Authority : Avital Ronell

III. Opening a Political Crypt

Tyrannical surges coming from left field or from the heart of democratic safety zones have become part of our political experience, even where politics, in the classical sense, seems to be on the retreat. Tyranny, authority, and injustice each have impressive columns in the history of thought to back them up and hold them together, even as in related but different speculative milieux, they stand apart when they are not frankly fueling one another. Although the themes of tyranny and injustice share some common ground with that of authority, I try to follow a determined historical-theoretical trajectory and place the emphasis of these reflections on authority. Why this particular emphasis? Because authority is the most elusive of terms that inform relations, and yet no politics, no family, no pride of accomplishment can exist without it, according to the few thinkers who have donated their efforts to writing about or around it or its mystical foundation.

Authority slips away as one tries to pin it down. So say Kojève and Arendt; so contended the Romans who instituted its earliest forms as family-bound Auctoritas. The Greeks, it is said, barely had a grip on it but put up, in the works of Plato and then Aristotle especially, something that approximated the modern-day understanding of what is now meant by authority. Still, to the extent that it is crucial to any political rhetoric or practice, it is also decidedly off the radar, a ghost of itself, gone but spectrally imprinted. For Hannah Arendt, authority is an undeletable term, key to any grasp of politics. At the same time, authority has been on the decline together with religion and tradition even as it remains a primal impulse in the cuing of group formation—one can in any case no longer say what authority is. One can barely say what it is not.

For her part, Arendt opens the discussion on authority as if she were in the company of a specter, opening a political crypt. Something that still holds us hostage, authority has for all intents and purposes disappeared; it has even eaten away at her title, “What is Authority?” “In order to avoid misunderstanding,” she begins her famous essay

it might have been wiser to ask in the title: What was—and not what is—authority? For it is my contention that we are tempted and entitled to raise this question because authority has vanished from the modern world.1

For me, the disappearance of authority functions as a figure for democracy in crisis—a way of describing the panic that prevails within the powerful motifs of sociality, alterity, relation. Elsewhere I have argued that it is democracy’s character to be in perpetual crisis. The burn out of authority opens another fold in the thinking of this crisis.2

Authority’s disappearance in itself calls for a speculative forensics, particularly since the presumed eclipse of authority is not complete, but haunts and hounds human relations, holding things together by nothing more substantial than vague historical memory starts. Arendt’s approach to the vanishing of authority recalls in some instances Heidegger’s thinking of the forgetting of being. Authority’s perch over oblivion is endangering. Writing of the related loss of tradition, she remarks

We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence.3

The loss of authority is seen as the final and decisive phase

of a development which for centuries undermined primarily religion and tradition. Of tradition, religion, and authority, . . . authority has proved to be the most stable element. With the loss of authority, however, the general doubt of the modern age also invaded the political realm. . . . Only now, as it were after the fact, the loss of tradition and of religion have become political events of the first order.4

Of inestimable political capital, authority, whether viewed as exercising its elusive capacities to the max or in recess, belongs to a thinking of the destruction or end of politics. Because authority is slipping, the alarming agitations of planet-struck religion and perished tradition come into view, taking on the quality of political events. Kojève, who takes another tact, is quick to point out that while Hegel works out his encounter with the problem in terms of the master/slave dialectic, and the Scholastics in terms of God, Marx completely neglects the trope of authority and therefore comes up short.

For Arendt, the problem of authority arises early, close to the origin of Western civilization, when Plato has to bury Socrates in writing. We’ll get to the heart of the story shortly, when we attach to the micrological blips in her argument (which show without saying so) how Plato struggled. After the execution of his mentor he was bent on conveying the authority of philosophy in an effort both to memorialize and to exact revenge for the passing of the martyred philosopher.

1. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin, 2000), 462.

2. Avital Ronell, The Test Drive (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).

3. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 464.

4. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 464.

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