Telos 161 (Winter 2012) is now available for purchase in our store.
This issue of Telos explores the contours of politics after metaphysics as the horizon for an appropriate response to today’s unabating politico-economic crisis. Profound challenges to core institutions of modernity—free-market economy, political liberalism, and parliamentary democracy—have emerged: the expansion of the state into civil society, the subordination of rights to security, and the growth of executive authority. Critical Theory developed, historically, in response to what Max Horkheimer labeled the “authoritarian state,” which has now overflowed the limits of the national polity and permeated the fabric of transnational financial and political institutions. That is where we ought to seek the common background of the seemingly unrelated challenges to modernity. We have our work cut out for us.
The U.S. election season cast a stark contrast between less regulation and more bureaucracy, both paths haunted by the specter of crony capitalism. In Europe the competition between austerity and growth is played out in the shadow of disappearing democracy. The economic crisis has gone far beyond the dilemma of the business cycles and raises questions about the structure of the modern polity as a whole. Today’s so-called free market is tied up inextricably in massive government interventions and bailouts; political liberalism, so appealing in theory, relies in practice on restrictions of citizens’ liberties under the pretext of security concerns; and parliamentary democracies create non-democratic states of exception beyond, and sometimes within, their borders. More generally, executive power trumps legislative legitimacy, as the raw emotion of fear—prompted by terrorist threats, the prospects of economic default and government shutdown, or the influx of foreigners—pervades political life. A general fatalistic mood presides over the shaky course of the markets and of public policy alike. The ever more frequent assertion that “there is no alternative” precludes public debate. Self-determination disappears, replaced by a rhetoric of resentment, as public funds fill the private coffers of the well connected. Traditional guns and butter turn into postmodern drones and bailouts.
Still, political modernity is not a panacea; it, too, relied on a metaphysical idealism to organize our public life and so to suffuse it with meaning. In practice, idealism was always shadowed by degrees of realism—politics as “the art of the possible”—and in the extreme, sheer opportunism. This binary has a philosophical pedigree. Let us recall that the philosophical concept of the Real is an avatar of Western metaphysics that went through various incarnations, whether in the Cartesian conception of substances as two distinct species of res, the thing, or in the Kantian notion of Ding an sich, the thing in itself. In keeping with much of the history of metaphysics, the thing or the Real is a single entity withdrawn from the world of the here-and-now, orchestrating the totality of occurrences in it, and functioning behind the scenes as the world’s organizing principle, primal cause, or ultimate point of reference. Like philosophies of the Real and like all metaphysical explanations, those political justifications that rely on the changing realities du jour drain existence of its own power and vitality, albeit not in the sense in which classical critiques of reification have presented this tendency. The Thing renders things meaningful on the strict condition that they shed all traces of meaning inherent to them; opportunistic realism justifies changes in public policy provided that they are not attributed to the capricious will of the political actors themselves. The fatalism of metaphysics with its unbreakable teleology persists wherever a chaotic array of uncontrollable events come to govern public life.
Yet, the historical cohabitation of idealism and realism seems to be breaking down. Norms of truthfulness are shunted aside; appeals to freedom ring hollow; democracy withers in the Security Council. Armed with the discourse of necessity, political opportunism gets free reign, having dispensed with transcendent ideals and strong principles for action, as much as with any semblance of consistency. This is why, for example, when he reneged on a vast number of his pre-election promises, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy argued that he was merely adapting to changing circumstances. An essentially nihilistic response to the disintegrating certainties and idealities of the past, unbridled opportunism overshadows politics after metaphysics. If reality is taken to dictate the absence of alternatives, then the Kantian expectation for the public use of reason becomes as hopelessly quaint as the horse and buggy in the age of the driverless car.
Reality, along with a certain fetishism of facts presumably devoid of interpretations, functions as a linchpin for political programs that, claiming for themselves an air of sobriety, idealize the very opposition to idealism and fraudulently translate “what is” into “what ought to be.” But this sort of cynical realism ultimately falls back into the idealism it proudly, though mistakenly, claims to have escaped. Opportunism not only stifles the emerging alternatives to the crisis, but also smuggles back metaphysical content inside the Trojan horse of the Real, the most idealistic of all categories. To escape opportunism and realism, a politics beyond metaphysics—not a regression to idealism—is needed.
Succinctly put, then, politics after metaphysics is the movement beyond idealism and realism, a multifaceted strategy of de-idealization that counters the paralyzing force of the Real, with its nagging insistence on the absence of viable alternatives. It is a politics that embraces finitude and rejects foundationalism; a politics of becoming, not that of being; a politics that questions and undermines such basic political concepts as sovereignty and oppositionality; a politics that favors paradox over contrived consistency; a politics of proliferating differences, which cannot be gathered into the all-powerful One; a politics of experience, not of universal abstractions. In a word, it is a politics of and for the crisis, one that reiterates the fissures, clashes, and divisions evident in the term’s Greek etymology (krinein: to sift, to discern, to separate, to decide). In outlining the multiple dimensions of politics after metaphysics, the essays comprising this special issue of Telos, in various ways, retrace the shapes of the crisis, permitting us to think it through and to think through it.
In the lead article, Gianni Vattimo diagnoses the current inefficacy of democracy and hermeneutics as they are practiced in the twenty-first century. Their shared crisis has to do with their neutralization and, therefore, de-politicization, ultimately linked to the search for an objective truth. In opposition to this metaphysical appropriation of potentially destabilizing forces dormant in democracy and hermeneutics, Vattimo avows a non-neutral interpretative and political stance that takes sides with those most disadvantaged by the current status quo. As a result, hermeneutics will become “the ontology of revolution,” as he provocatively suggests in the conclusion to his article.
Alexandre Franco de Sá, in “Liberal Democracy and Domination: A Cryptopolitics of Populations,” likewise details a new perverse form of neutralization prevalent today. He highlights the dangers inherent in the obverse of the metaphysical obsession with presence, namely, in the veiling and withdrawal of power. Starting with Foucault’s “biopolitics of populations,” where power is invisibly present, Franco de Sá suggests that today we witness an even more insidious “visible absence” of power, which defines what he calls “the cryptopolitics of populations.” Rather than overcome metaphysics, the absolute overturning of its ideal of pure presence repeats all the pitfalls of metaphysical politics, which must be kept at bay by exposing, or making visible, the self-encryption of political power.
In “Liberal Democracy, Negative Theory, and Circularity: Plato and John Rawls,” Aryeh Botwinick continues to explore the relation between democracy, liberalism, and metaphysics. He coins the term “negative theory,” modeled on negative theology, and argues that it is the best defense of democracy available. Rather than postulate a positive content of God, reason, or, indeed, democracy, negative theology and theory only state what these are not. Relying on an interpretation of Plato’s Theaetetus and Rawlsian meta-ethical theory, Botwinick then demonstrates that the negative approach imposes a circular structure on the thinking of its adherents, who must be ready not only to be skeptical but also to be skeptical of skepticism itself.
Penelope Deutscher’s “Sacred Fecundity: Agamben, Sexual Difference, and Reproductive Life” articulates the image of fecundity as a national cause in Émile Zola’s work with Agamben’s concept of the sacred. Rather than criticize the Italian philosopher for overlooking femina sacra in his account of homo sacer, Deutscher develops a more nuanced Agambenian approach to sexual difference and reproduction, focusing on pre-political, politicized, and de-politicized reproductive life.
Paul Rekret, in his paper “The Impasse of Post-Metaphysical Political Theory: On Foucault and Derrida,” zeroes in on the debate between the two French philosophers on the status of Descartes’ Meditations. Rekret claims that, in a post-metaphysical vein, Derrida and Foucault affirm the weakness of their narratives dealing with the Cartesian cogito but do so in mutually incompatible ways. The paradox of incommensurability that emerges from their disagreement is not accidental; it goes to the core of the meaning and possibilities of politics after metaphysics.
In “The Politics of Paradox: Metaphysics Beyond ‘Political Ontology,’” Adrian Pabst similarly highlights the positive role of paradox in contemporary politics. He shows how the modern politics of dualism (“Left” versus “Right”) and the postmodern politics of difference can be supplanted with a new politics of paradox. Arguing that instead of providing an alternative, the politics of difference is an aporetic extension of the insistence on dualism, Pabst wishes to revive the paradox, which harks back to Plato’s Idea of the Good. Beyond being and knowledge, the Good still motivates the actions of all and can become the “radical center” for contemporary political practices.
David Pan’s “Political Theology for Democracy: Carl Schmitt and John Dewey on Aesthetics and Politics” illuminates the nature of sovereignty in Carl Schmitt. The decision precedes metaphysical justifications and is not as a command but as an instantiation of the popular will that always sanctions it, if only indirectly. Subsequently, Pan turns to the aesthetic theory of John Dewey, so as to fill in the gaps of Schmitt’s idea of the implicit representational character of sovereignty. The interpretation of an artwork as a nexus between the individual and the collective parallels the notion of the decision as a bridge between the deciding agent and the popular will that lends it legitimacy.
Closely reading Heidegger on the question of metaphysics, Babette Babich reminds us what the term means: all of philosophy, the thinking of “beings as a whole.” Politics “after” metaphysics would, thus, spell out a politics “after” philosophy, having gotten over the thought of the totality of being. Or, more positively, it would be a politics that responds to the injunction to start thinking instead of philosophizing, with all the frictions this injunction causes when it comes across scientific, theological, and humanist modes of inquiry.
Michael Marder in “After the Fire: The Politics of Ashes” scrutinizes the idea of “elemental politics” after metaphysics. If fire has been the organizing symbol of revolutionary political theory and practice, then upon the exhaustion of the metaphysical paradigm, it is the remnants of this dangerous element that stay with us: smoldering ruins, cinders, and ashes. Reconsidering the experience of victimhood, community, temporality, and phenomenality in the afterglow of the great fires of metaphysics and onto-theology, Marder attempts to find in the ashes a fragile figuration of contemporary politics.
Finally, the “Notes” section contains Andrea Salvatore’s reflections on the “tragic theory” of Carl Schmitt and an interview with Santiago Zabala, the co-author (with Gianni Vattimo) of Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx.