Book notes -- What is the political?

26 Jan 2015 02:49

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I'm pursuing a qualitative research project about concrete practices of street medics, and discovered I needed to learn more about what it means to be political, to build a politics, or to help people "move forward politically." So I read some books and talked to some people. Here are notes on some books I read.

Hannah Arendt (2005) "Introduction Into Politics" in Hannah Arendt (2005). The Promise of Politics. Jerome Kohn, ed. New York: Schocken Books, pp. 93-200.

I read part of Kohn's introduction and learned that the book was put together of two parts: the first five chapters were an unfinished project examining the intellectual roots of Stalinist totalitarianism, and the last chapter a consideration of the category of the political, which is what specifically interests me. Arendt's essay goes back and forth between meditations on the end of everything due to the threat of totalitarianism or mutually assured destruction via the atomic bomb — which I found achingly dull — and a geneology of European politics and war.

The geneology traces European political space, goals, means, and ends from Homer's ancient epics to modern statecraft. The ancient Greek polis enacted the freedom equal men found in war and adventure within the walls of the city, and opened it to all citizens: men who by virtue of their domination of the women and slaves of their household (zoe) were free. Plato's Academy demanded freedom from obligation to the polis, and got it. Later the Roman res publica was a relationship between Rome and the formerly independent nations it conquored but did not annihilate, and the Church demanded freedom from obligation to the polis (as reconstituted in the res publica), which became freedom to govern. After that I got confused.

Major insights:

  • Politics is freedom — the freedom to act a new act, to speak a new word, to see from another's point of view without coercion. In order to protect political space, force (which is apolitical) is used to dominate the household, freeing citizens from domination by work; and to dominate enemies, freeing citizens from domination by enemies. The end of politics is the miraculous irruption of free action, speech, and insight; freedom is its base substance.
  • Academic freedom and religious freedom asked for a guarantee from the polis, degrading politics into the vouchsafing of the freedom of another, and eventually the institution of government.
  • The free action/word/insight is a genuinely new thing that does not flow deterministically from extant conditions. Wherever political space is created, free action can "miraculously" change the course of history.

Pierre Clastres (2010). Archeology of Violence. Los Angeles, CA : Semiotext(e); Cambridge, Mass.: Distributed by the MIT Press.

I read the introduction and the titular essay ("Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies"). Clastres is better known for his more ethnographic book Society against the State. In this essay he critiques his teacher Levi-Strauss, Hobbes' justification of the state, and naturalist and economic/Marxist tendencies in anthropology, offering a conception of the political not far removed from Carl Schmitt's.

War in so-called "primitive" societies served to maintain difference. Alliances were necessary in war; thus exchange happened. But exchange of all with all would undermine the dispersal of societies, generating a state, and war of all with all (without temporary alliances) would create dominated people, undermining nonhierarchy. War was how stateless societies safeguarded egalitarian political space. Clastres died in the 1960s, but his political anthropology was a major influence on Gilles Deleuze and anthropologist James C. Scott.

Leo Strauss's (1933) Notes on Carl Schmitt's Concept of the Political and Three Letters from Strauss to Schmitt in Heinrich Meier (1995). Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss: The Hidden Dialogue. J. Harvey Lomax, trans. Univ of Chicago Press.

I read the introduction and Strauss's material. It complicated my understanding of Schmitt's concept. Strauss was very closely acquainted with the work of Hobbes, and argued that as Schmitt tried to make a way out of liberalism from within liberalism, Hobbes made a way into liberalism from outside it.

Strauss suggested that Schmitt's emphasis on establishing enemies (of the state) and friends (of the state) — which derived from an affirmation of man's dangerousness, or man's animal nature, and thus of man's need to be dominated — was only a negative Hobbesianism and thus also liberal unless employed to a specific end. The end to which he suggested Schmitt's conservative polemic was employed was against technology and a century of technicians, and for theology. What Schmitt feared was the loss of humanity along with politics.

Invisible Committee (2014 Oct). "Fuck Off, Google."

Suggests that economics was never a reality or a science, but a post-17th century art of governing that has been partially displaced by cybernetics. Homo economicus is being displaced by a subject without interiority who does not need to be trusted because control and transparency reign. Transparency was established with sensors, statistical models, technicians, and people who are encouraged to communicate as much as possible, so that they can be better policed.

Because computers are not equal to life, life must be impoverished. Hackers understand the physicality on which the virtual world is built. Techniques and tools form the world and constitute forms-of-life, but we only notice them during discovery or breakdown. Technology is the systematizing of the most effective techniques, and a leveling of worlds at the hand of the sad and servile engineer. The hacker asks how things work, experiments, and asks what techniques mean ethically.

Individual freedom and surveillance belong to the same paradigm of government. Free and friend come from the same root: freedom is something that happens between people.

What I got from these readings as a whole:

  • One group's politics can be guaranteed by the thorough depoliticization of another by force.
  • The force relationship depoliticizes all parties involved in it.
  • Forceful refusal of depoliticization can be pre-political.
  • Techniques for establishing political space must develop a space for noncoercive relationships betwen "friends" and continually exercise those relationships.
  • "Friends" are those who share enemies.
  • Politics consists of noncoerced thought, action, and seeing from another's perspective.
  • Coersion includes directly by another or by life iteself for wont of basic necessities of life.
  • Archos means both the ruler and the originator of a political space or an influential free action from within political space. Anarchist politics refuse coercion by life, coercion by enemy, coercion by friends, and (except as necessary to establish political space) coercion of others by self.

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