Politics and democracy

Recently, La Fabrique éditions asked a series of fashionable authors to comment on the sense of the word “democracy” and whether the word should today be abandoned. The collection (Démocratie, dans quel état?) is prefaced by invoking, as a provocation, the spirit of La Révolution surréaliste.*

*Posing the question in this way is only possible in Europe where the notion of “democracy” was both early and late to arrive. For this reason, none of the authors make the mistake predominant among their Anglo-American counterparts in political theory of assuming that the word “democracy” designates a particular type of constitution or state-form, which is axiomatic (in a non-technical sense) for so-called “democratic theory”. The very (odd and ultimately disastrous) distinction between political theory and political philosophy is another symptom of the confusion of the Anglophone discourse on democracy, which is yet another problem entirely than the confusion addressed by the Fabrique volume and deserves separate polemical treatment. The internal discourse of political theory itself cannot refuse to address its nebulous status as neither political science nor political philosophy (the “neither” here in the pejorative sense of being “inadequate”). The particularly banal treatment of the “return of democracy” on Obama’s election should be proof enough of this. Under the auspices of a naïve empiricism, democratic theory has ceased to understand what is at stake (dare we say, “metaphysically”?) in the very notion of “representation” which is not merely an epistemological nor even a metaphysical question that can be separated from its meaning as a political term (for Negri and Foucault, “representation” is an ontological question; for Badiou it is logical; for Deleuze it is both; etc). At best, “representation” becomes a procedural term for democratic theory and, consequently, is beholden to a problematic positivist methodology. Or, to put it another way, what calls itself “democratic theory” proceeds by assuming that there are democratic subjects—who are/not represented, who behave as political agents in ways that can be charted (“rational actors”), etc—who are constituted by “the citizen” considered as a purely legalistic entity, which leads us into an ultimately futile debate in legalism that ends in the sham proceduralism of so-called “legal process” in America or hermeneutics by another name. It is also noteworthy along these lines that Habermas—who is praised by the advocates of legalism—is not among the authors collected in the Fabrique volume.

 The provocation of La Révolution surréaliste is not its overtly communistic program but rather in its professed allegiance to the “principle” of historical materialism, i.e., in Breton’s words, the “sovereignty of thought”. The question, in its most brutal form, is simply: what is the relation of thought to politics? Obviously, “thought” is not taken here in the abstract sense of so-called “rational choice theory” or even in the metaphysical sense of a res cogitans. But if thought is to be taken in its substantive or concrete sense, then the question is not how to relate thought to politics insofar as the conditions for thought are always already political. But to say this is still too abstract, since the liberal democrat would affirm the same thing: the end of politics is to establish the form but not the material of association (i.e., the “human being”).

Rather, the question at hand is a Nietzschean question: what are the conditions under which thought is possible? This is, essentially, what Badiou posits in his reading of the Republic (in the Fabrique volume) in what he identifies as two fundamental theses:

1. The democratic world is not really a world.

2. The democratic subject is not constituted with respect to its pleasure [jouissance]. [My translations; “pleasure” is preferable to “enjoyment” here insofar as Badiou is responding to the usual treatment of hedonism in Plato.]

The first of these is readily recognizable as an extension of Logiques des Mondes. The second is (and this is now my reading of Badiou’s reading of Plato) an intervention in the question of political education—that there are not political subjects but that we must become political subjects. The democrat tries to claim the transparency of the political subject (particularly to itself!) problematically both as the condition and the result of political education. But if there is anything we can learn from the democratic impulse it is just that the very site of politics is the disjunction between thought and its transparency.

This, it seems to me, is one step in avoiding two tendencies in continental political philosophy: 1) to reduce politics to democracy tout court (e.g., democracy is always deferred, impossible, etc);** 2) to reduce politics to the operations of the state or, conversely, 3) to reduce politics to the attempt to insert some distance between the subject and the state.  Rather, I submit, politics is nothing other than the continuous construction of the state. The simultaneous separation of subject and state is what, following Abensour, might be called metapolitics.

**One possible exception to this charge is Lefort.

At Twilight

“Have you seen the stars?” she asked, “Have you ever seen the stars? But what is it you think you have seen? That one there—has ceased to exist since before you were born. And that one there shall never return your admiration. But they have not been flung away by the ambitions of your mortality or your science. Their distance is irreducible not only by the stretching of space (always outside of us) but because they can never be—or at least are no longer—the objects of sense, unlike even the naked existence of the rocks and pinecones beneath your feet, indifferent to the passage of time, to the conditions of your origin, to generation and destruction. They are those of which we cannot say there is—neither figments of your imagination nor simply seen. They are experienced only in inner space … as your companions.”

When we turned to ask how this could be so, she had ceased to speak and was no longer there.


For better or for worse, Agamben has been known best to his Anglophone readers as an astute commentator and genealogist of modern politics. The cardinal merit of the first volume of Homo Sacer was to have seen that Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty was a logical or structural principle and that sovereignty was not simply the (ontological or psychological) “monopolization of force”. Then, like a spark shooting from the embers of a crackling fire, comes the latest installment of the Homo Sacer series (Il Regno e la Gloria), which provides us with a much fuller account of the topography of the theologico-political discourse of modernity. Presented at least in part as an intervention in the conceptual encounters between Schmitt and Peterson—of which American readers have generally only been privy to one side via the second volume of Schmitt’s Political Theology—Aristotle and Paul (the book is worth reading if only on the Pauline obsolescence of the Aristotelian oikos/polis distinction), Aristotle against the Latin Aristotelians, and the old problem of the two swords (nominated here as “ruling” and “governing”), Agamben shows us how—through what is more than simply what he calls a “parallelism” between the hierarchy of the angels and the administration of the state—“glory” is not simply the metaphysical or even epistemological principle it has been to the medievalists but an intrinsically political concept (the only other political theorist who comes to mind who has given us a similar genealogy is Voegelin): i.e., in slightly different terms, that the onto-theological determination of being and beings is precisely the politics of the administered state. The political question, which unites these volumes of Homo Sacer, that Agamben has attempted to answer only in his philosophical and poetic writings on potentiality and negativity is, simply: how is it possible to separate, rigorously, power not only from the state but from the process of subjectification? Of what would such a power consist?

Poetry and poiesis

0. In a key text (Symp 205c), we learn that poiesis refers to any “creating from nothing”, although we tend to reserve the word for a certain kind of creating. It is not easy to know how to read this passage, especially given its context as an analogy with eros and the text that follows (are we really to consider romantic lovers the “proper” form of love?). But neither should we empty the word of all content into a general ontology of “poetic creation” such that poetry becomes simply identified with nature.

1. Paz: the poet of words. Another mistake is to identify the poet with the craftsman whose “material” is words, as if the poet simply found words ready-made and whose task was simply to juxtapose and combine them in experimental and unusual ways. Neither (as suggested above) should we consider the poet the demiurgic creator of forms (again, whose material is words), since this begs the question of how it is that the poet is able to communicate.

While I speak, / things imperceptibly / shake loose from themselves, / escaping toward other forms, / other names. / They leave me these words: / with them I talk to you. // Words are bridges. / And they are traps, jails, wells. / I talk to you: you do not hear me. / I don’t talk with you: I talk with a word. / That word is you …

These lines from A Tree Within—which contains, among other things, a masterful reading of the Symposium—contain what all modernists at least since Mallarmé have wanted to achieve, i.e., poetry that, while reflecting on itself, remains for all that still poetry.

The world a bundle of your images. [from Blanco]

We always already live in images; we are ourselves, of course, images. The poet does not merely need to create images but, more than simply “defamiliarizing” them, creates words themselves. This is not a claim about language “as such” (e.g., that language is “originally” poetic, metaphoric, etc); rather, we will never be able to think the relation between poetry and discourse as long as we continue to suffer the illusion that there is a Form of words. We do not make this mistake concerning the objects of our everyday experience—that the morphological identity of two bookshelves from Ikea means that there is really only one bookshelf from Ikea. That the words expressed by the poet resemble the words we use in speech and discourse should not lead us to assume that they are the same words.

The poet does not “reveal” anything—we know that a poem does not reveal the poet’s “intentions”, but neither does a poem reveal a “worldview” or an “ideology” or, worse, a “philosophy”. Neither does the poet “communicate” to us; it is we, not the poet, who fall under a task, i.e., the construction of sense from the poet’s words. The great poet is the one who offers us words that we have never before heard and, strictly speaking, will never hear again, for the task of “understanding” a poem is not discursive but, dare we say, “poetic”. We are not merely shown the world “anew” but the great poem is the one that constructs a new world—this constitutes a task precisely insofar as we are to understand this world not as the interiority of a vague feeling or even a “moment of shock” but as the very materiality of the poem (which does not, of course, refer to ink, paper, or the health and biography of the poet). In short: how does the poem (re)distribute our affects? What effects does it have? (Perhaps, however, this is too reductive…)

2. Zagajewski: the poet of melancholy. For us, at the end of a negative century, what Zagajewski calls to mind is the awareness that we live under the sign of a massive temporal suspension such that we are unable either to anticipate the future:

Music heard with you / was more than music / and the blood that flowed through our arteries was more than blood / and the joy we felt / was genuine / and if there is anyone to thank, / I thank him now, / before it grows too late / and too quiet. [“Music Heard”]

nor our origin:

And what was your childhood like? a weary / reporter asks near the end. / There was no childhood, only black crows / and tramcars starved for electricity. [from “No Childhood”]

Both past and future are in danger of slipping away. The future, we fear, will be lost to the excesses of our own ambitions—to the persistent degradation of culture, to the destruction of the biosphere, and so on. But even if, as Baudelaire had said, modernity is an endless series of losses, it is not a “break” from the past or the name of an irrecoverable trauma (the “second Fall”, etc). What has been lost is not an innocence that “should have been” but what we—here, now—have never known. We begin already in the midst of what has been lost; we are not to blame yet we are, of course, the ones responsible:

I’ll never know them, / those outmoded figures / —the same as we are, / yet completely different. / My imagination works to unlock / the mystery of their being, / it can’t wait for the release / of memory’s secret archives. // … // And I think that when I too / do my teaching / they gaze in turn at me, // revising my mutterings, / correcting my mistakes // with the calm assurance of the dead. [from “Genealogy”]

It is not only the world but we ourselves who are thus constructed by melancholy. The question that remains, then, is quite simply: who shall we have been?

Three (more) questions

1. Has any age ever known how to be timely? Have we ever been fit for our age or does our history always flee from its own consciousness? A “false historical consciousness” can take many forms; many of these result from either the confusion or conflation of natural and calendrical time—that the calendar is more or less a representation of natural time (the turning of the seasons, the revolution of the Earth, the phases of the moon, etc). Millennial thinking, as various historians have shown, is not the result of calendrical time but the reverse: the very notion of the calendar is grounded in millennialism.

Millennialism presupposes that we are never modern—we are never fit for our time because “the time is near”. But is not what has gone under the sign of modernity (which is often confused with post-modernity) in contemporary discourse, i.e., that claims that “our time has come” (the third age, the end of history, etc), not simply another (bad faith) iteration of this same schema? A secular redemption is still teleological. Or, alternatively, we are still not timely because there is no longer any time—we see this in the chronology of museum pieces, in the homogeneity of sense presupposed in scholarly citation and commentary, in the ideology of federal holidays, in globalization (where, incidentally, we can witness the extraordinary reduction of time to space), in the paroxysm of the avant-garde, in both the vulgar forms of relativism that masquerade as post-modernism as well as the post-modernism of pastiche (Jameson) and enjoyment (Zizek).

Nevertheless, to be timely does not mean a self-congratulatory imprisonment within certain “conceptual schemes” or necessarily any other variety of horizonal hermeneutics. To be timely, as Nietzsche understood better, perhaps, than any of his successors, means not to have a historical consciousness but a historical unconsciousness (Cioran demonstrates the malady of a historical consciousness unable to forget: the name he gives to his malady is “despair”). The task of a historical unconsciousness is not the constitution of sense but, rather, in the division of sense. In short, what Zupancic has called the figure of the Two in Nietzsche with respect to the psyche must be extended to history.

2. What is the task of criticism? At the risk of positing an “essence” of philosophy—which would give philosophy the unity of a discipline—at least since the time of Plato the task of philosophy has been critical.*

*This is not the best word, particularly since we cannot ignore its Kantian and Hegelian meaning; but neither can we say “political” since that word too is contaminated either by the Straussians (who claim that philosophy is inherently political) or by naïve conceptions of that in which “politics” consists.

We need not aver to the usual ethical readings of Platonic criticism to make the claim that philosophy is intrinsically critical (in Plato’s language, anything else is sophistry). Neither need we pay disingenuous homage to the usual banalities about Socratic irony or ignorance (Socrates is wisest on account of knowledge of his ignorance; the philosopher is the lover and not the possessor of wisdom, etc), which usually miss the point of the prefix phil- entirely (usually by confusing philia with eros and, additionally, confusing eros with lack). Neither, finally, need we appeal to the counter-ethical claim (for example, of Adorno or Mannheim) that the critical imperative is historical.

There are several ways we might express the critical imperative of (double genitive) philosophy. In metaphysics it is the non-identity of thought and being (what I have suggested might instead be called the ‘chiasm’ of thought and being); alternatively we might look to the material conditions of thought, the historical conditions of experience, or the topology of subjectification. (These are, incidentally, more perspicuous ways of talking about what in contemporary continental philosophy goes under the name of “difference”, which has the unfortunate tendency to succumb to questions about the “priority” of difference over identity and so on.) The task of philosophy is not to identify itself as criticism (under the name of “critical theory”, etc) but, rather, to perform this criticism. Critical philosophy cannot, without reneging its imperative, proclaim its intention to be critical (hence the question is no longer one of “praxis”) if for no other reason than that in doing so, i.e., in providing logoi of criticism, we presuppose the unity (correspondence, correlation) of thought and being.

Criticism is an imperative precisely because it cannot ground itself in an account of itself, i.e., a logos (which is not, however, to oppose language to a “feeling”). The critical imperative is not discursive nor, strictly speaking, practical (in the Kantian senses); the critical imperative is what might be called “affective”, which criticism has always been at the least. Even in common usage, what motivates the critic is a certain experience that by definition cannot merely be interior—judgment is always public (aesthetics has always recognized this since Baumgarten and Kant). For Hegel and Kierkegaard, criticism was thus not merely aesthetic but ethical. For the Marxists, criticism has, by extension, always been economic and/or political. These are, of course, external divisions of affectivity—i.e., the non-coincidence of self and other or of self to self, in short, the splitting of sense and non-sense. The fundamental question of criticism is how to handle this split—either to deny it tout court (first-order logic), to subordinate non-sense to sense, or to tarry at the limit of sense (what goes under the name of “experimentation”, the event, undecidability, etc).

3. What remains for phenomenology? From phenomenology to ontology: Phenomenology has never been what its Anglo- and psychological readers have thought it is—i.e., a first-person discourse. We should not be surprised, then, that the problem of appearances could not be settled without an account of the divisions within appearances not merely in their modes but in their logic (Husserl the mathematician was well aware of this problem from the 1920s on, quite independent of the encounter with Heidegger and well before the usual identification of the “turn” in the 1930s).

From ontology to …: To what? to history, to life, to science, to the unconscious, to givenness, and so on, whether through mathematics, structuralism, etc. In any case, the question remains: what is left for phenomenology as such, particularly insofar as it gets recalled amidst these other discourses as an appeal to “conscious experience” (has there been anything else that phenomenology has not been)? Of what value is phenomenology to us as a method if its concerns have thrown us outside of consciousness (and not just phenomenology but insofar as the technical world continues to encroach on the interiority of consciousness—even a discourse on consciousness can no longer rely on the reduction)? Without method, do we still have the right to use the name “phenomenology”? Is phenomenology the only available discourse on consciousness (even presupposing that such a discourse still carries purchase), or is phenomenology still guilty of wedding consciousness to a certain (viz., transcendental) conception of subjectivity?