Impolitic : Emily Apter

Between a theological conception of politics as the salvation of humanity and a purely technical, administrative conception, Esposito (in Categorie dell’impolitico) refers to a different possibility which certain authors of the twentieth century — from Elias Canetti to Simone Weil to Georges Bataille — were able to grasp though not precisely define. Unassimilable to all forms of depolicitization or antipolitics, the perspective of the Impolitical constitutes the strongest, most radical modality in which politics can be thought, in a phase where all the traditional terms – liberty, community, power, seem to have lost traction.23 In his Nove pensieri sulla politica he reaches for a Bataille-inflected injunction: “Place the limits of the political at the center, and exit thus from the pregiven suppositions of political philosophy.”24

If this sounds a bit like the familiar argument about the unrepresentatiblity of democratic principle, (whether in the guise of juridical equality, or delegation of power), that’s because it is: the Impolitical is identified as the aporia, non-sense or limit-condition that describes why democracy will always be incomplete; an infinite incompleteness positioned as the complement to a myth of organic community. Where, as Etienne Balibar has pointed out, Schmitt had exposed the crisis of political representation, or the representability of political community as an end of secularization and the neutralization of the political, Esposito reclaims this negation.25

Drawing on Nietzsche and Bataille, Esposito affirms the negation or nothingness at the heart of politics. This leads him to the suspension of absolutes that guarantee hierarchies of value and authorize biopolitical models of auto-immunity. While Esposito’s impolitico extends the promise of communitas defined by amity, living-with, a concept of the subject as in-dividu (which is to say, in dividuation and the surrender of all pretension to totality), it veers into worldly asceticism and risks becoming remote from “any really existing mode of politics, whether communist or fascist, liberal or anarchist” as well as from the messier sphere I started out evoking, the world of politics as usual, unexceptional or “small p” politics.26

This “small p” sphere tends to be dismissed because it occupies the compromised zone of what Jean-Claude Milner calls “la politique des êtres parlants” [politics of speaking agents], a politics, in his view, that defaults to quarreling to throw political destiny off course.27 To be sure there is a problem with pointless point-scoring in the mediocracy; a problem with impolite politics as a divisive tactic of grandstanding and interference-running designed to bring history to a standstill. But to respect the firewall between impolitic political behavior and the Impolitical (the latter understood as the unthinkable grounds of the Political, or blanket refusal of realism) is to underestimate the critical interest of politics “small p” as a zone of theory resistant to theory. This is something akin to what Althusser, in reference to Machiavelli’s invention of the political form of the New Prince, termed “theoretical forms that prioritize political practice in person.”28

For Althusser, it is the “unforseeable” — a term marked as impolitic — that distinguishes Machiavelli’s formulation of a “theoretical disjuncture . . . without wishing to propose any kind of theoretical reduction or resolution of it, whether notional or oneiric.”29 Machiavelli, he continues, thinks “his problem politically – that is to say, as a contradiction in reality that cannot be removed by thought, but only by reality. It can be removed only by the sudden appearance – necessary, but unforeseeable and inascribable as regards place, time and person – of the concrete forms of the political encounter whose general conditions alone are defined. In this theory that ponders and preserves the disjuncture, room is thereby made for political practice. Room is made for it through this organization of disjoined theoretical notions, by the discrepancy between the definite and the indefinite, the necessary and the unforeseeable.”30

Let me conclude by making a case for impolitic as an all-over term for political intelligence applicable to the tactics of tactlessness, to expressions of the political unconscious (missteps, gaffes, amphibolies), and to calculations of Machiavellian statecraft (kairos, psychopolitical power-leveraging and profit-extraction from the situation at hand). In each instance the impolitic points to moments of encounter where timing is all-important; where contingency is either manipulated to advance Reason of State or allowed to knock the routine course of things off kilter in ways that are conducive to Unger’s politics of “disentrenchment.”

To intervene, theoretically and politically, in the practical field of politics “small p” we would thus reclaim the reserves of “une démarche impolitique.” This is a way of proceeding that answers the contemporary politics of obstruction with the silent treatment; it is an impassive stance, expressed in myriad ways of being, all of which face down the exigencies of managed life and actuarial modes of existence.


Emily Apter is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at New York University.


Published on November 7, 2014

23. Roberto Esposito, Categorie dell’impolitico (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1999).

24. Roberto Esposito, Nove pensieri sulla politica (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1993) 13.

25. Etienne Balibar, “Qu’est-ce que la philosophie politique? Notes pour une topique” in La proposition de l’égaliberté (Paris: PUF 2010).

26. Bruno Bosteels, The Actuality of Communism (London: Verso, 2011), 224. Bosteels characterizes the withdrawn aspect of Esposito’s impolitico as an “ultrapolitical” position discernible in the “impasse” between being political and thinking politics. He writes: “The ambition, in a certain sense, is neither apolitical nor antipolitical but rather ultrapolitical: more radically political, in any event, than any really existing mode of politics, whether communist or fascist, liberal or anarchist. Paradoxically, this radicalization is enabled by the very same impasse from which the impolitical seeks to escape, namely, the fact that, because of ‘the increasing differentiation between politics and thought,’ politics as such can no longer be thought, if ever this was possible in the first place, from within politics. To the contrary, what is needed to think politics is a minimal distance, a step back: precisely the step marked by the added prefix. Esposito thus can speak of “the dialectic between ‘political’ and ‘impolitical,’ whereby ‘impolitical’ means neither an apolitical or antipolitical attitude but rather the space of a form of thinking from where alone, by contrast, the sphere of politics could be thought,” for indeed “the place from where to think politics cannot itself be political. It must remain separate and delayed with regard to real politics, and it must be safeguarded as such, in its ‘modern impoliticity,’ especially in critical situations such as the present” (224).

27. Jean-Claude Milner, Pour une politique des êtres parlants. Court traité politique 2. (Paris: Editions Verdier, 2011), 7 and 9.

28. Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, (trans.) Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 1999), 80.

29. Louis Althusser, Machiavelli and Us, 80.

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