Varieties of ‘the political’

Scan 130330022-6I gave a research seminar at Exeter last week, talking through an argument I have been knocking around for a while about how to draw on certain strains of political theory in order to clarify what cities might have to do with democracy. It’s actually quite difficult to set about this task at the moment without bumping into some version of an argument about the post-democratic city and the apparently post-political contemporary condition. But I did my best to do so, and for the most part succeeded.

I remain rather puzzled by just how much airtime the ‘post-political’ story has gotten, even if only as a reference point around which people interested in issues like contestation and democracy feel the need to orient themselves (in that sense, it surely qualifies as having a hegemonic status in more lefty varieties of human geography). There is something patently absurd about a frame of analysis, however wrapped around with citations and quotes from retro-style master philosophers, which predetermines in advance that all sorts of interesting looking political phenomena are not, in fact, properly political at all – because they seem not to conform to a risibly constricted definition of what the properly political should look like. There is more than a touch of Humpty-Dumpty in the way that the ‘post-political’ has come to be conceptualised in geography and urban studies and related fields.

The topic of the post-political did come up after the talk, in the Q&A and over coffee afterwards, and this set me to thinking, on the way home mainly, about the trajectory taken by ideas about ‘the political’ since I can first remember coming across them (I can remember reading Nancy Fraser write about this notion, and its importance to certain strands of French poststructuralism, when I started out as a graduate student, in her collection Unruly Practices; then in Simon Critchley’s book on The Ethics of Deconstruction, via the collections of Lefort’s writing published by Polity around that time). The first time you read about the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’, I suspect, in whatever form, it is an arresting idea. It can open up new avenues of inquiry. But as versions of this distinction have diffused through Theory-land, so it has become a progressively more simplistic theme.

In its ‘hegemonic’ form, the concept of ‘the political’ has become associated with a relentlessly dualistic style of thinking – one that offsets contestation against consensus, disruption against stability, openness against closure.  Guess which side of each pair counts as being ‘properly’ political? Surely it shouldn’t be quite so difficult to imagine politics as involving, ‘properly’, a range of relationships between questioning, challenging, acting, deciding, enmity, friendship, compromise, brokering, deal-making, principle, antagonism, hypocrisy, and the like.

I think you can identify three broad variants of the politics/political distinction circulating in Theory-land, some of which might be more dominant in some fields in some times than the others (the three-fold distinction is a bit rough and ready, but hey, this is a blogpost remember, it’s not a refereed academic journal article).

Picture 0241). First, most recently, there is the currently very loud variant which takes the form of diagnosing pretty much anything and everything as ‘post-political’ – via selective invocations of Zizek, Badiou, sometimes Ranciere, perhaps Mouffe, and never mind all the conflations involved. Perhaps also via a nod in the direction of some more or less antiquarian philosophical authority, Spinoza perhaps, or Aristotle (Marx has a famous line about Aristotle not being able to quite grasp the secret of the relation between human labour, equality, and value because he lived in a society founded on slavery. It seems to me the same thought might apply equally well to the question of just how far one should extend unquestioned authority to thinkers whose notions of, say, democracy were formulated before, for example, women were enfranchised).

This is the variant of ‘the political’ under which the politics of climate change, or of human rights, or of multiculturalism all turn out to be, yes, you guessed it, not properly political at all. As menacing to the properly political, as really oriented to closing down the properly political – because in some way apparently too concerned with compromise, coalition building, negotiation, bargaining, or other grubby practices very often thought to epitomise politics, for good or ill. Occupy, and notions of the Commons, would also seem to qualify as tending towards the post-political. The analysis of the post-political serves as an adjunct to discourses of ‘hegemonic neoliberalism’, and shares in some of the same problems – not least the tendency to over-estimate the degree to which the success of political programmes must depend on some degree of ideological trickery at the level of ‘subjectivization’.

As I have said, the defining feature of this variant is the claim that there is one, single, dare one say essential, sense of ‘the political’, which is proper (not necessarily real, but certainly proper). There is a common enough conflation of proper politics with proper democracy in this style of work, although the stronger inflection is one which just makes the properly political a smart way of saying ‘revolution’ – a notion which, if you think about, might not be terribly political itself, just a way of wishing for short cuts.

In discussions of the post-political, one finds the culmination of one strong tendency lying behind a range of conceptualisations of ‘the political’ – a more or less explicit reassertion of the primacy of philosophical reason over the impudence of social science, and/or over those more modest concepts of philosophical practice that presume that philosophy stands alongside rather than over and above other fields of inquiry. (In this respect, the latest round of strongly philosophically grounded arguments about the post-political stand in interesting contrast to the drift in other strains of non-‘Continental’ political theory and political philosophy to want to draw closer to empirical fields of political inquiry, in say the recent work of Raymond Geuss or Jeremy Waldron).

Methodologically, the analysis of our post-political condition depends on a weird slippage – when one finds an example of partisan political action making use of consensual rhetoric, or of a political action culminating in a decision being made in the favour of some interests rather than others, or at the expense of others, then what you have found, it turns out, is not politics being done at all, but the end of politics, the closing down of the properly political. One would have thought that it’s not that difficult to recognise that politics is a game that turns on different ways of relating the partisan and the common, the partial and the universal, the specific and the general, at the level of rhetoric and action; dare one say it, even the consensual and the a(nta)gonistic (that’s what compromise, bargaining, deal-making are after all). One might also think that the literature on the politics/the political distinction has some interesting ways of understanding the dynamics of those relations. One would have thought, too, that the fact that some people end up being better at politics than others – that it’s a game of winners and losers – could be understood as an important part of the game, worthy of some analytical attention, and not just interpreted as being an effort to end of the game.

Scan 130260009-152). The analysis of post-political conditions is a simplistic rendition of one tendency within a broader range of discussions of ‘the political’. In this broader tradition, out of which the post-political is distilled, you can find all sorts of versions of the distinction between politics and the political at work, presented in a variety of relations: ones of ontological depth, ones of constitutive outsides and closures, ones of imaginary constitutions. It would be worth considering just how ‘local’ this range of literature is, across its variety – it is shaped by a distinctively late-twentieth century response to mid-century historical events, mediated by a culturally specific discourse of totalitarianism.

There is no doubt plenty of scope here for the dualistic default which leads to the diagnosis of post-political conditions, but I suspect if read ‘properly’, oops, then what remains of value in work worrying away at the relation between politics and the political in a more or less ontological, more or less phenomenological lineage, is the sense of a non-reductive relationship between the ontic and the ontological, or perhaps the actual and virtual. The ‘retreat of the political’ was never just about the retreat of proper politics, after all. The problem may be the temptations offered by the conceptual spatialisations of constitutive outsides and distributions of the sensible – all to easily lending themselves as they do to an application to stylized social facts in which the aim is to hunt down closures and exclusions and expulsions and repressions, always ready to re-energise the properly political if given half the chance.

In this variant of ‘the political’, it would seem to me that the lesson is that a particular formation of ordinary politics could always be thought of as an expression of some possible variety of ‘the political’; or perhaps as disclosing some hitherto unimagined possibility of ‘the political’. And there is no reason to suppose that these manifestations necessarily close off or exclude potentials. Why should we conceptualise politics or the political according to this economy of scarcity, after all?

The difference in interpretation I am suggesting here is something like the difference between a straightforward notion of something being lost in the translation of a text, and a more ‘Benjaminian’ notion of translation being the medium in which translat-ability is disclosed as the very life of the text. By which I mean, first, that there is nothing proper about the political or politics; and second, that in trying to think about politics and change, it might be better to look ahead rather than constantly look backwards.

DS air monitoring Settler's Engen3. My sense of there being a third variant of the concept of ‘the political’ is meant to gesture at a less canonical understanding – it might still have some theoretical ummph behind it, with reference to Pierre Rosanvallon for example; or Habermas even, or Latour, or Foucault, or other thinkers who less obviously belong to the canon of thinking that underwrites discussions of the political and the post-political (or sit less easily in it at least). Whether or not one can authorise this third variant of thinking about ‘the political’ by reference to appropriate thinkers, it actually seems to me to be the only interesting thing one can do with the politics/’the political’ distinction once you have read about it for the second, third or fourth time. This variant of ‘the political’ is a more resolutely genealogical understanding, departing more fully from the recurrent tendency to model discussions of the political on some more or less sophisticated understanding of ontological difference. Here, all that the concept of the political does, and all that the implied distinction that it opens up helps with, is to point you in the direction of looking at the hand-in-hand mutations of the forms and contents of politics. Of course, you still need some working notion of what counts as politics and/or political do this, but there is no reason to suppose our working definitions have to pick out a depth of ontological solidity of some sort, however fluid and wobbly those depths might turn out to be, or alight on some ahistorical notion of the properly political act. I’m not sure a genealogy of politics, or of anything faintly political, could possibly get under way if you thought that there was something proper to politics and the political. It would be a kind of contradiction in terms.

DSCF2192So I guess this all leaves me thinking about why the genealogical interpretation of what is, after all, a fairly simple idea (that what shows up as political in one context might not show up in others, that political issues are framed differently in different situations, that new issues and new understandings of politics can emerge, and that these boundaries are where some, not all, political action takes place), why the genealogical interpretation seems not to resonate more strongly. And why, even when it does, it easily falls back onto judgments about closures and exclusions. This might have something to do with the imperative of ‘The politics of …’ in contemporary Theory-land – the demand that each and every analysis have a political point to it. The analysis of post-political trajectories seems to be perfect for this sort of task – it lends itself easily to the challenge of having not only to describe and explain social events, but to pass judgment on them too, by providing a ready-made template for identifying closures and exclusions, naturalisations and orderings, norms enforced or norms evaded (which is, of course, what a norm is, one way or the other).

The judgement of things being or trending to the ‘post-political’ allows you to have your normative cake without having to pay the normative price: by suggesting that it is proper politics per se that is menaced, you don’t really have to go into great detail about whether particular patterns of decision or inaction are justified or not. You just need to invoke a vague, unspecified sense of proper politics as being all about contestation and questioning, perhaps calling this democracy too. This normative duplicity works not least through the persistent spatialisation of political concepts in this strain of work, allied to the ‘scarcity’-based interpretation of concept of ‘the political’. But think about it for just a moment: decisions, to take one favoured example, don’t exclude, or close things off. They are particular types of action that take place in time, and things go on after they are taken, in more or less anticipated directions. In short, diagnoses of the ‘post-political’ this-or-that have no meaningful sense of political time.

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2 thoughts on “Varieties of ‘the political’

  1. Pingback: Clive Barnett on varieties of ‘the political’ | Sam Kinsley

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