Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Transindividuality, Equaliberty, Short-Circuit: Notes on the Recent Thought of Etienne Balibar

Two words, or concepts, stand out in Etienne Balibar’s recent philosophy. The first that comes to mind, although it is not the most conspicuous, is transindividuality. This term, although associated with the work of Gilbert Simondon, is positioned by Balibar between two ways of understanding the relation between the individual and society. The first considers the individual to be immediately given, society, or the state, is then nothing other than the sum total of the effects of individual wills, actions, and decisions. Opposed to this idea is the conception of society, culture, or the state as an organic or functional totality, determining and constituting the individuals and subjects it requires. Balibar traces these two positions throughout the history of philosophy, in which the myriad different positions in philosophy were cast into two poles: the individual or society, freedom or totality.

More to the point for Balibar is the idea that transindividuality is a way out of this impasse, out of this deadlock, which posits the individual or society as the starting point, reducing everything to its will or functions. Transindividuality is not so much a third way, but a way of thinking the unavoidable interrelation of the other two. Transindividuality underscores the fact that individuation is always individuation in and of a particular collectivity. Balibar develops this argument specifically with respect to Spinoza (in part influence by Alexandre Matheron’s monumental study, which developed the idea of “transindividuality” avant la lettre), but he also finds the idea in Marx, Freud, and (with some reservations) Hegel. Spinoza’s thought, with its general orientation of “not opposed but different” seems to be a useful and necessary figure for overcoming persistent dualisms; with Balibar’s focus on transindividuality we can add individual and society to the more well known oppositions between God and nature and mind and body, the oppositions that Spinoza overcomes, or at least displaces through his anomalous position. As Balibar argues there is a certain sense in which Spinoza argues that everything that exists is an individual, defined by its particular conatus, or striving, but this individual is itself affected to act in a determinate manner by its relations with others. The individual is not opposed to the collective but is a modification of it, and vice versa.

The second, and much more prominent concept, is equaliberty. Unlike transindividuality, which is situated across the long durée of philosophical anthropology, equaliberty is specifically set against the philosophical cold war in which equality and liberty were seen as opposed political values: either one had equality and one did not have liberty (in the case of the Soviet Union) or one had liberty without equality (the US). Balibar develops this idea by showing how each of these ideas ended up contradicting themselves in practice. Equality without liberty negates itself, there are always “those more equal than others,” the party officials who are entitled to the goods and services denied to the regular members of society. The same could be said of liberty without equality; here we could take as our example the US, the myriad rights, to speech, to run for office, for a fair trial, all of which mean very different things, or little at all, given unequal access to resources and money. As much as one might search for an origin of equaliberty in the hallowed texts of political philosophy, Balibar’s favorite example is the overlap of “man” and “citizen” in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” it is a concept which is actually based on the history of struggles, a history which has demonstrated the impossibility of liberty without equality and vice versa.

That is the insurrectional side of this history, Balibar also argues that there is a constitutive side, in which various third terms are presented as mediations of this tense relationship, community (or fraternity) and property as ways of holding together equaliberty. However, I am less interested in this now than in pointing out a particular similarity between equaliberty and transindividuality. As Balibar argues with respect to equaliberty, underscoring the connection between equality and liberty, even those liberties, those rights, that remove one from the state, the rights to privacy and property, are only possible given a collective insurrection, in their initial construction, and collective support and recognition, in their ongoing institution. The right to privacy, to separation from the eyes and ears of the community, requires a collective recognition of this right. There is thus a transindividual basis of this right. However, Balibar generally restricts the problem of transindividuality to the consideration of the texts of Spinoza and Marx, preferring to relate the discussion of equaliberty to the conflictual history of the citizen. There is a structural echo of sorts between the two concepts, between the ontology of transindividuality and the politics of equaliberty, but they are primarily demonstrated and developed separately. (I should point out that this statement is not based on a thorough survey of Balibar’s works. I recently read La Proposition de l’égaliberté but have not read Violence et Civilité yet. Both books came out in the last year). However, and I am considering this as more of a hypothesis, the ontology does not so much found the politics as refracted from a different perspective. Equaliberty is not based on some essence, but the actual existing limitations of practice, but these limitations can only be seen through a fundamental shift in vocabulary, or ontology.

All of this is complicated by the addition of the economic, or political economy, as a third term to ontology and politics. Included in the book on equaliberty is Balibar’s essay on Macpherson’s concept of “Possessive individualism.” (This essay, like a few others in the book, has appeared before and was even translated into English. The published version here has been revised.) Balibar discusses Marx as one of the reversals of “possessive individualism” noting that for Marx, unlike Locke, labor is an originally transindividual. There is no work without cooperation, reflection, and a division of tasks. To argue that labor is originally transindividual, rather than the foundation of individual activity and property, does not so much resolve the issue, mediating between the ontological and political, but opens up new problems. As Balibar demonstrates with respect to his remarks about neoliberalism, the economic as much as the political is the site of the contestation and destruction of transindividuality. The transindividual relations of work can always become the basis for exploitation and private appropriation. Or to cite one of Balibar’s earlier passages, itself based on a reading of a dense passage from Volume Three of Capital, work as a transindividual relation is also a political relation, even if the terms of struggle and conflict are different.

“...the work relation (as a relation of exploitation) is immediately and directly economic and political; and the form of the “economic community” and the State “spring” simultaneously (or concurrently) from this “base”...In other words, the relations of the exploitation of labor are both the seed of the market (economic community) and the seed of the state (sovereignty/ Servitude). Such a thesis may and must seem blunt and debatable when looked at from a static perspective...However, the thesis can become singularly more explanatory if the notion of “determination” is given a strong sense, that is, if it is considered as the conducting wire to analyze the transformational tendencies of the market and the bourgeois State in the past two centuries or, even better, following the best “concrete analysis of Marxism, to analyze the critical conjunctures which punctuate this tendentious transformation and which precipitate its modifications.”

I do not have a conclusion here, and the problems that I am developing are intended for a larger project, but it seems to me that the problem has to do thinking the relation of separation and identity of the transindividual: transindividuality not so much as ground, but as transversal problem, crossing ontology, economy, and politics.

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