Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

You can’t solve a problem with a terminological distinction

I’ve long been suspicious of anyone who attempts to give some kind of theoretical significance to a supposed distinction between “politics” and “the political.” Partly this is just linguistic; if you use “politics” as a noun you’re going want to use its adjectival form, “political,” at some point, and pretending that there’s a distinction between the two is just going to confuse you. But there is a more important problem with the purported distinction, which is that it obscures a genuine difficulty in the conception of politics. Drawing a distinction between, say, “politics” as a good practice and “the political” as a bad reification (or “politics” as a bad institutionalization and “the political” as a good ontological condition, or whatever other distinction you want to make; no-one agrees on what the actual distinction between the two terms is) is an attempt to fence-off some aspect of politics as unproblematic, to declare, by linguistic fiat, that the complexities in the concept of politics have been resolved.

In fact, however, the concept of politics is essentially problematic, and there is no aspect of it that can be protected from this difficulty. If politics as a practice is good, that depends in part on an ability to distinguish political practice from non-political practice, which is to already invoke an incipient reification of the political; if the political as an ontological condition is good, we need to explain how it can give rise to the bad institutions of politics. No. Better to recognize that politics or the political, whichever term we choose, is a fundamentally ambivalent category: a practical illusion, as Marx puts it, and we need to wrestle with  the practical need to engage with politics, as we try and overcome the illusions that are cast by it.

As an illustration of what this vacuous distinction covers over, consider Rancière’s theory of politicization as the appearance, or making-appear, of the excluded part of the people. What this misses is the dialectical ambiguity of appearance, which is always both the specific appearance of a thing, and an appearance in contrast to the reality of the thing. The appearance of something new on the political scene is never the full presence of that thing, but rather the production of a gap between the thing and its political appearance.