Impolitic : Emily Apter

There is a British political satire In the Loop, directed by Armando Iannuci in 2009, that illustrates just how high the stakes of this risk are in politics. During a radio interview, the inexperienced Cabinet Minister Simon Foster makes the off-the-cuff remark that war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” His political handler, the Scotsman Malcolm Tucker, desperately moves to rectify Foster’s faux pas, but the comment is picked up by a warmongering American official, and Foster only digs himself deeper into a hole after he is invited to Washington.

Simon Foster: [On Radio] Well, personally, I think that war is unforseeable.
Malcolm Tucker: [Listening to the radio] Sam! Sam!
Eddie Mair: [On Radio] Unforseeable?
Simon Foster: [On Radio] Yes.
Malcolm Tucker: No, you do not think that! Sam, I’m going to have to go to International Development and pull Simon Foster’s fucking hair.
Malcolm Tucker: [To Simon Foster] In the words of the late great Nat King fucking Cole; Unforseeable, that’s what you are.

Foster’s stumble – an interesting one insofar as the very word “unforseeable” names the structure of impolitic speech – triggers the mechanism of damage-control. Malcolm will turn his full thymotic fury on his charges, raining down torrents of invective laced with puns and macaronic barbs. Malcolm is activated as a war machine; and though his job is to resecure language and protect the political status quo, his own particular billingsgate is socially destabilizing. It unleashes a democratizing disrespect toward social hierarchies; it treats everybody equally badly:

Malcolm Tucker: [On Mobile Phone] Ok, Ok, Go ahead and print “Unforseeable.” See when I tell your wife about you and Angela Heaney at the Blackpool conference, what would be best? An e-mail, a phonecall, what? Hey! I could write it on a cake with those little silver balls: “Your Hack husband betrayed you on October the 4th and congratulations on the new baby.” . . . Yeah, maybe it’s better to spike it. Yeah, Fuckety-Bye.
Judy: It’s a scheduled media appearance by this department’s secretary of state and therefore falls well within my purview.
Malcolm Tucker: Within your purview? Where do you think you are, in some fucking regency costume drama?! This is a government department! Not a fucking Jane fucking Austen novel!
Simon Foster: [Interrupting] Malcolm.
Malcolm Tucker: Allow me to pop a jaunty little bonnet on your purview and ram it up the shitter with a lubricated horse cock!15

When Simon Foster displays his political ineptitude with the answer about war being “unforseeable” he reveals how bound up the Impolitic is with the timing of decision: the moment of kairos, where, in a split-second, political liability and hazard are assessed, the future is divined, and the game is either won or lost. Reason of state, in these terms, is Machiavellian; involving the ability to take the correct measure of the situation, or seize on accidents of experience (fortuna). This exercise of political intelligence is not confined to a flash idea or moment of intuitive genius, it is more like a hyper-consciousness, sixth sense, or canniness that is refined into a technique of opportunistic self-management. The “politic” impolitical subject, in this case, demonstrates the ability to extract maximum utility from unforeseen admixtures of happenstance and self-awareness.

In the nineteenth-century Stendhal may be credited with inventing a form of Machiavellian political fiction that made this kind of psychological realism flush with Reason of State. The post-revolutionary ethos of Empire and Restoration, coinciding with the take-off of French finance capitalism and the society of speculation, yielded an interest-driven modern sovereignty; a sovereignty describable (in Stephen D. Krasner’s term) as “organized hypocrisy,” that is, “a configuration in which the more or less open violation of norms and rules is tolerated as the price to pay to consolidate power and maintain the social peace.”16 La chartreuse de Parme offers an x-ray of the pyschopolitical ratiocination in the character of Count Mosca, counselor to the Prince of Parma, Ranuce Ernesto IV. In one of my favorite passages, we watch him apply logic and logistics to the conquest of a younger woman, turning his own sudden onrush of timidity — registered as a hesitation on the stair — to personal advantage.

“I cannot,” the Count mused, “spend more than half an hour in her box, recent acquaintance as I am, were I to remain longer, I should be making a spectacle of myself, and thanks to my age and worse still to this damned powdered hair, I should have all the attractions of the old fool in the commedia dell’arte.” But a further reflection made up his mind for him: “If she were to leave that box to visit another, I should be paid as I deserve for the greed with which I am hoarding such pleasure.” He stood up to go down to the Countess’s box, when all of a sudden he felt no further desire to present himself there. “Ah, now here’s a pretty mess!” he exclaimed, laughing at himself and stopping on the stairs. “An impulse of authentic timidity – it’s been twenty-five years since I’ve experienced such a thing.” He entered the box with a certain effort of will, and taking advantage, as a man of intelligence, of what had just occurred to him, he made no effort to seem at ease or to be clever by telling some entertaining story; he had the courage to be shy, he employed his wit in revealing his disturbance without being ridiculous. “If she takes it amiss,” he told himself, “I’m lost for good. So! Timid with powdered hair which would be gray without it! But it’s all true, so it can only be ridiculous if I exaggerate the fact or boast about it.17

In the French, phrases like “je serais bien récompensé de l’avarice avec laquelle je m’économise ce plaisir” or “profitant en homme d’esprit de l’accident qui lui arrivait” bring out the economistic and actuarial calculations of political reason. Mosca extracts profit from the risk of depriving himself of pleasure. He gambles successfully on his own fear that his loss will be another’s gain. He games his own psychopolitical system, and in this way, assumes the mantel of the purely “politic” subject, an ideal avatar for the society of rational choice.


16. Stephen Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 66.

17. Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma , (trans.) Richard Howard (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 97-8. “Le comte se disait: Je ne saurais passer qu’une demi-heure tout au plus dans sa loge, moi, connaissance de si fraîche date; si j’y reste davantage, je m’affiche, et grâce à mon âge et plus encore à ces maudits cheveux poudrés, j’aurai l’air attrayant d’un Cassandre. Mais une réflexion le décida tout à coup: Si elle allait quitter cette loge pour faire une visite, je serais bien récompensé de l’avarice avec laquelle je m’économise ce plaisir. [If she isn’t in the loge, I’ll be well recompensed for the greed with which I economize on the pleasure of going to see her]. Il se levait dans la loge où il voyait la comtesse; tout à coup il ne se sentit presque plus d’envie de s’y présenter. Ah! voici qui est charmant, s’écria-t-il en riant de soi-même, et s’arrêtant sur un escalier; c’est un mouvement de timidité véritable! voilà bien vingt-cinq ans que pareille aventure ne m’est arrivée. Il entra dans la loge en faisant presque effort sur lui-même; et, profitant en homme d’esprit de l’accident qui lui arrivait, il ne chercha point du tout à montrer de l’aisance ou à faire de l’esprit en se jetant dans quelque récit plaisant; il eut le courage d’être timide, il employa son esprit à laisser entrevoir son trouble sans être ridicule. Si elle prend la chose de travers, se disait-il, je me perds à jamais.” Stendhal, La Chartreuse de Parme, (ed.) Michel Crouzet (Orléans: Paradigme, 2007), 112.

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