Weakness and possibility (variations on a theme)

1. In Bloch’s inversion of Hegel’s critique of Kant, he asserts that freedom is not only realized in the material community of individuals but in the positive idea of politics. The utopian “suprahistorical” idea of freedom is not real but ideal in the sense of the world-to-come in the action of political subjects. Freedom is thus not in history but, rather, the positive end of historical subjects’ conscious activity. It is against the background of such utopianism that Benjamin invokes the necessity of messianic redemption or, more precisely, the notion of history as the anticipation of the Messiah. Only the Messiah “completes” history, not through justification but by forgiveness, i.e., by disrupting history with a new order of time “beyond all remembering or forgetting”.

Here Benjamin explicitly follows Lotze’s suspicions of the grand style of world-historical thinking (or “universal history”) that leaves invisibility (including that of women) and stupidity in its wake. What good is a blessing in which we cannot participate, Lotze asks, when our toil is for the benefit of those who come after (always after)? Humanity does not, he says, “consists in a general type-character which is repeated in all individuals” and “the existence of a vast spiritual proletariat, which there seems no possibility of removing, is an objection which the idea of history as the education of mankind must find it hard [indeed impossible] to overcome” (Microcosmos 7.2,; Benjamin quotes several passages around this text repeatedly in the Passagenwerk). The logic of history, Lotze says, leaves it bereft of any moral exigency, for what can be imperative to those whose fate is outshone by the glory of the enlightened?

Precisely because they have been forgotten by history, Benjamin says, the moment of their recognizability has passed. The task of the critic is to expose the discontinuities and contradictions through which we might infer the “barely missed” opportunities from what history has forgotten, whether through its blindness or its mendacity. The past becomes visible not only objectively in the traces of time but also subjectively in the awareness of what is missing, viz., in the “secret agreement between past generations and the present one” that we shall be the gate through which the Messiah passes. On the one hand, we must wait; yet the work of anticipation is not mere complacency since the “weak messianic power” of redemption is only a possibility. Jewish messianism refuses to bind the individual into the corpus mysticum of universal history but at the same time also rails against the vanity of injustice. Anticipation begins in remembrance because it is through the dialectical image that we recognize the discontinuity between past and present, i.e., that there was a certain moment in the past when the present became possible and, since there can be no resurrection or redemption of the past, we must look for the traces of the future that will remain after our time has been shattered.

2a. Modernity begins the moment creation is recognized as infinite decomposition. “We are dying from the moment we are born”, so the cliché goes and only an essential fatigue could have precipitated the fall into time. Eternal happiness, it turns out, is unbearable if only because it is interminably boring.*

*Boredom, Heidegger says, is the Grundstimmung of modernity and the necessary condition for the metaphysics of Da-sein in which being is revealed as time itself. As Goodstein argues, however, in what is perhaps still the best treatment of boredom as a modern phenomenon, what gets presented existentially in Heidegger is irreducibly cultural and historical.

But our consciousness of this fall makes it impossible to desire eternal happiness (again) without thereby perversely desiring our present wretchedness. The truly religious desire is not for paradise but patience:

“When you have seen a corruption in every conviction and in every attachment a profanation, you no longer have the right to expect, on earth or elsewhere, a fate modified by hope. You must choose some ideal, absurdly solitary promontory, or a farcical star refractory to all constellations. Irresponsible out of melancholy, your life has flouted its moments; now, life is the piety of duration, the feeling of a dancing eternity, time transcending itself, and vies with the sun. . . .” (Cioran)

Consciousness is caught between the impossibility of a justified life as much as it is by a justified death (as Cioran reminds us, while the thought of suicide is fundamental to consciousness, for example, it is contradicted by the act). Happiness denies justification to every suffering as much as the converse. To make suffering the end of consciousness, however, is not an act of strength, since, lest we fall victim to the most vicious ressentiment, we must also realize that, ultimately, suffering offers neither vengeance nor remuneration.

2b. Is this not the lesson of Christian generosity, i.e., that weakness is the precondition for actual generosity (Lk 6:30)? Abundance and surplus preclude generosity, because it is neither generous to give what one does not need nor to be freed from the appearance of necessity (on the other hand, infirmity of character also excludes generosity since it is not “generous” merely to be taken advantage of). This is Marion’s point, for example, in his recent argument against the notion of sacrifice as destruction. The gift, he argues, “is accomplished in an unconditioned immanence, which not only owes nothing to exchange, but dissolves its conditions of possibility”. His point here is similar to Caputo’s notion of the “weak force” of creation, i.e., that an actual creation ex nihilo cannot be a gift since nothing is “given up”. But while Caputo resists the image of the causal—and ultimately pantheistic—God that imbues existence with goodness, equally we must resist the God from whom “significance and promise” follow; instead, in a slight turn of phrase, the event offers only a “promise of significance”. Weak theology names the transcendental, however, only by renouncing the claims of justice.

On the other hand, for Derrida, the true transcendental is nothing other than democracy and why messianism is structural and not religious (as he explicitly claims in Specters of Marx). Democratic anarchy must necessarily resist the ideology of hope or any passage from existence to goodness. “If I happen to have written that [democracy] “remains” to come, this remaining [restance] … pending [en souffrance], withdraws from its ontological dependence. It does not constitute the modification of an “is,” of an ontological copula marking the present of essence or existence, indeed of substantial or subjective substance” (Rogues, cf. “The Supplement of the Copula”). If we must wait, we seek not the good but the possibility of what, at present, has been made desperate and even unthinkable.

3. If the fundamental insight of contemporary (critical) hermeneutics is that being is nothing other than language and, consequently, that mediation is everywhere and the structure of the real is in itself dialogical (and thus historical), it follows that language, the beautiful, and the good are co-constitutive and that there is a convertibility between truth and rhetoric. Vattimo has argued this point most directly through the collapse of ontology into hermeneutics. If, then, it is not Da-sein but simply being itself that is disclosure,*** “the ‘objects’ toward which the verwindend and andenkend attitude of post-metaphysical thought turns itself are not exclusively the messages of the past. Metaphysics is not only transmitted to us in the contents of the Geisteswissenschaften, in the humanistic heritage of our culture; it is ‘realized’ in the Gestell, the scientific-technological organization of the modern world”. The task of thought, then, is to interpret the real as this organization and structure. Just as there is no seeing without seeing-as (Wittgenstein), all being is adverbial.

***Just as information theory posits that the fundamental nature of reality is the transfer of information, the hermeneutic-semiotic equivalent here is simply to say that to be is at least to be a sign.

Nihilism then has a positive destiny for Vattimo not only in the destruction of the highest values (Nietzsche) but in the narrative construction of communal existence. But this existence has neither ground nor justification in anything other than the possibility of its coming-to-be in persuasion (which, of course, need not be exclusively discursive). The destiny of humanity consists in nothing other than the re-definition of what it means to be human as the principal task of interpretation. Instead of deploying a voracious will-to-truth as scientific victory, hermeneutic thought posits the possibility of truth neither as given nor to be found either objectively or in the confidence of an inner certitude but, rather, in a world that we, together, might one day actually affirm in good conscience.


On perjury and consequences

1a. “Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Adorno wrote at the start of one of the most remarkable texts of early critical theory. How is it possible, he asks, from* the false world of a “damaged life”, to speak truth? Similarly, Aristotle had asked a similar question with a similar answer: is it possible to be virtuous in a wicked society when the moral habits require both subjective and objective conditions of possibility.

*The English translation of the title is extremely infelicitous here. The reflections are, yes, on damaged life but they are at the same time from or out of it [aus dem beschädigten Leben].

But perhaps the most remarkable trope of our present state is the Christian notion of original sin. The interesting aspect of original sin is not its hereditary nature. As Calvin points out in the Institutes, for example, “… Augustine, though he frequently calls it the sin of another, the more clearly to indicate its transmission to us by propagation [against the Pelagians], yet, at the same time, also asserts it properly belongs to each individual” (emphasis added); not only, moreover, to each person but to every creature, groaning under the weight of a burden it neither chose nor incurred (Rom 8:20,4). The unchosen responsibility for a guilt that defines our very mode of existence—and our fate—is the task that we can no longer ignore under the auspices of Enlightenment naivety.

1b. What the Enlightenment finds so unpalatable about original sin is its apparent fatalism. Similarly, Adorno and Weber are often dismissed for their unremitting pessimism: is there not good in this world, after all? Should we not affirm, as a certain bumper sticker proclaims, “life is good” or that we should “look on the bright side”?**

**I was once asked by a student why critical theorists and modern (avant-garde) artists were so “depressing” and why they couldn’t just take a moment to see the beauty in the world.

The scandal of the modern world is that what appears as good necessarily makes the suffering at its root invisible. Benjamin had famously remarked that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism and, as common wisdom goes, that history is written by the victors. The present situation is worse, however, than even he had imagined: it is reality itself that is created by those with the power to do so. Should we not celebrate the fact that we now have access to exotic grains from around the world at Whole Foods when the very fact that we are importing quinoa from Bolivia is raising prices so natives who depend on the crop for food can themselves no longer afford it and are being driven into malnutrition while obesity continues to rise in America? How many factory workers have to die or be poisoned, underage teenagers exploited, or rare minerals mined in war-torn countries to produce our “unlimited” iPads and e-readers? By how much do we mortgage future generations so we can drive on average thirty miles a day? Or while everyone was worrying about emissions and thought they were being green by buying nice electric cars, no one noticed that the environmental damage in the production of those cars is (or has been) more harmful than that of conventional cars (or that the original electric car batteries were more toxic to dispose of than nuclear waste).

Benjamin’s concern was that the conditions for the existence of evil would be forgotten and that the critic’s task was to rescue the missed and forgotten possibilities in the laughter of those who were now dead at the hands of a history that must march forward. As Arendt has shown, however, we are already too late: evil is now banal. Banality is the brother of irony: what the ironist accepts as unavoidable the other simply doesn’t notice because it is taken for granted: a radio announcer can just assume that women want to lose weight, for example, and proceed to offer special deals “for the ladies” or the culture industry can continue to feed off audiences’ demand for the ornaments of affirmative culture while works like the Thälmann Variations—written to offer hope for the future of the people—remain unpublished and unavailable.

The optimism of the 90s when this ideology of “the good life” found its final expression is no longer tenable. Neoliberals and conservatives alike continue to promise that the very conditions that not only caused the financial collapse and its continuing global repercussions remain the status quo but also that they continue to blind us to the lie behind the notion that “life is good”.

2a. Justice demands not only action but the tenacity to refuse the ideology of hope: that what was once an honest attempt has proven itself to be among the most catastrophic failures of recorded history. In one of the most reasonable things Zizek has said in recent years, “perhaps it is time to step back, think and say the right thing”; to do so, however, we must first render visible what the ideology of “the good life” denies existence. To borrow a Heideggerean sentence: what most calls for thinking is the fact that, despite everything, we are (still) not thinking. Justice must wield not only the sword but also the scales.

2b. And this is the present task of thought, which is imposed not only from the objective conditions of existence but from within thought itself. In short, this is the Kantian point of no return: there is no metaphilosophy. The material and social conditions for thought are either subject to philosophical method (which concern the possibility for thought as such) or there is something transcendent to philosophy. To put it perversely, il n’y a pas hors de l’histoire.

A Danaan offering

To the surprise of liberals and conservatives alike, one of the most caustic opponents of the left came to the defense of Ellen DeGeneres against a small (but disproportionately vocal) conservative group that had called not only for a boycott of J.C. Penny but for the termination of the company’s partnership with her. But the left’s embrace of O’Reilly’s defense fails to notice that despite appearances O’Reilly remains no friend and that the grounds for his defense are contrary to many of the basic principles of liberal criticism. (I see this fact as symptomatic of the left’s tendency toward consensus and coalition as the only available options when the only political motivator available to it is the ethics of consequentialism.) Lest the left fall into the same incoherence in its ideology as the right—O’Reilly’s comments are actually, admirably, a directly rigorous consequence of this incoherence—we should pause to wonder how this unlikely alliance is forming (let’s not forget what happened at Yalta).

Notice that, like Paul, nowhere did O’Reilly say “it’s not a bad thing to be gay” or “it’s not ok for you to think being gay is a bad choice”. In fact, his exact words were, addressing the conservative group, “you don’t believe the message that they’re sending by hiring Ellen is a good message, more power to you. That is your decision and your right as an American”. It is on this point that the far right and the neoliberals are indistinguishable but also precisely where they must be obliged to differ the most: every viewpoint is equally legitimate and the right of a private citizen is to do whatever she wishes from her beliefs. As a private citizen, so the claim goes, my belief that being gay is synonymous with pedophilia is perfectly justified and I am free to be as bigoted as I want. It is in this respect that the left has confused tolerance with relativism: considered properly, there is simply no paradox to the problem of “not tolerating intolerance”. The left must have the courage to say that bigotry is simply not a right.

But O’Reilly’s point, of course, was not that individuals should have the right to think whatever they want. Nor is it clear that such a position is immune from a tacit acceptance of bigotry (when Paul was forced, for example, to acknowledge that the government cannot make a priori distinctions about domestic life and yet refuses to use the bathroom in a gay family’s house, one wonders just how enlightened he really is). His essential point was that J.C. Penny is not obliged to “fire a spokesperson who has done nothing legally wrong” (emphasis added). This is the curious point, for he continued to draw parallels to the McCarthy hearings. Here is the fundamental incoherence: like others on the right, O’Reilly is necessarily committed to a rigorous distinction between the ethical and the political. I might think being gay is sinful but I am legally obliged not to discriminate against you, provided that my state has legal protections against such discrimination. But the now standard objection to the McCarthy hearings is that the relevant priority is the good over state sanction (or, simply, just because something is legal does not make it good, which is just a variation of the Euthyphro problem). As I have argued elsewhere, the neoliberal and libertarian distinction between the ethical and the political, if held rigorously, is ultimately untenable. The left simply reduces to the right if its only argument for why J.C. Penny is not obliged to fire DeGeneres for being gay is not that there is nothing wrong with being gay but because it is not yet illegal to be gay.

The ghost of liberal criticism

[This post is embarrassingly sketchy and so I reserve the right to retract anything I’ve said stupidly or otherwise in haste later.]

The essence of criticism—and, consequently, the site of its most common abuse—is the refusal of the given. Previously I have accused the right of succumbing to two simultaneous yet contradictory tendencies: either the attempt to deny the future by returning to the past (generally in the form of a nostalgia for a past that has never really existed—e.g., to the intentions and designs of the Founders—or for motives about which we should be extremely suspicious) or simply the indeterminate negation or destruction of the present (and since nature abhors a vacuum, this position often reduces to the first). These fail the task of criticism since, in both case, the given is never genuinely refused but simply reaffirmed (this is simply the definition of conservatism).

In this respect, the left—and here I always mean the North American left—has never understood how difficult its task is (and why there is no genuine oppositional politics in the US). Since the New Left,* liberals have foundered in their attempt to articulate a viable critical vocabulary in mainstream political discourse (if we are to believe the caricatures from the right, the only serious candidate here is academic postmodernism).

*This is, incidentally, one of only two points about Rand was correct: in her attacks on the New Left she accused the left of intellectual bankruptcy. One finds it hard to protest.

What should be even more astonishing given the present and unmistakable failures of the right’s ideology is the left’s inability to mobilize effective modes of critique against those failures such that they appear to all not as failures of principle but merely of practice. In this regard, I have previously argued that the left’s insistence on ironic criticism is worse than ineffective but actively detrimental to the capacity for critical resistance to real injustice. The other popular mode of leftist criticism for which we must find a better alternative—which we see exemplified, for example, in the left’s current analysis of libertarianism under Paul—is brute consequentialism that, at best, runs dangerously close to reducing to the problem of indeterminate negation adduced earlier or, at worst, indicates a lack of courage either to articulate or simply to have political principles.**

**I leave aside naïve relativism in all its forms from vulgar postmodernism to a debased form of “liberal toleration” as beneath the dignity of criticism.

In this sense, the left’s fear of fascism—i.e., the suspicion that the implementation of a political program must be inherently utopian—has deprived it of the resources to combat the actual fascism of its opponents. An actual democratic politics is not a competition between rival political programs or interests: it is the construction of the idea of the state itself (as I have argued elsewhere, the state is less an institution or a structure than the continuous process of structuration). In a way, such a notion of democracy deconstructs the lexicon of politics (left/right, etc) available to us. To use these familiar terms, however, if the tendency of the right is either to abolish the task of criticism or otherwise to render it superfluous, the foremost task of the left is to do what it has spent the last sixty years avoiding: to refuse to play by the rules.

Some recapitulations

1. Life without being (… or nature): Without further clarification, the term “critical vitalism” stands under the threat of implosion. Its integrity is predicated, moreover, on its differentiation not only from the two halves of its contradictory namesake but also from prior attempts at such synthesis, which have tended toward the disaster of culture that we now call “modernism” (e.g., romanticism). The current eco-political crisis demands a philosophy of life (in the objective sense of the genitive) that refuses the supposed relevance of philosophy to life (under the ideology of “lived experience”), the naïve materialism of life as either substance or matter (the object of biochemistry), or the vulgar systematicity of taking as its guiding principle the unity of the “living organism”. We still suffer these errors on account of the tendency to read concepts like the élan vital as a metaphysical principle of (evolutionary) biology with the consequence that life becomes either the movement of differenciation without difference (in Deleuze’s terms) or the abstraction to which we appeal when insisting on what we all have “in common” when we are actually at our most mechanical (when we say, for example, that we all have the same rights because we eat, sleep, and defecate). A critical vitalism requires, like Deleuze and, most recently, Jane Bennett have argued, a conception of difference that is sensitive to the violence of the negative and to a joy that has no need of it. Beneath the vulgar materialism of an illusory “dynamism of force” that struggles for more existence is precisely what Freud had described as the secret will to destruction. What vitalism must reject is both the anti-dialectical posture of a “cycle of life”(predator/prey, life/death) and the militaristic dialectic of production and consumption whose condition and limit is death.

2. Why write? (not for politics): Both French and English criticism have been encumbered by the dogmatic insistence that writing consists in giving material to ideas in language, with the consequence that the writer’s task is literary. The writer whose activity consists of putting words to a page betrays a complicity with at least a certain form of bourgeois idealism that safely ensconces language in words and sentences. Rationality thus consists of discourse and commentary and the critic believes himself effective by the possession of a quick wit, verbal acuity, and the appropriate amount of self-aggrandizing righteousness of character. The writer simply needs to be “committed” to a political task. No such criticism can escape the production of false discourse and the subsequent tendency toward quietism despite any protestations of radical or revolutionary commitment.

(Addendum) 2a. In 1929/30, Benjamin complained that “criticism has to secure its own power by developing a more effective attitude toward the relations of production in the book market. It is well known that far too many books are published. What is worse, a consequence of this is that too few good books appear. And those that have appeared have made too little impact. … The aim here, of course, is not to attack the commercial aspect of publishing … but to appeal to the misguided idealist whose patronage supports dangerous products”. In the eighty years since these lines were written, what Benjamin could not have foreseen was not only the absolute monopolization of textual production by capital but the entirely distinct onto/logical field of digitization and hyper-textualization of new media. As Benjamin points out, what is at stake here is more than simply a critique of the economy of textual production nor even of the dissemination of signifiers that were at one time meaningful within a shared field of intentions. Beyond the degradation of criticism as a mere refinement in taste (subjective judgment) or as political commentary, criticism must fight against the very ideology of discourse that, at one time, it had itself created.

This may seem paradoxical insofar as criticism seems to be precisely that which is excluded from public discourse. Habermas, for example, explicitly exempts “aesthetic criticism” from the modes of discourse available to the rational speaker in the ideal speech situation. Yet this is, of course, merely another symptom of the general collapse of criticism into its current ruins in blogs, syndicated newspaper columns, scholarly commentary, and user comments.

2b. In the comments to an online news article reporting the latest results from experiments performed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the majority of users aligned themselves with one of two positions: either the scientists involved in this project were guilty of an overwhelming “Anything But God” neurosis or of misplacing their priorities for the benefit of “merely theoretical” questions at the expense of pressing “practical” problems such as disease, hunger, and energy. What should be objectionable to the critic is not the defective logic or rationality of these comments but, rather, the philistinism that results from a posture of being “original” that masquerades as the supposed “right” to have and express an opinion (of course, what stands in need of finesse is not the right itself but its value). The very notion of “originality” has been irreversibly transformed into the anti-dialectical inversion of its authentic sense: we say that to be “original” is to be without precedent and to cast aside the bonds of tradition when being the one who has an origin means recognizing that we are not the first to arrive—that my opinion is our opinion. But this “we” is the abstract universality described by Hegel and Heidegger as the immature thought of thinking that does not yet know itself (or, more precisely, that does not yet know that it does not know, according to Socrates): this is the same adolescent reason (which is, incidentally, encouraged by certain sophistic practices of philosophy that promote so-called “general critical thinking skills”) that presumes to pronounce on any discourse with the “view from nowhere”.

Hope and despair

1. The latest version of the series of Netflix radio ads—in which a trivia host asks contestants questions to which the answers have no relation to the clues—opens with the following exchange: “if revenge is a dish best served cold, how is justice served?” The contestant confidently answers: “with a side of fries!” This is a quintessentially American sentiment, recognized even in Iraq when, after the capture of Saddam Hussein, Suleiman Qasab opened a “MaDonalds” in northern Iraq after he failed to get permission from McDonald’s who said at the time that the company did not want to enter Iraq “because there is no democracy”. While it is a common object of satire in popular culture to identify the “spread of democracy” with the proliferation of McDonald’s around the world, it is difficult to imagine that this is in fact quite literally the case, such that what is intended to be parodic is actually the most accurate representation of the truth, especially insofar as we are to take these characterizations as parodic. The semiotics here are astounding. A parody is inherently a second-order structure: the truth of the matter, we say, is that a democratic politics serves the interests of justice, which is subsequently parodied by mapping that sign onto the mythologies and intensions organized by the signifier “McDonald’s”. But when the “truth” of the matter is the actual homonymy of the two levels, the literality of the truth consists not the homonymy but, rather, in the maintenance of the parody as parodic (such that we can still laugh at it). The “truth” of the matter is then nothing other than the fact that the most accurate representation of the truth is the hierarchy of truth and parody that cannot, reflexively, name its own truth lest its own structure collapse. “Democracy” or “justice”, then, fail to rise to the level of the concept but neither is their polysemy focused in something like Marin’s images precisely because it is of a pure neutrality such that it is not possible to produce a space of articulation between the concepts and material perceptions of something like “democracy” (which always fails to appear).

The semiotics of these Netflix ads fails reflexively in yet another sense. The final answer to the series of meaningless questions—which articulates some “truth” about Netflix—is no different than the ones that precede insofar as the relation between the question and the answer consists of an infinite series of significations, particularly insofar as these are causal relations. Whatever terms are featured about Netflix subscription, that these are the case at all is the result of a complex but hidden algorithm of libidinal manipulations (that result, for example, in “personal recommendations”) that implicate the user before s/he has even subscribed merely by virtue of being interpellated by the advertisement at all. And, as we know, it is the inability to have an account of the causal relations to which one is subject that results in the vacillation of hope and despair.

2. If there is despair, it is because the truth can never be made manifest (truth being, of course, more than a judgment). Amidst the pomp and ceremony of the Olympic games, for example, what remains invisible are the material conditions necessary for the glitter and spectacle (which is true not only of the current games, of course): the squalor and poverty only a few blocks from the taxpayer-financed Olympic Village are veneered behind the capital of commercial sponsors and publicity that make the rewards and literally “million-dollar views” possible (in short, the original politicization of the games has been completely usurped by its economization). Truth never appears in our world when, automatically and preemptively translated into the universal language and immaterial flows of capital, the thing itself never appears but always already reticulated into what, after Baudrillard, we might call the “system of objects” according to which the demands of economic necessity colonize the production of meaning in language itself (it is also, incidentally, for precisely this reason that Badiou thinks the study of number is necessary for a critique of capital since “Number is the place of the being qua being, for the manipulable numericality of numbers. Number ek-sists in number[s] as the latency of its being”).

3. Some, however, have persisted in their faith that there is hope because it is always possible to demand “democracy now!”. Both the left and the right agree at least on this: that our task is to honor the founding act of the Fathers either by returning to or finally accomplishing their task. We have the principles, we now have the communicative technology for the dissemination of information necessary for deliberative discourse and “consciousness-raising”; now all we need is a people and a majority.

Both sides, however, can already lay claim to the requisite conditions. When a flight attendant forces a plane to land because a Jewish teenager was praying or a college student is detained and interrogated by the TSA for possession of Arabic flashcards and a book critical of US foreign policy, these actions are condemned by those on the left as “violations of the Constitution” when the real question is whether it is precisely the kind of commitment we currently have to the empty signifier “America” that causes and sanctions such actions.

In a remarkably frank book (Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies), Jodi Dean argues that a truly critical (my word, not hers) politics cannot continue to insist on the name of “democracy”:

“Because the appeal to democracy presuppose democracy is the solution to the problem of democracy, because it incorporates in advance any hope things might be otherwise as already the fundamental democratic promise and provision, it is a dead end for left politics. Entrapped by such an appeal, left and progressive contestation remains suspended between the discourse of the hysteric and the discourse of the university. … Left reliance on democracy thus eschews responsibility not only for current failures … but also for envisioning another politics in the future.”

“America is ready for another revolution!” Palin announced at the Tea Party convention, without realizing that she is calling for nothing but the prolongation of the same revolution glorified in history. And what Palin herself signifies is the futility of an oppositional politics that insists on calling itself either “democratic” or “republican” (in the strict sense of those terms). What could be more representative of the American mythology than the anti-elitist, anti-academic (“we need a commander-in-chief, not a law professor”, she quipped) suburban mom thrust onto the stage? It is precisely for this reason that Stanley Fish praises Palin for the way she presents herself “authentically” with “the voice of small-town America, with its folk wisdom, regional pride, common sense, distrust of rhetoric (itself a rhetorical trope), love of country and instinctive (not doctrinal) piety”. She is, quite literally, the ideal American politician, particularly when “going rogue”, i.e., not being a career or expert politician, means re-claiming the ideology that “anyone can govern” in a democracy.

We know, of course, that Palin’s rhetorical habits are the usual fare of simplifications and ideological drivel that are, however, also characteristic of any other dinner table conversation, which is precisely what she is able to mirror for “the people”—the people who are not law professors, economists, or environmentalists but the ones who simply speak the vernacular: “how’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Is not that question—the most brilliant preemptive maneuver to any oppositional politics the right has mustered in years—precisely the one question both sides are asking—and for exactly the same reasons? The left, however, is at a disadvantage insofar as it can only point to what has not happened (the recession wasn’t worse than it might otherwise have been); where it fails, strategically, is spinning such negative evidence in the way the Bush administration managed to present the “prevention” of a second 9/11.

Palin offers despair disguised as hope, while the left simply continues to hope. But as those such as Pieper and Marcel have noted, to hope is ultimately to be beholden to that over which one is powerless (otherwise, one could not say that it is “hoped for”) and, therefore, whether “the aim of describing and elucidating what is to be hoped for [is] supplanted by a program of practical action, of changing and producing things” (Pieper). This could be asked of either the left (the ones who demand revolution) or the right (the ones suspicious of “grand change”). What a truly oppositional or critical politics requires is not hope but discipline.

The politics of resentment II

The discourse on democratic sovereignty has been rendered unintelligible by a series of false ideologies in the name of which the dereliction of political agency continues to mourn its own downfall. This is particularly the case with the left: even as it rejects the war ideology according to which there is only democracy or tyranny (friend or enemy, us against them), it fails to understand that rather than being the degraded form of monarchy, tyranny is properly the obverse of democracy—tyranny is a democracy that, as Nietzsche said, has lost its will (this too is the lesson of the only passage in Tocqueville that anyone bothers to read).

Liberalism has seemed to function by way of a non-sublatable contradiction: immanent to the operation of politics is a critique of that politics. But this structure maintains itself only objectively, which is to say that what fails to fall under criticism is nothing other than the fact that liberalism is predicated on objective criticism. But the limit of such criticism is its own failure; in other words, what cannot in principle fall under objective criticism is the failure of criticism. This failure manifests, however, as an ideology that masquerades as discourse when, in actuality, we witness the failure of discourse. The anti-dialectical character of liberalism makes it profoundly insensitive to the fact that when democracy fails the answer cannot be “more democracy”. When we insist on playing by the rules, we cannot at the same time object to them as we run to the umpire to cry foul.

The reaction from the left, in the general spirit of the court’s dissenting opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (08-205), has been as incessantly exaggerated and “ominous” as the very language disparaged by the dissenting opinion. The decision spells the “end of democracy” by virtue of “silencing the average American citizen”. Quite apart from whether this might not be a blessing in disguise* or whether our fears have either already or will come to pass, it is not enough for those of us on the left to remain content with broad ideological protestations in the name of the phantasmagoric “average citizen” that, at best, serves as a sign for the real political subject.

*One is hard pressed to justify arguing for the notion that the flight attendant who forced an emergency landing of a plane because she thought a Jewish teenager’s prayer was a terrorist attack is competent to have a share in self-governance.

The decision turned on the question of free speech. Having rejected certain narrower grounds for the specific case of Citizens United, the court found that what was at stake was a constitutional question concerning the restriction of political speech. In essence, the majority opinion upheld two broad precedents: that the government 1) may not impose prior restraint on speech and 2) may not make a priori distinctions among speakers to serve its own interests (whatever they may be, whether we might agree with these interests or not) in the electoral process. On page twenty-four of the majority decision, they assert that “the Government may not … deprive the public of the right and privilege to determine for itself what speech and speakers are worthy of consideration” and that the very notion of speech presupposes that it is the voters who have the final say insofar as it is they who are addressed (see page forty-four). In other words, because what is at stake are limits to independent expenditures as opposed to direct contributions, the court declined to assert the government’s role in ruling the electoral field on the basis of the fact that the function of the latter is to constitute the former. The “undue influence” supposedly wielded by corporations is influence over the electorate.

Of course, the dissenting opinion noted that there are other forms of corruption besides quid pro quo arrangements, but as the majority opinion notes, “that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that those officials are [ipso facto] corrupt”. Aside from corruption, the argument from antidistortion relies on the dual thesis that 1) corporations exert disproportionate influence over natural persons and, therefore, 2) the government has an interest in leveling the field. Regarding (1), the majority opinion holds that this situation is non-unique to corporations and, if upheld, the government would be authorized to ban or regulate speech on grounds of association. This leads, of course, to consequences desirable by neither side: included in this prohibition are the media, the Sierra Club, the ACLU, and so on (see pages twenty and twenty-one of the majority opinion). Neither, the majority continues, does the First Amendment depend on the speaker’s (financial) ability (or lack thereof) to speak.

In response, the dissent argues that corporations are categorically distinct from natural persons (for example, corporations do not vote) and that corporations speak by proxy (page seventy-seven of the dissenting opinion). Even if this distinction holds, we still need to face (2) above.

Which, the majority opinion asks, is the greater evil: the effect of corporate expenditures on the electoral process or the intrusion of the government on free speech? Both sides essentially concede that the question at hand involves the ability of the government to place restrictions on speech (keeping in mind that more is at stake than simply capping the dollar amount on independent expenditures and that regulatory injunctions are functionally a chilling of speech), which it may do only in specific cases of government interest. We return, then, to the question of whether the government can take an interest in the electoral process.

The majority opinion opted for the former option: “courts, too, are bound by the First Amendment” (page nine of the majority opinion) and must refrain from deciding over which means of communication are to be preferred over others and that the rapid changes in technology “counsel against upholding a law that restricts political speech in certain media or by certain speakers” (for example, it is now well-known that the Obama campaign’s mobilization of online resources (e.g., social networking) was important for its victory, and that this is not only a medium that falls outside the monopoly of corporate power but also completely under the same First Amendment protections to which the majority opinion appeals). In other words, it is precisely in the name of constitutional democracy that the government must decline interest in the electoral process, even if its intervention would be in the service of that process.

If, then, it is in the name of constitutional democracy that non-corporations should protest against the power of corporations, it cannot be under the name of constitutional democracy. The left is then faced with two options: the political option is to develop new strategies; the metapolitical option is to re-consider what we think of as a political subject and to cease believing that the political subject is either equivalent or reducible to the natural person. Just as the majority opinion argues that all speakers are economically determined, so too even the natural person is a political subject by virtue of associations and mediations—the objection to corporations is simply non-unique.