Monday, October 08, 2012

Our Nature is to Change Our Nature: Bertrand Ogilvie and Political Anthropology

"Nature and education are somewhat similar. The latter transforms man, and in so doing creates a second nature." Democritus

The idea of “second nature” is one of the longest standing philosophemes in the history of philosophy. Its origin can be traced to Democritus’ writing on education and habit and from that point onward it appears quite frequently in the history of philosophy, reappearing in the a long history of thinkers that includes Aristotle, Pascal, and Hegel. Given that the theme often asserts both a default, a lack of instinctual determination, and an excess, the possibility of constituting memory and habits, it is possible to argue that “second nature” is the concept of the human underlying any humanism. As longstanding as the concept is, however, it often functions as that which is implicit in a discussion of habit or memory, rather than an explicit theme. The philosopheme names and enacts a relation between excess and default. Bertrand Ogilvie has broken this trend, placing the concept front and center in his new book, La Second Nature du Politique: essai d’anthropologie négative. 

Ogilvie is a an author of a book on Lacan, and, more recently, L’homme jetable: essai sur l’exterminisme et la violence extrême, which forms the basis of some of Balibar’s reflections on violence. Balibar writes the introduction to the latter book and Pierre Macherey provides the introduction to the former. 

Despite the long history of the term, Ogilvie is not interested in tracing a history of the concept. He is primarily interested in how it functions today, or how it can function to articulate an understanding of politics. Ogilvie examines the idea of “second nature” according to the logic implicit in its particular oxymoron. Specifically, Ogilvie argues that second nature would have to be a break with nature, considered as an origin and foundation. To say that mankind has a second nature, can constitute itself in a second nature, is to say that humanity has no nature at all, at least as something stable. As Ogilivie writes, “There is only the human that is instituted, and not an originary privilege of essence.” Ogilvie also suggests that the concept dispenses with the end, with any finalism, or goal. (His most Spinozist point). There is neither an origin nor end, just the effects of transformations on prior transformations. 

This would be the concept in all of its radicalness, the basis for a negative political anthropology. However, this is not how the philosopheme functions historically; it has generally functioned as a way of gesturing toward culture and transformation, without ever transforming the basic idea of nature.  Second nature has been added to nature, to essence, without transforming it. This is usually done by grounding this second nature into some representation that would stabilize it, some idea of history, society, or politics. Ogilvie spends part of the book critiquing the various concepts or edifices that have constructed stability, demonstrating how second nature must necessarily rewrite society, citizen, and politics. Ogilvie returns to the famous conjunction of man and citizen in the "Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen," a text that has been read and reread from Marx to Rancière. He argues against the naturalized interpretation, making man the basis of the citizen, a point similar to Balibar. However, what makes Ogilvie's reading unique is that he ties the citizen to the emerge of anthropological thought, to the "wild boy of Averyon" and the emergence of the idea of the institution of the human.

Ogilvie’s critique is something of a political radicalization of Foucault’s famous “empirico-transcendental doublet,” the positing of humanity as empirical, conditioned, and transcendental, unconditioned. Foucault’s point was that this was necessary for the human sciences to function, posting man as both object and subject of study. Ogilvie argues that these doublets of transcendental and empirical, nature and habit run through not only the social sciences, which are historically constituted in terms of their objects and methods, but conceive of this object in terms of “human nature,” but politics. Politically we attach ourselves to ideas of rights, to timeless ideals, while simultaneously developing new modes of transforming habits, concepts, and ways of living. This can be seen as a way of reading all of Foucault’s political work, which traces the transformations of discipline and biopower, transformations invisible to the language of rights.

Second nature offers no guarantee, no way of linking these transformations to anything better. Our transformed nature can just as easily lead to genocide and mass destruction as it can to the liberation of the multitude. Here Ogilvie's writing on second nature intersects with his writing on "l'homme jetable" the disposable man of mass death that for him defines modern existence. As Ogilvie argues it is necessary to avoid both catastrophism and providentialism in any analysis of the present. It is necessary to think the current moment without any telos, any finality, negative or positive, in order to grasp its constitutive conditions. One could say, taking Italian figures as orienting points, that Ogilvie distances himself both from Negri and Agamben. (His earlier book, L'homme jetable includes an interesting reading of Spinoza's nightmare of the "scabby brasilian" one that connects it not to the consitutive power of the imagination but the unthematized horror of colonialism. Colonialism too is a conatus, a striving).

Ogilvie's thought takes place in what could be considered a general revival of philosophical anthropology. A revival that includes Virno, Balibar, and Stiegler, to name a few. What Ogilvie adds to this theoretical conjuncture is the insistence of the negative, not the negative as an apocalyptic vision of what is to come but the indetermination internal to every determination.

The title of this post is a lyric from the song "Anyone" by the obscure DC punk/blues band Kingface. This song informed my critique of invocations of human nature long before I read Marx, Foucault, etc. I could only find a recording of it from a reunion show recorded this year.

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