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.

Affect theory: the debate continues (sort of)

William Connolly’s response to Ruth Leys’ critique of affect theory is in the latest issue of Critical Inquiry, and Leys has a follow-up comment. Connolly’s response is rather weak – he basically re-asserts the outlines of his theory of neuro-mediated affective priming of subjects, including the half second delay story, and dodges the primary issue raised by Leys’ original critique – which is to do with the status ascribed to certain sorts of scientific claims, and the forms of reasoning about action and practice that these authority claims are typically used to support.

The evasion of this central issue is revealed not least in the stylistic tic that distinguishes Connolly’s theoretical exegesis – he tends to ‘join’ or ‘endorse’ the position of various theorists – James, Whitehead, Spinoza, the usual suspects – which of course he presents as basically in alignment with his own position. There is a kind of argumentative closure effected in this form of exposition – the views of these thinkers get amalgamated to the current orthodoxy on affect, and the authority of those affectively attuned ontologies get bolstered by this authoritative reference at the same time. (The same issue of Critical Inquiry also has an interesting looking critique of Badiou’s use of set theory as a foundation for ontology, which raises the same issues of external authority-claims in social theory).

There is also an interesting piece on Connolly’s theory of subjectification in the new issue of Theory and Event, more sympathetic on the face of it but also quite critical in terms of the reading of neuroscience (not to say the peculiar fixation on film theory). And a few weeks ago, Benedikt Korf pointed me in the direction of Roger Cooter’s interesting critical work on neuroethics, recommended by Felicity Callard, who is currently working at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin on projects related to ‘critical neuroscience’ and cultural constructions of the brain. This latter type of work takes a genealogical approach to developments in biosciences and neuroscience, rather than extending excessive credulity towards popularised versions of these fields in order to develop new, radical (political) ontologies. The History of Human Sciences had a special issue on these topics last year which is also in this genealogical vein, examining the ways scientific fields are ‘applied’ by providing causal accounts of human behaviour for various fields of practice and policy.

In geography, debates about these issues still seem to be at the level of differences over which theoretical approach is the best one to ‘endorse’. My colleague at the OU, Steve Pile, has had the temerity to endorse a slightly different approach to thinking about affect and emotions to the one currently most in favour in cultural geography (an ever expanding field with ever narrowing intellectual horizons), and to make a few fine distinctions along the way, and has provoked various more or less grumpy responses as a result. A feature of these debates in geography is a continuing hang-up about finding firm grounds for hoping that things could be different – hence the current fascination with various philosophical and scientific accounts of ‘plasticity’ and/or ‘creativity’.

The Leys/Connolly debate (such as it is, given that Connolly’s response is a study in evasion), is then indicative of a broader divide between two styles of cultural theory circulating at the moment – a genealogical style, and a style inclined towards the affirmation of ontological visions. And discussions of affect and neuro-stuff are just one area where this divide shows up these days.

A non-event?

Fascinating interview with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, one of the bright new things of French philosophy, on the Tunisian revolution. He’s very rude about Badiou and Zizek’s pronouncements on all this: ‘It’s obvious that Badiou and Zizek, who reacted very late to the first positive event of historical and global scope of the twenty-first century, know absolutely nothing about the situation’.

Where angels fear to tread: Badiou, Zizek, and les événements

The concept of ‘event’ has become a hot topic in certain strains of cultural and political theory, inflected by the thought of Derrida, Deleuze, Badiou, and others. It’s meant to be a figure for the surprising, unforeseen, ruptural, and, perhaps, the relation of the ‘exciting’ to the more routine, entrained, predictable. It’s also become, in some usages, a smart way of keeping alive a messianic fantasy of political revolution.

It’s been fun, given all the talk of ‘the event’ in theory-land, to see so many of the leading figures of ‘Continental Philosophy’ expound on the political events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East these last two months. Because what is notable is how many of these commentaries manage to find exactly what they want to find in Tunisia, or Egypt, or Libya – even if it’s confirmation of the pure contingency of ‘the event’.

So Alain Badiou has found confirmation of his own version of communism, replete with Orientalist flourishes about ‘Eastern winds’; Hardt and Negri had a nice piece in The Guardian, in which these events were all about the multitude, leaderless movements, and horizonality; Peter Hallward is one amongst a number who are inscribing these events into broader narratives of a revolt against neoliberalism. From a somewhat different position within contemporary Franco-philosophical scene, Andre Glucksmann is less sanguine.

Zizek’s interpretation of the uprising in Egypt is my favourite: “The uprising was universal: it was immediately possible for all of us around the world to identify with it, to recognise what it was about, without any need for cultural analysis of the features of Egyptian society. In contrast to Iran’s Khomeni revolution (where leftists had to smuggle their message into the predominantly Islamist frame), here the frame is clearly that of a universal secular call for freedom and justice, so that the Muslim Brotherhood had to adopt the language of secular demands.” This is a brilliantly self-aggrandizing assertion, one that underwrites the arrogation of interpretative authority to a cadre of bombastic universalists who don’t have to worry about what they do and don’t know about other places!

The projection on these worldly events of current theoretical perspectives has been a feature of lots of the commentary over the last month or so. It’s perhaps most obvious in the ongoing debate about the role of new media like Twitter in triggering and spreading political rebellion – where debate has oscillated between those who over-state the importance of new media, and those who dismiss this aspect. Jay Rosen has already analysed the rhetorical positions in these debates, which might be read as one moment in broader contemporary cultural debates about social technologies, wonderfully dissected by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker last week.

Amongst all this reflection, the best commentary I have found has been on the SSRC website, which contra Zizek, has provided lots of well-informed discussion by people who know about the region, including voices actively involved in these struggles (Noel McAfee at Gone Public has also provided useful links to regional voices). A couple of things stand out from these discussions – one is a more careful understanding of the secular qualities of these movements, discussed by Seyla Benhabib and John Boy for example; and the other is the importance of nationalist registers to these movements against authoritarian regimes. In both respects, the know-nothing universalism of Badiou or Zizek is revealed as somewhat limited in its analytical purchase. The best way to learn from these events, the welcome challenge presented in the commentaries by Badiou and Hardt & Negri, is to listen to people who know what they are talking about. That’s always a good way learning something you didn’t already think you knew.