Authority : Avital Ronell

Anthony Keith Giannini / 54
Anthony Keith Giannini / 54″ x 88″ diptych

Authority : Avital Ronell

I. Aggressive Coexistence

Neither powered up by a solid sense of (or even desire for) legitimacy, nor a control freak with regard to the possibilities of comprehension, I abide with the weaker neighborhoods of thought, where things do not always work out or offer the narcissistic comfort of landing in the vicinity of secured sense. This time, in order to get a running start on the motif of the loser son, a pervasive world-denting irritant, I am going after authority, a problem that has attracted relatively weak bolsters and, for the most part, only tentative interventions. Yet, the problem before us has preoccupied at least two strongly-poised generations whose membership has tried very hard, and in vital ways, to stare down authority, question authority, mime, repel, usurp, diminish, lend or command authority. I want these types and tendencies to approach the bench. They require and deserve a hearing, whether or not they have proven to be rebellious or in egregious complicity with the outer limits of the authoritarian imposition.

At first glance, every attempt to get a hold of authority’s meaning and historical rootedness in institutional practice seems encumbered by the poverty of means by which to arrive at its essential qualities or range. Theorists of a modern cast, including Alexandre Kojève and Theodor Adorno, take recourse to scales and charts and other computational hazards in order to get the point across that one remains susceptible to and in need of authority; from Hannah Arendt to Giorgio Agamben, the Roman scaffolding is brought back into view in order to expose what authority almost was, or is still about to be. Descriptions flood the arena and, for the most part, accrue to the column tallying up the enduring necessity of authority—rating the calamitous consequence of its deceleration or outright extinction. The grandeur of authority, its nearly auratic claims, appears to have held things together, having pushed away from more violent shores of human governance.

The collapse of authority, the successive demotions of the “big Other,” God and State and other mostly masculinist idols, put a fracture in being. In consequence, we are still crawling around with the lesions caused by the affronts of a faux authority, trailing its miserable representatives. Kojève derives ontic samples of authority from the workable fiction of divine authority. Adorno goes so far as to study the bulk of hives-inducing authoritarian qualities, lodged at the very core of American democracy. He demonstrates the dangers posed by high-scorers of the F-scale, referring in his study to the fascisoid markers consistently lighting up among the more or less normal citizens that are interviewed, Claude Lanzman-style, by his team of researchers. The gap between the character of authority on the one hand, and the “authoritarian character” on the other, is not so wide as it may seem, yet each player in these constellations has a different investment in the modalities of authority, its inevitable breaches or intractable necessity.

Strangely, yet pertinently, the question of authority—supposing it is still or has ever really been a question—takes us back to earliest childhood, to states of hapless dependency and prepolitical need. No one likes to admit it, yet domination by God-the-Father or dad-the-father (in close complicity with maternal runs of interference or, in highly determined chronicled spurts, motherly supersession) pump the machine of still unrelenting effects of authority. Whether or not one autobiographically had a daddy-mommy incubator or the signifier hanging over one’s head, one had a relation to authority from day one. One counted, before being able to count, on the authority of those wrapping one’s tush and filling one’s mouth. According to Melanie Klein’s assessment of the way things were from the get-go, one feared the authority even of the breast; coming at one, it gave a real sense of a persecutory tankage (from the start, one had to work at loving one’s mother, at promoting the “good breast”).

My question, simple at this point, is harnessed by Nietzschean energy: What became of authority’s hold over early childhood (or childhood’s way of holding onto authority), whether well rated or poorly dispatched, whether structuring or debilitating and both? How do we score authority in what looks to be a post-political world, where we are faced with the essential finitude of the political? Do we need it, or can authority be disposed of by the purposeful anarchy of questioning? Is it the case that the exercise of authority can stave off tyranny or does its peculiar stamina, on the contrary, prep the tyrannical stranglehold? But authority does not belong to the class of action or syntax of being that can be “exercised,” that is, in any significant way flexed, handled. It belongs to an entirely different scale of showing and being. In essence, it comes along silently, with minimal fuss and even less melodrama. It asserts itself with few words and low phenomenological maintenance. Still, how does it show up on our scanners and what kind of bite marks does it continue to leave on our political bodies? In what way does authority, which notoriously withdraws from thought and shuns ostentation, allow an approach?

In order to wrestle with archaic sovereignties and specify those more original formations that have led to the stagnation of something like a politically progressivist momentum, it is helpful at times to visit with what passes for defunct or condemned sites of knowing. It may mean putting one’s stakes in recalcitrant areas of thought that come up as irrelevant, difficult, overly problematic, wearying. Who wants to dwell today in sticky marshes that yield so little in a “result”-prodded era? Well, I do. Setting aside the craving for results, rated upwards from business and objectivist concerns, let us stay in the vicinity of this ever-receding shadow of a concept, assuming we have found it.

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