The question is: society defended against whom? Or what?

by Stathis Gourgouris on May 25, 2013

Following my recent work on the possibilities of radical democracy, but most of all, in light of the historical demand posed by the recent phenomenon of assembly movements (Egypt and Tunisia, Greece and Spain, the Occupy movement, etc.), I have been trying to imagine what could be called “Left governmentality” in an age of crisis, which, more than an economic crisis, is a political legitimation crisis for the inherited parameters of sovereignty. To think of left governmentality does not necessitate adherence to the overt Foucauldian resonance, which tends to restrict us in a particular direction. If we wish to involve Foucault at all, this would mean to reconsider in this light his affirmative critical ethos of demanding that society must be defended. The question is: society defended against whom? Or what? In the name of what? All the more so nowadays when sovereignty is waning under an extraordinarily deterritorialised system of so-called “market forces”. The waning of sovereignty makes the question of governmentality sharper than ever, and ever more in need of inventiveness. I proceed here in an episodic form of assertions and queries that require greater elucidation in another context.

1. I have been arguing for the need to move beyond the dominant discourse that sees politics in the rubric of the exception, a line of thinking that begins with the appropriation of Carl Schmitt by leftist thinking, starting in the late 1980s, and extends through the tremendous influence of Giorgio Agamben’s work (and in part Alain Badiou’s) in recent years. Instead, I seek to imagine an “unexceptional politics” – I borrow this term from Emily Apter, who is currently pursuing an elucidation of such admittedly unfashionable terms in political discourse (another one is “the impolitic”). I favor this notion because for me democracy is precisely the regime that does not make exceptions, if we are to take seriously Aristotle’s dictum of a politics where the ruler learns by being ruled, making thus the ruled simultaneously the rulers, in a determinant affirmation of an archē that has no precedent and no uniqueness but is shared by all. No exceptions.  The obvious politics of partiality and discrimination or exclusion in so-called modern democracies testifies to their fraudulent use of the name. Contemporary democratic states are no more than liberal oligarchies.

One consequence of this unacknowledged misnomer has led to a tacit acceptance as fact of Agamben’s celebrated description of today’s political world as a permanent state of exception. Although this is just a rhetorical gesture – for, permanent exception is no longer exception – nonetheless it’s an attempt to generalize the miraculous. In effect, yet again, to theologize politics. I am interested instead in a politics where nothing is miraculous, where indeed nothing is sacred, where there is no Homo Sacer. This would be an unexceptional politics, an untheologized politics. It would have to be necessarily an anarchic politics, as democratic politics is at the core, insofar as archē is unexceptionally shared by all and therefore lapses as a singular principle. Anarchy as a mode of rule – democratic rule par excellence – raises a major challenge to the inherited tradition of sovereignty in modernity.

2. If it is indeed the case that, per Schmitt’s dictum, “the sovereign is he who decides on the exception” then we need to rethink sovereignty. Mere thinking about whether sovereignty is or is not a matter of exception is inadequate. Surely, we are forced to rethink sovereignty in a world where global economic agents, fully deterritorialized and beyond the boundaries of traditionally understood sovereignty, make direct political decisions that determine real territories, the terrains where actual people dwell. The essential sign of the sovereign in societies since the advent of capitalism is not the State (and therefore monarchy and law) but the national economy. The erosion of national economy as prerequisite of national independence is now the case everywhere in the world, no exceptions – another impetus to let go of the discussion of sovereignty as an extension of the monarchical law tradition of imperial Christendom.

In a society fighting against capitalist values – I am not being utopian – sovereignty needs to be located in unexceptional collective political action. Unexceptional because it can only take place every day – not once in so many years at a ballot box ritual – and it must take place by unexceptional people, people who are not in the business of politics.

3. These are the people most targeted by today’s exceptional geopolitical and biopolitical order – the two being in utter entwinement. We seem to reside in a kind of World War I déjà vu. The Great Powers and the great bankers are determining the sphere of politics in numerous societies, independent only in name. This old phenomenon is, of course, now multiplied astronomically in scale and speed. I have been speaking of flash impoverishment, because the speed with which the actual wealth of Greek people, for example, was practically eradicated is unprecedented. At the same time, this geopolitical power play is coupled with biopolitical techniques in ways that have left the prison and the clinic (Foucault) – they have left the “pathological” – and are bearing down squarely on the “normal”, incarcerating thus both one’s norms and one’s pathos in a new regime of daily life, which altogether deprives one of one’s own creation of new norms and pathos.

I have also been speaking of the deregulation of the political in order to dramatize the takeover of direct political power by economic agents. “Deregulation” is a grand misnomer, as it has always been, in the sphere of economics, that is, covert regulation of the market in favor of those who control the regulating mechanisms. So, the usage here is ironic, but still pertinent to the situation. It is important to understand that austerity is not an economic measure but a political tool. And austerity, of course, enacts an exceptional politics. It is all about exempting – separating, taking out of the field of play, taking out of the field of contention – constituencies on both sides of equation: those who profit, or more accurately, those who rob, and those who are robbed. But, on the other hand, austerity is also a politics of rule, where the ruled are exempted, yet again, from their equal right to rule. Here, exception truly confirms the rule – the rule of those who make exceptions as rules.

4. The only response against this overt violence of division and overt depoliticization – for this is what it means to be taken out of the field of contention: to be depoliticized – is the politics that expands the field of contention, the politics of aggravating conflict.  This is the politics that would radicalize democracy to pertain to the self-organization (autonomy) of all kinds of modes of collective life: the contention of all spheres of social convention and the creation of conditions of self-education that challenge institutional pedagogical parameters.

This cannot be just the work of negation, of critique for the sake of critique. It necessitates an affirmative action, strictly speaking, a constituent action. Just as the withdrawal of consent to power (to remember here Etienne de la Boétie’s thesis in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude) must move into the next step of constituent power, so must all resistance move to the direction of new practices, new modes of self-organization. Although the withdrawal of consent may seem – and is strictly speaking – an action of negation, it should be seen nonetheless as the first moment of affirmative action. Withdrawal of consent is, as such, in its negativity, a gesture of autonomy.

5. What distinguishes democracy from any other mode of political organization is the full-fledged substitutability of political actors. Regardless of the singularity of individuals as social entities, we have to come to terms with the fact that isonomia means political substitutability, a strict equivalence that does not abolish each one’s particular difference. Political equivalence is not tantamount to social equality – at least, not as absolute determination. Social equality cannot be simply a political goal, as liberalism claims, where at best it becomes nominal equal opportunity. It is difficult to determine exactly what social equality would involve, short of an as yet inconfigured economic imaginary as well as a profound reorganization of the terrain of sexual difference. But political equivalence is entirely possible and has been historically created, albeit in rare instances and in specific historical imaginaries (from the Athenian polis to workers’ council communism and anarcho-syndicalism).

This strict isonomy (substitutability) of political actors ensures that the “self” in autonomy is unable to ever come to full self-sufficiency, full archē, for the limits of the self are the otherness of the other, who is utterly substitutable in a process of itinerant othering which makes the key element of autonomy to be self-alteration. This is best understood in theatrical terms where I is an other (Rimbaud) achieves meaning in a constitutive way: where the “I” inheres an otherness that makes the identitary utterance of being (“I am”) not quite adequate. Rimbaud’s famous phrase J’est un autre disarticulates the Cartesian cogito (Je suis) but also the Kantian anthropological prerogative that identifies the human being as the animal who can say “I”, for in this case “I” cannot be enacted but by the third person verb form, so that “to be” becomes demonstrably the verb of being an other.

In democracy, one may say that the “I” is already an other because the utterance I am is already caught in the sharing of archē (metechein tēs archēs is Aristotle’s exact phrase), mediated by lot, by being allotted (nemein) equally the responsibility of political action.  This would be an answer to those who think that substitutability is the weapon of consumer capitalist homogenization. For in that case substitutability takes place entirely in the language of numbers, while in democracy the equivalence is predicated on the recognition of every one’s heterogeneous otherness. Unlike how liberalism promotes and underlies the confusion of equality with social homogenization, I am talking here of political equivalence in a social sphere of ineradicable differentiation and contention. This is an equivalence that cannot be mathematized, since its operating system is not logic (of numbers) but lot (nomos).
6. According to this argument, let us consider how we can bring the assembly movement imaginary into the ballot box: how we can disrupt the habitus of the electoral ritual and create new parameters of election and governance.

First: Move the Left from an oppositional imaginary into a ruling imaginary. This is not some Leninist idea of taking over state power. We need, first of all, to understand that opposition already means governance. In democratic politics, opposition/dissent always takes place from within.

Opposition/dissent is in itself a mode of governance, and we have often seen it literally bring down elected governments. If, in a democratic society, the Left is already in opposition, it would need to understand that it already bears a governmental responsibility, for in a democratic society government  cannot be left in the hands of named (or even elected) officials but belongs to all always.

Second: Local self-organization must disrupt hierarchical institutions of power. To do so, conditions of a new pedagogy must be fostered. One of the concrete lessons of the assembly movement was the discovery of new pedagogical possibilities. The best analogy to the conditions of learning (and teaching) in assembly conditions may be the Aristotelian co-incidence of rulers and ruled, so that we can speak instead of a continuous process of self-teaching, of learning not through a master source but from a self-propelled inquiry that opens the self, not only to the other, but to its own othering. The autodidactic element of this pedagogy is also characterized by exceeding the inherited authority of logos because the very experience of forming a new public space – the corporeal and affective co-incidence of people, otherwise unknown to each other, in the street or the square – constitutes, as such, a pedagogical event. This experience and the new imaginary it fosters must be brought into the realm of governance proper.

Third: Governance against anomie. What does it mean for the Left to create and uphold the law, in contrast to opposing and transgressing the law? This is a crucial question. In a society where criminality in the name of the law (a kind of endemic paranomia of the law) is rampant, the radical politics of transgression is precisely the politics of nomos. But not nomos as the name of sovereignty, especially if sovereignty still espouses its authority as mystical foundation, but a nomos that discloses its constitutive and irrevocable lack of foundation, short of what is provisionally founded by the constituent action of the polity. This nomos is the nomos of autonomy – a nomos self-authorized at the very moment that it alters this “self” in a potentially interminable (and limited only in that is it is self-limited) process of interrogation/affirmation without guarantees. This is what autonomy as self-alteration means.

[1] I elaborate in detail on the significance of this passage in Aristotle and the radical permutations of archē in Greek democratic thinking in “Archē” in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon Vol. 2, Winter 2012

[2] I aim to displace the typical assumptions as to the ‘pathological’ by invoking here the Greek notion of pathos, not simply to denote one’s passion – which is hardly aberrant – but to denote the meaning of one who is enacted upon, one being the object of politics, the object of the world, of coming-to-be as one to whom something happens – as the notion of πάσχειν is used in Aristotle’s De Anima.

[3] In considering Solon’s famous law against neutrality in the case of stasis in ancient Athens, Andreas Kalyvas has spoken precisely of a nomos that aims not at conflict resolution but aggravation of conflict as one’s resolute political accountability as a citizen.

[4] For a detailed exposition of this notion, see my essay “On Self-Alteration” in Parrhesia 9 (2010), 1-17.

About the author: Stathis Gourgouris is a Professor at Columbia University, where he writes and teaches on a variety of subjects, ultimately entwined around questions of the poetics and politics of modernity and democracy. He is the author of Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, 1996) and Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Stanford, 2003), and editor of Freud and Fundamentalism (Fordham, 2010). Outside these projects he has also published numerous articles on Ancient Greek philosophy, political theory, modern poetics, film, contemporary music, psychoanalysis.

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