Authority : Avital Ronell

It is not only the case that authority has been lost to us, but it was called up in the first place as a mark of an irretrievable fadeout, to fill in for a loss. The verdict on Socrates is responsible for the birth of authority as a stratagem—an outburst of philosophical insurgency—and a recovery operation. Reading the history of authority—the history of incessant forfeiture leading to the need for authority—one has the sense that philosophy was shaken to its core by the state murder, by the terse sign of its own fragility for which evermore it had to compensate by inventing the prestige of authority. Authority in this bereaved light becomes the response to state-inflicted terror, a kind of ancient video game where the object of relentless pursuit will have been the philosopher. Plato avenges the loss, upgrades the destitute philosopher, turning him into philosopher-king, with the help of the newly fabricated mantel of authority. The elusive paraconcept outbids the strategic finesse of the other offspring of Logos.

I am not going to try either to rehabilitate authority or to tear down bumper stickers that, despite it all, remain firmly in place on what drives the culture of often “liberal” ideals and broad-based interventions: “Question Authority.” Authority, even when we thought it exhibited some substantial qualities, and was swarmed by identifiable figures, inhabited the question—provoked acts of questioning. Unlike neighboring syntagms of power such as those attached to tyranny and injustice, about which examples abound, indeed overflow and cramp, authority is difficult to track, impossible to monitor, complicated to talk about. It stares down talk, dismissive of every effort to gain on it. Arendt puts authority on the opposing side of any rhetoric of persuasion.

Authority disdains the egalitarian order of persuasion, having little use for the petition of strategically aligned language acts. Standing rigorously on its own, it refuses simple power alliances. Thus it contradicts both coercion by force and persuasion through arguments: you can’t talk to it, submit it to any logic, or talk your way out of the troubled facticity of an authoritarian standoff. If it didn’t continue to supply the pre-givenness of our way of handling private and public spheres of encounter, domestic and foreign affairs—or insist on rendering the most intimate of decisions and determining the mentors we chose—maybe authority, with its receding qualities of disappearance and ghostly effectiveness, would not have to be bothered with.

One would breathe a sigh of relief if authority, finally, could be dispensed with, closed down and forgotten. Perhaps, one projects, one could grow out of authority, get over it, and mature like a child who no longer fears the switch (as if childhood did not return with punishing regularity to gag and scar, as Kafka and Lyotard show, crawling as they do out of historical comfort zones into a place where one remains stunted or is returned to the starting pen in order to face the ongoing torment of worldlessness).

The forgetting of authority, the temptation to confuse its disappearance with a final call or definitive ending of sorts—imagining that the irreversible demise of authority were accomplished—opens the field to the invasion of unmarked terrorism, new forms of disturbance for which no critical apparatus or conceptual framework yet exists. The fear induced by the loss of authority appears to follow a Schmittian pattern: the loss of something often considered as pernicious—in his work, the loss of the enemy—opens up abysses to a radical disfiguration of relations as it unravels threads and impairs boundaries that have kept the world recognizable, even in its grim particulars.

Such losses have been tallied up in late modernity to great effect. Related to Benjamin’s aura, but less flashy, more perniciously undermining, the disappearance of authority may well supersede Schmitt’s enemy constellation, the vanishing of which spells historical calamity. How does the loss of authority inflect our being? Where do the remainders of authority still dwell and sing out like sirens? On another level altogether, are the mourners of authority masking another loss for which “authority” would be a cover? What about the frankly authoritarian features of some of Arendt’s choices, her reactionary watchwords?

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