Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Political

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who regularly bemoaned the habit, common among philosophers, of referring to (questions, theories, problems and issues of) "the political" or "the ethical." His objection, as I understood it, was not to engaging political and ethical questions qua philosophical questions, but rather to the use of the "the" to mark off some indepedent metaphysical or intellectual domain in which political and ethical questions are engaged. From a different vantage point, feminist philosophers also have long been critical of positing "the political" as independent from whatever realms to which it might be opposed (i.e., the private, the personal, the non-political)... though feminist philosophers have, traditionally, been more invested in blurring or erasing the boundaries between those realms, rather than evacuating "the political" of its status as a noun. I'm actually sympathetic with both of these complaints-- (1) the use of "political" as an indefinite, inappropriate and inadequate noun instead of an adjective, and also (2) the presumption that whatever that noun is meant to refer to is somehow a wholly independent realm of existence or consideration-- and I am guilty of using "the political" in both ways.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to abandon it, despite its over- and mis-use by many philosophers-- myself included-- who often employ it as a shortcut, ready-to-hand, generic gesture in the direction of something they intuit but do not want to articulate. (For the record, there are far too many other over- and mis-used phrases that I would advocate abandoning first. Among them: "calling into question x," "problematizing x," "toward a reconsideration of x," or any other manner of vaguely oppugning anything. But that's a matter for another post.) As a rule, I am inclined to agree with the feminists that what we usually mean when we refer to "the political" is not easily (or productively) distinguished from what we usually mean when we reder to "the ethical" or "the private/personal." I am also inclined to think that, as long as we are talking as a "we," then there really isn't anything that we're talking about that is excluded from "the political." So, although certain ways of positing "the political" may indeed amount to the positing of a fiction, none of those fictions are as false as positing the "non-political" (or the "a-political" or the "pre-political").

The non-sense of "the non-political," in my view, is ultimately derivative of the sense that I make of "the political." When I refer to "the political," I mean the following: that realm of human existence where meaning and interests are at stake. In that realm, as I figure it, meanings and interests are always (really or potentially) in conflict. That is to say, I understand meaning and interest to be human ideological investments-- "ideological" investments with real, material, physical, environmental, personal and interpersonal consequences-- and as long as there is more than one human in the mix, more than one set of invesments, then some of those meanings and interests will be mutually exclusive. I understand "the political" to refer to a domain in which deliberation and decision are necessitated. Consequently, I understand "the non-political" to be non-sensical in the same way that a "private language" is nonsensical. It's entirely solipsistic, and nothing that is so hermetically sealed in privacy can be said to have sense... because it cannot be said. This is, I realize, a fundamentally Hegelian position, an understanding of the un-say-able as essentially untrue. "The political," on my account, refers to everything and everywhere that kind of solipsism is disallowed. It refers to everything and everywhere that a human being understands him or herself to be obligated to make sense.

I want to distinguish my sense of "the political" from some rudimentary Hobbesian account, however, in which "the political" assumes a necessary and real conflict of interests, rather than a merely (logically) possible one. When I say that "the political" refers to a realm in which meanings and interests are at stake, and also that multiple meanings and interests will always be (potentially) in contest, that is only to note the rather mundane observation that all meanings and interests are not absolutely reconcilable. That is not to say that all human investments in meaning and interest, or in making sense of those meanings and interests, are ultimately reducible to self-interested investments. It is certainly the case, logically speaking, that two people with entirely altrusitic concerns can still find their interests to be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, what makes that contest of interests a part of "the political" is the conflict that their mutual-exclusivity necessarily entails, which is always a conflict that requires deliberation and decision. (I would draw back just short of Arendt here, who claims that "the political" also requires action. Would that it were true, though!)

As is no doubt obvious, I consider "the political" to refer to a uniquely human domain. I do not think that Nature or non-human animals, without the superaddition of human consideration, consitute or can alone constitute "the political." Of course, it is the case that the questions and concerns that take into account Nature or non-human animals are "political" questions, but only inasmuch as they are taken up as such by what Aristotle would call zōon politikon (ζῷον πολιτικὸν), or animals of the polis, which is always-already human.

For these reasons, at least, I want to hang on to the unfortunately-ambiguous formulation "the political." And for the same reasons, I want to refrain from being too critical of those who might use it to actually posit some formulation of that to which it refers, as I have attempted to do here.


Lelyn R. Masters said...

Thank you.

anotherpanacea said...

Is the study of the political the study of everything? Is the political then just another way of saying ontology?

One thing I like about Arendt is that she's committed to action as deed or speech, and we never quite know in advance what will count as a *political* deed or utterance. But she does certainly think some things ought to sheltered from politics, and her judgments about what's in and what's out are contentious and sometimes I disagree with her. But I'd like to hear more about why this sheltering can't ever be "sensical."

Might we distinguish the always-already political (if there is such a thing) from the politicization of a situation or a space? This would be especially true of attempts to define the a-political or non-political. On the polticization view, rather than 'the political' view, such attempts at de-politicization are aimed at drawing political boundaries rather than non-political boundaries....

When we say "2+2=4 isn't political" for instance, we're engaged in the work of delimiting, defining, and making political of the non-a priori spaces, not just making an irrelevant observation. We're also in quest of that Archimedean point outside of politics from which we can somehow dictate the unpolitical truth in a way that dominates this "merely political" dissent. (And what's more political than such a quest for the world outside of politics?)

Lorenzo said...

that realm of human existence where meaning and interests are at stake
Surely being political requires that it be, in some sense, social? If you confront that dimension directly, will that begin to grapple with the issue anotherpanacea raises?