Concept II : Adi Ophir

Mathilde Roussel / Reste #1

Mathilde Roussel / Reste #1

Concept II : Adi Ophir

Concepts are not terms. The distinction between the two should be maintained and its articulation should be part of any attempt to answer the question ‘what is a concept?’ The distinction should be articulated even if one conceives concepts to be terms of a special kind; without it concepts would be reduced to the status of grammatical entities, a class of common nouns. Whatever else concepts are depends on the possibility of this distinction. My contribution to the concept of the concept would be restricted here to the explication and analysis of this distinction and its implication.1

Let me start with terms. Terms are a kind of common nouns. Speakers tend to use them unreflectively without stopping to think much about what they mean or what they refer to. Terms are common nouns that belong to the very heart of the “knowing how” of language. Speakers know how to use them without necessarily knowing much about their meaning or reference. Proper use of a term does not entail (nor does it preclude) caring about the thing2 it designates. One may understand little or nothing about “neoliberalism,” “critical theory,” or “cyberspace,” and still use the terms adequately and efficiently, i.e., without interrupting the flow of communication, sometimes even enhancing it. In this sense, terms are “black boxes” of meaning that speakers know how to put to use, i.e., to operate in and through language. They are ready-to-hand linguistic devices that enable communication to flow, arguments to be understood, actions to be successful and their users to be recognized as fluent and au current, acting as sujets suppose savoir.3 These common nouns are used as common currency that can be exchanged without asking for explanations; speakers may swear by them and keep coming back to them, giving no time or thought to what they actually stand for. They function as floating signifiers or “placeholders” and their efficiency comes from their relative emptiness, which allows them to assume different contents and to relate to many other, different, and conflicting terms. Their efficiency, however, also comes—here is the flipside of the same coin—from the semantic density of the intersections in which they appear.

This flipside is due to the fact that terms are not only placeholders for the signifier’s meaning and reference. They are common nouns with a special status that have become operative in the regulation of discourse, playing a discernable role in specific discussions, theories, or investigations. Not any common noun functions in the same way. All terms are attached to (refer to, designate, mean, etc.) “things,” but it takes more than this attachment for a common noun to function as a term. Terms are common nouns whose use affects the flow of discourse in a distinct, discernable way. For example, they determine clusters of exchangeable common nouns and the degree of their relevance in a speech situation, shift a conversation from one domain to another, or restrict the use of other terms. Since their distinction among common nouns is pragmatic (neither semantic nor syntactic), what functions as an easily exchangeable common noun in one discursive situation may become a discernible term in another. Here is a quick example: When you enter a supermarket there are numerous products you may buy but they are arranged in relatively few clusters along several aisles, displayed so as to be sold. In the wholesale business the common nouns that appear above the aisles, like “cans,” or “cereals,” are terms that regulate the movement of shoppers, the work of the supermarket’s employees, and the way both shoppers and sellers communicate. A new employee, worried about proper clustering, may ask a more experienced one: “is granola a cereal”? A response like, “no, but it’s better for your health” would take care of the clustering, but also shift the conversation, with ‘health’ being the term responsible for the shift.

I believe that when Foucault speaks of concepts in his analysis of discourse in The Archaeology of Knowledge he had these discursive entities in mind.4 They function as discursive relays that exert certain control on the flow of statements and the exchange of speech acts. They serve as joints and hooks for multiple statements, as well as points of entrance and means of closure in discourse; they provide excuses, substitute justifications, and draw boundaries for fields of possible argumentation. The more popular they become the denser this network of relays and crossings becomes. They have a more or less stable cluster of associates with which they form more or less stable constellations. Together they delineate the contours of the visible and audible, and create sites of interaction where many different statements and types of speech acts may intersect, come together or part ways, accumulate, be preserved and retrieved.

Nouns become terms by being operative not only at the semantic but also at the discursive level of language. Which nouns are terms, how many they are, how dense their dispersion is, how frequently or rarely they are invoked – these are characteristic features of a discursive regime. A few terms might become “discursive celebrities.” It pays off to drop their names frequently, keep invoking them in conversation and rely on their exchange value, as they seem to travel easily across discursive fields, usually together with many of their associates, and arouse attention wherever they land. Other terms, or the same terms in a different context, may turn out to be persona no grata or party poopers; as placeholders they might indicate sites one wishes to avoid; when coming too close to such sites, one is looking for bypass roads. Never say “apartheid” at a Jewish table discussing Israel; never mention “sex” in your parents’ presence; “socialism” can be used only as a curse. No less impolite is the attempt to question, let alone determine the exact meaning of a key term; the emptier, i.e., more indeterminate they are, the better are their chances to become discursive celebrities. Any attempt to nail them down to something more tangible, more detailed and solidly argued, will affect their interrelated constellation, but also narrow down their possible spaces of denotation and connotation, the freedom to let them travel and travel with them across discursive fields. Discursive conditions and rules – not their inner meanings – determine the role terms play, the work they do, how they can be operated, and how stable and effective their control of the discursive flow is. These rules may then be related to historical conditions, economic processes, and social stratifications, to power and desire. When discursive practices are studied alongside non-discursive practices with which they were entangled, which they made possible, and by which they were exceeded, terms are understood as elements in the construction of a shared world where a certain discourse operates. At this moment terms become even more opaque (for the one studying this world) than they were for the people who used them. The objects they referred to are not thought for what they were but merely as an aspect of their operation; there seems to be no way back, and no interest in going back from the terms and their discursive roles to the things they designated.

This is the level of analysis in which most intellectual historians, historians of concepts, anthropologists, linguists, and critical theorists operate today. Within this paradigm, the historicity of thought, language, and human experience is taken as an axiom, concepts are understood as what I’ve called here terms, terms as discursive devices and effects on the surface of discourse, and discourse as that through which a shared world and a whole spectrum of human experiences are constructed. All this is assumed when one follows the usage of terms, reconstructs practices and actions in which such usages are embedded, and tries to explain changes in the regularities of usage patterns. Trained to use a kind of ontological epochē when first order claims arise, describing things as they supposedly are, scholars tend to refrain from taking a position on the “what is x” question; they rather withdraw to a discursive plane, describing the discursive effects of the term designating x and the conditions for its operation. Realist claims implied in the use of terms are almost always historicized and interpreted in relation to a limited realm of usage. Neither the real nature of things nor speakers’ intentions, beliefs, and cognitive capacities is called for to explain the operation of terms, and more generally, the discursive construction of reality – except, of course, for the reality of discourse itself. Both speakers’ intentions and the things they refer to are thought to be shaped, formed, and informed by the discursive regularities that account for the operation of terms.

However, this ontological epochē is fragile. The epistemic shift from things to words and from world to discourse cannot undo the desire for the real. Bracketing the ontological question only pushes it one step backward, to language and discourse and practices. When the question arises – what is discourse, then, or what is a language game, what is differance – a real metamorphosis might occur. This is the moment in which terms may change into concepts.

Concepts can come into being only when a “what is” question is asked, usually by interrupting the flow of communication, halting the operation of terms, or at least refusing to take their usage as sufficient for understanding their meaning and reference. Concepts emerge out of the labor required to answer a “what is” question by trying to grasp or capture (begreifen) the form, structure, essence, or truth of the thing in question, the thing to be conceptualized. This labor is a more or less elaborate linguistic performance, a performance which may often be conspicuously theatrical. Concepts appear when entire conceptual statements are performed, seeking to provide realist definitions for the terms in question, without however being able to close the gap opened by the initiating question. When an answer is accepted as satisfactory, when meaning and reference are once again taken as evident and their inherent indefiniteness and temporality are ignored, the concept is quickly ossified into a term and the term resumes its circulation. A kind of traumatic memory of the ontic question must be retained for there to be a concept. And it is usually retained as long as the conceptual performance lasts.

Where do concepts reside between one performance and the next? It all depends on their ontological status. Ascribing to concepts being that exceeds the discursive performance one may look for them in the mind, in collective mental structure shared by a whole culture, or in the depth of language. Confining concepts to their discursive existence, one should be ready to entertain the idea that concepts exist only when performed, and are vanished when the performance ends. The more theatrical is the performance the more abrupt is the termination of the concept’s existence. Of course, concepts too have their langue, they are not mere parole, and speakers have – in their minds, as well as in their files, books, and notebooks – ample materials from which to draw elements for their next performance, in which a concept will be, yet again, connected to a whole network of other concepts and related to a phenomenal field, but the concept itself does not reside in the medium where its elements are stored – it resides in the very act and event of its performance.

From the point of view of terms, this effect of the conceptual performance resembles the opening of a black box. When laid open on an operating table, any device used on a regular basis would lose not only its use value but also its appeal and commanding presence; for the person interested in using it, it becomes nothing but a costly nuisance. A historian or sociologist interested in the device would reconstruct networks of communication and modes of being-together which a device such as a car or a camera makes possible, and would follow the way the latter are transformed once the device is no longer operative (e.g., when cameras are not allowed, when the bus services strike). But the interest of the technician is very different. For him the device he is about to repair has a very different presence: it poses questions, needs care, consumes one’s time, and requires labor and attention – everything one tries to avoid while using it. Sometimes this is done in haste, with one interest in mind – to restore the flow of communication as quickly as possible. But sometimes one insists on understanding the term in question, assuming that it cannot be reduced to its functioning in the particular circumstance in which it has been used. The technician who takes time to examine the device for its own sake turns into a scientist; the speaker who takes time to examine the term at hand turns into a philosopher.

When such an effort is made in a more or less systematic fashion, the discursive terrain changes more or less radically and a concept gradually takes shape within it. The busy movement of terms is replaced by the slow movement of thought in which an interested subject is interpellated by the ontic question and does not limit herself to the actual functioning of the term in question. Two things happen at this moment without which no concept could come into being – a. an interest in the nature, essence, structure, or mode of being of the thing for which the term in question stands and an opening to the world that should be observed and investigated in order to grasp it; b. a commitment of the interested subject to refer to this thing when answering the ‘what is’ question without restricting herself to the immediate environment in which the term functions, to its usage in the discourse from which it has been extracted. In fact, the conceptual performance consists of a double moment of transcendence – of the language and the community that used a term –  toward a world of things shared by the questioning subject and her addressees, and of the limited space and time of the conceptual performance toward the horizons of an indefinite conversation which many unexpected guests may join.5 While stipulative definitions may constitute and impose a shared world, conceptual performances strive to change the way a world is shared. 

And yet, the conceptual performance itself is entirely unique and singular. Conceptual statements neither follow rules for nor are obliged to reiterate the movement through which the concept’s different aspects are laid apart and brought together, or the manner in which and a whole network of terms unfolds and holds together to show the inner structure of the concept and the external matrix in which it is embedded. The very distinction between the concept’s external environment and internal aspects is unfolded, maintained, or deconstructed only through the performer’s style and fashion, eloquence and virtuosity, the genre she adopts and the discursive conventions she chooses to respect or ignore. These, however, do not express a pre-exiting personality, motivations, or secret intentions (which may all be inferred and projected later, more or less dubiously). Singularity here precedes the individuality of the speaker and escapes her personality – it is the singularity of the event itself.6

These discursive acts are not only a matter of argumentation. Conceptual performances involve a whole mis-en-scene, which I should have shown here but have no time for doing that. This mis-en-scene is achieved though the texts invoked and authors called upon, metaphors borrowed or invented, and other rhetorical means used to mark or conceal shortcuts in the argument, to speed up or slow down its movement, from detailed observation to sweeping generalizations. When the conceptual performance is truly theatrical, the conceptual statement takes the role of an actor in the full sense of the word. The theatrical performance doubles the presence of the actor. On stage, Sir Richard Berton is at one and the same time himself, in flesh and blood, and Hamlet, as real as a Hamlet can be. He neither represents Hamlet nor signifies him; he is playing Hamlet; which means that his performance is responsible for Hamlet’s coming into presence. Only the mechanism producing the effect of the real is cracked open, for the actor as well as for the audience to see and experience. Something similar happens in the performance of a successful conceptual statement. In this statement, words do not simply represent things which exist off stage; existence is rather doubled, for at one and the same time the words uttered (spoken or read) make themselves present and bring the thing conceptualized into presence, while leaving open, like a dissected body in the operation room, the mechanism that produces the effect of the real. The care for the effect of the real is the other side of the question “what is x, really?” from which a concept comes into being, and to which the conceptual statement seeks to return as an answer. Or, to use a Deleuzian idiom (following his conception of sense, his distinction between meaning and sense, and his understanding of sense as a [discursive] event, the effect of a statement which subsists in it without being reducible to any of its elements),7 the concept is an effect and sense of a discursive event of a particular kind, i.e., an effect of the conceptual performance that links the imaginary meaning of a term to its reference and determines the reference’s field of possible appearances.

None of these discursive-performative practices has a fixed method, no a-priori distinction between “the concept itself” and the rhetoric of its articulation is available, and no clear demarcation line between on stage and off stage realms can be drawn except through the performance itself. One might expect the concept on display to divide and enclose, differentiate and bring together, relate to a piece of the phenomenal world which it carves out of its surrounding, illuminate it, grasp and articulate its inner structure, and so forth. But there are no rules telling exactly how this is to be done. It is also never clear in advance how many of these acts should be performed – together or one at a time – and how they should be weaved together until a discursive threshold is crossed and the concept emerges. The conceptual performance reflects and embodies the performer’s style, eloquence, and virtuosity, the genre she adopts and the discursive conventions she respects or ignores. No fixed method is involved, no a-priori distinction between “the concept itself” and the rhetoric of its articulation is available, and no clear line can be drawn between on stage and off stage realms except through the performance itself. It is in and through the performance that the threshold of conceptuality is delineated, announced, and crossed.

Despite family resemblances, genres, and traditions, and regardless of the universality of the claims, the discursive performances articulating them are always singular. The most universal of claims is articulated by one of the most singular kind of discursive performances. A quick glance at any sample of such performances – even performances of the same concept taken from the same period and community of discourse – reveals differences of style, approach, forms of staging, and modes of acting and reenacting. Proper names of great authors – Plato, Maimonides, Galileo, Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Weber, Levi Strauss, or Arendt – may stand for names of different genres of conceptual performance, which disciples have always tried to imitate, practice, and disseminate, and interpreters work hard to reconstruct. Disciples and interpreters may hope to reproduce the master’s conceptual performance, but they can never eliminate differences of reiteration. In fact, even the master himself cannot. However one wishes to reconstruct a concept of an author according to one or several of that author’s writings, one ends up performing a new concept, of this particular performer, at this time and place. There is no way out of this conceptual nominalism. To argue otherwise means not only to allow for a clear distinction between a concept and its performance, but also for the capacity to extract the concept from its performance and somehow keep it alive somewhere else. Keeping a concept alive, however, means to perform it. Concepts are accessible only when performed – no resort to an ideal, archetypal concept is available.8

A crucial aspect of the difference between concepts and terms is the relation each discursive entity has to the being of the thing it signifies, designates, or refers to. In everyday flows of communication, terms are usually attached to things in ways that lead one to forget the gap between words and objects, to take terms as transparent and things as nothing beyond what is implied by the current use of the term designating them. What is usually ignored is the indefinite excess of the thing-ness of a thing in relation to its linguistic presence as the term’s reference, as well as the indefinite excess of the meaning of a signifier in relation to the limited scope invoked by its current usage.9 Terms tend to hurl these two kinds of excess to oblivion; in their specific constellations and discursive operation they make the world accessible in a certain way and conceal it in many other ways. They are ubiquitous, crucial for the functioning of most discursive practices, for the discursive construction of shared worlds and communicable individual experiences, and indispensable for any effective discursive intervention. If discourse is a more or less regulated activity in which language is a medium of sharing a world, where windows to a phenomenal shared world are opened and closed, as well as an active environment that guides speakers’ actions, constructs, temporalizes, and spatializes their positions and individual experiences, then terms belong to the heart of the regulating mechanism. In order to understand how discourse operates, how different discursive practices are engaged in different politics, how they construct different worlds and enable different experiences — in order to follow the transformations of the political imagination and political ontology in diverse communities of discourse — one should reconstruct terms as discursive relays, study the density of their accumulation and the patterns of their dispersion.10

Concepts, in the sense I use the term here, are very different. They are the effects of relatively rare discursive events; they cannot be extracted from the specific performances where they are displayed without being significantly compromised.  Concepts require that at least some of the mechanisms regulating the discursive activity be suspended, sometimes even dismantled. In the relatively short time of their eventuation they are related to things, experience, and the world at large in a way that seems far more open and receptive to the excess of being over its representation in everyday language than terms can ever achieve, and far more sensitive to the excess of meaning over the significance congealed in the everyday usage of terms. And it is precisely this excess which the conceptual performance tries to trace and delineate.

It has been often assumed that the task of conceptualization is to overcome this excess and create a simple correspondence between language and being, signifier and signified. But such a correspondence applies to the conceptualization’s telos, not to the actual performance. Overcoming this excess may be the performer’s task and telos, but this telos cannot be achieved and presented as such at the performance itself. The concept’s moment of rest, when it reaches the tranquility of the simple presence of a conceptualized thing, may be imagined or anticipated but it does not belong to the space and time of the performance, where the excess of meaning over signifier’s usage and of “thing-ness” or being over the designated referent keeps lingering.11 Attention to this excess must always be operative, guiding the movement of conceptualization, and, at the same time, must be absorbed and recreated by this very movement.12 “Dissatisfaction with their own conceptuality,” Adorno observed, “is part of the meaning [of concepts].”13

In other words, the closure of meaning and of a phenomenal field where the concept is instantiated is the goal of the conceptual performance, but its concrete achievement is ruptured. By the very fact that it suspends the common usage of a term, the conceptual performance has already created a gap between words and objects, language and the world it seeks to make present. The desire to know “what is x” resides in these ruptures and turns them into sites of struggle. Unlike poetic language, that also creates and finds shelter in those ruptures, the conceptual performance is not content to expose and announce failures; it lives through the struggle to overcome them. It is not entirely Sisyphean, however, because it takes pleasure in the performance, in the meticulous construction of a world on stage, the disciplined discursive moves, and the careful choice of metaphors geared towards capturing the essence or form or structure of the thing in question. The concept does not belong to the logic of identity because it is always an effect of a performance whose singularity is imprinted on any of its universal statements, no matter how driven the ontic interest invested in the performance is by a desire for such identity, and how well it is fed by images of such identity.

The concept that is supposed to satisfy this ontic interest is not another object, but also not a radical alterity of the kind Levinas projects as the telos of metaphysical desire.14 The concept that satisfies the ontic desire, momentarily as it may be, is rather a whole performance in which a stage is set for some things to appear, be collected, configured, grasped together, and articulated without ever erasing the difference between the one figure and its many different and differing manifestations. This articulation of the being of the thing conceptualized, of its structure or essence or mode of being, is made possible by a meticulous construction of a world on stage, controlled discursive moves, and a careful choice of terms and metaphors. Although discursive moves cannot be fully controlled and the contingencies and surprises involved in any choice of metaphors and terms can never be fully anticipated, the disciplining of language is still essential. Without it, nothing – i.e., no conceptualized thing – will be con-figured, shared with others, and become the object of new disagreements.

Although imprinted by their singularity, this singularity is not what conceptual performances are geared to display; they are rather shaped by the attempt to say, and share with others, what it is to be [to ti ên einai] for something. Whatever that thing is which one tries to conceptualize, it is something whose existence, mode of being, and temporality could be shared by many, and usually the conceptual performer does not claim any privileged access to it (although some former education and training may be required). At the same time, the temporality of the thing conceptualized is different from that of the performance itself and incommensurable with it, hence the performance cannot preserve the identity of the essence it seeks to articulate.

Once the concept is relocated from the realm of identical forms to that of singular performances, once identity is recognized as something imagined, projected, or dreamt through the performance, conceptual labor may resume and the study of concepts must take a new course. The door is open for a study of the styles, genres, and traditions of conceptual performances, a kind of study which seems to be removed from and strange to the reconstruction and deconstruction of discursive formations and the networks of terms circulated through them. Speaking institutionally, while the latter studies belong with intellectual history and the social sciences, the former may find shelter in literature departments.


So far I’ve tried to give an account of the difference between concepts and terms and set the two apart as far as possible. The phenomenology of discourse I have presented has yielded two opposing ideal types, two figures identified and distinguished according to a series of contraries. Let me present this series in a schematic manner:

Terms Concepts
are common effects of everyday usage in any linguistic context are rare effects of more or less systematic attempts to answer an ontological question
circulate resist circulation; tend to take terms out of circulation
take part in regulating and enhancing discursive movement arrest movement and suspend usage
travel across time and discursive spaces easily detached from the context of utterance embodied in the time and place of their performances
tend to erase traces of networks to which they belong and the regularity of their operation the conceptual constellation to which they belong is carefully articulated in the conceptual performance
tend to erase traces of the excess of the signifier and of the being of the referent the excess of the signifier and of the being of the referent motivate the performance and are articulated through it, even if only to be overcome
are indifferent to the singularity of usage and tend to erase its traces when it persists the singularity of each performance is imprinted on the performance’s universal claims

Each of the contrary poles should be thought of as an abstraction of an extreme position on a certain continuum of discursive possibilities. But actual conceptual performances and the manifold uses of terms are not perfect instantiations of one of these ideal types and they do not replicate their respective forms. They are rather placed somewhere along the different continua stretched between the two extremes, and their position varies from one continuum to another. Closer observation would reveal deviations of all kinds. Here are some examples. Conceptual performances often care less about such an ideal type of conceptualization and are rather driven, among other things, by a desire to be morphed and congealed into a circulating term. Similarly, a circulating term may bear the traumatic traces of an inoperative concept which it once was. When a new term is first introduced, the question “what is x” and the effort to answer it in a more or less systematic way are necessary for the term’s naturalization and circulation; there are ready-made conceptual performances simulating some of the concept’s openness to being and language; some terms are attached to specific discursive performances and used without erasing traces of the networks to which they belong; in other cases there is a back and forth movement between a term’s circulation and its suspension through questioning, while the questioning performance itself may be adopted as a way to enhance circulation; and finally, reconstructing discursive formations that regulated the dispersion and usage of certain terms is sometimes essential for working one’s way through the history of terms in order to clear a way for one’s own understanding of the concept.

I will not try to provide here a detailed typology of these hybrid cases, only to reflect briefly on two extreme cases that deserve special attention in our context.

The first is the case in which critical reconstruction of discursive constellations of terms exposes patterns of the discursive constructedness of experience. Referring to a key term as a family name for a whole group of associated common nouns, one does not ask “what is x?” but rather “how does x work?” Clearly this endeavor has the capacity to undermine the efficacy, regularity, and unreflective use of the terms in question. When the terms in question lose their referential value, i.e., when one stops looking for what they are about and considers instead only how they are circulated, this critical discourse analysis merges with conceptual performance to the point of non-distinction. To the question “what is x?” that guides the latter, one must respond by a description of how that x works in discourse, for there is nothing to x but its discursive operation. The use of the term does not create any opening to the being of x that is not reducible to what x does as a signifier. This loss of interest in the referent is not an effect of a certain theory of the sign or a conception of concept; it is rather the result of loss of faith, wholesale rejection of a certain paradigm, or a critical reflection on the thing conceptualized. This is what happens, for example, when an atheist studies the concept of God, when a question like “what is race” is asked outside racist ideology, when one who does not accept the premises of psychoanalytic discourse explicates the Oedipus complex, or when one looks for the concept of the gentile without practicing Jewish rabbinic discourse. The concept in this case comes down to the patterns of dispersion, usage, grouping, division, and redistribution of certain sets of related terms, adjuncts words, cognates, and oppositions for which the term in question serves as a kind of a family name.

A similar case, although one that falls short of complete fusion of concepts and terms, is the case in which the discursive formations regulating the dispersion and usage of certain terms are essential for the explication of a concept in question, but the latter is not reducible to the former. In this case the conceptual performance takes place in part as a work of discursive deconstruction but cannot be exhausted by such a critical approach. This happens whenever one works through the history of terms in order to clear a way for one’s own understanding of the concept, as demonstrated, for example by Arendt’s concepts of labor, work, and action, Eco’s analysis of the sign in his Theory of Semiotics, or by Bobbio’s concept of power.15

Different but no less important is the case in which the being of the thing to be conceptualized is partly construed through the discourses that articulate it, and yet the thing cannot be reduced to the discursive operation of the terms associated with it. In other words, the discursive constructedness of the phenomenon in question does not exhaust its being. In this case, the analytics of discourse should be absorbed within the conceptual performance, shaping much of its movement without, however, determining it. This is the case with many major social and political concepts: state, nation, war, violence, disaster, law, society, class, gender, sovereignty, liberalism, market economy, racism (as distinguished from race), nationalism (as distinguished from nation), and so forth. All these concepts attest to the same relation between discursive constructedness and a reality that exceeds the discursive articulation of the concept in question. Some of the effects of the usage of terms, as well as some of the conditions that enable and shape discursive acts cannot be read or extracted from the regularity of discursive practices only. These conditions and effects are indispensable aspects of the concept in question and accounting for them may require going beyond the surface of discourse, to material, institutional, and psychological planes of existence.

Thus for example, the concept of the State must account for (and deconstruct) the various ways in which state apparatuses and the political imagination related to the State are discursively constructed; but the conditions and effects of this constructedness, as well as other hitherto unspoken aspects of State are not exhausted by the usage of “the State” and related terms in the history and present of state related discourses. The State is at one and the same time more and less than what people say and do when they speak about, to, and in name of the State, answering its calls, or questioning its authority, or even its very existence. This “more” and “less” need not be anchored in any metaphysical substance; it may be nothing but the way a variety of “state-statements” coming from various discursive regimes (e.g., politics, economy, theology, statistics, poetry, etc.) are brought into relations, clash, are integrated or regulated, fall into reproducible patterns or dismantle such patterns. But the latter may then be understood in terms of material forces, institutional patterns, and the dispositions of subjects and their formation as subjects of the State, none of which is necessarily expressed or exhausted by existing State-related discourses. The gap between what is articulated by analyzing the surface of existing discourses and what is explicated by the conceptual intervention is typical of the humanities and social sciences. The explicit insistence on the existence or non-existence of this gap is responsible for the fact that conceptual labor is always already political. When this gap is denied, or taken as self-evident, one not only commits the political act of de-politicization, one also gives up conceptual labor itself.

When the gap is accepted as self-evident, a political entity is fetishized. When the gap is denied, the political is reduced to the surface of discourse in a gesture that is but a version of the forgetfulness of being – the being of the political. Such being, given in and through the conceptual performance, comes to light when everyday political discourse, as well as theoretical discourse, is rendered inoperative. At this moment being appears not as ‘that which is such and such’ according to this or that political or theoretical discourse, but as the always contingent, historically conditioned condition for postulating something as that which is such and such. At the same time, however, grasping this conditioning means that that which is such assumes the form of that which could be otherwise. To be in this case means to be potentially different. When it reaches this moment, when this moment is shared with others in a public performance of the concept, conceptual labor reaches the height of its political efficacy (no matter which concept is at stake).

Conceptual performances are political, however, before and without reaching that moment, and should be understood as a special kind of intellectual intervention. To render inoperative, as certain discursive regimes are in and through the conceptual performance, is first of all (but not only) to take key terms out of circulation. This means that the conceptual performance contradicts, in its very essence, and as long as it is played in earnest, the logic of any exchange-system. This means that the drive to put things into circulation, to force them to circulate even without reducing them to their exchange value, constrains, and sometimes straightforwardly contradicts the desire to conceptualize. The need, or rather imperative to circulate in order to exchange and exchange in order to circulate undermines the conditions necessary for conceptual performances; and vice versa, to the extent that they draw attention and persist, the latter threaten the logic of circulation and exchange. This resistance to circulation is familiar from the field of performing arts, where artists refuse to videotape or record their performances and do not circulate replica of their works in order to avoid turning them marketable objects. For conceptual performance the analogy would not necessarily mean a resistance to publish, but a resistance to impose on the written performance the criteria of the marketable text.16


Adi Ophir is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University and Visiting professor at the Cogut Center for the Humanities and the program for Middle East Studies at Brown University.


Published on December 26, 2016

1. I proposed this sharp distinction between concepts and terms in an early paper on the concept of the concept ( What follows may be considered as a long footnote to this essay, in which the distinction is revised and qualified, and the implications of this revision for the concept of the concept are articulated. Rethinking this distinction has been part of my ongoing conversation with Ann Stoler, especially as we have tried to pin down the difference between her interest in how concepts work and what they do to us, and my interest in how we work – and sometimes worship – the concept and what we do for them. This conversation has also been a reflection on the lexical practice developed in more than dozen previous conferences, in Tel Aviv, New York, and elsewhere.

2. “Thing” should be understood here in the most general sense, from the most concrete object to the most abstract entity, and any sach in between, that about which one talks, anything that may become an object of a “what is” question.

3. Wittgenstein’s understanding of meaning as use, Latour’s “black boxes,” Heidegger’s “ready to hand tools,” and Lacan’s “sujet supposer savoir” are obviously at the background here, and I am indebted to what I learnt from each of them, which is much beyond what can be acknowledged here. However, my argument does not rely on a straightforward reading, interpretation, or application of any of them.

4. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan (New York: Pantheon Books 1972), part II, chap. 5 and part III, chap. 3, especially pp. 96-100.

5. The opening to the world and the subject’s presumed commitment are linked through an implicit expectation of agreement. The conceptual performance invites its audience to agree with the ontological claims it makes. One illocutionary act seems to accompany the conceptual performance and ties its moments together; this is the proposition that says: “you ought to agree that this is what x is, but not because I have performed it so well (you may now forget all about that performance) but because now you too see for yourself that this is indeed what x is.” This expected, imaginary agreement may not be universal, but it cannot be limited a-priori to a certain community of discourse. Such limitation may only be ascribed fortiori, by Minerva’s owl, when darkness falls.

6. I am following Gilles Deleuze’s distinctions in The Logic of Sense, trans. M. Lester and C. Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 100-108.

7. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 12-35.

8. On the singularity of the coming into being in Heidegger see Susan Bernstein, Housing Problems (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), chap. 6.

9. I am trying to bring and hold together here, without elaborating and for lack of space, the excess of Being over beings in Heidegger and of the signifier over the signified in Derrida.

10. Ann Stoler’s “Colony” is a good example of this kind of study. A different example is James Schmitt’s meticulous reconstruction of the history of “enlightenment” in a recent series of papers published online ( The difference between the two is instructive. If Stoler’s paper seeks to show how “colony” was constructed and used in order to conceal much of what went on in the colony, Schmidt’s tracing of the way “enlightenment” was used before and while it became “The Enlightenment” seeks to show how a piece of the world was created in the first place, i.e., how the use of a word created the thing to which it has been attached.

11. Hegel understood this well and therefore extended the time of the performance to history as a whole.

12. Plato, at the beginning of philosophy, and Derrida as our contemporary may be considered as the two most important thinkers who thought those kinds of excess and interpreted the failure to overcome them. Although they did this in very different ways, reaching opposite conclusions, they both insisted on the need to continue the quest for understanding “what is” that which one wishes to understand, be that justice or writing, friendship or love.

13. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press 1973), 12. Adorno quotes Emil Lask’s The Logic of Philosophy and the Doctrine of Categories: “concepts mean beyond themselves.”

14. Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. A. Lingis  (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

15. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1958); Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976); Norberto Bobbio, Democracy and Dictatorship: The Nature and Limits of State Power (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989).

16. This, I believe, is one of the major goals of The Political Concepts Initiative: to create conditions for thoughtful conceptual performances that are relatively free from the imperative to circulate. The model itself spreads in a rhizomatous manner, but the thinking it shelters needs perpetual reenactment.