Thursday, May 27, 2010

From Restricted to General Antagonism: Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War

The little books of Semiotexte’s Foreign Agent Series played an absolutely formative role in my intellectual and political development. They occupied a middle ground between my official philosophical education and the anarchist and situationist zines that formed my unofficial education. The little books offered an affordable and immediate introduction to the ideas of Baudrillard, Deleuze, Foucault, etc.: intellectually stimulating, but free of the excessive scholasticism that burdens American academia. Even though some of the names have faded, Baudrillard does not do much for me nowadays, the books still have a special place in my heart.

Thus I was pleased to see Semiotexte restart the format with their Intervention series. The first of these, The Coming Insurrection, has already received so much attention from Glenn Beck that it does not need my help. I have read The Violence of Financial Capital, but I must admit that I did so very quickly, so much so that I did not get much from my reading. What I really want to talk about is Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War.

One way to approach Introduction to Civil War is to address it at the level of its synthesis. Concepts and problems from recognizable authors make an appearance: Agamben’s concept of form of life and bare life appear, but in different sense, the same could be said for Schmitt’s concepts of friend and enemy, and the whole discussion of clinamen and encounter has a vaguely Spinozist orientation. Concepts from contemporary critical thought such as the “police,” in its Foucauldian expansion, micro-politics and macropolitics, and Empire also appear, but these too are transformed. One could produce an inventory of such borrowings, cited and implied, but it seems to me that would be exactly the wrong way to read such a book. It would be an act of academic neutralization.

What then is the best way to read this Introduction? What is intending to introduce, or introduce us to? Despite the epigraph referring to Solon’s The Constitution of Athens (“Whoever does not take sides in a civil war is struck with infamy, and loses all right to politics.”) this is not a history of civil war, and its various theorizations, from the ancient Greeks to Marx on France. This is an introduction in a much stronger sense, not to what has already been said about civil war, but to civil war as an originary condition. What does this mean? As the book’s initial, almost geometrical definitions spell it out, the elementary unit of human existence is the form-of-life, not the body or individual. Every form of life is affected by a particular inclination, a taste. These inclinations determine the various encounter that forms of life, encounters that follow a logic reminiscent of Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza, in which each encounter other increases power, constituting community, or reduces it. (I know I said that I did not want to do this, but it is hard not to see the traces of Deleuze, Spinoza, Agamben, and Schmitt in this conceptualization but the point to move beyond the names, to the fundamental assertion that they make possible.) The ethico-political is this relationship of friendship or enmity, or relations that either put a form-of-life in contact with its power or distant it from it. This terrain of encounters is the originary civil war, the conflict and community of forms of life. “Civil war is the free play of forms-of-life; it is the principle of their coexistence.”

Against this fundamental coexistence and conflict the State and Empire can only be understood as attempts to neutralize the conflict. As Tiqqun write, “The modern state, insofar as it still exists, defines itself ethically as the theater of operations for a twofold fiction: the fiction that when it comes to forms-of-life both neutrality and centrality can exist.” The state emerges from civil war, which it claims to end, but only continues by other means. At this point Hobbes becomes an unavoidable point of reference. However, that obscures the particular novelty of Tiqqun’s intervention. What they would like to stress is precisely this idea of a form-of-life, an inclination, as something irreducible to bare life. This is what the stand cannot withstand, it can only govern only individuals, over lives that have renounced their inclination, becoming interchangeable. “What at the molar scale assumes the aspect of the modern state, is called at the molecular scale the economic subject.” Tiqqun’s analysis cuts through the ethical, political, and economic by focusing precisely on this relation between a life and its capacities and inclinations. What Tiqqun insist is the political can only be thought from thinking precisely what is at stake in the sheer plurality and relations of the different forms-of-life, refusing the division that separates some individual, citizen or economic subject, from its constitutive conditions and relations. This splitting is central to politics, to the state, and to philosophy. The enlightenment division between free thought and obedience is the neutralization of both. As Tiqqun write: “Gesture without discourse on the one hand and discourse without gesture on the other—the State and Critique guarantee by the techniques specific to each (police and publicity, respectively) the neutralization of every ethical difference. This is how THEY conjured away, along the free play of forms-of-life, the political itself.” Such an assertion seems like a needed return to anarchist (or anarcho-syndicalist) themes of self-government, of the necessity of the practical dimension of every idea, on the terrain of contemporary ontological speculation.

For Tiqqun Empire is a continuation of this strategy of neutralization, it is predicated on the attenuation of forms-of-life. As such it embraces conflict and crisis, making the impossibility of the state’s neutrality the condition of its rule. It governs best in situations of crisis, when the neutrality of law cannot be used. “Nothing matters less to Empire than the question, “who controls what?”—provided, of course, that control has been established.” Empire than is even less of a figure, less of a subject than the state, which was always caught between its supposed neutrality, its transcendence, and its particular location. Empire diffuses this, ruling over the conflicts as such, but defusing them at every turn, inhibiting the possibility of them becoming something other than interests to be represented, markets to be cultivated. As Tiqqun write, “Empire does not confront us like a subject, facing us, but like an environment that is hostile to us.” It is possible to think of this as an antagonism without an enemy. This is the ultimate merit of Tiqqun’s little intervention: returning the idea of conflict to the center of political thought, of a fundamental antagonism that is at once economic, ethical, and political, in an age of consensus and neutralization. I should be more specific and say that its merit has to do with the way it returns conflict to politics without lapsing into Schmittian decisionism, it ontologizes conflict, removing it from the realm of decision. Ultimately, it is an analysis that refuses both nostalgia of old forms of antagonism, a search for an enemy, for a state that could still be party to struggle, and resignation to the disappearance of antagonism. Instead it seeks to interpret the disappearance of antagonism, of struggle, as itself a form of struggle.

Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War strikes me as a necessary book, and I am tempted to ignore its shortcomings and any disagreements I might have, to ask what I see as its fundamental provocation: how construct a politics from conflict again? To revive a mode of existence that would be against the state and Empire? To ask again what it means to live a life.


Will Roberts said...

Yay! Haven't even read your post yet, but just wanted to applaud this book and your writing about it. Best damned thing I've read in a while!

Nate said...

hi Jason,
Is the book a single essay or a collection? I ask in part because I wonder if you've seen and what you (would) make of their piece "This is not a Program."
take care,

unemployed negativity said...

Nate, it is two essays, the bulk of the book is "Introduction to Civil War" and it also includes "How is to be done." I have not read a lot of the stuff by Tiqqun. I have a few print outs, but not the one that you mention.

K.A. said...

Nice post. I had admired Tiqqun's writing for some time, and would encourage you to read some of the other pieces as well (e.g. The Cybernetic Hypothesis), if for no other reason than I'd love to read your thoughts on them.

I would add though, that two things seem awry in your discussion of this piece. You wrote:

"its merit has to do with the way it returns conflict to politics without lapsing into Schmittian decisionism, it ontologizes conflict, removing it from the realm of decision. Ultimately, it is an analysis that refuses both nostalgia of old forms of antagonism, a search for an enemy, for a state that could still be party to struggle, and resignation to the disappearance of antagonism. Instead it seeks to interpret the disappearance of antagonism, of struggle, as itself a form of struggle."

1. The claim that Tiqqun overcome Schmitt's friend/enemy problem, and therefore overcome the need for this decision, seems to be roundly contradicted by the letter of their text: indeed, what is the "Tiqqun" qua process of ethical polarization (discussed in parts 1 and 5) if not the very moment in which we draw this difference between "us" and the "citizen=cops" who are our enemies? I certainly wish you were right, but actually this seems like one of the biggest difficulties of their text, as they don't give us a lot of idea of what kind of criteria mobilizes this division, if not an entirely affective or intuitive one.
2. If you'd concede the previous point, then it this is clearly not an abandonment of a politics in which locating our enemies is if not the first order of business, then a necessary one.

all the best,

Mysterioso Novelty said...

Thanks for reviewing this book. Like you, I have a fetish for semiotext volumes and I've been reading up the Intervention Series lately. I picked up "Introduction to Civil War" but what I took to be an excessive reliance on jargon turned me off. I'm taking a second look.