Monday, May 18, 2020

Writing Rifts: On Balibar's Écrits I and II

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I am influenced by the work of Etienne Balibar. His work has profoundly shaped my published work. I have even considered writing a book on Balibar, and have dedicated a few notes to what the book would entail. A provisional title of this book is Etienne Balibar: A Study of the Unity of his Thought. The title is stolen from Lukács’ book on Lenin.

The reason for such a title is that I want to make a claim that underneath Balibar’s seemingly disparate studies of Marx, Spinoza, and Locke as well as his interventions with respect to the nation, citizenship, violence, and so on there is a unified philosophical and political project, albeit one attuned to the specifics of the given conjuncture. In other words, as much as there is unity it is just as important that this unity is not stated in the form of a system. There is a larger point that I cannot go into here, but part of the Althusser effect is a division between those philosophers of the system, namely Badiou and Rancière, even if their system is one of the event or conjuncture, and philosophers of the conjuncture, Balibar and Macherey. The later two are less well known at least in the Anglo-American world, and I am convinced that this has to do with their interventions, framed less in terms of some grand system than a series of interventions around conceptual problems, violence, utopia, the university, or, conjunctures. 

These thoughts of unity and difference return in treading the first two volumes of Balibar’s Écrits, Histoire Interminable: D’un siècle l’autre and Passions du Concept: Épistemologie, théologie et politique. What strikes me about reading these two volumes, of a projected six total, is not just how much they reveal this unity, often in its construction, but how well they are unified as individual texts, forming more like books on the topic in question rather than just disparate essays.

Of the two books I was surprised to see that Balibar had enough to constitute a volume on history even if I had read a few of the pieces before. I just always thought of Balibar as more historically informed than an actual writer on history, but the first volume makes clear that those two things are more or less indissociable.The collection on history begins with the assertion, borrowed from Spinoza, “History, that is politics and (Politics, that is history).” The essays that follow, on World War One, the October Revolution of 1917, May ’68, and Algierian independence attempt to think the intersection of politics and history, the determination of politics by history and history by politics. Or to put in a more Spinozist frame, politics does not exist outside of the historical determinations and conjunctures, and history does not exist of political struggles.

As the subtitle makes clear, the book on history is organized around the transition of two different centuries, the twentieth and the twenty-first. The twentieth is defined by World War One and the October Revolution, two events that set both the terms and the powers of the political conflicts of the twentieth century. Balibar's essay on WWI, "A War that is Never Past," considers the myriad political and conceptual effects of the great war, the way it defined Europe and the nation, but also the way in which it was the source of Freud's death drive, of the exterminist dimension of politics, and the internal limit to civilization itself. It the first world war sets the term for the dominant powers of the twentieth century then the October revolution sets the terms for its contestation, for revolution and counter-revolution. The various attempts to repeat the October revolution are also attempts to revisit it, to return to its internal limitations. 

Balibar's remarks of a twentieth century shaped by nationalism, colonialism, and revolution are interesting, but not exactly surprising. What is perhaps more interesting is how Balibar frames the twenty-first. A seemingly throwaway line in his discussion of the May '68 in some sense introduces this discussion. As Balibar asserts, 

"When I explain today to an audience of young students what was the cultural context of May '68, I often say that the "bourgeoisie" against which the revolt had been led does not exist any in our day: it has disappeared in the last years of our century with the triumph of financial capitalism and its mode of distribution of power and revenue, creating a class of the super-rich which no longer have any pretention of distinction but solely consumption, whether in discrete or (more often) ostentatious forms."

The bourgeoisie in its expanded form, of both class and culture, is what in some sense held May '68, bringing together students and workers, critique of the domination of culture and the exploitation of capital. Losing the bourgeoisie means losing the condition of one particular articulation of politics. The passage also alludes to what has emerged in its place, not just financial capital but what Balibar calls "absolute capitalism." Balibar turns his attention to this in the last pages of the book, in an essay titled "Regulations, insurrections, utopias: for a 'socialism' of the twenty first century." In this final essay of the first volume, Balibar tries to forecast the conditions of revolution in the twenty-first century the same way which the struggle of European colonial powers in the First World War was the condition for the revolutions of the twentieth. 

I am not going to do justice to the entire argument here, but one of the conditions, what defines this "absolute capitalism" is the loss of the revolutions of the twentieth. Or, as Balibar, puts it, such a capitalism is postsocialist, postcolonial, and ultra-industrial. Without any outside it comes even stronger against its own limitations, its own destruction and self-destruction. It is a bit of a stretch, but Warren Montag's recent interview on Covid-19 provides an illustration of what this absolute capitalism looks like in the current conjuncture, all social rights and norms have been jettisoned in favor of the stark relation between capitalist and worker.  As Montag writes, "The defense of life against a suicidal and genocidal capitalism could be the basis of a new struggle for socialism." This sentiment is not too far from Balibar's claim that we are confronting a capitalism which is increasingly unchecked by opposition. 

Ultimately, and this is going to be a quick summation of the first volume,  Politics as history is a way to rethink and redeploy familiar concepts such as overdetermination and the conjuncture. The corollary of this, "history as politics" also invokes the question of knowledge.

The second volume of Balibar's Écrits, Passions du concept is made up of a series of essays and interventions, dealing with Machiavelli, Canguilhem, Badiou, Foucault, and the return to the event. Its opening "Overture" on Machiavelli takes up The Prince's famous claim that "Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and the peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes.” Balibar's investigation of this claim, and the connection it establishes between knowledge and conflict, epistemology and politics, in some sense functions as bridge between Volume One and Two. The possibility of knowledge of politics is tied with its division, with the struggle between elites and the people, rather than see this as a limit of knowledge, something that philosophy could dispense with, this conflict has to be understood as the condition of conceptualizing politics. (A version of this talk is available here in English.)

After this opening, Balibar's investigation of the passion of the concept primarily examines three intersection problems, the history of truth, the point of heresy, and actuality as determination. Balibar's essay on science and truth focuses on a particular formulation of Canghuilhem's with respect to Galileo "Being in the truth, does not mean always being true." (Être dans le vrai, cela ne signifie pas dire toujours vrai)." This distinction between being in and being true makes it possible to trace the history of scientific discoveries in which steps forward, the discoveries of new fields of knowledge are often combined with missteps and oversteps. Being in the truth is not the same as being true. There is a disequilibrium, a historicity internal to science. Much more could be said about Canguilhem, and Balibar's essay on him. It is worth noting that Canghuilhem also appears in recent books by Macherey, underscoring the importance of his work for understanding French philosophy.

This examination of the history of truth asses through different essays and problems, but it ultimately gravitates towards a reading of Foucault, which is the center piece, the Foucault of The Order of Things. Balibar had earlier remarked that he credits Foucault for the notion of "points of heresy," a notion that has framed Balibar's own aporetic understanding of the history of philosophy.  As Balibar suggests here, turning back to Foucault's own work, it is possible to understand the point of heresy less as an exception to a given epistemé, but rather its internal condition. Epistemés are not some stable or self-identical bodies of knowledge, but are nothing other than the problems and points of tension that constitute points of heresy.

More could be said of this, much more, but it is worth pointing out how the two books fit together. If the first asserts the immanence of history to politics and politics to history, in which politics is nothing other than the historical conditions and history is nothing other than the intersection of different forces, then the second reminds us of the internal historicity and tension of that immanence. Immanence is not identity. There are points of heresy in every historical moment.

This is only a brief survey of two books that are collections of different essays, my main point, and my first reaction, is that these books are remarkable in their ability to not just fill in the gaps, which is what most collections do, but to outline a consistent set of questions in what appears as a series of interventions.

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