philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Possibility of Politics

A convergence of several different lines of thought has led me to contemplate a question: what makes politics possible at all?

One line was drawn from my international trade class, in which we've been working on a fictive declaration for a non-oppressive and non-detrimental approach to trade and international relations in general. The first thing we discussed, and this ended up taking so much time that we had to cut it short and move on, was the unit of analysis in economics. The major dichotomy in economic theory and political science on this issue is between individual persons and nation-states. As you might expect, no one in our group found either of these alternatives adequate, but that begs the question: where does analysis begin, and following from that, what becomes of the person and the state?

We talked about possible candidates for a proposed new unit, ranging from communities and affinity groups to institutions in general. Eventually, it came up that perhaps this issue, while not unimportant, was excessively academic for a document whose intended audience would be average everyday people, be they in 'North' or 'South' countries. We ended up including some brief comment on focusing on institutions, but dropped the question for the most part. Yet I couldn't help but wonder whether this approach was presumptuous, perhaps even condescending.

To be fair, this was just a class exercise with a limited scope and length of time, and it was probably for the best that we moved on. Yet if we had been working on some real project, say, for an activist group of some kind, I suspect a similar tendency would take over. "We're talking to real people, we should talk about concrete issues, not intellectual squabbles." Why is there this dominant assumption that discussing theoretical issues, such as the unit of analysis, will alienate the majority of 'average' people? We all agreed that the issue was important, but there seemed to be an unspoken sentiment that it was best kept confined to academic circles. I find this to be an extremely condescending position: don't worry about that, don't think to hard, we'll take care of these things, you just go about your everyday life.

Perhaps it is the case that average people don't care, can't be bothered, or wouldn't understand such 'high and mighty' discourse, but I don't think it is. In fact, this notion of the 'average person' itself already assumes a standard unit of analysis, doesn't it? For that matter, so does democracy; insofar as democracy depends upon a demos, that is, a population taken together as an entity, it thereby depends upon a standard unit it can apply to the group, and thereby 'count' the population. This strips the individual of all singularity, all possibility of producing a difference that would exceed or escape the collective entity (the political system), substituting a regularity, a normality, an identity. The problem isn't that existing democracies are corrupt or have been co-opted by illegitimate power; on the contrary, as Zizek so often says in his political articles, what we have now is democracy tried and true. We shouldn't be looking for a more original or authentic form of democracy, but thinking otherwise, toward another possible politics.

What does all this mean? To return to my original question, I've been suspecting that looking at possibility and the conditions for possibility is the wrong approach. In a sense, any possible politics depends upon a difference, a specifically political difference, but this is not enough, it begs the question of this difference and leaves our real orientation with a vague formal shell. Instead, if we are to take hold of the rich potentialities open to this orientation, we must ask what are the conditions of the reality of politics. It is not enough to recognize political difference as an empty form of possibility - political difference must be made, it must be realized, and this can only be achieved through an experimental engagement with the real. Every orientation, every politic, every political actor or unit, is unstrippably unique, and its conditions must likewise be approached as such. There is no general politics, no general subject of politics, no 'average person', and hence every politic and every subject is singular, composed of singular points and passions.

Approaching 'depoliticized' orientations, groups, actors, would thereby necessitate an experimental approach to constructing a politics; not the imposition of values the group is presumed to understand, and to take or leave, but the creation of immanent evaluations between them, and that means between the group and the 'activists' who engage them in the first place. This entails a constant problematization of encounters and engagements, a constant openness to new connections, prerogatives, and catalysts, and a constant negotiation and navigation of complex arrangements or territories. This whole approach that criticizes 'liberal' or 'leftist' or 'radical' groupthink misses the point entirely: we shouldn't be trying to 'think for ourselves' any more than we should 'think for the cause'; we should rather be focused on making thought think in the first place, producing a unique way of thinking within every arrangement or orientation. It is the navigation of the space between these complex arrangements that becomes the objective of politics, a navigation that necessitates a cautious and creative engagement with unstrippably singular problems.

This points to an approach to the question of the unit of analysis: analysis should begin with the singular arrangements constellated by the problem or problems being analyzed - processual arrangements that underlie every concrete individual, be they persons, states, institutions, ecosystems, markets, communities, or even particular transactions, interactions, or conversations. This is the renewed sense of methodological individualism DeLanda proposes in A New Philosophy of Society: 'individual' must be taken in the sense of individuation, a process of individuation bound up in a concrete machinic arrangement, a self-consistent and autopoietic agglomeration.

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