Authority : Avital Ronell

V. A Legitimate Principle of Coercion

Kojève prepares the more sustained “Analyse de L’Autorité du Maréchal,” where paternal authority has stayed intact, unhampered in the arena of intense political strife.16 The spillover of “l’Autorité du Père” into the realm of politics is one of the problems that Kojève attacks. At the very least, he wants to prompt a shift from father to judge as the principal figure holding together political and ethical qualities of existence. Kojève’s attempts to dislodge the father as figure, imago, and referential complacency in the field of politics, indicate his reach for a tightened sense of constraint. A place must be arranged for the judge as well as the judiciary branch of any serious map of governance.

Such a shift, presented both as possible and highly improbable—the shift from father to judge, their incessant collapses and the threat that power signifiers hold over our heads when father floods the political—is what Kafka tripped over time and again in a way that remains fateful for us today. Kafka at no point makes a clean getaway from father to judge, as if these were separable entities, or as if one figuration of invasive supremacy were more auspicious than the other. The clean break that Kojève makes for the judge over the father’s dead body remains problematic, something that even a Kafkan warden would not abide. Perhaps Kojève fixes its severable function in the political realm as a regulative ideal, endowing it with the qualities of a wish-fulfillment or drawing it toward a prescriptive shift that must be imagined.

Perhaps the dissociation of father and judge is meant to cue up the split-off father, the cruel, sadistic usurper of a dominant paternal imago, precariously associated with firm but benevolent caretaking. In any case, Kojève does not dwell on the coalescence of the split parts of fatherhood that in the end may fail to account for political brutality and that may slip from the noose of mendaciousness that marks egregious leadership. He does not as such take up a sense of the perversion and recast of Führertum that breaks away from the paternal configuration. For him, even instances of aberrant encroachment have received at least some start-up funding from sources, lodged in divine and father-like authority.

Plato, in the meanwhile, is still scouring the planet for a legitimate principle of coercion. His attempts have led him to size up a great number of models for existing relations. Following up on Plato’s modeling of authority, Kojève too offers an anthropological inflection to his remarks. He swerves from a more theoretical line of questioning in order to group different kinds of hierarchical holds. He considers the authority wielded by the teacher over the student, the officer over the soldier or, alas, a husband over a wife. In a sense, Kojève’s examples provide an upgrade, or better said, a modernization, of the examples that Plato establishes for the emergence of authority. Plato looks to the relations between the shepherd and his sheep, the helmsman of a ship and passengers, physician and patient, or between master and slave. In all the instances put forth by Plato, Arendt observes

either expert knowledge commands confidence so that neither force nor persuasion are necessary to obtain compliance, or the ruler and the ruled belong to two altogether different categories of beings, one of which is already by implication subject to the other, as in the cases of the shepherd and his flock or the master and his slaves. All these examples are taken from what to the Greeks was the private sphere of life, and they occur time and again in all the great political dialogues, the Republic, the Statesman, and the Laws.17

Arendt’s gloss, though characteristically clear and altogether comprehensive, moves in a fast, puzzling manner, proceeding without the bump of a doubt, without any disruption of hierarchical assertion. All these examples, meant to establish a middle ground between persuasion and violence, appear however to imply violence and intrusion upon the subjugated parties—or species—as well as breakage in what she appears to cordon off as merely private aspects of political life. The qualities of expertise and confidence remain unquestioned. Nonetheless, if Arendt is precipitous in marking off these hierarchically bound couples, she does remark that Plato himself “was not satisfied with these models” and that in order

to establish the ‘authority’ of the philosopher over the polis, he returned to them time and time again, because only in these instances of glaring inequality could rule be exerted without seizure of power and the possession of means of violence. What he was looking for was a relationship in which the compelling element lies in the relationship itself and is prior to the actual issuance of commands.18

Arendt tops off her commentary with what appears to be a tautological stumble: “[T]he patient became subject to the physician’s authority when he fell ill, and the slave came under the command of the master when he became a slave.”19 It is out of the range of my own reflections on authority to start dancing around some of these claims, as provocative and inviting as they may be. One would like to take a closer look at the tautological bind that tightens around the slave and ask how this event (“the slave came under the command of the master when he became a slave”) evades replication of the seizure of power and the possession of means of violence––except possibly in the most restricted sense.

16. Alexandre Kojève, La Notion de L’Autorité, 186-194.

17. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 476.

18. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 476.

19. Hannah Arendt, The Portable Hannah Arendt, 476.

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