To live without an ideaMartin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008. 255 pp., £55.50 hb., £21.50 pb., 978 0 804 70077 1 hb., 978 0 804 70078 8 pb. In lieu of either consensus or real antagonism, assessments of deconstruction since the mid-1990s have tended to encourage a sort of indifferent severance.
Derrida is decried in some circles as a purveyor of relativist ‘ethics’ and the return of the religious; he is celebrated in others for much the same reasons. On the one hand: after The Gift of Death and Specters of Marx, the privileging in Derrida’s discourse of the wholly Other, of an impossible justice, and of the messianic exposes a politically complacent utopianism and a philosophically deleterious crypto-theology characteristic of his entire corpus. On the other: this ‘turn’ in Derrida’s thought reveals an important normative dimension at the very heart of deconstruction, which has always been a philosophy of ethico-political responsibility (one that channels the most laudable values of religious traditions, some add). Not quite agreeing to disagree, those who might roughly align themselves with these views simply ignore one another, each side convinced that the other has hopelessly misapprehended the in/significance for contemporary thought of deconstruction’s ethico-religious priorities.
Martin Hägglund’s powerfully argued book aims to terminate this non-debate, along with its attendant postures of perfunctory dismissal and reverential cronyism.
Refuting the notion that there was an ethical or religious ‘turn’ in Derrida’s thinking, Hägglund levels two key arguments against the positions sketched above: (1) that a radical atheism informs Derrida’s writing throughout his career; and (2) that neither ‘justice’ nor ‘respect for the Other’ constitutes an ethical ideal in Derrida’s work.
These arguments unfold across Hägglund’s detailed interrogations, on singular points, of Derrida’s relation to Kant (autoimmunity of time), Husserl (arche-writing),
Levinas (arche-violence), Augustine (mourning/desire) and Laclau (autoimmunity of democracy).
The crux of Hägglund’s account is his reassertion of the ontologically univocal character of temporal finitude in Derrida’s philosophy. Whereas both Kant and Husserl view time as a transcendental condition applicable only to the experience of a finite consciousness, for Derrida, Hägglund argues, ‘the spacing of time is an “ultratranscendental” condition from which nothing can be exempt.’ Whereas Kant retains the regulative Idea of an unconditioned sovereign instance that is absolutely in-itself, for Derrida ‘the unconditional is the spacing of time that divides every instance in advance and makes it essentially dependent on what is other than itself.’ This ‘unconditional condition’ yields a basic Derridean formula to which Hägglund repeatedly returns: ‘what makes X possible is at the same time what makes it impossible for X to be in itself.’ On the basis of this formula, derived from the ultratranscendental synthesis of time qua autoimmune trace, Hägglund extracts the following kernel of deconstructive logic:
if the essence of X is to not be identical to itself, then the consummation of X cannot even be posited as an Idea since it would cancel out X. Finitude is thus not a negative limitation that prevents us from having access to the ful ness of being. On the contrary, finitude is an unconditional condition that makes the ful ness of being unthinkable as such.
If such an articulation of Derrida’s post-Heideggerian ontology is not exactly unfamiliar, what distinguishes Hägglund’s book is the philosophical acumen with which he delineates its consequences and the rigour with which he deploys them against the faux amis of deconstruction.
If we endorse the ultratranscendental status of temporal finitude, then any dualistic separation between a finite ethical subject or mortal being and the positive infinity of the Levinasian Other or an immortal God becomes untenable. Against Robert Bernasconi,
Drucilla Cornell and Simon Critchley, Hägglund shows that Derrida’s thinking of alterity is absolutely incompatible with any ‘good beyond being’, ‘primary peace’ or ‘non-violent relation to the other’ in so far as it is predicated upon the arche-violence of espacement, which breaches any interiority and institutes relationality only through an essential corruptibility. Against the efforts of Hent de Vries, John Caputo and Richard Kearney to salvage in Derrida’s texts the promise of an ‘unscathed’ God, a divine pax or an ‘Other whose good is absolute’, Hägglund demonstrates that the structural articulation of Derrida’s concept of the ‘messianic without messianism’ requires an absolute autoimmunity of time that can leave no instance whatever unscathed, even or especially the name of God. In a more congenial register, Hägglund disputes Ernesto Laclau’s notion that ‘justice’ or ‘equality’ or ‘freedom’ can serve as regulative ideas for radical politics, as ‘the names of a fullness which is constitutively absent’.
On the contrary, he argues, the Derridean concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘democracy to come’ cannot entail the lack of any absent plenitude towards which one should strive, but rather denote the absolute impossibility of any such regulative idea given the structural necessity of an unpredictable future in the face of which ‘hyperpolitical’ decisions must be made.
Throughout these engagements, Hägglund argues that Derrida’s insistence upon openness to the ‘wholly Other’ does not and cannot constitute an ethical norm or prescription. The constitutive autoimmunity of the trace – which exposes any retention of passing time to the possibility of erasure – entails that one must be open to ‘the other’ as the what or who of an unpredictable future. But this is simply a description of an ultratranscendental condition which precisely prevents the derivation of any stable norm or any reference to an Other uncontaminated by the arche-violence of the given time. Derrida’s notion of ‘infinite responsibility’ thus cannot be conflated with that of Levinas, since it can only answer to a negative infinity of others, and therefore always entails more or less violent acts of distinction and exclusion. ‘Infinite responsibility’, Hägglund stipulates, ‘is but another name for the necessity of discrimination.’ Braiding together Hägglund’s critiques of ethicotheological appropriations of deconstruction, and underpinning his articulation of Derrida’s radical atheism, is the concept of survival. To survive is to ‘live on’ as an essentially mortal being constituted by the trace structure of time. Radical atheism is the unconditional affirmation of this condition. This affirmation is ‘radically’ atheist because it denies not only the existence of God or immortality but also the desire for God or immortality as instances that transcend finitude. The affirmation of survival is ‘unconditional’ because it is not a choice or a norm; rather, everyone is engaged by it without exception. The desire to live on as a mortal being, Hägglund argues, precedes and contradicts the desire for immortality from within. ‘The idea of immortality cannot even hypothetically appease the fear of death or satisfy the desire to live on’, he states. ‘On the contrary, the state of immortality would annihilate every form of survival, since it would annihilate the time of mortal life.’ Hägglund thus aims to derive from Derrida’s thinking of time and mortality a theory of desire as necessarily atheist.
The relation of survival to mortality that underwrites the articulation of this theory, however, poses a problem for Hägglund vis-à-vis the relation of being to living. Hägglund makes it clear that for Derrida the autoimmunity of time (espacement, différance, trace) is an ‘absolutely general condition’ that cannot be constrained to any ‘delimited region of being’.
Thus, to be is to be finite. But Hägglund often writes as though a condition applicable to every thing could be adequately described by arguing its application to every living thing. The spacing of time has ultratranscendental status, he argues, because ‘it is the condition for everything al the way up to and including the ideal itself’, and also because ‘it is the condition for everything al the way down to the minimal forms of life’. Here the threshold of ‘life’ would seem to limit a condition that is supposed to be ‘absolutely general’. Hägglund immediately doubles the confusing structure of this argument by stating that ‘there is no limit to the generality of différance and the structure of the trace applies to all the fields of the living.’ And again: ‘Derrida spoke of the trace as a “mortal germ” that is inseparable from the seed of life. To think the trace as an ultratranscendental condition is thus to think a constitutive finitude that is absolutely without exception.’ The logic of entailment here (‘thus’) implies not only that finitude is an absolutely general condition, but that we can deduce the general condition of finite being from a statement concerning the relation of mortality to life.
Clearly Hägglund does not mean to attribute a vitalist ontology to Derrida. But the undertheorized relation of finite being to mortal life is more than a rhetorical problem in his book, because it exposes a lacuna in his reasoning. Hägglund argues that the ‘necessary intertwinement of life and death spells out the autoimmunity of mortality as a general condition and undercuts the idea of immortality’. But if mortality necessarily entails a relation between life and death, then non-living matter is not mortal, and the autoimmunity of mortality (as a modality of finitude) cannot be a general condition. As Heidegger points out in his 1929/30 seminar, non-living matter cannot die and is not dead since it was never alive. Presumably, then, Hägglund would have to hold that non-living matter survives – it persists in a condition of finitude – without being mortal.
The opening of this asymmetry between survival and mortality – a ‘region’ of the former (non-living being) that is not included in the field of the latter – would not challenge the univocal status of temporal finitude, which applies in all cases. But it does pose a logical problem for certain of Hägglund’s arguments.
Citing Derrida’s claim that ‘one cannot love a monument, a work of architecture’ without the experience of its finitude – and thus that ‘one loves it as mortal, through its birth and death’ – Hägglund states that ‘radical atheism proceeds from the argument that everything that can be desired is mortal in its essence’.
Here the elaboration of the central concept of his project proceeds from the attribution of an essence predicated upon a relation between life and death (mortality) to the finitude of ‘everything that can be desired’ (including, apparently, non-living matter). At the core of radical atheism is the following claim: ‘from the definition of life as essentially mortal, it follows that immortality is death. To live is to be mortal, which means that the opposite of being mortal – to be immortal – is to be dead.’ The possibility of non-living, non-mortal survival, however, deconstructs this argument by displacing the binary opposition of mortality and immortality. It does so by exposing an ambiguity inherent to the concept of immortality for which the structure of Hägglund’s argument does not account. The primary denotations of ‘immortal’ are (1) not liable or subject to death; and (2) not liable to perish or decay. This asymmetry is isomorphic with that of morality to survival. If we construct the concept ‘immortal’ according to the first sense, then it would include non-living beings, which ‘survive’ (in so far as they persist in finitude) but are not liable to death.
Since Hägglund’s reasoning cannot countenance an immortal being that survives, we might then take the term in the second (expanded) sense. But that sense cannot follow from an opposition to mortality, since what is subject to the broader sense of temporal finitude denoted by ‘perish and decay’ can be so without living or dying. The conceptual excess of survival over mortality thus ends up deconstructing certain key articulations of the logic of radical atheism which the concept of survival inaugurates.
A more general irony of Hägglund’s approach is that his effort to defend the ‘hyperpolitical’ logic of Derrida’s thought ultimately falls back upon ‘a struggle for “lesser violence”’ for its (undecidable) justification.
The unconditional affirmation of survival underlying that framing of political struggle is uncomfortably proximate to an affirmation of what Alain Badiou has sardonically termed ‘democratic materialism’, which affirms, as he puts it in Logiques des mondes, the ‘constant reassessment of our mortal being’ and enjoins us to ‘live without an Idea’. This affirmation and this injunction are also supposedly unconditional. Badiou’s work is to the point here, because anyone who wants to assess the relation of deconstruction to varieties of ‘infinite thought’ will have to grapple with Hägglund’s account from now on. But what is at stake in philosophies attempting to operate ‘after finitude’ is the pertinence to ontology of infinities that are neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’: that is, which do not require an instance of the in-itself nor devolve into an ‘infinitely finite’ series. This is a possibility that Hägglund’s book does not confront, though it accounts for why it is ‘J. Derrida’ whom Badiou cites on ‘the ontological prerequisite’ while taking stock of his contemporaries in Being and Event.
Until Hägglund is able to demonstrate that Badiou’s enterprise cannot answer that prerequisite, his impressive recovery of deconstruction’s ‘unconditional rationalism’ from the predations of its putative allies may not suffice to convince those more broadly disenchanted with post-Heideggerian ‘finite thinking’ to return to a strenuous engagement with Derrida. Indeed, some may find that the admirable clarity of Hägglund’s book makes all too glaring how little remains when Derrida’s sprawling œuvre is pared down to its core.
But that would be no fault of Hägglund’s own, and the reception of his readership is not, in any case, the standard to which he holds himself. For whether or not one finds the philosophy that Hägglund expounds compelling, the rare virtue of his book is that it forces us to assess that philosophy correctly.
DissingAxel Honneth, Disrespect: The Normative Foundations of Critical Theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2007. xiii + 275 pp., £55.00 hb., £18.99 pb., 978 0 745 62905 6 hb., 978 0 745 62906 3 pb. Axel Honneth, Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea, with Judith Butler, Raymond Geuss and Jonathan Lear, ed. Martin Jay, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 2008. xii + 168 pp., £17.99 pb., 978 0 19 532046 6.
Does Critical Theory need normative foundations? Prima facie the critique of capitalism in all its myriad forms might include a critique of the very idea of norms. After all, those most keen to posit them might have a vested interest in saying that things are thus, and so, however the world appears to its inhabitants, the social order is actually predicated on particular moral frameworks: anyone who doesn’t agree is either ethically deficient or a political malcontent (or both).
Besides, isn’t there something suspiciously ahistorical about the appeal to norms? Where do they reside, exactly, and what are you going to do with them once you’ve decided what they are? These two Axel Honneth collections – one a series of essays mainly from the mid-1990s; the other his 2005 Berkeley Tanner lecture, featuring some rather unimpressed responses from Butler, Geuss and Lear – unintentionally indicate the serious difficulties of such a project. Indeed, despite Honneth’s best efforts, it is not at all clear that the identification of Critical Theory, understood in the broadest sense as the attempt to grasp the hegemonic conceptual forms of capitalist society and to undermine the affirmative rationality of capitalism, with the inquiry into transcendental social norms, could ever be truly persuasive or ultimately coherent.
At its best, Critical Theory does indeed take the normative aspirations of Kant and Hegel in particular as negative templates for a comparison with the present, but this is not the same as attempting to attach these norms to existing moral features. Honneth thus reverses the order of the critique, looking to the world for evidence of supposed transcendental conditions, rather than recognizing the failure of such systematic philosophical projects confronted with the everyday reality of contemporary capitalist societies. In fact,
Honneth, despite being regarded by some as the leading inheritor of the Frankfurt School tradition, argues in an essay entitled ‘The Social Dynamics of Disrespect:
On the Location of Critical Theory Today’ that the Frankfurt School’s attempt to ‘critically diagnose social reality … ceased to exist some time ago’. What should come to take its place, according to him, is a ‘critical theory of society’, a kind of normative critique ‘which can also inform us about the pre-theoretical resource (vorwissenschaftliche Instanz) in which its own critical viewpoint is anchored extratheoretically as an empirical interest or moral experience’. In other words, there is much in our experience of the world that can tell us about the pre-cognitive foundations for why we value what we value. This is both why Honneth attacks Lukács for totalizing reification as the key to understanding capitalism and returns to Heidegger for a description of ‘care’ as our fundamental comportment as beings-in-the-world. Heideggerian ‘care’ further morphs into Hegelian recognition under Honneth’s schema. Thus he argues in Reification that ‘it is possible to justify the hypothesis that a recognitional stance enjoys a genetic and categorical priority over all other attitudes toward the self and the world.’ Honneth’s rather mercenary use of developmental psychology to explain how recognition precedes cognition in children is one of these ‘empirical’ interests that forms part of this justification. Butler rightly wonders whether this isn’t a contradiction in Honneth’s approach: ‘why should we accept the results of any such research after the criticism of observational methods that we have been offered by Honneth’s extensive critique?’ Such scientific detachment is apparently worthwhile if it justifies Honneth’s underlying adherence to the clam that the recognitional stance has priority over all other attitudes. But this is hardly a convincing argument for its centrality.
So why does Honneth place so much stress on recognition? In both collections the concept is read back into practical and political philosophy so that it comes to be seen as the hidden Ur-condition for all contemporary social thought. In the pivotal essay in the Disrespect collection, ‘Between Aristotle and Kant:
Recognition and Moral Obligation’, Honneth links a Kantian conception of duty to an ethics of care and certain communitarian models of recognition. In this way, recognition covers both the duties we owe to ourselves and those we owe to others. It is ambiguous in the sense that ‘the number of modes of recognition is to correspond to the number of forms of moral injuries’.
In other words, disrespect is always potentially present the moment the recognition of another takes place. It is here that Honneth invokes empirical examples of disrespect as ‘pre-theoretical resources’. Describing neo-Nazi youth groups as ostensibly dependent on their own internal recognition, Honneth notes that ‘the sense of no longer being included within the network of social recognition is in itself an extremely ambivalent source of motivation for social protest and resistance.’ Recognition has to come from outside to prevent non-normative – potentially violent – ways of dealing with the experience of disrespect and humiliation: the neo-Nazis feel disrespected by the state over the issue of immigration and take out their ‘humiliation’ on a foreign worker. But is it really a lack of recognition that is the problem here? The rightward shift of many European states over the past decade has certainly ‘recognized’ the way some voters feel about immigration, but it is far from clear that this recognition is capable of preventing violence at the everyday level. The demand for recognition always seems to presuppose a fixed structure that one can appeal to – Daddy, the state, the International Court of Human Rights – but this is an essentially reactive, or at best reformist, model of political behaviour. As Honneth puts it in ‘The Social Dynamics of Respect’ essay, we are dealing here with the question of how ‘a moral culture could be so constituted as to give those who are victimized, disrespected, and ostracized the individual strength to articulate their experiences in the democratic public sphere, rather than living them out in a counterculture of violence.’ No longer ‘bash the fash’ then, but invite them in to talk about their feelings.
A further problem here is the incipient moralism of such a position when it comes to actual political practice. It is no coincidence that New Labour, for example, have laid so much stress on a so-called ‘respect agenda’, in which so-called ASBOs (AntiSocial Behaviour Orders) are dispensed for modes of ‘disrespectful’ behaviour (playing loud music, harassing shoppers, breaking curfews, staring at neighbours). It is certainly the case that these negative awards become a badge of pride, thus reinforcing the idea that groups seek internal recognition if external rewards are slow in coming, but judging such behaviour in terms of its failure to meet societal norms obscures any structural or economic analysis. In those rare moments where Honneth refers to class, he does so only to talk about morality: ‘the Critical Theory of society can be kept open to socially repressed moral conflicts in which suppressed classes make us aware of the structural restrictions placed on their claims to just treatment – that is, to as yet unrealized potentialities of historical progress.’ Social problems, or ‘pathologies’ as Honneth rather dubiously calls them, are thus negative evidence of the norms that should subtend any social ideal. Evidence of affection between a mother and a child is just as much of an empirical indication of the fundamental importance of recognition as the drunk punching someone outside a nightclub.
In the Reification lecture, Honneth again attempts to indicate the centrality of recognition to his social theory. He does so by means of an extended critique of Lukács, while endeavouring to retain the term ‘reification’ for his own purposes. Lukács’s mistake, he claims, is twofold: to ignore the moral implications of reification and to take the form of reification particular to commodity exchange as representative of reification in toto. For Honneth, reification is something more akin to the objectification of sexism and racism, rather than the ‘thingification’ of economic and social relations. Why, then, keep the term at all? Honneth’s ‘action-theoretical’ approach rereads reification as a kind of ‘forgetting’ of recognition (the Heideggerian resonances are not lost on him): to treat someone in a reified way is to deny that one once knew that the person was more than their mere usefulness: ‘By speaking here of mere objects or “things,” I mean that in this kind of amnesia, we lose the ability to understand immediately the behavioural expressions of other persons as making claims on us – as demanding we act in an appropriate way.’ People can equally treat themselves as things in this way, forgetting that they are not merely commensurate with their capabilities, or mere material for wage-labour. Aside from stripping the concept of reification of its explicitly political and economic content, Honneth fails to recognize several major changes in the nature of work that problematize the idea that reification (both his conception and that of Lukács) is the central tendency in the nature of labour. Far from social relations being treated like things, recent writing on immaterial labour suggests that it is relationality itself that is exploited – both via the generic capacity to communicate (language, attention, care) and in the way in which one is supposed to market oneself as someone who is constantly networking, constantly in contact, ever ready for new projects. This is precisely the opposite problem to that of reification, in either its moral or Marxist guises. In many ways it is much more pernicious – how does one battle against economic oppression if the social relations are not so much hidden beneath the veneer of objectivity, but are themselves the very material of our everyday exploitation? We are not encouraged to treat one another like objects (or subjects for that matter), but rather to see potential connections everywhere.
Objectification, or reification (Honneth explicitly elides the distinction between the two), is actually somewhat rare. As Jonathan Lear puts it in his response: ‘often the problem is not that we are treating persons as persons, but that we are treating them badly as persons.’ Butler, too, makes much of the fundamental ambiguity we have towards those we care about, against Honneth’s optimistic idea that recognition is almost always performed in a positive mode, and stresses the way in which sadism too – in Butler’s exquisite formulation ‘an excitation about being cold’ – can also be a central kind of recognition.
Honneth ultimately places himself in an awkward theoretical and political position from the outset; simultaneously indebted to Marx, Lukács and Adorno and interlocutor of current soft moralists such as Cavell, Nussbaum and Charles Taylor. The result is a curiously opportunistic use of Marxist terminology (reification) subtended by post-Kantian metaphysics and practical philosophy (Fichte and Hegel) and topped off with a rather uncritical fetish for the theoretical trappings of human rights discourse – esteem, respect and recognition. In this sense, Honneth is better conceived as a post-Analytic philosopher than anything else, looking for clues in the pragmatists (Dewey in particular), appealing to both Kant and Wittgenstein as equal authorities and worrying about the dehumanizing effects of Internet dating. (‘Once two users have found sufficient overlappings between their respective lists of characteristics and thereby become an electronically selected pair, they are then instructed to inform one another of their feelings for each other through the high-speed medium of email messages.’) Honneth’s mixed pool of sources starts to look like a Deutsche-Americanische Freundschaft for the twenty-first century. This has all of the advantages of a properly synthetic approach – no philosophical approach is a priori out of bounds – and all the disadvantages of a truly synthetic approach – all theorizing is reduced to a kind of weak, generic moralizing that would be palatable to many, but lacks any critical or political bite. Honneth explicitly replaces the critique of political economy with an ameliorative vision of the social order based on the ambiguous evidence of normative behaviour. All too often his foundationalism takes on a reformist character, and at times even a kind of finger-wagging, moralistic taint. But this seems to be the problem in the very idea of trying to fuse Critical Theory with normative foundationalism. As Raymond Geuss puts it in his response to Honneth, citing John Dewey, a key reference point for both thinkers:
John Dewey … thought that moral philosophy was inherently reactionary, an at empt to invent an il usory discourse about imaginary metaphysical entities so as to defend highly inegalitarian social structures; ethics was the protection of existing privilege against novelty and the pressing needs of the many.
Whilst we might not want to go as far as saying that Honneth defends existing privileges, his over-optimistic portrayal of recognition, and of the democratic procedures and institutions that promote it, ultimately neglects the more structural forms of ‘disrespect’ that underlie the reality of social injustice.
The long decadeXudong Zhang, Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century, Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2008. 346 pp., £70.00 hb., £17.99 pb., 978 0 822 34212 0 hb., 978 0 822 34230 4 pb.
Mainstream academic and media comment on political and cultural change in China over the past three decades converges in a common theme: the failure of the 1989 protest movement, brutally repressed by government forces, signalled the end of an era of increasingly pluralist debates and liberal hopes, ushering in a new phase of market-driven reform and with it the eclipse of intellectual privilege by a new mantra of individual competition and consumer power. After Deng Xiaoping’s famous tour to the south in 1992, which gave the go-ahead to an all-out marketization of the economy, many of those formerly active in political and intellectual debates transferred their energies to entrepreneurial endeavours, marking a complicity with the state’s engagement with the neoliberal agenda of global capital. According to this view, with the exception of the celebrity achievements acclaimed by the world’s major film and literary competitions, political and cultural debates in China since the 1990s have been notable both for their lack of innovative edge, and for their refusal to engage with ongoing international discussions about critical alternatives to the teleology of neoliberalism. No doubt China Studies specialists in Western academia bear due responsibility for this dominant view. Too many have spent too much time applauding the progressive effects of market privatization instead of critically analysing the real tensions in the shifting sands of China’s economic, social and political transformation. Effective compliance with the official ideology of modernization has thus overlooked informed analyses of intellectual debates in China itself, which, though prevented from wide dissemination in the Chinese context, have nevertheless occupied the minds of many thinkers and theorists working in the country’s major academic and research institutions.
With Postsocialism and Cultural Politics, Xudong Zhang provides a ‘thick’ analysis of the cultural and socio-political debates of the ‘long decade’ of the 1990s. Set against a broadly chronological account of developments, from the government’s crackdown on the 1989 protests, Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, the Taiwan missile crisis and the Asian financial crisis, to the end of Britain’s colonial rule of Hong Kong in 1997, his analysis weaves a sense of the historical framework of intellectual debates together with a theoretical commitment to explore beyond the tired binaries of state and society, communist hardliners and market reformers, capitalism and socialism, which characterize standard analyses of China’s recent history. In the process, he puts paid to a view of the 1990s as no more than a political and intellectual wasteland, and in its stead identifies a sense of continuing intellectual and political vitality, even if tightly circumscribed by what he calls the ‘authoritarian developmentalism’ of the state. His focused readings of novels by Zhang Ailing,
Wang Anyi and Mo Yan, as well as his analysis of films of the Fifth Generation directors, further gives a sense of how the political and intellectual concerns of the time can be interpreted through the lens of literary and cinematic forms.
The concepts of postsocialism and postmodernism form the theoretical pillars sustaining the discussion in the book’s first section. Zhang proposes that the ‘post’ of postsocialism and postmodernism highlights both continuities and discontinuities between current and past politico-cultural formations in China. Postsocialism is therefore explained not as a teleologically driven ‘higher phase’ of development, but rather as a conceptual space facilitating analysis of the tensions and cracks in contemporary China that incorporates the cultural and political legacy of the Mao era in penetrating the glossy surface of contemporary consumerism. Postsocialism, he thus argues, prefigures a new socio-economic and cultural-political subjectivity that acknowledges the continuing effects of the cultural and political idiosyncracies of Maoist rule in shaping the quotidian contours and unconscious motivations of post-Mao rationalism. Alongside this, the critical discourse of postmodernism permits an examination of the dialectic between the increasingly attenuated appeal of conventional notions of modernity and modernization, and the evidence of the uneven and ‘messy’ socio-economic and political realities of daily life in market China that defy notions of change as a progressive advance on what came before. Together, the two ‘posts’ invite a release from the dogma of a triumphant global capitalism driven by a Eurocentric model of modernity. Postsocialism thus emerges as both a system and an analytical framework, at a time when history ‘craves’ a new critical practice through the political and cultural configurations it evidences.
Specifically, for Zhang, it points to the ambiguities of a world combining forces for democratization and commodification, in which neoliberalism’s calls for the full institutionalization of privatization manifests itself not so much as a call for freedom, but rather as an ‘egoistic attempt to carve out an elite realm of bourgeois privilege premissed on robbing public wealth and suppressing popular dissent’. At the same time, the concept of postsocialism can encapsulate within its theoretical parameters the practices of everyday culture and utopian longings for equality and justice, seen in the increasing incidence of militancy and protest, thereby setting out a historical vision, not of Fukuyama’s end of history, but of a complex reworking of contemporary forces in a socio-economic and cultural system that may or may not bring China into collision with the dominant centres of neoliberal capitalism.
Much of Zhang’s attention in this discussion is in fact directed towards dissecting the political positions and possibilities identified with the so-called New Left, a ‘dubious label’ for a group of intellectuals who, despite their disavowal of the term, are commonly bunched together on the grounds of commonalities in their critiques of China’s neoliberal agenda. The New Left combines a critical resistance to capitalist globalization in China with a conscious association with Western critical discourse. Prevalently associated with the figure of Wang Hui, but also with other academics and theorists such as Cui Zhiyuan, Wang Shaoguang, Liu Kang and Gan Yang – all of whom studied in and are well known in Western academia – this New Left has brought together diverse disciplinary interests to challenge the ideological mainstream of global capitalism. Though commonly attacked by liberal academics in China for their supposed nostalgia for Mao’s China and their affinity with traditional socialism, their ongoing contribution is to identify the government’s neoliberalism not as a form of market equalizer but as an elitist discourse, the demands of which for ‘negative withdrawal’ from the state signifies not the state’s actual withdrawal from social life but its political intervention to protect the fittest in the market environment. Zhang’s position vis-à-vis the New Left is not always clear – at one point he indulges in a snide aside, noting that Wang Hui writes as if he has to pass the test of both the ‘theory-driven academic Left and a textand empirical data-obsessed Sinologist in the United States’ – but his judgement is that neoliberalism would similarly be rejected by the majority of the population if there were democratic debate in China.
Chinese nationalism of the 1990s appears in Zhang’s analysis as an allegory of the intellectual and political dilemma of the decade. He argues that 1990s’ nationalism was neither the child of government machinations, nor the result of the dissolution of the state at a time of rising economic self-confidence, but rather a response to a series of international frustrations, conditioned by the end of the Cold War and a seeming return to ‘imperialist’ domination at the moment of China’s triumphant entry into the global arena. A popular and cultural nationalism, affirmed by economic strength but also negatively assertive, may thus be understood as part of the general problematic of politics, culture and identity in the globalized age. And while the need to build up a strong national economy has been used to support mainstream neoliberal positions, a vision of a political nationalism that similarly supports the need for a sound national economy may be oriented to democratic reorganization to reduce the massive inequities of the state system. Calls for a political nationalism by the likes of Gan Yang are thus inevitably associated with the idea of a democratic reinvention of the Chinese Communist Party. As such, they are not given a wide press. And, by contrast to the dominant themes of political nationalism, interrogation of the national imagination to be found in mass and popular culture posits an intellectual agenda that refers more to the messy complexities of postmodernity than to a commitment to the teleologies of an exuberant economic nationalism.
The fiction and film discussed in the second and third sections of this book may be more familiar to non-Chinese audiences than the polemical debates analysed in the first section. Most of the stories discussed here are available in English translation; the films have long been acclaimed internationally and have been the subject of considerable theoretical treatment by other academics in the field. However, reading against the familiar grain, Zhang offers interpretations here that specifically illuminate the postsocialist theme of the first half of the book. He criticizes China’s reappropriation of the famous Shanghai writer,
Zhang Ailing, through an analysis of a 1943 short story, which appeared in English as ‘Sealed Off’ in 1985. Far from legitimating a view of progress that corresponds with the current ideology of China’s market modernization, Zhang Ailing’s narrative highlights the stasis of the urban experience and the ennui associated with the metropolis that was pre-1949 Shanghai. Similarly, Wang Anyi’s and Mo Yan’s works appear as narratives of fractured engagement with, rather than simple rejections of, the cultural experience of Mao’s China. Mo Yan’s stylistic moves between the grotesque, the hilarious, the seductive and the nauseating in The Republic of Wine paints a picture of contemporary China characterized by ‘murkiness’ and ‘chaos’. Wang Anyi’s portrayal of Shanghai, and particularly Shanghai women, in her stories of the 1990s, remind the reader of the omissions, even the conscious amnesia, at work in the new language of the urban and modern that typifies descriptions of China’s glossy metropolitan culture. Zhang Yimou’s famous film The Story of Qiu Ju appears not as the coming into being of a new language of legal regulation, but as an illustration of the tensions and conflicts between the rural and the urban, and the ‘scrambling of politico-legal codes’, as the disadvantaged seek to claim recognition for unarticulated rights. And, finally,
Zhang offers a new reading of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite, to suggest that the trauma at the heart of the film is not so much the ‘melancholy of revolution and modernity’ but rather the ‘anxiety that history has not already begun’ – the ‘unsettled imagination of the future’ – brought to consciousness at the moment of encounter between the socialist past and the market present.
Yet, despite its wealth of analysis, Zhang’s narrative suffers from an imbalance between its three main sections and their very different topical foci.
This may in part be due to the initial character of the book’s chapters as journal articles, produced at different times and for different readerships. In itself, the lack of a sense of organic completeness to the text may not matter too much. But the uneven treatment Zhang gives his themes raises other questions. How are these themes linked to local rather than external academic debates, if we are to see them as parts of a critical discursive moment? How do local Chinese audiences engage with the critical implications of the works and ideas here addressed? And, notably, given the widespread evidence of increasing gender discrimination sustained in the name of economic efficiency and consumer choice, how does Zhang position the theoretical contributions of China’s feminists in current critiques of China’s neoliberal obsessions?
Furthermore, though Zhang’s narrative, replete with complicated discursive flourishes, demonstrates a keen engagement with current theoretical debates – indeed, few of the great names of critical cultural theory are missing here – it shows much less interest in the work of his peers similarly engaged with critical reflection on the politics of culture in China.
Still, why be grudging? Postsocialism and Cultural Politics provides critical evidence of a cultural, political and aesthetic dynamism that, trapped by local political constraints, demands more and closer attention in order to chart the internal differences of a reality that too many claim as proof of the universalizing benefits of the neoliberal market. China faces a future under the thrall of radical uncertainty, and all too few academics working on China lend their voice to the debates Zhang pursues here.
RealisticallyRaymond Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2008. viii + 116 pp., £11.95 hb., 978 0 691 13788
9. ^ Raymond Geuss is perhaps the most stylish polemicist among contemporary political philosophers, and increasingly one of the most practised in the art. In this most recent addition to his œuvre, he takes aim once more at contemporary liberal ‘analytic’ political philosophy through the representative figures of Robert Nozick and, Geuss’s bête noir, the John Rawls of A Theory of Justice. It is hard not to think that Gerry Cohen’s work might not be an even more apposite target for Geuss’s ire, but Rawls, of course, has the advantage of having written the pivotal text for analytic political philosophy. If the Rawlsian achievement is undermined – exposed as ‘applied ethics’ – then the claim to political relevance of vast swathes of the last forty years of political philosophy fall with it.
This may not rank Geuss’s task alongside Nietzsche’s attempt to undermine the peculiar institution of morality, but it obviously feels like it at times – and Geuss, as a political realist, is perfectly well aware that he is confronting deeply entrenched academic interests (the context of his action is hardly conducive to its success). Still all revolts have to start somewhere, with a certain militancy.
The basic outlines of the position that Geuss advocates are straightforward: political philosophy must be realist, it must focus on actions and contexts of actions, it must be historical y reflective with respect to the conditions of political agency, and it must acknowledge the craft-like character of political activity, that politics is an art, a skill which cannot be acquired through learning principles (a point famously stressed by Michael Oakeshott in his essay ‘Rationalism in Politics’ which Geuss does not mention). What is the sense of this realism? Although one may try and situate Geuss in relation to, say, Thucydides,
Machiavelli and Hobbes, and his stance certainly exhibits relationship to all of these thinkers, the key feature of Geuss’s realism is its opposition to wishful thinking in its various epistemic and normative forms.
Indeed, if one had to summarize Geuss’s objection to contemporary ‘analytic’ political philosophy, it would consist in the charge that, far from disciplining its thinking in the ways required to avoid the dangers of wishful thinking, it opens itself up to the temptation of wishful thinking, regularly succumbs to this temptation and perhaps even cultivates an intellectual disposition towards it. As such it can have no serious role to play in the enterprise of guiding the exercise of political judgement – that is, of political education.
I’ll return to Geuss’s critique of analytical thought shortly, but let’s consider first how Geuss thinks we should discipline our thought in order to achieve an appropriately realistic orientation to our political lives.
Geuss’s proposal is that we take three issues as loci of reflection: Lenin’s question ‘Who, whom?’, Nietzsche’s stress on the differential structure of human valuation, and Max Weber’s focus on legitimacy. The first of these is spelt out in the view that the question ‘Who does what to whom for whose benefit?’ (and hence issues of agency, power and interest) is always central to political reflection. Two particular features of Geuss’s interpretation of this Leninist slogan are worth noting.
First, Geuss readily allows that perception of X’s power by Y may itself have sufficient power to affect what Y takes to be the range of reasonable options available to him. Second, Geuss notes and approves Lenin’s extension of the formula ‘who, whom?’ to political philosophy itself: works of political theory are partisan political acts located in particular contexts of action and, hence, ‘questions about the actual political implications of a theory cannot be excluded as in principle irrelevant.’The salience of Nietzsche’s emphasis on human finitude and the differential structure of human valuation on Geuss’s view relates to the fact that politics always involves the relationship of agents with limited powers and resources engaged in having to choose a course of action, where doing so necessarily rules out various other possible options. One might sharpen this point in terms of Jeremy Waldron’s notion of ‘the circumstances of politics’ as combining disagreement about what to do and the need for a common decision, where Geuss’s expansion of this specification consists in stressing (as Robert Dahl has) the political import of the ordering or sequencing of decision-making, and the importance of timing in proposing and undertaking a policy.
Geuss concludes his three orienting issues by reminding us of Weber’s rather catholic account of political legitimacy, and, more generally, of the point that rulers and ruled alike seek mechanisms of legitimation in terms of which they can justify or contest political programmes, policies or actions. Thus, in contrast to the reductive realism that simply attends to interests,
Geuss’s realism acknowledges the significance of the evaluative and normative frameworks in terms of which we try to make sense of, and (de)legitimate, political actions – a point which connects us back again to the sense in which the articulation of a political theory is also a political act.
Reflecting on these questions brings us fairly readily to an appreciation of that in which Geuss takes the point of political philosophy to consist, namely the education of political judgement. This judgement is rapidly reinforced by Geuss’s delineation of three tasks of political theory in this realistic spirit: understanding, evaluation and orientation. However, Geuss adds to this list two further tasks that political theory may perform:
conceptual innovation and ideology-critique – and it is worth asking how these stand to realistic political philosophy. Geuss’s major example of conceptual innovation is Hobbes’s introduction of the concept of the state as an impersonal public authority distinct from both rulers and ruled. Geuss’s point here is that in the case of a successful conceptual innovation, such as he judges Hobbes’s to have been, we come to occupy a different political reality in the sense that the innovation reshapes the space of political reasons that we inhabit: what counts as political, how we understand our political relations to one another, and so on.
Geuss acknowledges that conceptual innovation ‘is a complicated process in which descriptive, analytic, normative and aspirational elements are intricately intertwined’ and, hence, that what it means ‘in each case to say that a particular conceptual proposal did not work is, thus, a complicated question to which, probably, only a detailed historically specific answer can be given.’ He also acknowledges that once an innovation is introduced, the fact that it was introduced to address one problem does not prevent it from taking on a life of its own and playing a wider range of roles in political life.
In this context, the significance of Geuss’s reflections on ideology-critique (which, in fact, simply summarize what he has written elsewhere on this topic) is to draw attention to the point that power can shape attitudes, beliefs, practices, and so on, in ways that affect our perception of our interests, and to remind us that political theories can serve as elements or articulations of ideology. Not the least of the functions of realistic political theory is to keep theory honest by exposing its ideological functions particularly when these are disguised by the claim of the theory to be non-partisan.
The polemical import of this fairly catholic account of realism in political theory becomes clear in the second part of Geuss’s slim volume in which we learn that Nozick and Rawls, along with any notion of human rights, represent failures of realism.
In his previous work History and Il usion in Politics, Geuss mounted an attack on the concept of human rights that he essentially summarizes here. The basic thought is this: human rights talk illegitimately runs together objective and subjective notions of right; consequently, in the absence of any global scheme of enforcing such rights that would allow one to operate with a coherent subjective notion of human rights, the concept of human rights is incoherent. It is quite unclear why we should take this argument seriously since it is a feature of conceptual innovations that they often merge elements that previous political or philosophical positions have held apart. This is true, for example, of Geuss’s own favoured example of Hobbes’s concept of the state. Geuss may object that Hobbes’s achievement consisted in giving a coherent statement of the idea of the state – one which involved radically revising the concept of freedom – and that no such coherence has yet been given to the notion of human rights. This seems to me both to philosophically underestimate recent work on human rights and to make the mistake of thinking that a conceptual innovation cannot be politically successful unless and until we have a coherent theory of it – but why should we think that?
What, then, of Geuss’s criticisms of Nozick and Rawls? In both cases, Geuss makes great play of the historical variability of the terms – ‘rights’ and ‘justice’ – on which Nozick and Rawls develop their respective arguments, and in doing so reiterates his claim that political theory must be historically informed. There are three points to note about the kind of argument that Geuss makes here. First, it is unclear what being ‘historically informed’ means on Geuss’s account? If it is to say that reflective awareness of the historicity of the terms of argumentation must be built into the argument, then Nozick and Rawls fail the test, but so equally does Hobbes. If being historically informed means that one just is historically informed in an everyday sense, then Hobbes, Nozick and Rawls all pass. Second, it will be recalled that Geuss stressed the point that political theory is partisan political speech and, indeed, partisan political action, in which case we might consider, for example, the opening line of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, Utopia – ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).’ – as an effective piece of partisan political rhetoric. To say that Nozick ‘by presenting “rights” as the self-evident basis for thinking about politics, … actively distracts people from asking other, highly relevant questions’ is not to say anything of which Nozick is unaware since he is precisely trying to get people to think of politics in terms of rights. Geuss objects that Nozick does not address what Geuss considers to be the right questions – but that is fundamentally a political disagreement.
Third, Geuss’s reflection on realism stressed the importance of action to actions and contexts of actions, yet Geuss entirely ignores the historical context of the acts that Rawls and Nozick perform in publishing their respective books. In the case of Rawls, for example, it is important to recognize that this was directed against the dominance of utilitarian modes of thought which are prepared to trade off personal liberties against public welfare. Rawls’s argument that utilitarianism does not take the distinction between persons seriously is a philosophical point made for thoroughly political reasons (one might recall that Rawls had been working on the project that became this book through the period of the McCarthy era, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War) and Rawls was perfectly well aware that the political force of his argument hung in significant measure on the philosophical strength of his critique of utilitarianism.
The basic problem with the second part of Geuss’s book is that, driven by his wish to dismiss the kind of philosophical work in which Rawls and Nozick engage, he entirely forgets to do what in the first part of the book he advises us to do, namely, to attend to political theories as political acts. This is not, of course, to say that one cannot raise pertinent questions about the realism of liberal political philosophy or that Geuss entirely fails to do so – but, overall, Geuss’s critical strategy is too flip. If Rawls is engaged in conceptual innovation as Geuss admits he may be considered to be, Geuss might have sensibly recalled his own earlier reflections on the difficulty of assessing both the success or failure of such innovations and the reasons for their success or failure.
Having a laughPaolo Virno, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2008. 195 pp., £9.95 pb., 978 1 584 35050 7.‘communication’ as both the central force of twentyfirst-century capitalism and the basis for the potential power of the multitude. However, Virno’s approach to his themes is, in most respects, very different. This is not a Deleuzo-Spinozian exercise in radical monism, but a meditation on the linguistic event which is much closer in tone and approach to the Derrida of Limited Inc. or the Lyotard of The Postmodern Condition and The Differend. Indeed, given Virno’s sustained engagement with Wittgenstein, and with a very similar range of themes, the lack of any reference at all to Lyotard’s Wittgensteinian phase is surprising. At the same time, there is a good deal of overlap between Virno’s reflections on jokes and Rorty’s reflections on the value of irony, but the different context and the different political orientation of the discussion generate some interestingly different results.
Crucially, Virno’s account of linguistic creativity as an inherently human trait is explicitly distinguished from Chomsky’s superficially similar assertions.
Chomsky derives from his account the assumption that human nature is basically good (cooperative, sociable, egalitarian), an assumption which has left him seemingly incapable of developing any account of contemporary power relations more sophisticated than a story of perversely nasty elites lying to an innocently malleable public. Virno, on the other hand, situates himself in that tradition – including Hobbes, Freud and Schmitt (none of whom he wants to ally himself with directly) – which sees in political institutions and the regularities of human behaviour the means of restricting and containing an inherently destructive and anti-social set of tendencies; tendencies which are indissolubly bound up with the inherently linguistic capacity for negation.
In the book’s intriguing final section, Virno brings together this tradition of thought with recent research into the neurological basis of sociality, suggesting that while a certain capacity to recognize and mime the affective states of others may be programmed into the human brain, it is precisely the linguistic capacity to negate which means that ‘the linguistic animal is the species capable of not recognizing his own kind’.
The evil that humans do to each other is therefore an inevitable outcome of that very open-endedness that is inherent in the creative capacity of language, an open-endedness that can always lead to a refusal GSOH: this now-ubiquitous acronym has its origins in the ‘personal ad’ pages of the English-speaking world.
Any voyeuristic glance at the reams of such notices, or on various heavily subscribed ‘dating’ websites, or the social-networking sites which have borrowed some of their conventions, would make clear just how fundamental to current conceptions of desirability is the assumed possession of a ‘good sense of humour’.
The sense of humour, we are told, is that which artificial intelligence encounters as the absolute limit of its project: it cannot be programmed or modelled within existing cybernetic paradigms; it cannot be faked. In a related way, the lack of such a sense in human beings is registered as symptomatic of one of the most contemporary of newly visible maladies:
autism. To be a fully realized human subject and not a failed simulacrum is to possess a sense of humour.
To say of another, ‘s/he has no sense of humour’, is perhaps, less damning today than it might once have been, precisely because the lack of such a sense is now regarded as a pitiable disability rather than a mere character deficiency.
Perhaps surprisingly, for one of the heroes of Autonomia, it is this phenomenon – rather than the interlocking and intensifying networks of post-postFordist capitalism with which one might assume neoautonomists to be currently preoccupied – which Paolo Virno’s new book sheds most light on. The largest section of Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation is taken up with a consideration of the logic and special discursive status of jokes, and some observations on that status which offer powerful insights as to why a facility for them might be so valuable in our postmodern context. The joke, for Virno (and in this he draws heavily on both Wittgenstein and Aristotle), is the point at which is revealed the contingency of a norm, the gap between a social rule and its own inability to found or guarantee itself, or the instability of the boundary between a general ‘grammatical’ rule and a specific, ‘empirical’ instantiation thereof.
Jokes therefore exhibit the capacity to invent and reinvent which is constitutive of all human creativity. Virno makes the conventionally neo-autonomist assumption that this capacity is somehow more exposed, closer to the surface of everyday life, and more fundamental to prevailing social processes today than in previous epochs. Hardt and Negri, similarly, posit of that recognition which more fundamental neurocorporeal processes might otherwise render instinctive and unavoidable. The cliché that all humour has a negative or hostile dimension must lend some credence to this perspective, linking it convincingly to Virno’s discussion of jokes. This is a fascinating argument, although the apparent affinities and discontinuities between this position and the entire Lacanian rubric – according to which it is the ‘No’ of the Father which institutes the Subject’s relation to the Symbolic – are, disappointingly, not alluded to at all.
What is it, then, that restrains this violence, and makes human sociability possible? One of Virno’s main objectives is to find an answer to this question which is not Hobbes’s. For Virno, it must be possible to refute the claim that it is only in the sovereignty of the self-founding state that the basis for any possible society lies. In this – although again, he makes no explicit reference to their work – Virno engages a similar set of issues to those which have concerned Laclau and Mouffe in recent years. As in Virno, one of their key themes has been the need for radical politics to rid itself of all naive faith in the positive, rational and reasonable nature of human collectivities and to emphasize the constitutively antagonistic dimension of socio-linguistic relations. Where his position differs from theirs is in his rejection, and their implicit acceptance, of Hobbes’s logic. Whereas for Laclau and Mouffe democracy can only institutionalize a void, an empty space of perpetual contestation, in the place of the sovereign, for Virno there must be something other than the arbitrary institution of sovereignty which makes human social life possible.
In an attempt to name this ‘something’, Virno mobilizes the Pauline concept of katechon early on in the book and again in the final conclusion. This term designates a kind of power of ritual which defers destruction without actually eliminating its danger. It is mobilized by Virno in the context of his discussion of the difference between politically instituted rules and norms and other types of regularity in human behaviour which might ward off evil according to a different logic. Katechon, for Virno, is that which performs a contingent and punctual task: that of resolving once again the connection between regularity and rules, between ‘a mode of behaviour common to al human beings’ and positive norms.
This kind of connection, upon which the effective application of rules depends (not to mention the possibility of changing the rules) must be validated over and over again.
The resonance between this conception and Derrida’s reflections on the iterative and performative ‘citationality’ of the law – and to some extent, all discourse – is only reinforced by Virno’s direct engagement with issues of legal authority and his almost wholly Derridean characterization of them. As with Derrida also (to whom, once again, Virno never refers), the political stakes of the discussion are at times somewhat oblique, although one very crude extrapolation would be to observe that katechon might be that very level of human social life at which it becomes possible to observe that people get along together perfectly well without the state (or any externally imposed systems of normativity) guiding them to do so. The fact that David Cameron has made precisely this observation the basis for his recent attempts to formulate a new political philosophy for British Conservatism may intrigue some readers, but it also bears out Virno’s thesis that something about the crisis of the modern state makes this fact of human existence now visible to all. As such it constitutes the terrain upon which many political battles must be fought.
The word that does not appear in Virno’s lexicon, although it seems to haunt the entire discussion of katechon, normativity and invention, is ‘culture’. On the one hand, Virno seems to want to mobilize a notion of regularity that is explicitly cross-cultural and hence pre-cultural, identifying universal patterns to the behaviour of ‘the linguistic animal’ which are simply logical consequences of the need to contain the violence of language, and the dangerous opening to the world that it involves. On the other hand, katechon might just be a name for culture-as-such, the condition of possibility of all subsequent cultural differences, but also the condition of impossibility of any such differences being absolute; the condition of possibility of both the antagonism which language’s power to negate inevitably generates and the institutions which, before or beyond any notion of sovereignty, make sociability possible. Of course, the Derridean problematic of différance, of an infinite relationality which precedes any firm distinction between affirmation/presentation and negation, would be somewhat different from Virno’s idea of katechon as restraining the destructive capacity of humanity, inherent in its use of language; but the points of contiguity would be interesting to explore.
In so far as Virno makes any strong political claims in the book, they reside in his classically autonomist preference for the idea of ‘exodus’ as a political strategy. Alluding to the ‘third party’ whom Freud says must always be present, or at least imagined, for a joke to be effective (the audience, the public, the world beyond the dyad), Virno associates this with a political tendency to move beyond any existing terms of reference or conflict to find a new mode of being: a new people and a new Earth, as Deleuze and Guattari might have said. Again, the affinities with deconstruction are striking, although here one might mobilize a political objection to Virno’s position either in a deconstructive register or from a position much closer to Virno’s home. If, as Hardt and Negri famously insist, there is no outside to Empire, then where might the promised land be found? If politics must be thought, as the later Guattari insisted, ecologically, with reference to the full interdependence of life on Earth and the interlocking elements of ‘Integrated World Capitalism’, then how can any strategy of mere escape prove effective?
On a round planet, there is only so far a line of flight can take you. Virno is far from alone in his fondness for the idea of exodus, which is referred to directly by Hardt and Negri and endlessly, if only implicitly, by Deleuze and Guattari. In all of those cases the problem remains acute: how to think beyond the limitations of received modes of thought and Manichaean modes of politics, without falling – as Negri so nearly does – into the trap of millenarianism, valorizing and romanticizing a position of perpetual defeat.
But there can be little doubt that avoiding this dead end must always involve an ongoing and undogmatic attempt to think the most challenging and inescapable issues of political philosophy. In a world and a human species ravaged by neoliberalism, the question of what does and doesn’t make collective life and innovation possible at all is clearly one such question.
It is a question which Multitude addresses in a most distinctive and persuasive way, and the questions it leaves open are not ones that we should ever hope to finally resolve.
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