Impolitic : Emily Apter

Thus far I have focused on “impolitic” as a démarche –a way of proceeding, walking or talking characterized by impoliteness, tactlessness, speaking out of turn, ill-timed or well-timed kairos, and obstructed thought. To this list, I would add the trope of cynical reason, associated by Peter Sloterdijk with the figure of a modern Diogenes, at once an outlier and a “lone owl, (kynic) provocative stubborn moralist, creating mocker, a biting and malicious individualist who acts as if he needs nobody and who is loved by nobody because nobody escapes his crude unmasking gaze uninjured” – and an “intellectual ascetic” (a philosopher like Wittgenstein,) who wants “to force the carelessly garrulous world to repent, this world to which logic and empiricism do not mean ultimate revelations, and that, unaffected in its hunger for “useful fictions,” continues to behave as if the sun does, in fact, revolve around the earth and as if mirages of ‘imprecise’ thinking are, in fact, good enough for our practical life.”18

But if the point here is to upgrade the Impolitic to the status of a political concept that names the principle of political obstruction flowing out of stymied legislative bodies, attitudes of “kynicism” and theories of political retreat (as in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “retreating the political,” withdrawing from the opinion-system in favor of a philosophical politics not yet manifest), I would like, in conclusion, to shift tack by suggesting that “impolitic” as a concept be brought to bear on theories of the Impolitical. If we follow Roberto Mangabiera Unger, the Impolitical is definable as a force-field of “negative capability” (an expression repurposed from Keats that originally referred to a new mode of perception that emptied out individual ego in favor of aesthetic orientation to the external object world). Unger’s enlists “negative capability” to undermine the interest-driven politics of neoliberal economies; the “small p” politics of routine deal-making, power-brokering, and lobbying that limit imagination and political experiment.

We must crack the routines of practical life open to the recombinational activity of practical reason [he writes in False Necessity] . . . Practical empowerment requires institutions and preconceptions that permanently weaken social divisions and diminish the arbitrary, recalcitrant just-thereness of our social orders.19

For Unger a politics of “disentrenchment” are the best hope against the extreme necessitarianism of contemporary institutions of governance that have been hobbled by their inability to produce either “a credible theory of transformation” or a “persuasive account of the remaking of formative contexts.”20 Impolitic as an active (if negational) mode of “not fitting,” throws programmed political thinking off its hinges, scrambles logics of appropriateness, disrobes social life as a masquerade of natural fact (revealing it to be a malleable political artifact), reinvigorates a “cultural-revolutionary politics of role-jumbling,” and opens a space for improvisational experience.

The Impolitical in this framework becomes a strategy for conjugating transformational politics with a certain political realism. It breaks down statecraft’s immunity to disturbance while sustaining interventionism in the arena of politics “small p.”21 Characterized as “an anti-necessitarian social theory in the service of radical democracy” (False Necessity’s subtitle), Unger’s social theory, one might argue, looks at political theory politically, which is to say, in terms of closed options, reform cycles, the private-rights complex, the advantage of “not fitting,” “routine without reason,” and what he calls, in a very old-fashioned formula that in some ways seems newly resonant, “the senses of spirit.”22

Disentrenchment, part of a social theory of progressive political democracy, stands in sharp contrast to the paradigm of l’impolitico (the Impolitical), as used by Roberto Esposito to denote that which remains unrepresentable in politics as we know it. Departing from Thomas Mann’s Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen — the “reflections of an unpolitical man” (which projected an image of Germany beyond the conflict between socialism and liberalism) as well as from Simone Weil’s concepts of “decreation” and “immanence” (“pure being and nothing more”), Esposito situates l’impolitico in that which remains obstinately other to politics, in that which refuses politics elevated to the level of values. Moving beyond Carl Schmitt’s critique of the depoliticizing effect of modernity on institutions (the polis’ loss of legitimacy as the theologized modern state becomes detached from substance and organized around empty claims), l’impolitico embraces a counter-theory and a counter-history of modernity; not in the sense of an impossible return to what was before, but in the sense of a radical questioning of the political; a confrontation of the political with its aporetic origin in communitas.

18. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, (trans.) Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 35.

19. Roberto Mangabiera Unger, False Necessity: Anti-Necessitarian Social Theory in the Service of Radical Democracy (London: Verso, 2001), 283.

20. Roberto Mangabiera Unger, False Necessity, 349.

21. Roberto Mangabiera Unger, False Necessity, 285 and 293.

22.Roberto Mangabiera Unger, False Necessity, 570-572.

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