Is There an Infrapolitical Dignity Worthy of the Name? By Gareth Williams.

Rome dignitas

Geoffrey Bennington, Scatter 1: The Politics of Politics in Foucault, Heidegger and Derrida. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016.

My presentation is framed as a question, but is simply an attempt to think alongside scatter, with no definitive response to the question itself. I would like to begin by expressing my gratitude to Alberto Moreiras for this gathering, and my admiration to Geoffrey Bennington for Scatter 1, which, via the “politics of politics” in Foucault, Heidegger and Derrida, posits a thinking not of the political per se, but of a certain autoimmune distance from the political, which is, of course, a distance from politics understood as the dialectical orientation and administration of force. Bennington proposes a dismantling of the hermeneutics of the political, and, as such, a deconstruction of the originary polemos/polis relation. He does this in such a way as to unveil—that is, to loosen and scatter—just some of the originary concealments that lie at the heart of the political. Bennington presents us with what one might call, perhaps a little inappropriately, a form of anticipatory resoluteness that is extended, however, not in the name of power over Dasein’s existence, as in Heidegger’s not so surreptitious decision, but in the name of autoimmunity. This movement uncovers a “modest falling short of the transcendental”; the potentiality of a turn toward a thinking of autoimmunity that traces the contours of a thinking without mastery; an opening to a certain environmentality within thinking that remains at a significant remove from the dialectic of reason and the certainties of political consciousness that animate every teleology.

We could understand Scatter1, therefore, as a protocol of reading that highlights, and animates, a certain trembling at the heart of the political; a trembling that is covered over, concealed, and systematically rendered oblivious in the name of teleology. Bennington’s is a protocol that is extended with a view to dispersing all fugitive Self-Other concealments. This is obviously not the work of a card carrying Heideggerian, however. Quite the contrary, the author proposes the detours of scatter in such a way as to open up a task for thinking that does not regurgitate Heidegger’s troublesome metaphorics of proximity and gathering; a metaphorics that Derrida in May ‘68 (“The Ends of Man”), but also in his lectures from a few years before On the Question of Being and History, had already outlined as a thinking of “simple and immediate presence, a metaphorics associating the proximity of Being with the values of neighboring, shelter, house, service, guard, voice and listening” (“Ends, 130). As Derrida highlights in reference to Heideggerian metaphorics, this is “not an insignificant rhetoric” (130).

With this in mind, Scatter 1 takes aim at the underlying problems of the “moment of vision” (Augenblikt), which Heidegger developed with a view to anchoring and holding together the factical and the transcendental, the existential and the existentiell; the gathering together of all thrownness, dispersal and ek-sistence. In contrast to Heidegger’s moment of vision, Bennington invites us to approach the politics of politics in the absence of such a problematic metaphorics, in the process raising the question of metaphoricity in general, and along with it the very conceivability of plurality, coexistence and simultaneity.

Echoing Derrida’s “differance”, Scatter 1 offers its readers the tomb of the proper, the death of the tyranny contained in Heidegger’s metaphysics of gathering and proximity (Derrdia, 1972, 4). As such, the politics of politics unveils an economy of death that lies at the heart of the metaphorics of the familial and the proper. Rather than positing presence, scatter loosens, breaches and breaks open in a movement toward the politics of politics; politics in its autoimmune self-difference, or alter. The politics of politics marks not the sign politics, but the sign of the sign, and therefore the opening to the unveiling trace of the erasure of the trace itself. As a result, Scatter is the movement of an autoimmune destitution of political presence that moves in the name of an economy without reserve, always preceding and differentiating itself from the political.

In these movements the politics of politics governs nothing. If it is anything, scatter is the name for that which “lingers in the expanse of unconcealment” (Derrida,”Ousia and gramme), and, as such, in the expanse of the trace of the erasure of the trace. Scatter is a thought of lingering and of falling short. Making the unveiling of oblivion the issue not of politics, but of the politics of politics, scatter suspends teleology from the start, in the name of always, humbly, and necessarily, falling short of gathering. As such, it remains at all times without a kingdom and without an epoch; as Derrida observes in reference to differance, which remains at all times the underlying movement of scatter, it is an “affirmation foreign to all dialectics” (27). As a result, there is no philosophy of bios and zoe available to us here; there is no affirmative biopolitics in scatter. Rather, it is thinking in the name of blind tactics, empirical wandering (Derrida, 7), and the circumventing of the willful politics of the decision, of any specific political consciousness, and of the operation or action of a subject on an object. In scatter sovereignty is nothing and the only democracy worthy of the name would be an-archic.

This is, of course, a fundamental project for our times, understanding our times as our atrocious, forced familiarity with a seismic shift in the coordination of teleology and eschatology that we have come to call globalization. Half a century ago, in “The Ends of Man”, Derrida first approached the question of dignity and democracy, highlighting the following limit: “What is difficult to think today is an end of man which would not be organized by a dialectics of truth and negativity, an end of man which would not be a teleology in the first person plural” (121). Fifty years later our phrasing would have to be slightly different, since that limit evoked by Derrida has been displaced by the globalizaton of techne and the determination of humanity as standing reserve. In these dire circumstances, we might now have to say that what is difficult to think is an end of man that could possibly be organized by a dialectics of truth and negativity, an end of man that could possibly be a teleology in the first person plural, other than that which leads to the eschaton of complete nomic collapse, of course.

It is in this context that Bennington returns to Derrida’s approach to, and distancing from, the Kantian stipulation that a dignity “worthy of the name” be returned to politics, in such a way that a new politics—a repoliticization, another concept of the political—be forged in which rational beings are treated always as an end, “and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will” (Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals). What is ultimately at stake (and this is inevitable in this proposition) is the aporia of a political re-instrumentalization of man as an end in itself, rather than as a value, even though dignitas is only ever an expression of value—of a certain auctoritas—and, as such, the expression of a certain property of the State. The question of force still, and perhaps only ever, haunts this attempt to make room for, and to distance oneself from, dignity in the politics, property and titles of the State.

Bennington asks: “Is it possible to think of a dignity that is not bound up in (and, one might be temped to say, compromised by) the teleological structures of the Kantian Idea?” It is this question that leads to the question of the structure of (in)dignity—the constitutive indignity—that upholds “the supposed dignity of [all] metaphysical concepts”. From an infrapolitical, rather than from a classical political perspective, what is at stake here is how to try to make room not for dignity in real politics, and therefore in the administration of force (auctoritas), but to let the dignity of a remove from the metaphysics of force (that is, a constitutive indignity) be involved in existence. With this question of constitutive indignity in mind, we are left to wonder if there is an infrapolitical inflection—an inflection that is without doubt akin at all times to the protocols of deconstruction, but that is not necessarily bound by the protocols of deconstruction—; I repeat, is there an infrapolitical inflection available to us that might allow us to reckon with the distance from auctoritas, from the property titles of the State or the dignity of metaphysics, from a site other than that of the Kantian inheritance that Derrida reckons with from “The Ends of Man” (1968) all the way through to the end itself in 2004?

At this point I will merely offer an example, and that, precisely, is the weakness of everything that follows (though in Specters of Marx Derrida notes that “an example always carries beyond itself; it opens up a testamentary dimension” (41). I wonder, then, whether in the example there lies the problem and possibility of an infrapolitical inflection that turns away from the political, and turns in the direction of allowing that the dignity of a remove from force be involved not in politics, but in existence.

Of all people, it is Cicero the elderly statesman who might exemplify such an inflection. In a brief essay published in 1960, the Oxford classicist J.P.V.D. Balsdon recounts Cicero’s return from exile and ultimate political capitulation in 56BC, when, in the face of “the prolonged triumph of gangsterdom which followed his exile” (49), Cicero found himself obliged to turn his back on the dignity and prestige of a public life. He had become an ineffective pariah in the motley world of populist resentment. What is at stake in Balsdon’s treatment of this moment in the history of the Republic are the slight shifts in Cicero’s uses of the terms dignitas and otium, together, at this particular time of capitulation and relinquishment.

In general, the term otium referred to the private or retired, as opposed to active public, life. However, in public life otium could also refer to peace and freedom from disturbance, or relief after war and internal disorder (47). It referred to a form of serenity or harmony in the wake of war. Upon Cicero’s political capitulation, Balsdon says, “the opening remark of the De Oratore, [signaling pseudos] which was finished in 55, introduces the new conception ‘cum dignitate otium’. ‘Otium’ is now retirement, the condition of the elder statesman who turns his back on the political. His active political life, his consulships and proconsulships are at an end (49). “Battling through the stormy seas of popular agitation”, observes Balsdon, Cicero had to “make for a different harbor . . . ‘cum dignitate otium’” (50). For the classicist Balsdon this is a harbor of studious relief from disturbance, freedom from agitation, and relief after war and internal disorder, for “persistence in opposition which was doomed to ineffectiveness would not, for the Roman world at large, promote “cum dignitate otium’” (50).

Learning to turn one’s back on the political in order to exist “cum dignitate otium”, learning to be without or in the absence of the dignitas of auctoritas, and, as a result, detouring back toward the constitutive indignity of the pre-political, and doing so while understanding at all times the agitations of the world of force, Cicero would have confronted and suffered the weight of a dignity uprooted from all titles of community. This would have been a dignity without dwelling in political life, and therefore not entirely worthy of its name, since at the same time it would have been a return to a constitutive indignity that was destined to always fall short of the political metaphysics of gathering, of majesty, or of any harbor.

Surely Cicero would have lived it as a “sad or sober pragmatic renunciation of some fuller version of dignity”, as Bennington puts it at the end of Scatter. But perhaps one could speculate that it is here—“cum dignitate otium”, in the infrapolitical turn back to a constitutive indignity that is exposed to real and symbolic death itself—that one could learn to exist, think, and write in an infrapolitical rather than a political fashion. It is there that one might have to learn to live with the without, in such a way as to exist not in the name of dignity or of a future politics or communal title anchored by the sublime or the general structure of “going beyond”, but in the name of a without that nevertheless lets the dignity of the remove from the public world of force be involved in existence. Perhaps it is cum dignitate otium’s passive movement of allowing to be involved in existence—of a care for that which comes at a remove from the biopolitical orientation and administration of forcethat forges the possibility not of a new democratic form, of a re-democratization built liberally on the logics of inclusion and exclusion, but of an infrapolitical scatter of mastery and title that casts freedom from among the ashes.


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