Saturday, October 27, 2007

Might and Right

I've been invited to speak as one of the panelists in a colloquium entitled "Violence: The American Tradition?" coming up in a little more than a week. I am still working out what it is that I want to say. My co-panelists are a historian and an artist, and we are each expected to address the question in a discipline-specific manner. Of course, I should be very good at this, since the stereotype of the deconstructionist is one who does nothing but "violence" to texts, to ideas, to culture, to all that is sacred and holy and pure...

[This is me chuckling.]

I think I'm going to use the fable by 17th C. poet and fabulist Jean de La Fontaine called "The Wolf and the Lamb." (It's a short poem, so you should click on the link and read it yourself. If you're familiar with Jacques Derrida's Rogues, you will remember that he also uses this fable to talk about democratic power/sovereignty.) The fable begins: "The strong are always best at proving they're right." La Fontaine goes on to recount the "trial and judgment" of a prey before its predator. In any other context, the arguments of Fontaine’s wolf concerning why he must devour the lamb would be, no doubt, humorous. We all assume, after all, that “power” and "violence" in the animal kingdom do not require justification. However, Derrida employs the fable to demonstrate a particularly democratic concept of power or sovereignty, in which the “law of giving reason(s)” and giving them in a universal medium (like language or law) works to mask the brute force of the strongest. To provide reasons or justifications for power/violence is always already to compromise it by subjecting it to rules of discourse, to a code of law, to concepts. But, Derrida suggests, democracy requires these compromises, despite the fact that in the end-- that is, to the lamb--they make no more justificatory sense for (politically) sovereign powers than they do for Fontaine’s (natural) brute. They are just as much disingenuousness and dissimulation. Hence, the aporia of democratic sovereignty.

At least since the introduction of liberal-democratic theory during the Enlightenment, the concept of political sovereignty has existed as a kind of specter of pure power, which is to say it has never existed or fully presented itself at all. This is a well-rehearsed theme among postcolonial theorists: those states that purport to represent liberal political ideals still resort to violence and brute force, in the name of those same ideals, to sustain themselves and (more often) to prosper. (The paramount case may be the French colonial program mission civilisatrice, or “civilizing mission,” which the ostensibly liberal French Republic used to justify the violent “repression”—in both the psychoanalytical and political sense—of its colonial dependencies.) The fact that they do so under the auspices of modernity’s most enlightened and “reasonable” political form—and we should hear in this all of the deliberative resonances that democracy entails—does not exempt them from opting in favor of the violent power that is constitutive of that political form.

The “reason of the strongest,” then, turns out not to be the “strongest reason” but, as in Fontaine’s fable, the reason that the strong deploy to safeguard their strength. That is, “the strong are best at proving their right” not because the strong are always the most right, but because in the realm of trial and judgment, where rights are measured, the strong are best at wielding their powers of proof. “Pure sovereignty” does not exist, Derrida claims in Rogues, because “it is always in the process if autoimmunizing itself, of betraying itself by betraying the democracy that nonetheless can never do without it.” The moment one speaks in favor of democracy—which is required above all of the democrat—when one gives reasons to or for democratic power or violence, “democracy” is compromised and its internally-motivated destabilization and self-destruction is activated by this unavoidable aporia.

Derrida’s point is not simply to illustrate a "bad" form of democracy. In order for actual democracies to be effective, to generate, sustain and enforce a system of law that can secure "democracy," they need power--and often violent power-- within their ranks. They need what Derrida calls the cracy of the demos, which is most often manifest in the same kind of justificatory narrative that Fonataine's wolf provides, that is, in giving reasons for the right to one's might. In every democracy, this requires the emergence of a kind of preeminent sovereign force--a spokesperson, a statesman, a President-- that can represent and protect "democracy” as such. Such a force, necessary but indispensable, will inevitably betray and threaten the democratic order at every turn, but s/he will also keep it secure.

There's a lot more to say here, obviously, but my intuition is to answer the implied question of the colloquium ("Is violence the American tradition?") affirmatively. Only with this caveat: it is an "American" tradition because it is a constitutive part of the "democratic" tradition. It may be most pronounced in America because we are no longer bothered by (if we ever were) the tensions and auto-deconstructive tendencies inherent in our political form. We're like Fontaine's wolf.

And we're living in a world of lambs.


kgrady said...

Leigh, this sounds like a great argument, and I can't wait to hear how it goes over.

I've tried three times now to respond substantively to your argument, and all three have ended in me deciding that I can't say what I want to say in a reasonable amount of space, and that I'm not sure where to begin. So maybe I'll send you an email. It's been a while anyhow.

Nazareth said...

This is a great discussion that really enhances my understanding of Rogues. It seems, nevertheless, to be lacking an account of how the fragmentary history of democratic power/sovereignty is taken up and deployed by the United States in a way that is uniquely American. It seems to me that you really do need to look at history to identify how American democracy's own autoimmune uses of violence came about. I'll be interested to hear how the historian on your panel analyzes that history (and I'm dying to know what the artist will have to say), but for me the key is Woodrow Wilson's efforts to finally overcome America's long history of isolationism during World War I.

The fairly conventional history of democracy that begins with Thucydides’ account of Pericles’ funeral oration to commemorate the dead at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War and ends with Rousseau is in fact quite fragmentary. Linear narratives of the history of democracy became prevalent during the twentieth century when American foreign policy adopted the Wilsonian ambitions that have been its impetus to the present day. In his “War Message” to Congress on April 2, 1917, asking Congress for a declaration of war against Germany, President Wilson stated that his goals for American involvement in the war included, “the ultimate peace of the world,” “the liberation of its people,” and to make the world “safe for democracy.” Congress passed its war resolution four days later, not only initiating the United States’ formal involvement in World War I, but also providing eschatological closure for what has ambivalently come to be known as the “American Century.”

Prior to the twentieth century the word democracy was rarely used in a world where widespread male suffrage had only been achieved in the nineteenth century, female suffrage was just beginning to be instituted, the rights of free speech and assembly were not fully extended to labor unions, political protestors or all political parties, and democratic governments typically used other designations, such as republic or commonwealth. Once the idea of spreading universal democracy started to be used in attempts to legitimize America’s global ambitions, then accounts of the historical development of democracy began to be articulated to give narrative coherence and a sense of inevitability to those goals.

Finally, I think it's important to note that the point of autoimmunity is that democracy's ideals and its originary violence are both inseparable aspects of democracy. It's not as if Derrida simply sets out to unpack the violence of democracy, though that is a big part of his analysis of democratic sovereignty in _Rogues_, "Force of Law," and "Declarations of Independence." Derrida also tries to sustain the fragile transformative potential of democracy by challenging, disrupting, and strategically subverting its grand narratives, which are wont to coalesce in ways that favor some people and groups, while withholding rights, privileges and possibilities from others. "The Laws of Reflection: Nelson Mandela, in Admiration" is one example of this equally significant aspect of Derrida's critique of democracy, along with all of the various discussions of "democracy to come."

In Rogues Derrida addresses the relation between force and law. I know you don't mean to do it, but there is a way in which your discussion risks treating law as reducible to force, as another name for force. But law is also a necessary condition for the possibility of justice in Derrida's analyses of law and justice. Not including "democracy to come" in your discussion risks fulfilling your imaginary auditors' "sterotype of the deconstructionist [who]does nothing but 'violence' ideas..."

Good luck, Leigh, I wish I could attend the panel discussion!

Doctor J said...

Thanks, Naz. Of course, I agree with everything you say here. There is something about the nature of the blog that inclines me toward being a bit too fast and loose with my writing, and I appreciate your reminding me to pay attention to the details.

More to come on this...

Nazareth said...

Leigh, my comments are just a footnote to your blog entry, which really adds enormously to my understanding of Rogues. Thank you for it and for your very active blogging. I feel like I'm back in a graduate seminar with you, and as I've often said, you were my favorite interlocutor in grad school. I'll be interested to hear about the panel discussion!