Authority : Avital Ronell

One also wonders—this may seem trivial but argument allows for such limit-grazing watchfulness—where violence begins or what gets counted as violence as concerns the downtrodden and our animal companions. Or is the prod of the sheep exempted from such consideration? Perhaps this is so, at least in the wide swath of philosophical fields. But the tabulation of sheep and the ill, the enlistment of slave and other filiations of the untouchable in relation to power, takes a pernicious turn when analogies are allowed to run fast and loose.

Following Plato, Arendt clearly wants to attain to the kind of soft coercion associated with reason and the installment of the philosopher-king. She requires for her demonstration prior instances of subjugation that preempt subversion or, indeed, revolution. What remains intact and important, despite the dead or destitute bodies that are run over on the way, is that Plato, like Arendt, looks to authority as something that would allow violence to subside and persuasion to take a rest. Authority establishes relationality prior to command, promising compliance in the absence of force or argument.

Linked in an essential way to Kafka’s parable, “Before the Law,” and to the Levinasian thought on passivity, this priority, or a priority, seeks out the condition of hostage-being that suspends those effects of persecution and injury to which both Kafka and Levinas attest. Such a view of authority that might take in or shake up the other without harm—ceding originary harm in order to avoid doing harm—provides us with a map of the nearly impossible reparations that both Kojève and Arendt attempt to achieve in their encounter with the genealogical purge and political provocation of authority. Authority in these cases subsists on borrowed transcendence. When someone commands authority, this figure or person or institution supersedes the realm of ontic squabbles, leaping over the conflict arenas of everyday pathology.

Matters are helped when authority trickles down from the notion of God, suggesting both a higher column and a more secure ground from which commands can be issued. (Arendt does not consider internal command systems and Kojève more or less explicitly rules them out; not even the categorical imperative gets in authority’s door.) I suspect that authority comes close at times to Kant’s thinking of Achtung (respect), but so far, respect, whether commanded or in some ways demanded, has not come into the picture or the framework that they maneuver. The exclusion of respect from the discussion of authority may be theoretically motivated; it may serve as part of a deliberate omission on the part of Arendt, and possibly also Kojève, that keeps authority structurally bare. What is the sense of keeping authority separate from respect, and what kind of theoretical bulwarking does the strategy of seclusion assure? It is necessary to note at this point only that so little is said about how authority secures respect or produces effects of respectful adherence. Let me take a closer look at what may turn out to be a telling angle in the discourse of effacement.

The estrangement between authority and respect in terms of philosophical and historical trajectories seems peculiar when one considers, among other things, the emphasis that Kant places on distance when speaking of respect, thus introducing a quality of coldness but also of parity: Kant plays it on level playing fields, relying on the pull of justice. Authority, in all cases an escapee from explicit forms of violence, even that of speech, tries to prepare the grounds for political relatedness, softening the space of committed citizenry with the holdout of deliberate asymmetry. Sometimes the weight of asymmetry can give me the shivers. I will go on. An otherwise hospitable reader of Kant, Arendt reroutes the question of authority around his thought, which in this context she snubs or simply avoids, producing an effect of detour that cannot be missed. The dissociation in late modernity of authority from Kantian respect may account for the secret fissuring of contemporary political sites and practices. To what kind of underground life-form has respect been banished, one wonders.

On the other hand, the unneighborly bypass with regard to Kant may have another sort of career path: respect may be incorporated in both Kojève and Arendt into the heart of authority, but in such a way as to have prompted a severe mutation, nearing the decidedly more sublime regions of human relatedness. Whatever their subsequent choices or poses, whatever their ideological markers or ethical constraints, both Arendt and Kojève make themselves dependent on essential inequality in order to recruit and replenish the notion of authority. This makes me uneasy, though in some philosophical circles the effacement of inequality causes even more of a rumble. In their corner, Blanchot and Levinas rhyme inequality with responsible asymmetry. In these cases the necessity of the unequal disposition comes from an ever-diminishing egological space, however, and is part of the effort to tame tropes of domination.

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