by Tenzan Eaghll
Editor’s note: this blog is a follow-up commentary on the recent Critical Questions Series 2, which can be found here.
I would like to diverge slightly from the overarching question of this series, which concerns the difficult line between politics and scholarship, to consider the meaning of the phrase “everything is political.” This phrase has been used in previous posts and I would like to consider its implications.
As the French continental philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has questioned in his book The Truth of Democracy (2010), when we assert that “everything is political,” what are we suggesting? Are we arguing that all the elements of common existence derive from something called the “political” (something that has a privileged position amidst the diffuse happenings of existence)? Or are we suggesting that there is a dominant force or sphere of influence that governs all others, like Hegel’s Absolute Idea, Althusser’s structural Marxism, or Arendt’s “public”? Or, lastly, are we affirming some sort of essence to existence, whereby all things are political in nature? What is it about the political that allows us to speak of it in such a totalizing manner? (46)
It is not necessary here to trace this phrase back to its theologico-political origins, nor to discuss its use by various fascist and communist governments in the 20th century who sought to appropriate all literature and art for political ends; rather, what is required is simply to stress the architectonic assumptions that support this phrase. When we assert that “everything is political” we run the risk of suggesting that political man is the privileged producer of his own essence, and we disregard the technical means that disturb any auto foundation (of either “man” or the “political). As Nancy notes, the technical supports that facilitate globalization disrupt any notion of the “whole” or the “total”, just as much as they disrupt any notion of the “religious” or the “natural.” This is why there is no totalizing political sphere of self-sufficiency in which we live (no oikonomia), only a “common place or place of habitation within production” (only an ecotechnē). (49)
Succinctly, the phrase “everything is political” hides two dangerous assumptions:
1) It constitutes a logic of emanation from a privileged or originary source that is not itself produced (this assumes nature in two senses: man as naturally political – logos (Aristotle); politics as oikos – family form of ‘common’ as natural).
2) It necessarily produces a logic of suture (closure) because that which is produced by the political (everything) is itself of the ‘same/common’ nature as the source.
As scholars of religion, we are ultra sensitive to the reification of the “religious” but we often forego the same sensitivity when it comes to our use of other architectonic signifiers, such as the “political.” After all, everything can be political only if the political is understood as totalizing or all-encompassing. In our deconstructing and de-centering of religious narratives we must constantly return to the thought that there is no whole to which any of the parts signify. If we forget this then we fall into the same trap of all the theologians and metaphysicians that claim access to some overarching Sense of sense (God, Spirit, Reason, the big Other, etc.).
In other words, the problem in mitigating the difficult line between politics and scholarship is not that everything is political, but that there is no determinable whole to which activity refers. Existence is characterized by a lack of essence and it is precisely this absence that makes contestation and discourse possible. As I am sure we all agree, one of the greatest theoretical developments in the field of religion in the past forty years has been the argument that religion does not have an essence; however, this is not just true of religion but also of the “political,” “art,” “thought,” “science,” “ethics,” “production,” “love,” etc. Hence, the “political” may be the name that we ascribe to the “in-common” in our culture, but this “in-common” is a thing only to the extent that it is incommensurable with itself. There is not a common community or totality that is properly political because everything that is political is not common in every way. (51)
This is all getting exceptionally complex for a blog posting so let me summarize the central point: the “political” is certainly a space of spacing (of bordering and policing the common) but it is not a space that is in control of figuring and presenting in general. The political is the result of a certain incommensurable horizon but it does not encompass all existence. This is the central insight of post-structuralist theory: existence is opened by its own exigency and this opening cannot be signified by any totalizing sign. Hence, everything is not political because the political does not absorb into itself all the figures and places of existence—politics cannot be confused with a “thing” or substance.
As a concluding note, I should clarify that I am not arguing for any notion of the private. To argue there are an indefinite number of spaces that are nonpolitical is simply to argue, in agreement with Foucault, that all common space is both public and private. I fully agree that any notion of the private is in fact exscribed by the “outside.” (see Foucault, 1987) However, this outside is the open as such and cannot be referred to as a whole that facilitates critique (lest we slip into a naive anthropology or positivism). For although it may be true that any particular thing that does occur crosses paths with the political, this does not imply that all occurrences are a priori circumscribed by the political. The subtle distinction I am drawing here may be summarized as a distinction between a logic of appropriation and a space of différance; between an emphasis on “everything” and an emphasis on the part, the trait, and the figure.
Tenzan Eaghll is Ph.D candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Toronto. His dissertation analyzes Jean-Luc Nancy’s work on Deconstruction of Christianity.