Afterword: Thinking, Being, Acting, or, On the Uses and Disadvantages of Ontology for Politics Bruno Bosteels

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A Leftist Ontology—Afterword by Bosteels

Afterword: Thinking, Being, Acting, or, On the Uses and Disadvantages of Ontology for Politics

Bruno Bosteels
Which imbecile spoke of an ontology of the revolt? (…) The revolt is less in need of a metaphysics than metaphysicians are in need of a revolt.

— Raoul Vaneigem, Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations

Faced with the ubiquitous return of the question of being in the field of political thought today, put into relief most eloquently by the present collection of essays, I am tempted to repeat Theodor W. Adorno’s gesture when in Part One of his Negative Dialectics, as he himself explains, “ontology is understood and immanently criticized out of the need for it, which is a problem of its own.”1 In keeping with this model, I too would want to ask in what way the answers of the ontological turn in self-anointed leftist circles today may be “the recoil of the unfolded, transparent question,” and to what extent these answers also “meet an emphatic need, a sign of something missed,” even if it does not, or no longer, correspond to what Adorno sees as “a longing that Kant’s verdict on a knowledge of the Absolute should not be the end of the matter.”2 We need not stoop to the level of Adorno’s blunt and for this reason often ill-understood attacks on the new fundamental ontologies in Germany, Martin Heidegger’s in particular, to raise again the question about the need for a leftist ontology today. This would mean asking not only: What are the uses and disadvantages of ontology for politics, and a leftist one to boot? But also: Where does this politico-ontological need stem from in the first place?

The initial task would consist in outlining the general form or platform in which the question of being is presented to us today in the context of political thought. As opposed to Adorno’s claim, the way this happens is no longer—if ever it was the case—through an appeal to a supposed substantiality, or to some version or other of the absolute, surreptitiously brought back to life behind Kant’s back. In fact, if there is a common presupposition shared by all present-day political ontologies touched upon in this volume, it is that ontology is not, cannot be, or must not be a question of substance or the absolute. It presupposes neither the presence of being nor the identity of being and thinking as a guide for acting. To the contrary, ontology here is described as spectral, nonidentical, and postfoundational. It tries to come to terms, not with present beings but with ghosts and phantasms; not with entities or things but with events—whether with events in the plural, or, alternatively, with the singular event of presencing as such, which should never be confounded with a given present, albeit a past or future one. Consequently, there can be no determinate politics, not even a democratic or radical-democratic one, that would simply derive from ontology as a thoroughly desubstantialized field of investigation into being and/as event—even though most commentators are quick to add that democracy, often in the guise of a radical democracy or a democracy-to-come rather than its historical shape, would be the only political formation or regime attuned to the horizon of ontology at the close of the metaphysical era. “This, then, is the argument: in the answers that they have traditionally brought to bear on the ‘special’ question ‘What is to be done?’ philosophers have relied, in one way or another, on some standard-setting first whose grounding function was assured by a ‘general’ doctrine, be it called ontology or something else. From this doctrine, theories of action received their patterns of thought as well as a great many of their answers,” Reiner Schürmann writes in one of the very first attempts at outlining the practical and political implications of a postfoundational, or an-archic, ontology. He continues: “Now, the deconstruction of metaphysics situates historically what has been deemed to be a foundation. It thus closes the era of derivations between general and special metaphysics, between first philosophy and practical philosophy.”3 The specifically leftist nature of such a proposal, however, is not always clear, except insofar as some prior criteria are assumed to be at our disposal by which to judge what is leftist and what is not.


Heidegger and Lacan, often in bold rereadings or creative misreadings, no doubt name the two dominant strands in this revival of the ontological question in a practical or political key, with added inflections taken from the work of Carl Schmitt and Walter Benjamin. Heidegger’s centrality in this context goes without saying, even as the political consequences of his ontology remain a topic of dispute, to say the least: “Our epoch can be said to have been stamped and signed, in philosophy, by the return of the question of Being. This is why it is dominated by Heidegger. He drew up the diagnosis and explicitly took as his subject the realignment, after a century of Criticism and the phenomenological interlude, of thought with its primordial interrogation: what is to be understood by the being of beings?”4 But even Lacan’s psychoanalytical work is concerned with ontology, as his son-in-law and soon-to-become executor of his intellectual legacy, Jacques-Alain Miller, perceived as early as in 1964 when he asked Lacan about his ontology, to which the latter responded rather coyly: “I ought to have obtained from him to begin with a more specific definition of what he means by the term ontology” only to go on stressing “that all too often forgotten characteristic—forgotten in a way that is not without significance—of the first emergence of the unconscious, namely, that it does not lend itself to ontology,” and yet just a few weeks later he would seemingly contradict himself: “Precisely this gives me an opportunity to reply to someone that, of course, I have my ontology—why not?—like everyone else, however naïve or elaborate it may be.”5 However this may well be, we might conclude with one of Lacan’s most astute contemporary readers: “Ontology or not, Lacan’s psychoanalysis imposes a general rectification to philosophy, touching upon nothing less than the way in which truth is adjusted to the real.”6

Between Heidegger’s destruction of the metaphysics of being qua presence and Lacan’s subversion of the ideology of the subject qua ego, in any case, there lies the general framework in which we could situate the authors whose writings dominate most discussions in this collection, namely, Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Zizek. Aside from the overarching legacy of Marxism, here represented above all in the figure of Fredric Jameson, the principal exception to this Heideggerian-Lacanian framework that immediately comes to mind would be the neo-Spinozist or Deleuzian ontology of substance as pure immanence, or life, which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt among others offer as their gift to the communist Left in their two-volume manifesto, Empire and Multitude. But significantly though perhaps not surprisingly, this vitalist ontology which otherwise claims to be an ontology of the event as well is not only underrepresented in the present collection of essays; it also comes under serious attack in the last two of these essays, both for being dangerously idealist, insofar as it would eschew the dimension of uncoded materiality, and for being too confidently materialist, insofar as it would seek to exorcize the indeterminacy of ghosts whose uncanny smile turns out to be irreducible, all good intentions notwithstanding, to any preestablished political programme, be it communist or otherwise. Christopher Breu thus writes: “While Hardt and Negri, citing Paul of Tarsus, argue for the ‘power of the flesh’ within the political economy of the present, this flesh appears to have a peculiarly ghostly existence,” whereas Klaus Mladek and George Edmondson in a way argue that this existence is not ghostly enough: “The political has so far been entirely on the side of the specter, believing the specter to be dependable, predictable, trustworthy. Ghosts, meanwhile, seem out of place, lingering in a no-man’s land betwixt and between places and times,” which is why a melancholic stance of fidelity haunted by anxiety-producing ghosts may be needed to subtract our leftist ontology from the illusions of mastery, movement, and militantism: “As opposed to Negri’s vision of a robust, virile political agent enveloping the new in his embrace, the haunted subject is held in place, petrified, by the decision to hesitate, by a declaration of fidelity to the undead, the discarded, the unremembered—to all of those as yet unlisted in the account books of monumental history.”

Here, in other words, ontology by and large is supposed to be postmetaphysical, if by metaphysics we understand the age-old discourse for which the principle holds that “the same, indeed, is thinking and being.”7 The problem with this characterization of metaphysics, which otherwise seems to me no worse than any other and which in any case has the virtue of concision, is that it ignores the extent to which not only Heidegger but also someone like Badiou—both of whom are widely perceived to be models of so-called postfoundational thought—might ultimately subscribe to this Parmenidean principle, even though Heidegger does so by displacing metaphysics in the name of thinking, whereas Badiou (like Deleuze and Negri for that matter) openly embraces the notion that his ontology and theory of the subject signal a new metaphysics, bypassing as a nonissue the whole debate regarding the end of metaphysics or its closure. Even so, it is hard to ignore that today, with very few exceptions, most radical ontological investigations would seem to start from the nonidentity of being and thinking—we might even say from their alterity, in the Levinasian sense according to which an ethics of the other must disrupt the metaphysics of the same, or even from their subalternity, in the sense in which Gayatri Spivak argues that “the subaltern is necessarily the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic.”8 Being and thinking, but also history and logic, thus become delinked or unhinged in ways that perhaps are not even dialectical anymore in the older sense of the term. This has profound consequences for politics precisely insofar as there no longer exists a necessary linkage that would set the paradigm for practical forms of acting. Instead, it is to the very delinking or unbinding of the social that a leftist ontology would have to attune itself. Whence also the stubborn not to say hackneyed insistence on motifs—here we can forego the mention of proper names—such as the indivisible remainder or reserve, the constitutive outside, the real that resists symbolization absolutely, the dialectic of lack and excess, or the necessary gap separating representation from presentation pure and simple.

It is not, then, ontology as such that is either leftist or rightist, unless of course we were to ascribe a moral value—whether good or bad—to being qua being in a fashion that would more properly have to be called religious or theological, but rather the specific orientation given to the impasse or aporia that keeps the discourse of being qua being from ever achieving full closure. Badiou’s distinction, explored in much of Being and Event, between three fundamental ontological orientations—constructivist, transcendent, and generic—should be helpful in this regard, especially insofar as the distinction does not correspond neatly to a leftist, rightist, or centrist tripartite division, nor should it be equated without further ado with the division that Laclau and Roland Végsö, for instance, propose between immanence, transcendence, and failed or decompleted transcendence-within-immanence, although in this case the similarities and overlaps are rather striking indeed. Briefly put, the constructivist orientation seeks to reduce the impasse by bringing it back into the fold of a well-formulated language; the transcendent orientation raises the impasse to the level of a quasi-mystical beyond; and the generic orientation postulates the existence of an indiscernible with which to interpret the impasse of being as the effect of an event within the situation at hand—thus neither collapsing the event into the sum total of its constructible preconditions nor elevating the impasse to the level of a miraculous or monstrous-sublime Thing, as it were, taking the place once occupied by God.

Following Marx and Freud whose doctrines take us beyond ontology in the strict sense and possibly open up a fourth option, furthermore, we could argue that the generic or indiscernible orientation shows the extent to which the science of being, through its inherent deadlock or impasse, presupposes the retroactive clarification of an intervening subject without which the ontological impasse would not even be apparent to begin with. “Its hypothesis consists in saying that one can only render justice to injustice from the angle of the event and intervention. There is thus no need to be horrified by an un-binding of being, because it is in the undecidable occurrence of a supernumerary non-being that every truth procedure originates, including that of a truth whose stakes would be that very un-binding.”9 Indeed, it may very well be the case that the defining polemic behind the present collection of essays—its principal contradiction or its fundamental line of demarcation—depends not so much on the elaboration of a leftist ontology in one form or another as much as on the possibility of a leftist (or communist—not necessarily the same) theory of the subject. The latter, actually, turns out to be barred or blocked, put under erasure, or kept at the level of virtuality or potentiality without actuality, by some of the most radical arguments for a lefist ontology in this volume.

In any case, returning to a simpler alternative, the unspoken presupposition behind those essays in this volume that accept the option—if not the need—of a leftist ontology seems to be that a leftist orientation in ontology is one that acknowledges, exposes itself to, or accepts to come to terms with, the inherent gap or ghostly remainder in the discourse of being qua being, whereas a rightist orientation would be one that disavows, represses, or displaces this gap or remainder. “A leftist ontology therefore recognizes that everyday political practice—and not just ‘the political’—is defined by this daily struggle about the very ‘nature’ of our world and its lines of communication, about who possesses the right and the power to delineate its borders and enforce its rules,” as Carsten Strathausen writes in his Introduction: “However, at stake is not just any ontology, but one that acknowledges and thinks through its paradoxical, antifoundational ‘horizon.’” This means that, perhaps against the author’s wishes, even Adorno’s own negative dialectics, which hinges upon the gap between the concept and nonconceptualities, might fit the profile of a leftist ontology. “Regarding the concrete utopian possibility,” he writes as if to enable this posthumous rereading, “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.”10 However, this does not free negative dialectics itself, as a reflection of and on nonidentity, from the charge of hypostasizing its fundamental ontological principle—a charge that Adorno himself levels against Heidegger and that an Adornian approach could level against philosophies of difference coming from thinkers who try critically and responsibly to take up the Heideggerian legacy.

As I hinted at a moment ago, though, not all contributors to this volume agree that there is a need for an ontological grounding of politics—not even if, as is most often the case today, this grounding actually takes the form of an ungrounding, a degrounding, or a precipitation into the abyss of an absent ground. Many contributors raise doubts about the very standard or index that would allow us to gauge the leftist or rightist nature of any ontology whatsoever, insofar as the discourse of being qua being cannot but be subtracted from all empirical specifications, including political ones. As Benjamin Robinson writes: “The problem, or antinomy, is this: one cannot empirically commit to one ‘thing world’ over another (say, socialism, whatever that might be, over liberalism) if there is no shared index of reality to decide between them. At the same time, a purely theoretical or normative commitment is empty as long as the choice is not proven on the practical level where the things in a chosen system have a self-evidence—what I will call apodictic force—that lets them serve as their own index of validity.” This antinomy is constitutive of the very project of a leftist ontology. Indeed, speaking of the latter, we might ask what possible relation there could well be between being qua being, which presumably is generic if not indeterminate, and the particular seating plan of the 1791 French Legislative Assembly, which historically lies at the origin of our modern divide between Left and Right? Expressing similar doubts, several authors in this volume wonder whether we should not reinstate the question mark following the title of the original conference behind the collection. Almost all, finally, reject the simple derivation of a leftist politics from a postfoundational ontology as a non-sequitur at best and a performative contradiction at worst. “Since one of the basic insights of deconstruction is that the primary ontological terrain of the constitution of subjectivity is that of radical undecidability, it is impossible to found politics on an ontology,” as Végsö usefully summarizes: “That is, there is no logical move from radical undecidability to a leftist politics. This is why deconstructionist ontology (or hauntology) cannot be inherently leftist.”

Some authors, however, explicitly or implicitly take ontology to refer not so much to the science of being qua being in the strict sense so much as to the basic presuppositions behind a given politico-philosophical stance—what we might call the bedrock of their fundamental assumptions and unshakeable commitments, never mind that the term “ontology” is perhaps less suited to name this value-laden and affect-imbued dimension than “political anthropology” would be. One author even goes so far as to reject the ontological need in politics altogether. William Rasch thus opens the volume with a bang: “There is no Leftist ontology. Let me phrase this less ontologically. There ought not be a Leftist ontology.” Still, the same author does not for this reason abandon the call to clarify his basic underlying commitments such as to the ontological primacy of conflict and violence over consensus and public deliberation.

Rasch and Eva Geulen, in Part One, go a long way in highlighting both the enchanting appeal and the real danger involved in radical ontological orientations of politics of the kind that can be found in Benjamin or Agamben. In fact, both seem to argue that the ontological need in political thinking today stems precisely from a eschatological, even catastrophic desire for radicalization—whether by arguing for a purified politics that would step wholly and completely out of the modern administered world or by seeking a turning point where danger and salvation coincide as the power of ambivalence. “This, of course, is its danger, for the temptation becomes one of thinking the political precisely in theological, which is to say, in messianic and redemptive terms,” says Rasch, who would rather argue with Max Weber for a modest and decidedly more secular view of the political: “A political ethics that recognizes the ever-present possibility of violence, rather than its glorious self-immolation, is the ethics of the human being in an unredeemed, and unredeemable, fallen state. Civil peace, not civil perfection, is the goal of such politics.” Geulen likewise warns against the entanglement of redemption and catastrophe that, in the case of Agamben’s discussion of Auschwitz, “instrumentalizes the pseudo-eschatological figure of thought in a way that neither Adorno nor Heidegger were familiar with,” and yet Agamben also offers his own remedy against this danger: “If the price for grounding politics in ontology is the perpetuation of the very kind of ambivalences that Agamben’s own critical account of ambivalence helps to analyze, then we should forego any ontologization. It is quite possible to separate Agamben’s ethical speculations in the Auschwitz book from his sober analyses of the sacred and his critique of the ambivalence theorem.”

The quest for a leftist ontology, in other words, risks producing an ontologization of leftism that is as radical as it is empty. Was not the young Marx himself fond of recalling that to be radical means literally to go to the root of things, which for him meant the essence of the human being? What then could be more radical than in the name of contemporary ontological interrogations to forego all humanist anthropologies so as unconceal the uprootedness of the human essence that is its absent ground? The price to be paid for this radicalization, however, is either the expulsion of the politics-to-come beyond the social realm altogether or else its sinister and undialectical conflation through a figure of ambivalence with world-historical horrors such as the Holocaust. This enormous risk can be avoided only by reinscribing politics—let us say once again dialectically—in the present situation. Instead of seeking a pure or purified form of the political, no matter how violent and catastrophic, what is needed then amounts to some kind of ontology of actuality, as in the essays of Part Two.

When Michel Foucault, in his programmatic elaboration upon Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” essay, coined this expression “ontology of actuality” to designate the task of his lifelong endeavor, as different from an “analytic of truth,” he himself perhaps could not have predicted the enthusiasm this coinage would generate among contemporary thinkers.11 Figures as widely different as Gianni Vattimo and Fredric Jameson thus have come to classify the overall aim of their work under this umbrella term.12 And yet, beyond this unexpected success, have we fully understood the paradox encapsulated in the very project for an ontology of actuality?

For Foucault, the task of a “historical ontology of ourselves” or a “critical ontology of the present” amounts above all to an archaeological and genealogical criticism of our modes of doing, thinking, and saying: “Archaeological—and not transcendental—in the sense that it will not seek to identify the universal structures of all knowledge or of all possible moral action, but will seek to treat the instances of discourse that articulate what we think, say, and do as so many historical events. And this critique will be genealogical in the sense that it will not deduce from the form of what we are what it is impossible for us to do and to know; but it will separate out, from the contingency that has made us what we are, the possibility of no longer being, doing, or thinking what we are, do, or think.”13 The task of criticism then ultimately no longer consists only in drawing up limits but also and above all in enabling one to pass beyond them. In this sense, the ontology of actuality is nothing less than the work of freedom in action. As Philip Goldstein concludes in his contribution to this volume: “Although Foucault also develops Heideggerian theory, he interprets it in positive terms whereby its historical ontologies or epistemes enable the subject to assert him or herself. Moreover, as Macherey maintains, he allows the subject an indeterminacy or self-fashioning which permits progressive action.” In Foucault’s wake, however, the conjunction of both terms—ontology and actuality—to describe the task at hand has become increasingly paradoxical, especially with the advent of the so-called postmodern condition and the rise of late or finance capitalism.

On the one hand, as discussed above, the most radical ontological investigations today tend toward spectrality, virtuality, potentiality—and not toward actuality. “Higher than actuality stands possibility,” Heidegger notes in Being and Time, not unlike Agamben who insists that the most radical potentiality is a potential not to become actual: “It is a potentiality that is not simply the potential to do this or that thing but potential to not-do, potential not to pass into actuality.”14 Going against the grain of these tendencies, there is thus something intrinsically uncanny, not to say oxymoronic, at least today, about an ontology of actuality, if we take into account the dominant orientations of postfoundational thinking. Foucault’s provocation, in this sense, also consisted in enabling a historical ontology of ourselves that would not have to shy away from speaking about the present situation in the name of some kneejerk aversion to the metaphysics of presence.

On the other hand, however, there can be no doubt that the ontological themes of difference, multiplicity, event, becoming, and so on, are the product of late capitalism as much as, if not more so than they are counteracting forces. Marx himself after all was always quite enthusiastic about the power of capitalism to destitute and break down old feudal, patriarchal, or idyllic bonds and hierarchies. “It is obviously the only thing we can and must welcome within Capital,” Badiou comments referring to those well-known passages from The Communist Manifesto: “That this destitution operates in the most complete barbarity must not conceal its properly ontological virtue.”15 But if it is indeed capitalism itself that reveals all presence to be a mere semblance covering over random multiplicity, then this also means that the categories of a postfoundational ontology not only are not necessarily leftist, they also might turn out to be little more than descriptive of, if not complicitous with, the status quo. “In this case, ‘critical’ thought is in fact precisely adequate to its moment, just not in the way it imagines itself to be. It reiterates, no doubt in sublimated or misrecognized form, accepted social structures and political presumptions—effectively canceling out real critical reflection,” Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman warn us, and, later, referring to what might well be the quintessential category of a leftist ontology, they conclude: “The primacy of ‘difference’ in fact outlines an identity—the unacknowledged frame of the monoculture, global capitalism.” Difference, multiplicity, or the primacy of events or becomings over subjects and objects, far from giving critical leverage, thus would define our given state of affairs under late capitalism and its attendant cultural logic.

Jeffrey T. Nealon, in his periodization of the 1980s, similarly wonders whether the theoretical dramas opposing essentialism versus constructivism, or stasis versus flux, are not a hangover from the 1960s: “At this point, we’d have to admit that privatized finance capital has all but obliterated the usefulness of this distinction: to insist on the hybridity and fluidness of x or y is the mantra of transnational capital whose normative state is the constant reconstitution of ‘value’—so it can hardly function unproblematically as a bulwark against that logic.” Transnational finance capital desubstantializes ontology even more thoroughly than the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie could have dreamt of. Flexibility, difference, and innovation are of the nature of dumb facticity today. In these circumstances, which define our actuality, how radical can a postfoundational ontology claim to be? Is it not rather the spontaneous ideology of late capitalism?

We could argue, though, that the return of the ontological question in political thought today is also, at least in part, an attempt to respond—by way of a retreat or a step back—to this complicity, which is easier to intuit than to undo, between the desacralizing tendencies within capitalism itself and the drive toward difference, multiplicity, or becoming in the critique or deconstruction of metaphysics. Frequently, such a response leads to the introduction of a conceptual split within the notion of politics, that is, a split between “politics” (la politique in French, or die Politik in German) and “the political” (le politique in French, or das Politische in German). This distinction, present in quite a number of essays in this volume, is most explicitly discussed in Part Three.

Common to thinkers as diverse as Schmitt and Arendt, the distinction between politics and the political has recently been championed as a common feature that would unite contemporary figures such as Laclau, Nancy, Lacoue-Labarthe, Lefort, or Badiou into a form of “Left Heideggerianism.”16 In the present volume, this reading can be found in the essays by Roland Végsö and Sorin Radu Cucu, both of whom follow a lead in this regard from another disciple of Laclau’s, Oliver Marchart. “With regard to current political theory,” Marchart argues in Post-foundational Political Thought, “the conceptual difference between politics and the political, as difference, assumes the role of an indicator or symptom of society’s absent ground. As difference, this difference presents nothing other than a paradigmatic split in the traditional idea of politics, where a new term (the political) had to be introduced in order to point at society’s ‘ontological’ dimension, the dimension of the institution of society, while politics was kept as the term for the ‘ontic’ practices of conventional politics (the plural, particular and, eventually, unsuccessful attempts at grounding society).”17 The search for a more radical or a more fundamental level or dimension, thus, continues to be what grounds, regrounds, and degrounds the politico-ontological need.

Modeled upon the ontological difference between being and beings, the so-called political difference between the political and politics should nonetheless be handled with certain reservations. “These reservations have to do mainly with the possible misconstrual of the distinction—its transformation into a rigid bifurcation between structure and superstructure, between foundation and derivations, or between noumenal and phenomenal spheres of analysis,” Fred Dallmayr writes in The Other Heidegger: “As can readily be seen, the distinction relates obliquely to Heidegger’s notion of the ontic-ontological difference—but with the proviso that the ontic can never be a derivation or simple application of the ontological dimension.”18 Above all, the two terms are not external to one another, nor should one all too hastily be used to denigrate the superficiality or inauthenticity of the other. If this last risk cannot always avoided, Végsö usefully remind us that Derrida already tackled the possible misconstrual of Heidegger’s own distinction which allegedly undergirds the difference between the political and politics: “Derrida criticizes the very category of ‘ontological difference,’ the absolute separation of the ontological and the ontic, and the concomitant philosophical and political project of the recovery of an ‘authentic’ and ‘originary’ temporality,” just as Radu Cucu insists on the radical impurity of each of the two terms: “Thus, the difference between politics and political functions in analogy with the ontological difference, while the displacement caused by the logic of the trait (by difference) suggests that nothing is pure, neither politics, nor the political, that these categories exist only to have their identity threatened.” Even when subject to constant cross-contamination, however, the retreat from politics into the political cannot fail to endow really existing political processes with a negative aura of being merely positivist, sociologist, empiricist, or ontic—that is to say, as so many examples of the ongoing oblivion of being now translated as the essence of the political.

The retreat of the political, in other words, is a welcome gesture in the face of the banal reassertions according to which everything is politics and politics is everything. It is from this complete suture of politics into the social that the ontological turn seeks to release itself by taking a step back to delve into the founding moment of society, which is the moment of the political as such as radical dislocation or antagonistic institution. In so doing, however, the gesture of radicalization may very well have disabled in advance the pursuit of truly emancipatory actions, insofar as the latter will necessarily appear far less radical, not to say blind to their own quasi-transcendental conditions of possibility, which are also always already conditions of impossibility.

Ultimately, then, the question with which I would want to address the ontological need today concerns the fate of the various “others” of ontology, i.e., those domains from which the ontological dimension splits off, including the ontic, the empirical, and the epistemological, but also the dialectical and the historical-materialist. How can a critical or leftist ontology of the present be articulated with these others without denigrating them or condemning them to the dustbin of metaphysical (pre)history?


Perhaps the most fundamental tension that runs through the entire volume, though, is the one that brings together or separates the project of a leftist ontology and the theory of the subject. On the one hand, there can be no doubt that a psychoanalytical approach to this question allows a theorization of the process of subjectivation, for example, through the notion of hegemonic articulation and/or identification, including at the level of ideological recognition and misrecognition. But, on the other hand, it would seem as if the most radical deconstructive and even psychoanalytical inquiries had to come to the conclusion that no leftist or emancipatory agenda can be complete without also questioning the centrality of the category of the subject with all its metaphysical baggage.

Végsö thus concludes his essay by suggesting the possibility of a deconstructive theory of the subject that would be compatible with a degrounding of ontology: “Even if this theory does not yet exist, its outlines are readable within the Derridean corpus. And what these dim shapes suggest is not only that such a theory is possible but that it is also necessary.” In stark contrast, Alberto Moreiras as well as Klaus Mladek and George Edmondson, writing respectively from a post-Heideggerian or Derridean and a Lacanian point of view, seem to conclude that a radical leftist ontology would necessarily have to include a theory of the non-subject. For far too long, in fact, the Left has clung to an idea of subjective militantism based on notions of fullness, affirmation, productivity, and life, without considering the extent to which these notions, tied as they are to centuries of mythic and religious violence, have been responsible for the sacrifice of innumerable victims—among both friends and enemies. The interruption of this sacrificial history thus requires at the same time an interruption of the entire subjectivist paradigm of politics. “If subjective militancy is at the same time a condition and a result of ontology, to go beyond ontology, and that means, beyond the subjectivity of the subject as the current horizon of political thinking, is also a condition and a result of an ethical position where every possibility of a non-sacrificial politics is sheltered,” Alberto Moreiras writes in his essay on María Zambrano. But this is not possible without the nearly impossible task of approaching the legacy of history in an entirely new way by dis-remembering the forgotten and the vanquished: “The abandonment of subjectivity, the accomplishment of a thinking that abandons subjectivity, is not possible in the wake of the resolute acceptance of a historical legacy—rather, it fundamentally presupposes a thought of the un-legacy, a thought of disinheritance, of dis-heritage, a thinking of the forgetting of that which will not be remembered.” For sure, nothing could be farther removed from the populist call for hegemonic or counterhegemonic articulation than this appeal to the disinherited and the subaltern. In fact, the paradigm of subjectivism is so all-encompassing, ranging from liberal and communist militantism in the name of appropriation all the way to reactionary attachments to identity and the loss of identity, that little more can be offered by way of alternative than the announcement of a promise of another constitution of the political outside of subjectivity.

Mladek and Edmondson, in their much longer but equally breathtaking essay, finally propose that for the sake of a theory of the non-subject what is needed is a bold reevaluation of melancholia and anxiety. They start by asking: “Is melancholia, as Freud suggests, merely the index of a suffocated, crushed rebellion, followed by feelings of impotence and resignation; or could there be an affirmative, even proud dimension to the melancholic state that diverges from a certain model of political activism grounded, as we hope to show, in a leftist ontology of fullness and presence?” If the answer to this question is affirmative, it is because Mladek and Edmondson find in melancholia the model for an unerring fidelity to the part of those who have no part, to use Jacques Rancière’s expression: “The scandal that the melancholic presents to a political activism rooted in the modes of the not-yet is that one cannot count on him. Melancholia disrupts the tally-taking done in the accounting books of history and politics. It cannot help but address the wrong done to no-counts—the essential miscount that, according to Rancière, lies at the bottom of the political.” Rancière (or Moreiras, for that matter) may not follow these authors in their argument, drawn from Freud and Lacan, that what ultimately induces this miscount is the death drive. But all of them would certainly agree that what is at stake now that the classical models of political activism and partisanship have entered into a profound crisis, closely tied to the crisis of the party-form of politics and the state, is finding new ways of relating to the primordial antagonism or non-relation—that is, new ways of relating to the impossibility of relating, to use the words of Mladek and Edmondson, or to the degrounded relation, in the terms that Moreiras borrows from Zambrano. “What emerges is thus a decompleted subject without mastery or agency, fully exposed and appropriated to the event,” Mladek and Edmondson write, before concluding with the evocation of a community of leftist melancholics: “The community of melancholic subjects is then held together by the abyss of non-subjective subjectivity.” Like Moreiras, finally, they claim that fidelity to this rather strange and uncanny community requires that we refuse to give up, that we refrain from the urge to “move on” and stubbornly stick to the remembrance of the unmourned and the undead: “This is not to presume to speak on their behalf; that would be to draw them into symbolic order in such a way as to silence them even further. Indeed, if there is anything that the melancholic cannot abide, it is this very act of ‘speaking for’ others. We are striving instead to remain faithful to the no-count’s particular status as the traumatic object of the political: that which has fallen out, and which continues to fall out, of any social and political calculation.”

Here then, it seems to me, is the great “either-or” that comes at the end of a detailed and painstaking investigation into the possibility of a leftist ontology: Can emancipatory politics today still take the form of militant subjectivation or should the deconstruction of metaphysics also include all theories of the subject among its targets? Is every subject necessarily enmeshed in the history of politics as a history of sacrificial violence or can there be a form of subjective fidelity to the very traumas and anxieties that bear witness to those vanquished and sacrificed? And, furthermore, can we even ask this concluding question without in turn sacrificing the radical nature of the question of being to one of the many “others” of ontology? If we cannot, then should we not also question the emphatic need for a leftist ontology as a sign of something missed, namely, a truly emancipatory politics?

1 Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (London: Continuum, 1990), xx. See also Adorno, The Jargon of Authenticity, trans. Knut Tarnowski and Frederic Will (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

2 Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 61-63.

3 Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy, trans. Christine-Marie Gros (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 9. Schürmann himself, despite his insistence on a “necessary ignorance” as to Heidegger’s question “how a political system, and what kind of one, can at all be coordinated with the technological age,” does not fail to suggest that the experiences of direct democracy, no matter how shortlived, would after all be most attuned to an economy of being qua event of presencing and expropriating. To use the words of Roland Végsö in this volume: “Democracy, as a particular political formation, is the only universalizable paradigm because it is capable of turning its own foundational principle against itself.”

4 Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, trans. Louise Burchill (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 19.

5 Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981), 29 and 72.

6 Alain Badiou, Théorie du sujet (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 153. For a detailed account of Lacan’s early ontological reflections, see François Balmès, Ce que Lacan dit de l’être (Paris: PUF, 1999).

7 Parmenides, fragment 3. Friedrich Nietzsche in this context can be said to inaugurate the closure of metaphysics when in a note from 1888, included in The Will to Power, he writes: “Parmenides said, ‘one cannot think of what is not’;—we are at the opposite extreme, and say ‘what can be thought of must certainly be a fiction.’” See The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1967), aphorism 539. For a commentary on the significance of this note, see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “La fable” (1970), in Le sujet de la philosophie (Typographies 1) (Paris: Aubier-Flammarion, 1979), 7-30.

8 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, ed. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 16.

9 Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum, 2005), 284-285.

10 Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 11.

11 Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” (“Qu'est-ce que les Lumières?"), in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 32-50.

12 See, for instance, Gianni Vattimo, “Postmodernity, Technology, Ontology,” Nihilism & Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law, ed. Santiago Zabala, trans. William McCuaig (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004): “The expression is meant to be taken in its most literal sense: it does not simply indicate, as Foucault thought, a philosophy oriented primarily toward the consideration of existence and its historicity rather than toward epistemology and logic—that is, toward what would be called, in Foucault’s terminology, an ‘analytic of truth.’ Rather, ‘ontology of actuality’ is used here to mean a discourse that attempts to clarify what Being signifies in the present situation” (3-4). Roberto Esposito, on the other hand, goes so far as to speak of an “ontology of actuality” to describe the best of what all Italian philosophy has to offer: “If one considers those Italian authors who are known internationally—from Machiavelli to Vico, to Croce, and to Gramsci—we can assert that all of their reflections are placed at the point of encounter and tension between history and politics. Unlike the Anglo-Saxon analytic tradition or for that matter German hermeneutics and French deconstruction, the continual problem for Italian philosophy has been thinking the relationship with the present day [contemporaneità], that which Foucault would have called ‘the ontology of actuality,’ which is to say an interrogation of the present interpreted in a substantially political key. Thinking above all of Vico or differently of Gramsci, history and politics have constituted the obligatory point of transition from which and through which the dimension of thought generally has been constituted in Italy.” See Timothy Campbell’s interview with Esposito in diacritics 36.2 (2006). As for Fredric Jameson, we should think of the subtitle to his A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso, 2002). Another forgotten figure in this context, aside from Italian “weak ontology,” is Georg Lukács, who saw his magnum opus as moving in the direction of an “ontology of social being.” See his Zur Ontologie des gesellschaftlichen Seins, 2 vols., ed. Frank Benseler (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1984-1986).

13 Foucault, “What Is Enlightenment?,” 45-46.

14 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 63; Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 179-180

15 Alain Badiou, Manifesto for Philosophy, trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), 56-57.

16 For a devastating attack, with which I am overall in agreement, on “Left Heideggerianism” as a contradiction in terms, see Geoffrey Waite, “Lefebvre without Heidegger: “Left-Heideggerianism” qua contradictio in adiecto,” Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Henri Lefebvre and Radical Urban Theory, ed. Kanishka Goonewarda et al. (New York: Routledge, 2008), 146-81.

17 Oliver Marchart, Post-foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 5.

18 Fred Dallmayr, The Other Heidegger (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 50-51.

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