“The barrel itself was rotten:” The Sovereign State in “Zeitoun”

On Tuesday 6th September 2005, as the city of New Orleans lay submerged in water, state forces incarcerated Abdulrahman Zeitoun on the speculation of his participation in a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda. Through Zeitoun’s detention, the culmination of a systematic attack perpetrated by the sovereign, Eggers exposes the fragility of liberty under the Bush administration.

Credit: AP Photo/Dallas Morning News/Smiley N. Pool via CBSnews

As mentioned, Zeitoun’s incarceration is not his first altercation with the sovereign. Indeed, this battle began on his entry into the United States. Foucault helpfully explains this through his definition of biopower: a system that subjects life “to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137). He elaborates, in Society must be defended, that biopolitics divides homo-sapiens into sub-groups (57). The sovereign’s power is then distributed among the sub-group for the purpose of capitalist fulfilment. Eggers showcases this through the construction of camp greyhound, a Guantanamo Bay-like prison. Whereby, the state utilised able-bodied prisoners from Dixon Correctional Institute to construct a make-shift encampment.

The process of attributing value through capitalist modes of usefulness results in mass disposability; in other words, biopolitics redefines “waste” as humans who cannot produce or consume goods (Giroux 308): the elderly, sick, poor, and the disenfranchised. This discriminatory political structure condemns migrant and racial groups to economic stagnation through thinly veiled policies, such as racial pay gaps and underfunding. Thus, limiting the possibility for production and consumption. So, while residents of New Orleans were…begging for rescue,” it is unsurprising thatthe portable toilets were available and working at camp greyhound,” and not at the makeshift shelter for displaced citizens, the Superdome. (Eggers 321)


Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.
Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.

For decades, biopower has been covertly implemented in the United States. Lee Atwater, the Campaign Strategist for Former President Ronald Regan, stated, in 1981:

you start out by saying “Nigger, Nigger, Nigger”. By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites” (New York Times, para.4).


Credit: Rick Wilking/ Reuters/ Corbis via Huffington Post.

Eggers shows, and Atwater reminds us, that existing biopolitical structures have a discriminatory core. Through biopower the sovereign imprisons its citizens in a catch-22. Economic sanctions lead to widespread poverty, faltering education, and crumbling infrastructure. These sanctions, consequently, reduce the sub-groupings value and lead to their disposability. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than New Orleans’ “Cancer Alley” (Pastor 21): A macabre nickname denoting impoverished residential areas “built on landfills containing arsenic, lead, mercury, barium, and carcinogens.” (Eggers 176). 


The success of Zeitoun’s business shows that escape from economic incarceration is possible. However, the arrival of Katrina sets the stage for a different imprisonment, a literal one. The cataclysmic impact of Hurricane Katrina forces New Orleans into the “state of exception’: A temporal existence where all previously established political and legal norms become obsolete. Such ruptures in the rule of law hold a special significance for Zeitoun, a Syrian born Muslim, as an exodus from the ‘state of exception’ lies in the sovereign’s distinction between the friend and the enemy (Schmitt 26). Violently extending Foucault’s sub-grouping, Schmitt’s enemy does not need to be “personally hated” (29) but must reside outside societal norms. The association of the enemy and abstract notions of otherness makes the distinction prejudicial. When coupled with the sovereign’s natural right to kill the enemy (46), minority groups are placed on death row.  

During Zeitoun’s imprisonment he feels shame in the naivety which facilitated his belief in the existence of legal accountability within state forces (73). Through this harrowing realisation, Eggers forces the reader to acknowledge a bitter truth; one where the sovereign can at any moment, providing there is a catalyst, dispose of all systems of checks and balances in the military, police force, and legal sphere. 

Credit: Illustration by Brad Holland via The New Yorker

Notably, Giorgio Agamben posits that the Concentration camps of the second World War symbolise the complete manifestation of the sovereign’s powers. They are “the place in which the most absolute conditio inhumana ever to appear on earth was realised(cited in Membé, 12). This is due to their role in transitioning the “state of exception” from a limited existence into permanence. Within the modern state, Guantanamo Bay, the “legal Black Hole” (Steyn 1), undertakes a similar role. By operating outside of the rule of law for a sustained period, Guantanamo Bay has transfigured the “state of exception”, for Muslim Americans, into the norm. Eggers exposes this situation and reveals Katrina to be a mere tool used to justify the extension of sovereign dictatorship onto American soil. As such, Zeitoun’s imprisonment says “quite clearly, that this wasn’t a case of a bad apple or two in the barrel. The barrel itself was rotten” (315).

Klein coins the term “disaster apartheid’ (53) to refer to biopolitical death. She is specifically referring to economic sanctions however, to appropriate this term, I have extended it to encompass the violent, reactionary sub-grouping of the enemy, and the “complete and unchecked power [of the sovereign] to keep [Zeitoun and Nassar] detained and hidden indefinitely” (Eggers 263). In a moment of true clarity for the reader, Zeitoun recalls a conversation, long before Katrina, when Kathy half-jokingly lamented their family becoming “collateral damage in a war that had no discernible fronts, no real shape, and no rules” (262). Here, Kathy is ignorant of the biopolitcal forces working against her, but not of the “War on Terror” which, for her, symbolises Muslim American Oppression. Kathy’s uncomfortable laughter juxtaposes and sombrely highlights the aforementioned “Disaster Apartheid” already underway.

So long as the sovereign’s powers are conflated with disposability, liberty abdicates her place in the American Constitution. If American citizens wish to reclaim liberty, the scope of the sovereign’s powers must be constrained. 


Works Cited:

Eggers, Dave. Zeitoun. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Foucault, Michel. The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Translated by Robert Hurly. New York: Picador, 1998.

Foucault, Michel. Society Must be Defended: Lectures at the College De France 1975-76. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Giroux, Henry, A. “Violence, Katrina, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.” Theory Culture Society, vol 24, no 7-8, 2007, pp. 305-309.

Klein, Naomi. “Disaster Capitalism: The New Politics of Catastrophe.” Harper’s. 2007 http://www.phirossophy.com/uploads/1/4/1/2/14122264/disaster_capitalism.pdf  Web. Accessed. 29 October 2018.

Mbembé, Achille. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, vol 15, no 1, 2003, pp.11-40.

Pastor, Manuel, et al. “Environment, Disaster, and Race after Katrina.” Race, Poverty, and the Environment, vol 13, no 1, 2006, pp.21-26.

Rosenthal, Andrew. ‘Lee Atwater’s “Southern Strategy” Interview.” New York Times. 14 November 2012. Web. Accessed 28 October 2018.  https://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/lee-atwaters-southern-strategy-interview/

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Translated by Harvey Lomax. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996.

Steyn, Johan. “Guantanamo Bay: The Legal Black Hole.” International and Comparative Law Quarterly, vol 53, no1, 2003, pp. 1-15.


3 thoughts on ““The barrel itself was rotten:” The Sovereign State in “Zeitoun”

  1. Hi Lauren,

    This was a really interesting read!

    I really appreciated how you were able to focus so much on secondary research, and yet still speak so clearly about its implications for the text.

    How do you respond, in light of this research, to the individuals that the Zeitouns confront at the end of the text? Do you think that these individuals, as pawns of ‘the state’, should in some way be given the benefit of the doubt and forgiven? Or do you think they should be held responsible, as individuals, for the atrocities that they imposed on others in the aftermath of the hurricane, whether under orders or not?

    It’s interesting to consider how certain overarching agendas can be subconsciously adopted by those who would otherwise and ordinarily consider themselves as ‘good people’.



    1. Hi Amy,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s a difficult question, but an interesting one. I think, from a theoretical standpoint, it would be more effective to deconstruct and subvert the underlying bio-political structures. As you’ve mentioned in your comment, individuals are simply “pawns” of the state. Therefore, holding the individual to account fails to address the root of the problem. That being the policies which facilitated the actions in the novel, such as the creation of Camp Greyhound. The theoretical suggests that justice lies in unmasking the prejudices laid down by the state. Insofar are these prejudices are recognised, it holds that they can be altered towards a more equitable threshold.

      This is, of course, very theoretical, and I question how well academic theory can be applied to reality.


  2. Hi Lauren, great blog post.

    I really enjoyed your summary of ‘big’ concepts like the State of Exception, ‘bare life’ and Foucauldian discourses of power. Whilst these are undoubtedly at play in the novel as you have shown, I feel that Egger’s style and third person narrative infantilises some of the key points that he wished to make. The sovereignty of the US regime seems a largely forgettable aspect when placed in the context of Katrina’s gravity as a natural disaster (exacerbated by the somewhat excessive foreboding Eggers used to heighten its unexpected devastation). In this regard, I am not certain that lay readers would have appreciated the novel’s theoretical manifestations or indeed, depictions of corrupt US institutions, to the extent which you have (helpfully) explicated.

    My question then, is whether you think the mediation of Zeitoun’s story through Eggers has ruined what could otherwise have been a powerful indictment of the corruption of US authorities? In particular, I take issue with the final lines: ‘This has been the pattern of his life: ludicrous dreams followed by hours and days and years of work and then a reality surpassing his wildest hopes and expectations. And so why should this be any different?’ (325) The cynic in me suggests this may be a ploy to appeal to a wider audience, through incorporating some semblance of a ‘happy ending.’ I wonder, if Zeitoun had written his own biography, would we be left with a greater sense of his suffering and of the bio-political determinism of migrant living in the US?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.


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