Thursday Night 02.24.11 – Truth & Politics Series — Event 5

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Thursday Night 02.24.11 – Truth & Politics Series — Event 5
1. About this Thursday
2. Note for Event 5
3. What is a Day of Rage Anyway?
4. Links to Reading
5. Introductory Note on The Concept of Democracy
1. About this Thursday
When: 7.00 pm, Thursday 02.24.11
Who: Free and open to all
Where: 16 Beaver Street 4th floor
What: Discussion
We provide here a very short introduction for this Thursday’s discussion with additional notes for those who would like to read further.
Nearly 40 years ago, Hannah Arendt, when confronted with the release of the Pentagon Papers (a classified US Department of Defense history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam), attempted in her own words, to read through and confront the documents. In many ways, the text reads like a preface to our contemporary reality and a reminder that the hypocrisy and lies that pervade the dominant media and from so many ‘officials’ today are not recent phenomena. We would like to encourage those who are interested in speaking about Arendt’s discourse on Lying in Politics or sharing ideas about about Truth and Politics today to attend.
The text is not very long and we hope people can read it in preparation for the conversation.
Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics Reading:
2. Note for Event 5
In her November 18, 1971 article in the New York Review of Books, entitled ‘Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers,’ Hannah Arendt begins with the following words:
“The Pentagon Papers, like so much else in history, tell different stories, teach different lessons to different readers. Some claim they have only now understood that Vietnam was the “logical” outcome of the cold war or the anticommunist ideology, others that this is a unique opportunity to learn about decision making processes in government. But most readers have by now agreed that the basic issue raised by the Papers is deception. At any rate, it is obvious that this issue was uppermost in the minds of those who compiled the Pentagon Papers for The New York Times, and it is at least probable that this was also an issue for the team of writers who prepared the forty-seven volumes of the original study.
The famous credibility gap, which has been with us for six long years, has suddenly opened up into an abyss. The quicksand of lying statements of all sorts, deceptions as well as self-deceptions, is apt to engulf any reader who wishes to probe this material, which, unhappily, he must recognize as the infrastructure of nearly a decade of United States foreign and domestic policy.”
The uncanny resonance of these words with the recent WikiLeaks and the revolutionary actions unfolding throughout the Middle East is rich. Not only because we are able to connect the Vietnam War, with the recent imperial forays of the United States Military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, but also one feels that this indecipherable line between the deceptions directed toward an electorate and the self-deceptions of the elected are so palpable.
What to say, yet alone look like, when an entire 60 year policy of constructing an image of region and a people (unprepared to fight for freedom on their own, outside of some religious fanatics) dissolves in a matter of weeks?
If September 11, 2001 was a potential alert to Americans that they needed to reappraise their reliance on injustice and tyranny for their own stability (of US hegemony, US economy, US oil consumption) it failed miserably. It only strengthened the established players and fueled a decade of militarization, settlement building, torture, extra-legal zones of exception, and only brought the US and many European countries closer to the regimes they were tacitly propping. Not only in tying their fate to these regimes, but also in resorting to their assistance for torture, detention, and abuse. Furthermore, they used the same specter of radical islamists, xenophobic proto-fascists or fundamentalist christians to frighten their own people to behave, for fear that what lurks beyond is far worse.
These events, which were sparked by one Tunisian by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi, of Sidi Bouzid, who burned himself for reasons that no words can contain, potentially open a new chapter in world history. They are historic events which demand a very different reading of our recent history and open up potential elements that did not belong to the situation, as we found it a few months ago.
One is left asking, among other questions, very simple things like, what is the pact of a state with its people? In the writings of Hobbes, in exchange for protecting the people from various threats, the people subject themselves to the sovereign. Later, in the writings of Locke and a whole host of other thinkers (some may even include Marx), one may find a different pact, which would be between the people and a state for their economic well being. In the former West, unfortunately, not since the 60’s and early 70’s, has their been a massive willingness to risk or abandon the wealth, privilege and accoutrements that come with living in the centers of Empire in the name of social or global justice.
Will the protests we have seen in many former West cities go beyond the local demands of better wages or less cuts to constituent processes which will really threaten the pact between a people and the state? Attempting to address the condition of student revolts today as opposed to those in the 60’s, Jacques Ranciere pointed out in a talk last spring in Rijeka, maybe the shift is that if the students revolting in the 60’s (at least in France) were largely people of privilege unwilling to become the next generation of managers, today’s students are more fearful of becoming the next generation of proletarians.
But with no job prospects, a ponzi-scheme for an economy and a military power that translates into nothing but endless war, somebody must be thinking “What does “change the world” mean?”
And for those who have been asking, “What is a Day of Rage Anyway?” we have posted the poem and short note below.
3. What is a Day of Rage Anyway?
A day of rage is first and foremost, a refusal.
A day of rage is when all the givens have expired.
A day of rage emerges when the situation, one finds oneself in, is insufficient. And by insufficient, it means, the aspirations, the ideas, the hopes, passions, exceed the limits imposed by the available conditions.
A day of rage says obscure hope offers more than stable reality.
A day of rage takes place when speech is not speech alone.
A day of rage takes place when speech is fearless, past the threshold of silence.
A day of rage is an emphatic no, but it is not simply a negation.
A day of rage is an attempt to mobilize a collective intelligence.
A day of rage is a collective response to the capriciousness, ignorance, hubris of those who govern.
A day of rage is a moment to return decisions which concern all, away from those who have made them their private affair.
A day of rage signals a shift in the balance of power between the governors and those who are no longer governable.
A day of rage is most beautiful when it conjoins to other days of rage.
A day of rage is most potent when it calls forth revolution, which could be called genius by another name.
A day of rage cannot be escaped by any regime which oversteps the bounds of dignity. Not just human dignity, but the dignity of all life.
A day of rage does not speak in the language of violence or patriarchy or religion or even democracy, but instead speaks through passion and desire for a different distribution, an other reality
A day of rage is a moment of flight. A kind of ‘no’ which gives birth to a flight. And all who join this flight will endear themselves to love, not just in a moment, but in life.
And if history is a good student, the final answer will always be marked by the days of rage awaiting any regime which follows the course of lies and self-deception
Michel Foucault once asked, when confronted by the limits and contradictions of the Iranian Revolution, which he had supported, is it ‘Useless to Revolt?’ His response to his own question, which was published in Le Monde in May of 1979, was an emphatic no.
Toward the conclusion of his short retort, he wrote:
All the disenchantments of history wont alter the fact of the matter: it is because there are such voices that the time of human beings does not have the form of evolution but that of ‘history’ precisely. This is inseparable from another principle: the power that one man exerts over another is always perilous. I am not saying that power, by nature, is evil: I am saying that power, with its mechanisms, is infinite (which does not mean that it is omnipotent, quite the contrary). The rules that exist to limit it can never be stringent enough; the universal principles for dispossessing it of all the occasions it seizes are never sufficiently rigorous. Against power one must always set inviolable laws and unrestricted rights.
Today, as an ‘intense feeling, especially prophetic, poetic, or martial enthusiasm or ardor’ unleashes itself in our midst, we must ask ourselves again, are these individuals catching up with history or is history catching up with them. And what about the rest who are watching?
One asks, ‘How is it, that even those who can afford themselves a belief in history, fall so easily into a kind of evolutionary thinking, as if history was the march of time, moving in one direction toward a fulfillment (the post-historical present of the former West)’
Another retorts, ‘You forget that opposed to Darwin’s determinism, Lamarck’s evolutionary theory left room for volition.’
A third states, ‘All evolutionary theories aside, if a day of rage is an attempt at a collective jump cut, is the rest of the world ready for such a jump cut?’
Anyone who has knowledge of the numberless efforts to resist injustice today knows that the era when labor struggles, student struggles, housing / homelessness struggles, environmental struggles, the struggles of undocumented individuals, struggles of social justice, human rights, economic rights, political rights and equality were seen as compartmentalized and isolated forms of resistance is waning. Movements everywhere realize that these struggles have to be connected and are making those efforts. And that collective intelligence, the general intellect, maybe even what Paolo Virno and friends have decided to name the multitude, is clearly not just a nice figure borrowed from Spinoza, but actionable.
It is more clear today than ever before, there is potential for what is happening in North Africa and the Middle East to become globalized, and to hold all regimes, even those in the former East and West, responsible for their failures to address common rights and collective interests. These so-called democratic regimes, which continue to waffle in the face of democratic acts, could soon be exposed with an even bigger crisis of legitimacy, if indeed this day of rage is no longer a televisual or internet phenomena, but fully embodied and hurling down a street near you.
4. Reading + Additional Links
Hannah Arendt, Lying in Politics Reading:
Below you will also find a link to the audio from ‘Lying in Politics: Hannah Arendt and The Persistence of Political Prevarication’ – A roundtable discussion presented by the Hannah Arendt Center for Ethical and Political Thinking and The Human Rights Project that took place at Bard College on May 4, 2009. The invited guests include Verity Smith (Harvard University), Julia Honkasalo (The New School for Social Research), Krista Johannson (University of Helsinki, Finland) and Cassie Cornell (then a Bard College senior) speaking on “Hannah Arendt and The Persistence of Political Prevarication.”
There appears to be a follow up to this event on March 4-5, details can be found at the following link:
5. Introductory Note on The Concept of Democracy
As the word democracy gets used in so many vague modes right now, we thought it would be useful to provide the following note on the Concept of Democracy by Giorgio Agamben.
Translated by William McCuaig
The term democracy sounds a false note whenever it crops up in debate these days because of a preliminary ambiguity that condemns anyone who uses it to miscommunication. Of what do we speak when we speak of democracy? What is the underlying rationale? An alert observer will soon realize that, whenever she hears the word, it might mean one of two different things: a way of constituting the body politic (in which case we are talking about public law) or a technique of governing (in which case our horizon is that of administrative practice). To put it another way, democracy designates both the form through which power is legitimated and the manner in which it is exercised. Since it is perfectly plain to everyone that the latter meaning prevails in contemporary political discourse, that the word democracy is used in most cases to refer to a technique of governing (something not, in itself, particularly reassuring), it is easy to see why those who continue, in good faith, to use it in the former sense may be experiencing a certain malaise. These two areas of conceptuality (the juridico-political and the economic-managerial) have overlapped with one another since the birth of politics, political thought, and democracy in the Greek polis or city-state, which makes it hard to tease them apart. An example will show what I mean. The basic term politeia may not be familiar to readers without Greek, but they have seen it translated as The Republic, the title of Plato’s most famous dialogue. “Republic” does not, however, exhaust its range of meanings. When the word politeia occurs in the classical writers, it is usually followed by a discussion of three different forms of politeia: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, or six if you count the three corresponding parekbaseis, or deviant forms. But translators sometimes render politeia with “constitution,” sometimes with “government.” In The Constitution of Athens (chapter 27), Aristotle characterizes the “demagogy” of Pericles this way: “demotikoteran synebe genesthai ten politeian,” and a standard English translation runs “the constitution became still more democratic.” Aristotle continues with the statement that “apasan ten politeian mallon agein eis hautous,” which the same translator renders as “brought all the government more into their hands.” To make his translation coherent, he ought to have written “brought all the constitution more into their hands,” but that would obviously have created a difficulty.
When the same fundamental political concept can be translated to mean either “constitution” or “government,” then we have ventured out beyond ambiguity onto the featureless terrain of amphibology (a term from grammar and rhetoric ^signifying indeterminacy of meaning). Let us train our gaze on two further passages from two classics of Western political thought, Aristotle’s Politics and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, in which this unclarity manifests itself with particular force. In the Politics, Aristole states his intention to itemize and analyze the different “constitutions” or “forms of constitution” (politeiai): “Since politeia and politeuma signify the same thing, and since the politeuma is the supreme (kyrion) power in a city, it nec- essarily follows that the supreme power resides either with an individual, with a few, or with the many’ (Politics 1279a 25 ff). Current translations run more or less like this: “Since constitution and government signify the same thing, and since government is the supreme power in the state . . . ” A more faithful translation would retain the closeness of the terms politeia (political activity) and politeuma (the resulting political outcome), but, apart from that, it is clear that the essential problem with this passage lies in Aristotle’s attempt to get rid of the amphibology by using the term kyrion. With a bit of wrenching, the passage can be paraphrased in modern terms as follows: the constituent power (politeia) and the constituted power (politeuma) bind themselves together into a sovereign (kyrion) power, which appears to be that which holds together the two sides of politics. But why is politics riven by this fissure, which the word kyrion both dramatizes and heals over?
As for the Social Contract, Michel Foucault gave a course in 1977- 1978 at the College de France showing that Rousseau’s aim was precisely to reconcile juridical and constitutional terms like contract the general will, and sovereignty with an art of government. For our purposes, the important thing is the distinction—basic to Rousseau’s political thought—between sovereignty and government and their modes of interaction. In the article on “Political Economy” which the editors of the Encyclopedic commissioned from him, Rousseau wrote: “I beg my readers to distinguish clearly between the topic of this article, which is public economy, or what I call government, and supreme authority, or what I call sovereignty. The distinction lies in this: sovereignty has the right to legislate (le droit legislatif) . . . whereas government has purely executive power.”
In The Social Contract the distinction between the general will and legislative capacity, on one hand, and government and executive power, on the other, is restated, but Rousseau now faces the challenge of portraying these two elements as distinct—and yet articulated, knit together, interwoven. This is what compels him, at the very moment he posits the distinction, to deny forcefully that there could exist any division within the sovereign. As with Aristotle, sovereignty that which is kyrion or supreme, is at the same time one of the two terms being distinguished, and the indissoluble link between constitution and government.
Today we behold the overwhelming preponderance of the government and the economy over anything you could call popular sovereignty— an expression by now drained of all meaning. Western democracies are perhaps paying the price for a philosophical heritage they haven’t bothered to take a close look at in a long time. To think of government as simple executive power is a mistake and one of the most consequential errors ever made in the history of Western politics. It explains why modern political thought wanders off into empty abstractions like law, the general will, and popular sovereignty while entirely failing to address the central question of government and its articulation, as Rousseau would say, to the sovereign or locus of sovereignty In a recent book I tried to show that the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty but government; not God but his angels; not the king but his minister; not the law but the police—or rather, the double governmental machine they form and propel.
Our Western political system results from the coupling of two heterogeneous elements, a politico-juridical rationality and an economic- governmental rationality, a “form of constitution” and a “form of government.” Incommensurable they may be, but they legitimate and confer mutual consistency on each other Why does the politeia get trapped in this ambiguity? What is it that gives the sovereign, the kyrion, the power to ensure and guarantee the legitimacy of their union? What if it were just a fiction, a screen set up to hide the fact that there is a void at the center, that no articulation is possible between these two elements, these two rationalities? What if the task at hand were to disarticulate them and force into the open this “ungovernable” that is simultaneously the source and the vanishing point of any and all politics? As long as thought balks at tackling this knotty problem and its amphibology, any debate about democracy, either as a form of constitution or as a technique of government, is likely to collapse back into mere chatter.