Impolitic : Emily Apter

French definitions of l’impolitique emphasize timing in the art of political calculation: imprudence, the inopportune, injudiciousness. From the literary dictionary Littré come the notions of bad governance and defective sovereignty:

impolitique: adj. Qui est contraire à la bonne, à la saine politique, soit dans le gouvernement d’un Etat, soit même dans la conduite privée. Une conduite, une démarche impolitique.”

[That which is contrary to good, healthy government, whether state government or private conduct. A conduct, an impolitic demeanor]

“Une démarche impolitique,” an impolitic conduct, runs the gamut from social fumbling to “the most radical gesture,” as typified by the Situationist scandal in which the Lettriste Serge Berna, dressed as a Dominican priest, entered Notre Dame during Easter mass and read a passage from Nietzsche on the Death of God or, more recently, by Pussy Riot’s viral video “Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!” A strongly impolitic way of doing politics connotes gestures of refusal, non-cooperation and civil disobedience. It mobilizes a tactics of tactlessness that encompasses the right to offend, and the rude-boy maneuvers of rogues and voyous. It assaults conventions of bienséance, good taste and liberal tolerance with obscene gestures and nasty retorts. It violates the boundaries of individual personhood (and here I paraphrase Timothy Campbell’s gloss on Esposito), by showing how relationality is squeezed by the social form of the person (with the Social understood as power formally confused with the good).11

In Alain Badiou’s hypertranslation of Plato’s Republic, Thrasymacus and Glaucon perform the Impolitic as a reactionary mode of pugilistic ressentiment. Thrasymacus denigrates Socrates as a sycophant and “idiotic hairdresser” (“un coiffeur débile”).12 He cuts him off, dismisses his responses as Socratic verbiage, and subjects him to profane insult: “As far as I’m concerned, if your nurse had done a better job of wiping you, your asshole wouldn’t be as full of shit as your speech.”13 Glaucon’s onslaughts are less crude, but more destabilizing. His skepticism registers as a “surprise attack” that catches Socrates off guard:

So, Socrates, since I approve of your account of the innumerable benefits of our communism, let’s not discuss it any further. Let’s focus the whole argument now on the two unresolved issues. One: is such a system of government possible? Two: if so, where, when, and how?

Socrates, caught off guard, set his glass down:

My goodness! he exclaimed. That was some surprise attack you just launched on my argument! Don’t you ever grant extenuating circumstances to someone who’s hesitant? From the start of our discussion I just barely escaped the devastating effects of a theoretical tidal wave concerning my feminism; I drowned in another about the family; and now here you are – granted, without realizing it – unleashing the most enormous and dangerous of all tidal waves of this sort against me! Once you’ve witnessed it, you’ll be more than willing to grant me extenuating circumstances. You’ll understand my hesitations, my fear not only of putting forward such an extremely paradoxical idea, but of completely defending it as well.

The more you try to dodge the issue, the less likely we’ll be to put up with your not telling us how our fifth system of government can come about in reality. Stop wasting our time: speak!14

What Badiou gleans from Socrates’ adversaries are modes of discursive impolitesse whose traits are brutality, mockery defensive posturing, a refusal to listen, and autocratic impatience. These attitudes acquire a political theoretical currency that surpasses their narrative value as descriptions of obstructionism. Dialectically, they produce the counter-figure of a Socratic Bartleby (“I would prefer not to”), who effects a de-tourned “strategy of refusal” (the expression is Mario Tronti’s) that forecasts an autonomist politics of organized passivity, waiting, stymied work orders, and assembly without organizational dirigeants.

The Impolitic functions ambivalently as the M.O. of the disciplined militant and the bumptious ideologue. George W. Bush laced his speech with calculated insults that often came packaged in the form of the insult, gaffe; or amphiboly; the last, a structure of ambivalent syntax that naturalizes logical fallacies and double binds within a singular grammar. Here is ‘W.’ defining the “impolitic” in utterances that may be characterized as passive-aggressive, willfully tone-deaf amphibolies:

“Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
(August 5th, 2004. Washington, D.C.)

“For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three non-fatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just unacceptable. And we’re going to do something about it.” (May 14th, 2001. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

“You know, one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.”
(September 6th, 2006. Interview with Katie Couric, CBS News.)

What makes these comments politically compromising is not so much that they allow us to hear a political unconscious speaking (and they certainly do), but that they present language as a potentially AWOL medium. The spectacle of “unsafe sense”–runaway meanings, de-securable knowledge, the security liability of translation located at the heart of an impossible global project of securitization – provokes complex affective responses: a mélange of hilarity, giddiness, anger, contempt and anxiety. Here the Impolitic denotes that uncontrollable aspect of speech-acts constitutive of a consequential if rarely acknowledged dimension of the Risk Society.

11. Timothy Campbell, “Foucault was not a Person: Idolatry and the Impersonal in Roberto Esposito’s Third Person,” The New Centennial Review 10:2 (2010).

12. Alain Badiou, La République de Platon (Paris: Libraire Arthème Fayard, 2012), 53.

13. Alain Badiou, La République de Platon, 57. Translation is my own. For a variation, see Susan Spitzer: “It’s just that, in my opinion, your nanny ought to do a better job wiping your bottom if it’s as shitty as your argument!” Plato’s Republic: A Dialogue in 16 Chapters, (trans.) Susan Spitzer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 25.

14. Alain Badiou, Plato’s Republic, 163.

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