Voyou Désœuvré

On the way out after a talk on Arendt last week, a friend turned to me and said, “so, I guess you’re pretty pissed off.” And indeed I was; I’m not especially knowledgeable or enthusiastic about Arendt, but she’s certainly more interesting than her American epigones (but I repeat myself; are there any Arendtians anywhere but America?). Arendt, with her anti-modern republicanism, was not in any straightforward sense a liberal; yet, with American Arendtians, the topic always comes back, sooner of later, to the special excellence of the American political community. Or, rather, the hypothetical excellence of the American political community because, of course, all Arendtians agree that politics is in grave danger: the social always lurks, waiting to swallow it up. In last week’s Arendtian extraveganza, this protectiveness towards the political took the form of enjoining people to forget the tartuffery of “social democracy” now that George Bush threatens something much more important: the Constitution!

Leaving aside the fundamental flaws in the social/political distinction, and the more specific idiocy of thinking that the current administration’s policies have nothing to do with matters of economics or class, this move to the Constitution, which is the signature of the American Arendtian, is, I think, one of the fundamental enabling fantasies of liberalism. One of the favorite tropes of The West Wing sees one character (it doesn’t matter which) give a long, eloquent, impassioned speech defending the vital moral importance of some policy or other; pragmatic objections by the speakers interlocutor are sharply brushed aside; just as the speech reaches its moral climax, the speaker turns again to his pragmatic counterpart and says, “but of course you’re right, we can’t implement this policy.” The point being to draw a sharp distinction between the inherent ethical goodness of the characters, and the unfortunate pragmatic business of actually existing politics.

The idea of the autonomy of the political is precisely this kind of West Wing ethics An autonomous political realm is posited, allowing for a contrast with the actually-existing corrupt and self-serving “politics” of today. But this is just a mystification: the politics that is inseperable from the social and the private is the essential form of politics, and if such a thing as a politics separate from capitalism is possible at all, it is something that has to be imagined and constructed, not something that already exists as a regulative ideal.

Now, interestingly, I wonder if we don’t see much the same kind of structure in Badiou’s claim that all ethics is situational. I find Badiou’s own example of medical ethics inherently plausible, but I know wonder if I should. Is there an ethics of medicine, strictly separate from the enmeshment of medicine in social structures? An example that seems much less plausible for Badiou’s thesis is that of journalistic ethics: as the history of journalism is coextensive with the history of capitalism, the interlinking of the two, and hence the lack of any journalistic ethics separable from (and opposable to) capitalism, seems to me undeniable.

And of course Badiou also asserts the autonomy of the political (although in a rather different way from Arendt), and rejects the category of political economy. I need to think more about this, but these two moves strike me as deeply suspect.


  1. Navid, 4:33 am, April 23, 2008

    My comment didn’t come up for some reason. I’ll finish it tomorrow.

  2. Navid, 10:56 pm, April 26, 2008

    Hey Voyou,

    Sorry about not finishing up that earlier thought. I wrote a nice long post and some random ‘cookies setting’ on my browser messed it up and all was lost.

    All I was going to say is that I felt Villa wasn’t critiquing social democracy, but rather anyone with a hint of a Post-Structuralist reading- especially in the moment he brought up the constitution.

    If you remember, he made comments that went something along the lines of “You COULD do that with her thought” – “but not around me plz” or “that wasn’t one of her strengths, it wasn’t her focus, so don’t even bother” (the latter being directed at the woman asking about the law).

    Indeed, I definitely felt that he was in some way channeling Arendt (especially by discarding the Post-Structuralist readings in favor of an intentionalist reading). Yet I also felt that he was far enough removed from his object (Arendt’s thought) so that he could still historicize it by saying that the critique of the social wasn’t aimed at the social democrats of today (who if we believe Sherri Berman is the ideological form of the end of history), but rather against the pertinently anti-liberal forms of Marxisms of yesteryear.

    Or Jacobins for that matter; he did bring up Arendt’s reading of the French Revolution which is in many ways in line with Burke’s thought. In both analyses- the enemy is the social. They also both supported the American Revolution, but held cynical attitudes to the successes of the French (precluding an analysis of them as ‘anti-revolutionary’). Most importantly, Burke insisted that the French championed the abstract idea of liberty rather than its reality- which is produced and maintained by civil government. This sounds a lot like Arendt.

    Also, if you remember, the constitution-talk was brought up at the end of his presentation during the Q & A. By this point, the discussion of the ‘social’ had somewhat quieted. I think I remember him saying something along the lines of “look guys, there are conferences at Princeton by legal scholars who are assessing the damages done to the constitution by the Bush Administration- this is serious” as a response to what he took to be off-beat ‘theoretical’ questions.

    Again, this could be all wholly wrong.

    Also- your rhetorically poised question “are there any Arendtians anywhere besides America?” was refreshening. Learning and thinking about the academe and public discourse in other places has always interested me. And indeed, it’s fascinating to see her become a symbol of American Exceptionalism.

    Finally, I’m still thinking about the West Wing analogy and I think I’m in agreement. Great point!

    P.S – I need to read Badiou.

    Hope all is well!

    Please respond if you have any points of disagreements. I would love to read them.

  3. Carl Dyke, 8:54 am, April 27, 2008

    I enjoyed these remarks about Arendt and the West Wing.

    There are a variety of familiar dichotomies that seem to be in play here: idealism/materialism, gemeinschaft/gesellschaft, individual/society, linear/non-linear, lumping/splitting.

    For the purists all of the stuff we find interesting and real looks like “corruption.”

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