The Two-State Solution: Providence and Catastrophe

Adi Ophir


One of the most significant, incontestable, and relatively ignored aspects of modernity is the new role states play as generators and facilitators of disasters, on the one hand, and as authors — or at least facilitators, sponsors, and coordinators — of survival and relief operations, on the other hand. The relation of the modern state to disaster has played an important role in the emergence of the state as a "totalizing totality" (of spaces, people, groups, associations, and institutions) and in the constitution of its image as a historical subject. This Article argues that state’s relation to disaster and its unfolding consequences has developed in two opposite directions that should be distinguished carefully. In line with these two opposite relations to disaster, I suggest a theoretical distinction between two state formations: a providential state and a catastrophic state. This distinction is based on Agamben’s concept of "bare life," which a sovereign may forsake by declaring an exception but which it may also save by taking extraordinary measures of protection or relief. The Article examines two aspects of the difference between the two state formations. From a formal point of view, it distinguishes and discusses two different notions of sovereignty, its authority, foundation, and legitimacy, along with two different understandings of the subjectivity of the state. These two conceptions involve and are intimately related to two distinct sets of theological presuppositions and two different conceptions of the political. From a chronological point of view, the Article sketches two diverging genealogies that go back to distinct, even if related, moments in the history of the modern West. Recognizing the fact that in certain historical moments these two genealogies were intertwined and that in our time this intertwinement has yielded a rapid process of hybridization, the Article claims that this process is not dialectical, and that the difference between the two genealogies should be maintained for theoretical and political reasons alike.

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