Notes on “Passage I: Contemporary Turmoil. Posthegemonic Epochality, or Why Bother with the Infrapolitical?,” in Gareth Williams’ Infrapolitical Passages.

(The following notes continue a previous blog entry on Infrapolitical Passages.)

The notion of an “intervallic period,” which for Badiou refers to the accomplishment of “true life” through the mediation of an Idea, is taken up again towards the end of this first passage in Antonio Gramci’s notion of the interregnum.  There is a sentence by Gramsci that has been quoted ad infinitum, everybody knows it by now, and everybody holds on to it in ways that resemble how one would hold a talisman or a personal fetish.  The sentence is, of course: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” (quoted by Gareth, 100).  The notion that we are in an interregnum is at once hopeful and appeasing.  Well, it does not much matter how badly things are going, it seems to say, because, at the end, we will witness a new dawn, there is promise, there is a light that we have not reached yet.   And that may very well be—we do not know the future.  But that is precisely the point: we do not know the future, and there is, therefore, no basis for prophecy.  Calling the present moment an interregnum is mere prophecy.  What if we give up on prophesying power?  We would then come to recognize that we have no idea what awaits us, to such an extent that it is already an illegitimate idealization to call whatever morbidities there appear in our present a symptom if what we mean is that there are symptoms of a disease that will be overcome.

Gareth sticks to the perishing: yes, we are in a time, the time of modernity, the time of the second modernity, the time of the political katechon, the time of containment, that is dying.  What we have around us is a perishing, Gareth prefers to say,that involves the main categories of the architectonics of political modernity.  It is a long perishing, protracted in time: “The perishing of that time is extending its force everywhere in the form of a generalized turmoil and perplexity while also inaugurating the demand for a different nomenclature indicating something so post-epochal and so post-sovereign in nature” that it would seem to consist of an “infinite ruination” (100).  Gareth names this, which is the deep political structure of our time, “post-sovereign decontainment” (101).  Our time is a time where capitalist discourse has intensified in ways that have overflown every possibility of a katechontic restraint in political and economic life.  Globalization does not promise, and it is therefore simple delusion for us to prophesy, “a new destiny, a new epoch of representation” (101).  Nothing guarantees it.  On the contrary, “it is capital’s gigantic quest for the ultimate spoils of [planetary] self-destruction that allows us to glimpse the unrestrained world of an absolutely decontained civil war (of stasis fully unleashed on a planetary scale), which is nothing more than the ongoing perishing, the very form of ending, of modern political space itself without an alternative sovereign order or topographical arrangement in sight, and, hence, with no enduring location from which to anchor negation, transgression, or transcendence” (98). 

Lest you jump to the conclusion that, therefore, this is a pessimist book, a book about sad and hopeless endings, read this: “to reduce our nihilist subjectivist legacies to rubble, to a point of suspension or inoperativity, is to think and write in preparation for a clearing, a renovation and potential turn in our thinking that might be capable of clearing away the subordination of freedom to the ontology of subjectivity and to the modern history of its katechontic and biopolitical deployments” (96).  The relationship of thinking and acting cannot and should not be mediated by ruined legacies, which means something else is needed.  The thematics of the closure of metaphysics, of the exhaustion of onto-theology and its categories, among which the category of the sovereign subject is or has been politically crucial, opens onto something else, an alternative quest.  This other quest is what previous sections of the book announced as both inconspicuous and tremendous, “where there might be absolutely everything at stake” (32).    

Passage I describes “a potential terminus that can take us immediately and without any apparent mediation of any kind from what Badiou calls ‘the end of the old world of castes’ . . . into the stark realities of potentially catastrophic upheaval, turmoil, and violence” (36).  It is a terminus because, rather than constituting a crisis that will pass, prompting for an adjustment in tactics and strategy, prompting for a reconstitution that will surely work and accomplish yet another moment in the linear story of progress towards a properly just and human future, this time we seem to have lost the tools, the tools are rusty and inefficient and no longer work, or they have been turned into magical tools that do the job they are not supposed to do and hammer us ever deeper into upheaval, turmoil, and violence.  This clearly involves a critique of the left in the face of “the possibility that what might be at stake now is the uncovering of a thinking of existence and world that has remained for the most part concealed within the dominant tradition of political thinking from the late 1960s onward” (37).  Why has it remained concealed?  Partly because Marxism has not been able to move from the analysis of the ontology of the commodity form and the principle of general equivalence reigns supreme even within leftist procedures and presuppositions.  “Contemporary turmoil is essentially the actuality of ongoing unconcealed and bottomless political-theological perishing experienced as the perplexity caused by the continuation of the closure of metaphysics and of the globalization of the ontology of the commodity” (42). 

Old leftist pieties have fallen because they have been sustained on an inversion and secularization of ontotheology.  The analysis of Percy Bisshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound shows how political emancipation in the second modernity was “fully consonant with the emergence of Man as the nomos of a new epoch-making empire of humanity grounded in tyrannicide and perennial conflict over the mastery of the world” (47), in which “the hegemony of the Good, of the virtuous, is the impossible humanist transvaluation of God, now with Man as the highest value predicated on the metaphysical maximization of a shared moral value, or world picture” (48).   This will no longer do.  The modern assertion of politics as emancipatory has never been able to transcend, has in fact been part and parcel of, “the actualization of a modern nihilism—an eternal recurrence of the self-willing of the subjectum” (48).   The secularization of onto-theology is still onto-theologic, and no amount of voluntarism will surmount a self-created impasse.  When it comes to voluntarism, capitalist discourse wins every time, since it embodies it.  The political demand to counter the force of capitalist discourse remains embedded within capitalist discourse and is ceaselessly engulfed by it. 

Analyzing Massimo Cacciari’s position in The Withholding Power Gareth acknowledges Cacciari’s adequate and fundamental diagnosis: “Cacciari points . . . to the fact that the contemporary order of permanent crises that we refer to as globalization is no longer the consequence of hegemony.  On the contrary, it is the thematization of the exhaustion of hegemony and of the seemingly infinite indetermination and turmoil that extends as a consequence.  It is the basis of posthegemony in action” (50).  But Cacciari can only at the end lament the passing away of modern procedures of political enablement, can only mourn them, in an impossible and implausible bid to breathe new life into them.  This is actually the tragic predicament of the contemporary left in its dominant or conventional variants.  They know the problem, they acknowledge the problem, and they believe their good will will make the problem go away, will vanquish it.  But a dead horse never runs again. 

Gareth’s intent is therefore, not to move in the direction of an alternative political position that  will simply replicate conditions.  “It is already too late,” he says (65), because the metaphysics inspiring the Promethean task of humanism has been destroyed, not by Gareth himself, but by the movement of capital in its relentless quest for absolute surplus value: “post-katechontic decontainment is the uncovering, and in the uncovering the denaturalization, of the modern metaphorical functioning of the history of Christian metaphysics, its political theology, and its modern Promethean will to power” (65).  In the face of it, political containment against the decontainment of capital is impotent: “The ideological battle between Left and Right is now staged as a human destinal battle between the will to power of subjectivity versus the will to power of subjectivity . . . On both sides it is a battle to the death for the endurance of the subjectivism of the I of the I endure.  But the perishing that underlies all duration is manically—and unsuccessfully—concealed” (66). 

The analyses that show all this are too rich to be reproduced, even to be summarized: they can be read in the book.  They include a presentation of the idea of the katechon in Paul’s letters, and a sustained deconstruction of first Gramsci and then Ernesto Laclau’s notion of hegemony.   The idea is to move, through them, “to the possibility of an alternative place from which to think the limits of the political and the possibility of a turn away from the ontology of the subject” (52).  Imagine, then, that you are some version of Hercules at the crossroads, and a little Eros figure asks you to choose between the two Venuses, the one on the right, and the one on the left.   Imagine, even, that you have already given up on the notion of moving toward any kind of embrace of the rightist Venus, that the Venus on the right knows it, and that what she suggests to you is seducingly different.  Would you then choose the left Venus, and with it the path of the political demand that will take you into the endless rehearsing of an impossible hegemonic fight along voluntaristic lines, or would you rather choose the right Venus, who has disguised herself in sacred robes and promises, rather, total contemplation, total singularity, total privatization of existence.   But would it not be better to refuse the choice, to tell Eros to go jump in the lake, to call the two Venuses ugly, and to proceed to a step back and an interrogation of what the very alternative Eros proposed to you, already contaminated by its own disaster, conceals?  This alternative place of thought, and of action, is not the easiest.  It is uncertain at best, it is a leap.  But it is a leap worth taking: not a leap into the Hegelian rose of the world, which is a trap, the rose is populated by worms, but into an abyss—the unthought, the unseen—that brokers no presentation. 

But it is better to let Gareth speak for himself:

The task . . . is no longer to remetaphorize the katechon and therefore metaphysics, but to learn to become attuned to where the perishing of the modern katechon leaves us; to think not counter to the space of permanent crisis without respite or amnesty, but in light of it.  The task is not to rile against the shattering of the bond between God and man in the name of law and order.  It is to accept the death of God and of the Promethean humanism that has only ever been God’s enlightened cultural sojourn on earth.  This allows us to understand the closure of metaphysics as the unleashing of limitless turmoil at the level of the signifier and obliges us to take that destructive/creative energy seriously in order to think from within it, as opposed to thinking in denial of it, or in spite of it, in the utopian hope of its pacification or in the neo-fascist turn against it, which is actually its glorification. (73)