life insurance & death command

This narrative essay, “Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrors”, was initially drafted in 2006 as an entry for the Australian Book Review’s Calibre Prize. It was subsequently revised and published in full length with notes in Borderlands, 7(1), May 2008, and a slightly abridged version in Meanjin Quarterly, 67(4), in December 2008.


Often during that week I would go downstairs and stand at the entrance to call friends and family on my mobile phone. I watched the hospital helicopter warming up, then lifting and turning over the car park, the blades of its rotors thrumming a deep martial beat through the air. I thought of the Chinooks and Apaches flying the Sunni triangle in Iraq, ferrying troops around in the daily hunt for insurgents ….

I pondered a some lines I knew from Hedley Bull’s great text on international relations, The Anarchical Society: ‘First, all societies seek to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm. Second, all societies seek to ensure that promises, once made, will be kept, or that agreements, once undertaken, will be carried out. Third, all societies pursue the goal of ensuring that the possession of things will remain stable to some degree, and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit.’

I thought about how the West’s leaders insisted this war was necessary to make us secure. I wondered at Bull’s calm certitude.

All societies seek to ensure that life will be secure. That promises will be kept.

I thought about stability. About limits. About challenges without limit.

The helicopter shook and shifted on the pad as it slowly warmed up. Cars drove slowly around to the hospital doors, stopped and released patients, then moved on. An ambulance stood outside the entrance to Emergency. People made calls and smoked cigarettes.

I wondered if the life I marvelled at and treasured, and the machinery that made it possible, came at a price. If so, who is paying it? Could the living here and the dying there be connected? And would this too have a price?

I wondered at the subtle caveat in Bull’s statement: in some measure secure.

Later, sometime after we’d come home, I read an almost throwaway line in one of Michel Foucault’s lectures: ‘the coexistence in our political structures of large destructive mechanisms and institutions oriented towards the care of individual life is something puzzling and needs some investigation…life insurance is connected with a death command.’

1 Comment

  1. […] about such processes in Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence and (in narrative essay form) in “Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrors”. Here I revisit the themes in the service of building a critical cosmopolitanism and a distinctive […]

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