Enough : Jacques Lezra

Let’s say, then, that I claim that “politics” is what is concerned first with what is or is not enough; that it takes shape when I judge something, a state of affairs or a matter of fact, to be insufficient for something to obtain, and then make a claim based on this judgment. On this description, “politics” is in part a deliberative activity and in part an evaluative one (it pertains to judgment), before it eventuates in any sort of action. Both evaluation and deliberation take place under severely constrained circumstances. I am saying, “This is enough” or “This is not enough” to someone, for ends that may be clear to us both, or not. I say to you, “That’s enough coffee,” and you stop pouring: a minimum of sociality is marked; the conditions under which that minimum can be achieved are enacted. I have made my taste, my desire, known, and you acknowledge that I have standing to assert what my desires are by ceasing to pour me coffee.

This is, to be sure, a minimal, provisional or even trivial example of the politics of “enough.” You can imagine situations of much greater consequence. Say you asked, “How do we determine what levels of lead in ground water, or ozone, or particulates in the air are enough to trigger action by the federal government? How will we determine what is enough and what is too much to spend on cleaning up this or that toxic site? You might answer, as the US Congress did in its bill authorizing the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, that

“National primary ambient air quality standards . . . shall be ambient air quality standards the attainment and maintenance of which in the judgment of the Administrator, based on such criteria and allowing an adequate margin of safety, are requisite to protect the public health.”1

Here the blurry phrase “adequate margin of safety” modifies the more rigorous, even “absolute,” phrase “requisite to protect the public health.” The combination’s ambiguity gives rise to litigation regarding the EPA’s authority to take into account considerations of cost in the effort to “protect the public health.” The Bush Administration’s position—supporting the Agency’s right to take implementation costs into account, thus weakening the act—depended upon making the blurriness of “adequacy” trump the absoluteness of “requisite.” The Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Whitman v. American Trucking Associations in 2001 found it “implausible that Congress would give to the EPA through these modest words the power to decide whether implementation costs should moderate national air quality standards.”2

The “modesty” of the language of the instituting act could not, the Court ruled, be used to trump the requirements of strict definition and enforcement. The bitter taste of public cost was not enough of a consideration: the “absolute” language of the act, on the other hand, was enough to be determinative. “Words that can have more than one meaning are given content . . . by their surroundings,” wrote Justice Scalia in the majority opinion, referring to the definition of “public health.” The court decided the case, then, by invoking an “absolute” rule of procedure, the rule of the primacy of ordinary usage or “surrounding” linguistic context, in order to circumscribe the hyperbolic modesty of the language of the act. The court was necessarily silent on the question of whether the “absolute” standard it employed, the standard of the primacy of context and usage, was true in itself or just true enough to protect the health of the public in 2001.

I can now be more precise. The defective concept “Enough,” or the register that “Enough” designates, provides the concept of “politics” for three reasons. First, because “enough” discloses that what we want, what interests us, and what we require of each other is not a thing about which we can say, truthfully, what it is, or how we undertake to measure its value. Second, because “enough” discloses that no distinction between matters of fact and matters of principle is ever, on its own, enough to found social relations or a communicative sphere. And third, “enough” provides the concept of politics because it makes those two defects into the condition for speech.

Let’s say that this three-part construction is true. How would we know? In what remains I am going to consider this question through an example. It is one to which the French classicist and philosopher Barbara Cassin has devoted some extraordinary pages.3 I’d refer you foremost to her work on the foundational political document that I am about to quote.

1. United States Code (42), “National primary and secondary ambient air quality standards,” § 7409 (b) (1) (2012).

2. Whitman v. American Trucking Associations, 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001).

3. Barbara Cassin, “’Ôter à la haine son éternité’: l’Afrique du Sud comme modèle,” available at www.icrc.org/fre/assets/files/other/irrc_862_cassin_fr.pdf. Published in English as “Removing the Perpetuity of Hatred: On South Africa as a Model Example,” International Review of the Red Cross 88:862 (2006), 235-244.

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