Felipe Martínez Marzoa, 1: The Unthematizable Haunting. By Alberto Moreiras.

Some of us are about to engage in a systematic rereading of the work of Galician philosopher Felipe Martínez Marzoa over the next several months.   The comments that follow are preliminary, just a first take based on the following readings: “Estado y legitimidad” and “Estado y polis,” from Manuel Cruz ed., Los filósofos y la política, Mexico: FCE, 1999; “Problemas del Leviatán,” from FMM, Distancias, Madrid: Abada, 2011 (and some other pages in that book), and FMM, El concepto de lo civil, Santiago de Chile: Metales Pesados, 2008.   Our interest is to explore the relevance of Martínez Marzoa’s thought to the project under discussion in this blog—of course the very fact that we are reading him presupposes (our belief in) that relevance, and we must see where it might take us.

Let me start with a casual remark Marzoa makes in the introduction to Concepto. He says: “el proyecto en su propia consistencia como tal no entiende de ubicaciones específicas del tipo de lo que sería por una parte ‘filosofía política’ o quizá ‘filosofía del derecho’ o algún título emparentado y, por otra parte, otras ‘filosofías’” (5). What is not said in that understated remark is of course that his project does not want to be disciplinarily localized because its very import has to do with a massive delocalization of the totality of contemporary knowledge under the shadow of nihilism.   It is not just politics or right, science and philosophy, art and language—it is all of them that today can be thought only as effects of a massive structure, a “non-physical objectivity” that Marzoa names nihilism, obviously in the wake of Nietzsche and Heidegger in particular.   What is interesting with Marzoa is that he connects the nihilistic structure to Marx´ mature work, that is, to Das Kapital.   One of the obvious results of it is that capitalism comes to be seen as a specifically nihilistic structuration of life. Exploitation, for instance, therefore must be understood in the context of nihilism, and not the other way around. Production must be understood in the horizon of nihilism, and not the other way around. (I recently posted two reviews, one concerning Schmitt and another one concerning Althusser—they are placeholders. Both Schmitt and Althusser, and with the latter Marxism as such, are genealogically relevant for the infrapolitical project, and both must be placed under erasure in order to release their secret form—this is not Marzoa’s vocabulary, but I think it is consistent with what he aims to do.   Interestingly, his highest philosophical referent is Kant, of whose thought Distancias says, in the final page: “the One-All [that is the continuo ilimitado of the age of nihilism] must still deploy some of its internal possibilities, which is something it can only do by ‘overcoming’ (that is, by not understanding, but it is a ‘not-understanding’ different from the trivial one) a certain obstacle: the obstacle is Kant.”   I’ll say a bit more about this in a later entry.))

“Something can only be recognized by losing it” (Distancias 139). This is perhaps the most succinct characterization of Marzoa’s method.   A historical insight into something already means the vanishing of that something into history.   Thought does not appropriate, thought can only glimpse a withdrawal, it is the glimpse into a withdrawal. The various forms of the glimpse into vanishing time are structured into the constitutive glimpse of the present, also as vanishing, also in withdrawal. Once you thematize something, that something has already gone—which logically also means, we live in the unthematizable.   Thought is the attempt to dwell in historical time by thematizing the structure of its disappearance.   Now, retroactively, as some kind of enigmatic side-effect, the persistent investigation into the vanishing structures of historical time can throw partial insight into the unthematizable present, which is thereby necessarily also a partial insight into the future (the future of thought can only be the thematization of the structure of the unthematizable present.)   This is the gift of distance, a word that has pride of place in Marzoa’s work, and to which we cannot hope to do full justice here. But distance is, I believe, commensurate to the task of thought—no distance without thought, no thought without distance.

But sometimes it feels as if there is a fundamental distance Marzoa’s work thematizes, and that is the distance from community.   Community is, although not straightforwardly, projected into the origin.   This may be fundamentally unfair, but I will ask the question, tentatively in any case, any way: is history so far the story of a passage from community into nihilism?   Even if the answer were to be yes, it doesn’t of course mean community is the future too. Marzoa is no Hegelian.   But it does mean there is the shadow of an undiluted non-nihilistic origin that is associated with the thought of community. And this matters, even if it only matters because it unsettles us.   What could community be? By definition, we can only glimpse community through the many mediations of our nihilistic worldview, from which community has withdrawn fundamentally.   So my question is, what is the import of the fundamental withdrawal and dissolution of community for our thematization of modern and contemporary nihilism?

In “Estado y polis” Marzoa says: “Civil society is therefore the negation of any community, and, correspondingly, right and the State are the question of how it is possible never to have to commune with anybody on anything” (103).   But Marzoa says, in order to understand what that means, we must find a point of contrast, a comparison, and that point of contrast would be community: “Let us attempt to think . . . a situation where there obtains a certain community; this means, a situation where there would obtain some type of binding thing or content and where, conversely, the statute of commodity, or of civil society, right, and the State, would not obtain” (103).     For that he goes to Herodotus’s History, where he underlines Cyrus’ words on the Greek polis: “I have no fear of men for whom it is character that the center of their cities is constituted by an empty space to which they go to attempt to deceive each other under oath” (quoted in 105). Deceiving each other is buying and selling in the agora, which is the empty space.

The empty space is necessarily the space of a distance, a spatium, a hole in the community. Making that hole patent—this is what Cyrus’ remark, as quoted by Herodotus, does–, that distance, is insolence. But it is a momentous insolence, because it makes something relevant that has always alredy existed, it thematizes the ground on which one treads, the ground that had gone without saying.   And the reflection is: “either the community does not make itself relevant as such in any way, remains opaque to itself, but then in some way we can say that community does not exist, does not take place, because it does not make itself manifest . . . or else the community does not see itself bound to conform to its own opacity, and the binds, that is, the distance, the counterpositions, always already presupposed, are forced to be said, they make themselves relevant, and then the community certainly takes place, it certainly obtains, but it remains to be seen wether then and for that very reason what happens is that the community explodes” (106).

So, we can only thematize something at the moment of its dissolution, at the moment of its vanishing.   And this self-thematization, Marzoa says, is the polis as such. At that very moment.

In any case, this exercise concerning the vanishing community, the community as vanishing, allows us to understand that civil society, the civil society of modernity, can no longer be understood accordingly: that civil society is no polis.   Modern civil society, that is, civil society, since there is no non-modern civil society, cannot be understood through the thematization of an empty space in the middle. Rather, civil society is the thematization of an overpowering empty space understood as an unlimited continuum, where distance prevails absolutely, where no thing and no content is binding, where everything is exchangeable, where the thing has become, overwhelmingly, that is, totally, commodity. If community could be presupposed for the polis, and distance needed to make itself patent, in civil society what is presupposed is distance, that is, the non-binding character of every thing and every content.   And what must make itself patent is nihilism.

Marzoa insists therefore that there is a certain secondariness of civil society or the State, which is an integral part of civil society.   A certain secondariness: negation. Civil society is the absence, the abstention, the renunciation (111) of some other thing that has been lost, that has vanished into time.   Can we call this, as Marx does, the “democratic republic”?

There is also a belatedness of the very concept of democracy in the Greek polis.   The first struggle was not for democracy, whatever that may have meant for the Greeks in terms of demos or krátos.   The first struggle was for isonomía. Isonomía does not refer to a kind of polis, rather it is constitutive of the polis as such, it is the event itself of the polis.   Isonomía does not name authority, it rather names “something anterior and conditioning of all authority,” the very ground of authority.   Demokratia, however, is the belated naming of that ground, in favor of the demos, and this passage, from isonomía to demokratia, is already the decline and withdrawal of the polis as such—it says too much, it unbalances things into a situation where a conflict between isonomía and democratía was bound to prevail.   And it did. Socrates exemplifies it. Modern democracy finds a solution to that problem by dictating the necessary universality of the reach of the system of liberties, that is, the utter emptying out and degrounding of any binding, the absolute absence of community. Democracy in modernity is nihilistic democracy.   In the same way demokratia, by prevailing, brought about the historical end of the polis, in the same way, by prevailing the empty universality of nihilistic, civil democracy must open the way to something else. But first it needs to come into its own.

In the title for this entry I used the expression “the unthematizable haunting.”   I want to let the ambiguity of the word haunting resonate, all the way marking one of its meanings as abode or guarida or madriguera or first and most basic inhabitation, which happens to be the reconstructible first usage of ethos in the Homeric text as we said below in one of the comments to Jorge’s recent entry.   Presumably, if we are to make infrapolitics appear in the context of the discussion of Martínez Marzoa’s thought, it will be somewhere around the consideration of whatever remains unthematizable in our nihilistic history.


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