Sunday, May 21, 2006

Towards a Psychological Economy of the Book

It has been said of money that it is a commodity like any other, which is already a great mistake. But, were one to say that books are commodities like others, one would be making a far graver mistake. To class books among riches is to confuse what pertains to intelligence with what pertains to need or will. The value of a book is an ambiguous expression, because each of its copies, to the extent that it is tangible, appropriable, exchangeable and consumable has a venal value which expresses its degree of desirability, but, in itself, as essentially intelligible, inappropriable, unexchangeable, and inconsumable, which does not mean indestructible, it possesses a scientific value, which expresses its degree of credibility, without counting its literary value, which signifies its degree of expressive seduction. But, whether considered as product or as teaching, a book is capable of allying itself with other books or of combating them. There is no book, considered as a teaching, which is not made with other books, often given in the bibliography, and among which there are some of which one can say that it is made for them, because it confirms and completes them. Moreover, there is also no book which is not made against other books.

Gabriel Tarde, Psychologie économique, Tome I, Paris, F. Alcan, 1902

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Badiou's Anti-Dialectics

Must an emancipatory politics of antagonism steal its tools from the laboratories of its nemeses (Hobbes, De Maistre, Heidegger, Schmitt, Junger...)?

Though persuaded that there is often more to be gained from an (abstract) acquaintance with revolutionary conservatives than with reformists liberals, I think it also remains imperative to, as it were, draw the line between "our" way of drawing the line and theirs.

Badiou puts the point persuasively, if somewhat elliptically, in this excerpt from The Century:

I have insisted on the singularity of the theory of the Two, which drives the intellectual life of the century in all its domains. This is an anti-dialectical Two, a Two without synthesis. Now, in every demonstration of fraternity there is an essential Two: That of the ‘we’ and of the ‘not-we’. The century arranges the confrontation between two manners of conceiving the not-we. Either one sees it as a polymorphous formlessness – a disordered reality – or else one sees it as an other we, an external and consequently antagonistic subject. The conflict between these two conceptions is fundamental, setting out the dialectics of the anti-dialectical. If in effect the ‘we’ relates externally to the formless, its task is that of formalising it. Fraternity becomes the subjective moment of the in-formation of its formless exterior. According to this model of antagonism, one will declare things like: The apathetic must be rallied to the Party; the left must unite with the centre to isolate the right; the artistic avant-garde must find forms of address perceivable by everyone. But then the century sees itself as a formalist century, in the sense that any we-subject is a production of forms. In the end this means that access to the real is secured through form, as was argued by the Lenin of What is to be Done? (the party is the form of the political real), by the Russian ‘formalists’ after the Revolution, by the mathematicians of the Bourbaki school, or, as we’ve already demonstrated, by Brecht and Pirandello. If, on the contrary, the ‘not-we’ is necessarily always already formalised as antagonistic subjectivity, the first task of any fraternity is combat, the object of which is the destruction of the other. One will then announce that whoever is not with the Party is against it, that the left must terrorise the centre to defeat the right, or that an artistic avant-garde must seek out dissidence and isolation so as not to be ‘alienated’ within the society of the spectacle.

At the heart of the century, and for reasons pertaining to the anti-dialectics of any primordial duality, the properly dialectical contradiction between formalisation and destruction plays itself out. It is this contradiction that Mao gave shape to, in an altogether innovative text, by distinguishing the antagonistic contradictions – which are in fact anti-dialectical or without synthesis – from the contradictions within the people, which bear on how the antagonistic contradictions themselves are to be dealt with, and in the end concern the choice between formalisation and destruction. Mao’s essential directive is never to treat the ‘contradictions at the heart of the people’ in an antagonistic manner, to resolve the conflict between formalisation and destruction by means of formalisation.

This is perhaps one of the most profound lessons, but also one of the most difficult, that the century has bequeathed to us.

The Young Trotsky Discovers the Class Basis of Zombies

"Another scene he was to remember was that of a group of labourers coming from the fields, in the twilight, with uncertain steps and with their hands stretched out in front of them - they had all been struck by night-blindness from undernourishment."

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed: Trotsky 1879-1921 (Verso, 2003), p. 9.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Carl Schmitt and the Death of Politics

In his forthcoming The Century, Alain Badiou proposes that, in order to bypass the specular innocence which liberalism produces by branding Nazism as a kind of unthinkable Evil and absolute Crime, and to avail ourselves of effective means to make its return impossible, we should think through National Socialism as a form of political thought. In this respect, it is worth looking at one of the rare instances of a rigorous (juridico-political) ‘internal’ formulation of National-Socialism, Carl Schmitt's 1933 essay State, Movement, People.

That these theses arose from an attempt to counter the dissolution of the political in the plurality of interests, a tendency coextensive with the doctrine of liberal parliamentarianism, qualifies Schmitt’s thought not only as an exemplary case of the 20th century’s practical and speculative limitations but also as a necessary point of transit for any thorough reckoning with the contemporary standing of the problem and the place of politics.

Schmitt’s concept of the political is indeed an offspring of the century, and indirectly, of the trenches that gave rise to the (otherwise incommensurable) literary gestures of the likes of Karl Kraus and Ernst Jünger. We could even say that Schmitt’s project lies in the transformation of the intensity of combat into the condition for a critique of the cacophony of doxa and the masquerade of petty interests. If the question governing Schmitt’s thought can be stated as What is a political entity?, then it is a question firmly rooted in the paradigm of war, but precisely in a war whose political character requires reassertion. This much is starkly stated in The Concept of the Political: The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy. It is the most extreme consequence of enmity. It does not have to be common, normal, something ideal, or desirable. But it must nevertheless remain a real possibility for as long as the concept of the enemy remains valid. The dissolution of the political in the impurity or intensity of violence is countered by Schmitt with the thesis that only in the assumption of war as possibility does politics attain autonomy. But can the political withstand this variation on the paradigm of war, without once again being overcome by the opacity of violence? Any answer must turn to the structure, the topology of the Schmittian position.

Given that the categories of the political must themselves remain autonomous, it appears that the only ‘substance’ of the political entity, the friend, is its standing as the instance of a ‘dualisation’: the friend declares itself in the same act whereby it declares its enemy; it decides itself and its other. Politics is born of the Two, the Two of the possibility of killing. Again and again, Schmitt will affirm that this ‘dualisation’ is unique and autonomous – whilst any opposition can be politicized by the possibility of killing, the substance of the political can never be drawn from anywhere other than the decision, from the ‘insubstantial’ possibility of killing.

This stance is informed by Schmitt’s abiding disdain for any abstract normativity, his insistence on the fact that the political (and its juridical effects) can only be thought in situ. Now, the Hobbesian consequence is that whilst there is indeed a political entity, the friend, more specifically, the state of the friend, there is no political domain. If politics is conflict, dualisation, then it depends on the decision regarding the Two, but this very decision precludes any experience of the political. Paradoxically, once the political, in the form of the state of friends and/or of the state sovereign, determines itself in dualisation, it disappears as a domain.

The political is not merely the drawing of the line which distinguishes friend and enemy, norm and exception, it is in a sense this line itself, and nothing but this line. The political itself, like the sovereign, becomes what Schmitt called a ‘borderline concept’. In a sort of transcendental topology of the political (later carried over into the realm of geopolitics, as in the post-war The Nomos of the Earth), the political decision is the one that decides upon the domain (in Schmitt’s fundamentally reactionary framework: the state) but precisely insofar as the domain itself must be made safe from the extremity of conflict. This liminal autonomy of the political turns into the death of politics. The political is the dark side of the state, a state predisposed to the disposing of men.

But defining the political at the limits of the state is not enough. Even if the basic entity, the object of Schmitt’s juridico-political inquiry remains the state, the political entity only arises in the situated response to the question: Who decides? For a thinker for whom intensity was not a category of the new, danger becomes the only criterion of true decision. The political decision, and therefore the political entity, thus appears to possess two sides, two moments. Firstly, is there danger? Must the norm be suspended to cope with this danger? This beckons the figure of the sovereign. Secondly, who is dangerous? Who reveals the possible need to kill? Thus appears the enemy (and the friend). Note that both these questions presuppose the existence of the political entity. The political decision as such presupposes itself, it is the real, extreme, possibility of its ‘normal’ substance. And indeed, without this substance the coincidence of friend and sovereign in the bosom of the state, which, for Schmitt, constitutes the problem of democracy, would not obtain. Schmitt’s adherence to the Nazi party, crowned by the publication in the same year of State, Movement, People , signals the recognition of a solution, in a concrete situation, as he would have it, of a set of theoretical difficulties.

The first addition to Schmitt’s position, as evidenced by the title, is the tripartite distinction which distinguishes the political subject (the NSDAP and the SA), its administrative-institutional apparatus (the State), and the non-political body politic (the population). Whilst all three constitute the State in the extended sense, this is a first determination of the very subject of politics. Who decides? The party, for the people, through the State. The reciprocal determination of these three components radically enhances the scope of the political. The new, in the form of a global suspension of the norm in favour of permanent norm-making, irrupts into Schmitt’s thinking. Once the exception becomes a state, the decision is no longer exceptional. But the problem remains, how is the political decision a decision of the political entity for the political entity. Or, how is Nazism to be a ‘sovereign democracy’? Schmitt’s solution, that is, the Nazi solution, is, with the party as subjective element of political action, to equate the sovereign with the Führer, the friend with the race. Whence the heading of the crucial fourth section of Schmitt’s essay, The Principle of Leadership [Führerprinzip] and the Identity of the Race: Fundamental Concepts of National-Socialist Right. If the political is, in the last instance (and in the Nazi case, in every instance) a matter of the decision on enmity, and such a decision must be made in situation, not according to abstract principles or transcendent norms, then the right based on this decision must be based on the transitivity, or, more strongly, the immanence of sovereign and friend. This is indeed exactly what is stated in the 1933 essay with regard to the Führerprinzip: It is a concept of an immediate contemporaneousness and of a real presence. For this reason it includes, as a positive requirement, an unconditional racial identity (Artgleichkeit) between the Führer and the partisans. On racial identity rests the continual and infallible contact between the Führer and the partisans as well as their reciprocal fidelity.

The affirmation of the political, with enmity and exception as its specific traits, thus culminates with the National-Socialist thesis of the identity of Führer and race. It is at this apex of course that the political must, once again, become indiscernible from its opposite, that the autonomy of the political becomes the sovereignty of the biopolitical. To counter the concrete interests cloaked in the abstractions of liberalism with the real possibility of the political decision, Schmitt must, while inadvertently confessing the strictly political, decisionistic character of the Nazi state, naturalize the political, so as to draw from the concrete situation the substance of right. Whether in conservative or totalitarian garb, Schmitt’s affirmation of the political in terms of the rights of exception collapses into a depoliticization, into an obliteration of antagonism as complete as it is radical. Is this the price to be paid for thinking the political in situation? Are the primacy of the political and the affirmation of conflict doomed to such a catastrophic destiny? The fact that Schmitt’s theories, and his decision of fidelity to National-Socialism, were founded on a critique of the very liberalism that today reigns hegemonic makes facing his legacy all the more urgent. To do so demands that an emancipatory politics determine its own criteria of antagonism, and its own criteria of decision, to both counter and cut with the fundamentally statist, ethnocratic and transcendent criteria of Schmitt's vision of the political.

ADDENDUM: Some interesting reflections on Schmitt, the law, and in/determinacy at Law and Disorder (April 02, 2006 entry).

Monday, May 01, 2006