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Étienne Balibar “Three Concepts of Politics”

September 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Balibar, Étienne 2002. Three Concepts of Politics. – Balibar, É. Politics and the Other Scene. London; New York: Verso, 1-39.

I shall call the first concept the autonomy of politics, and I shall link this with the ethical figure of emancipation. By contrast, I shall call the second concept the heteronomy of politics, or politics related to structural and conjunctural conditions, and I shall connect this to the figures (we shall see that these are themselves multiple) of transformation. It will then be necessary to introduce – on the basis of certain aporias of the second concept, but as a new figure in its own right – a concept I shall call the heteronomy of heteronomy, as this will show that the conditions to which a politics relates are never a last instance: on the contrary, what makes them determinant is the way they bear subjects or are borne by them. (1)

Autonomy of Politics

No one may be liberated or elevated to a position of equality – let us say, may be emancipated – by an external, unilateral decision, or by a higher grace. Only reciprocally, by mutual recognition, can this be achieved. (3-4)

The autonomy of politics (in so far as it represents a process that has its origin and its end in itself alone, or in what will be termed citizenship) is not conceivable without the autonomy of its subject, and this in turn is nothing other than the fact, for the people, that it ‘makes’ itself, at the same time as the individuals who constitute the people confer basic rights upon one another mutually. There is autonomy of politics only to the extent that subjects are the source and ultimate reference of emancipation for each other. (4)

[…] in reality, the whole history of emancipation is not so much the history of the demanding of unknown rights as of the real struggle to enjoy rights which have already been declared. (6)

But, contrary to what Marx believed, the ‘dominant ideas’ cannot be those of the ‘dominant class’. They have to be those of the ‘dominated’, the ideas which state their theoretical right to recognition and equal capacity. (7)

Heteronomy of Politics

[…] Marx’s politics, in equal measure to the politics of emancipation, pursues the aim of establishing the autonomy of its subjects, but it regards that autonomy as a product of its own movement, not as a prior assumption. Its perspective is one of a becoming-necessary of liberty. Whereas the proposition of equal liberty presupposes the universality of rights, always referring these back to an ever-available transcendental origin, Marxian political practice is an internal transformation of conditions, which produces as its outcome (and quite simply produces, in so far as it is put into practice – that is, produces ‘in struggle’) the need for freedom and the autonomy of the people (designated as the proletariat). (10)

To transgress the limits of the recognized – and artificially separated – political sphere, which are only ever the limits of the established order, politics has to get back to the ‘non-political’ conditions of that institution (conditions which are, ultimately, eminently political). It has, in other words, to get back to the economic contradictions, and gain a purchase on these from the inside. (11)

Subjectivation is the collective individualization which occurs at the point where change changes, where ‘things begin to change differently’ – that is to say, wherever the tendency immanent in the system of historical conditions finds itself affected from within by the action of an equally immanent counter-tendency. (13)

Particularly interesting in this theorization, as deployed in lie concrete analyses which run from Discipline and Punish to lie College de France lectures on ‘bio-power’ and ‘bio-politics’, is the fact that the distance between conditions and transformation is reduced to a minimum: indeed, the two become contemporaneous (in a present which is at once ontological, ethical and political, the analysis of which is the very aim of that critical thought which Foucault attempted, at the same moment, to redefine combining the teachings of Nietzsche and Kant). (15)

What then becomes absolutely objectless is the idea of a dialectics of ‘mediations’ by which to conceive, following the thread of historical time, the junction between the conditions and the transformative practice, with its ‘critical’ encounters between objective and subjective conditions, class conflicts and mass movements, forces and consciousnesses, and so forth. For historical conflict is always-already inherent in power relations, and is always active in their institutionalization – or at least, it should be – ideally. (16)

[Strategies]. We might say it is a general – or generalizable – schema for the anticipation and control of the reactions of adverse individuality; or, better, a schema for the transformation of the bodily dispositions of individuals in such a way that their reactions become predictable and controllable. Such a schema can be implemented by institutions, by groups and, in the last analysis, by individuals. It can be incorporated both into a vast social structure over the very long term and into a transient, local configuration, but the principle of its effectiveness is always ‘micropolitical’, since it lies in the way the technologies of power are applied’ righ t down to the finest mesh of society’. (16-17)

The question posed here does not merely have a pragmatic dimension; it is, fundamentally, metaphysical. Just as there was, in Marx, a problematic of the becoming-necessary of liberty (in the tradition of Spinoza and Hegel), so we should see in Foucault’s work here (in a manner different from the ‘outside’ or ‘foldings’ of the theoretical analyses Deleuze writes of) a production of contingency, which I shall venture to term a becoming-contingent of resistances. But is this not the point Foucault hesitated over, while at the same time it opened up several possible directions to him, between which his politics (if not his ethics) found itself torn? (17)

Only life can be ‚governed’; only a living being can be disciplined in such a way as to become productive. (18)

[…] the study of the techniques of the elf is not so much an evasion of the question posed by massive structures of domination as the search for a more originary level of determination and, as a result, for a point of construction – or deconstruction – for politics. (19)

This ‚work of self on self’ generates, then, both the normal form of a culture and the deliberately run risk of becoming different from what one was. This ‚double-bind’ situation is no less dialectical (in the Kantian sense) than the preceding one. (20)

The Heteronomy of Heteronomy: The Problem of Civility

Rather than identities, we should speak of identifications and processes of identification, for no identity is either given or acquired once and for all (it can be fixed, but that is not the same thing). Identity is the product of an invariably uneven, unfinished process, of hazardous constructions requiring greater or lesser symbolic guarantees. Identification is received from others, and continues always to depend on them. (27-28)

[…] every identity is ambiguous. […] An identity of whatever kind […] is always overdetermined. It always fulfils several functions at one and the same time (one is not a ‘teacher’ only to teach one’s students, and even less is one a student simply to study). It is always in transit between several symbolic references (for example, current events cause us to ask once again, without any possible resolution of the question, whether Islam today is a religious, national-cultural or anti-imperialist identity). In this sense, too, identity is always wid.e of the mark; it is always in danger of mistaking itself or being mistaken. It always has to express itself successively through different commitments. (28)

We must, then, suppose that the role of institutions is precisely to reduce – without suppressing- the multiplicity, complexity and conflictuality of identifications and senses of belonging, if need be by applying a preventive violence or a ‘symbolic’ and material _ corporeal – organized counter-violence. This is why there is no society (no viable or liveable society) without institutions and counter-institutions (with the oppressions they legitimate and the revolts they induce). But institutions are not a politics. At most they can be the instruments or the products of a politics. (29)

I shall call a politics which regulates the conflict of identifications between the impossible (and yet, in a sense, very real) limits ofa total and a floating identification, ‘civility’. Civility in this sense is certainly not a politics which suppresses all violence; but it excludes extremes of violence, so as to create a (public, private) space for politics (emancipation, transformation), and enable violence itself to be historicized. (29-30)

However, the form in which it is most interesting to discuss the question is that which attempts, conversely, to reconcile tile idea of civility with that of an autonomy of the multitude – that is to say, with democratic forms. I might even be tempted to arguc that civility becomes a politics, in the strong sense of the term – distinct from a civic education or discipline, or even a socialization – every time in history it presents itself as the development of – or complement to – the democratic principle. (30)

[…] no concept of politics is complete. Each presupposes the others in the space and historical time of ‘life’. No emancipation without transformation or civility; no civility without emancipation or transformation, and so on. But there is no sense trying to turn these complex presuppositions into a system, or arrange them in some invariant order. If we do that, we shall obtain only another political philosophy, a schema for the transformation of political problems into a representation of the political. In so far as the concepts we have discussed here concern politics, they can be articulated only on individual pathways (or, more precisely, at the meeting-point of individual pathways). Such pathways, like truth, are necessarily singular; hence no model exists for them. (35)


Etienne Balibar “Politics and the Other Scene”

Balibar, Etienne 2002. Politics and the Other Scene. London and New York: Verso

Three Concepts of Politics: Emancipation, Transformation, Civility (1-40)

Autonomy becomes a politics when it turns out that a ‘part’ of society (and hence of humanity) is excluded – legally or not – from the universal right to politics (if only in the form of a mere opposition between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ citizens – which already says it all – or, in other words, between responsible, adult citizens and ‘minors’). This part (which inevitably becomes a party: the party of the universal, or of the abolition of the particularities and classes) presents itself, then, not just as the most active mouthpiece of the citizenry, but as that fraction which is capable of presenting its own emancipation as the criterion of general emancipation (or as that fraction which, in continuing in slavery and alienation, inevitably entails the unfreedom of all). (6)

[…] the autonomy of politics presents itself first as a negation that the politics of autonomy must present itself in turn as a negation of the negation, and thus as an absolute. The idealization of politics and its subjects is the corollary to the ideality which grounds them (without which it would have no practical reality). And, inevitably, this idealization expresses itself in namings, creations of keywords, whose power to seize the imagination is all the greater for the fact that they initially expressed a radical negativity, the rejection of the substantive representations of ‘political capacity’. (7)

[…] the ‘dominant ideas’ cannot be those of the ‘dominant class’. They have to be those of the ‘dominated’, the ideas which state their theoretical right to recognition and equal capacity. More precisely, the discourse of hegemonic domination has to be one in which it is possible to appeal against a de facto discrimination to a de jure equality – not only without the principles being weakened, but in such a way that they are re-established and lastingly prove their absolute character, since it is they which, now as ever, constitute the recourse against failure to apply them. All protest can then turn into legitimation since, against the injustice of the established order, protest appeals not to something heterogeneous to that order, but to identical principles. (7)

Politics is not the mere changing of conditions, as though it were possible to isolate them and abstract from them so as to obtain a purchase on them, but it is change within change, or the differentiation of change, which means that the meaning of history is established only in the present. Nothing, then, is more absurd […] than to believe such a politics to be ‘subjectless’ (it is history which is without a subject). (12)