love is always alienated, made distant and (perhaps) magical, as if it took place entirely over the phone.

Harris, by signing off as a neighbor, requests this distance, while at the same time inviting us to discover the dangers of his home. He invites and disinvites the reader and opens and closes the text simultaneously. The Pricker teaches the reader about a weapon while constructing that weapon. More profoundly, it weaves the reader into a text that has already begun deconstructing itself, only to examine the weaponization not of the pricker, but of deconstruction itself. Harris lets us in on a secret that Derrida had already tried expressing:

One might then be inclined to reach this conclusion: deconstruction is not an operation that supervenes afterwards, from the outside, one fine day. It is always already at work in the work. Since the destructive force of Deconstruction is always already contained within the very architecture of the work, all one would finally have to do to be able to deconstruct, given this always already, is to do memory work (Memoires for Paul De Man, 73).

Likewise, with the pricker (and The Pricker), all the reader would have to do is “memory work.” The work of memory (like that of mourning) would be simply the task of recalling what has come to be. The present is always already the future of some previous time. In Harris’ case, our socio-political paradigm is characterized by the (de)construction of the pricker, which is always a device to come (le dispositif avenir) since its realization in the future depends on its tracing to the past.

If you are uncertain about the veracity of the claims made here, simply read this text over the phone and await confirmation.