Impolitic : Emily Apter

Artist / Title
Clarissa Bonet / City Space 2/18

Impolitic : Emily Apter

Impolitic, used as an adjective, hardly stands out as a high-performing political concept or premier Untranslatable on the order of the citoyen-sujet, partisano, subaltern, party hack, unpolitical man (as in Thomas Mann’s 1918 Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen (Reflections of an Unpolitical Man), or der Untertan (the title of Heinrich Mann’s 1914 novel, rendered as “patriot,” “loyal subject,” “man of straw”). But in the way that I am interested in marking it, “impolitic” becomes a supremely political term for the messy space between policy and political theory, between politics’ big and small “p.” The Impolitic, rendered a substantive, is called up for its potential to articulate relations between micropolitics and psychopower that elude theorization within classical political theory and political philosophy. It refers to the political uses on both the right and the left, of insolence, impertinence, incivility, discourtesy, truculence, tactlessness, and intractability.

For this sense of the Impolitic we have been richly served by the Tea Party playbook of the past few years: South Carolina House Representative Joe Wilson’s “You lie!” shouted out during a 2009 speech by President Obama; Missouri Representative Todd Akin’s campaign-killing reference to “legitimate rape”; Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” reference to a putative free-loading portion of the electorate, captured on video at a Florida fund-raiser and virally disseminated by Mother Jones magazine; Romney’s clueless reference to “whole binders full of women”; House Speaker John Boehner’s sour impassivity and “activist doing” of doing nothing; Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s comparison of Obamacare to Nazism, fourteen-hour filibuster on the Senate floor, and facial expressions of contempt aimed at Chuck Hagel during the nomination hearings for defense secretary. Frank Bruni’s description of Cruz offers a thumbnail of the impolitico:

He’s an ornery, swaggering piece of work. Just six weeks since his arrival on Capitol Hill, he’s already known for his naysaying, his nitpicking and his itch to upbraid lawmakers who are vastly senior to him, who have sacrificed more than he has and who deserve a measure of respect, or at least an iota of courtesy . . . Ted Cruz typifies the knee-jerk belligerence that blots his party.”1

Impolitic signifies not politic; contrary to, or wanting in policy; unwise; imprudent; indiscreet; inexpedient; undiplomatic, as in, an impolitic ruler, law, or measure. Edmund Burke emphasizes measure: “The most unjust and impolitic of all things, unequal taxation.”2 We might today speak in such terms of a grossly impolitic budget sequestration or, in a more general way, of impolitical economic divergences and laws of averages based on standard deviation in statistics and probability theory.

In the British tradition, impolitic connotes the obverse of tact, itself assigned renewed political focus by David J. Russell as he examines how the English essayist Charles Lamb helped define “a tactful social style,” in terms of “a democratizing ‘feel[ing] [one’s] way” posed against “the Utilitarians’ democratizing transparency and privileging of method.”3 Lamb, Russell argues, was concerned with “the conditions of possibility for a sociability in which no party is diminished and in which multiple ways of life may thrive. To this end, tact proposes less knowing forms of kindness; it resists the codification of social laws and the pinning of individuals to fixed meanings. It is an ethic of the ad hoc, continually rereading and rewriting the social.”4

By the end of the first half of the nineteenth-century, however, tact became in Russell’s view a form of the political transitioning “politesse to politics.”5 An improvisatory, ultra-immanent, pragmatic art of work-around and managed spontaneity, tact is valued for a reactivity that optimizes semiotic cues produced in social situations. Tact “allows metaphor to stay on the move, prevents meaning from congealing into a coercive demand for concession to a single consensus.”6 In its modern, utilitarian guise tact came to reject soft diplomacy and empathic social feeling. It hewed to a Benthamite model of discursive indifference and impersonality, according to which (and I again quote Russell): “social and political “sanction” could remain neuter . . . everyday language . . . purged of its unfortunate accretions of value hierarchies”7 Bentham, he reminds us, even “proposed replacing common words that were loaded with emotional and social bias with more neutral counterparts.”8 The Impolitic, placed in this historical context, would be conceivable as a politicized tactlessness that shares with tact the need to negotiate the zone between Romantic Gefühl and utilitarian functionalism. It also qualifies as a crucial constituent of what Roberto Esposito characterizes as “the immunitary logic of the ‘democratic game.’”9

In his discussion of threats to individual boundaries in an “anthropological frame . . . dominated as it is by the principle of fear and the persistence of insecurity,” Esposito contends that “politics itself ends up resembling an art of diplomacy that conceals a relationship of natural enmity in courteous forms of etiquette, tact, and civil behavior.” By inverse logic, the Impolitic would align not only with the de-concealment of enmities papered over by diplomacy, but more broadly still, with the failure to suppress from view the latent insecurity underwriting even the most casual or anodyne political transactions.10

1. Frank Bruni, “The G.O.P.’s Nasty Newcomer,” The New York Times (Feb. 15, 2013).

2. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, (ed.) Noah Porter (Plainfield: MICRA, 1996), 736.

3. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb : The Romantic Essay and the Emergence of Tact,” English Literary History 79:1 (2012): 180.

4. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb,” 180.

5. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb,” 180.

6. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb,” 185.

7. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb,” 201.

8. David J. Russell, “Our Debt to Lamb,” 201.

9. Roberto Esposito, Terms of the Political: Community, Immunity, Biopolitic, (trans.) Rhiannon Noel Welch (New York: Fordham, 2013), 39-40.

10. Roberto Esposito, Terms of the Political, 40.

Next »