Politics, Trace, Ethics: Disciplinary Delirium—On Trump and Consequences

“Politics, Trace, Ethics: Disciplinary  Delirium—On Trump and Consequences”

Jaime Rodríguez Matos

CSU, Fresno

(Paper read at the conference “Latin America in Theory/Theory in Latin America” held at USC, Los Angeles, CA, Nov. 11 & 12)


The first part of my title is meant as a reference to the kind of thought that maintains that it is not possible to neatly separate politics from ethics.  The trace of the ethical in the political and the trace of the political in any radical ethics…. This is a difficult proposition, which I would like to frame today, at least on a first approach, by way of the recent election result that has given us Donald Trump as president-elect of the United States.  I currently teach at an institution where Mexican and Mexican-American students represent a large sector of the student population.  When we went back to our various classrooms on November 9th, there was a palpable sense of dread and mourning.  At least for myself, that day represents the most vivid experience of something like an exposure unto death, an exposure to nakedness, destitution, passivity, and pure vulnerability—to the face of the other as the very mortality of the other, of the absolutely other, piercing, as Levinas put it, “what merely shows itself,” piercing through “what remains the ‘individual genus’” (174 & 167).[1]  When Levinas writes of this kind of exposure in his late work the limits of language are tested at every turn.  For what is at issue here is the singular beyond equivalency, the singular before and beyond the synthetic function of consciousness and re-presentation, the singular before or beyond or not yet under the unity of transcendental apperception—a noema without noesis, an exposure to time as “the deformation of the most formal form there is—the unity of the I think” (176).  This breach of intentionality—in which there is a relationship to the other not of the sort that reduces the other to the thought of the identical as one’s own, thus reducing one’s other to the same—is ethical to the extent that it must remain prior to knowledge.  Which means that as soon as I transform this exposure into a datum that means something within the architecture of a political “what is to be done?” I am no longer dealing with a formless time, still completely historical, but before or beyond intentionality.  I would then be dealing with the presence of the present as the temporality of the graspable and its promise of something solid, material.  Now, this materiality is the only thing that seems to be of value to many of our fellow radical thinkers, who are, quite correctly, concerned with the very political question of what to do now that the entire world of many of my students at Fresno State seems to be on the border of a catastrophe wrought in the name of “making America great again.”  This political, too political, first response would forget all too quickly the fundamental experience of singularity without equivalence, which is ultimately, as Levinas, himself puts it, an experience of love, by running away with its bit of knowledge, its bit of ground on which to found its: “what needs to be done is ….!”  If I could put it in these terms, at the risk of simplifying and doing some concretizing of my own, the less political edge of the ethics of singularity without equivalence would present us with a radical complication in our current climate.  For when I walk out of the classroom where I was in the company of my frightened students I immediately come across a young man wearing cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans, and a red baseball cap which orders everyone who reads the white letters on its front to Make America Great Again.  And there it was again, piercing through what shows itself, the face of the other, an alterity without noesis, the vulnerability and nakedness of the other.

As James Hatley has observed (35-36),[2] in Otherwise Than Being (101) Levinas elaborates on a scene of persecution in which he must fear not only for the possibility of a violent act of his own against the other, but also fear for the other’s plans for violence against him.  This fear is not simply a fear for oneself.  Rather: “My very persecution by the other is revealed to be my call to responsibility for the other.  The mere fact … that I have become a victim does not save me from responsibility.”  It is here that Levinas writes of an ethical delirium:

In ethical delirium … No matter how great the other’s assault against me might be …  Not the other’s assault upon me but my vulnerability to him or her is the issue.  My ethical delirium for the other does not cancel out my attentiveness to him or her … but intensifies it beyond any possible recall. (36)

Delirium is, one again, an attempt to explode or exceed the reduction of the other to the same in conscious representation.  What would the politics of this exposure be?  I would propose that whatever politics can be derived from this experience of singularity without equivalence would only be a deformed politics, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing but in the same sense that Levinas writes of a deformed time that is no longer the vision of the presence of the present in knowledge.

Now I believe that this is not simply something that we can learn from Levinas and apply as a ready-made solution to our problems.  For Levinas, this deformed time is also the address of a commandment or an order that is the voice of god, it is the fall of god into meaning.  Again, the thrust of this formulation is to move beyond the idea of meaning as presence or its reducibility to presence.  And Levinas emphasizes this double edge when he insists that this formless temporality is, and has always been, time as the good-bye of theology, while at the same time being the to-God of theology (à-Dieu).  I find this appearance of god consistent with everything Levinas sets out.  I think this is the inescapable conclusion if we follow the path of ethics.  But this is also why I find ethics problematic.  I fear that in this god, even if it is a deformed god, remains the all-too-palpable possibility of a political translation of theology: it is the most minimal, and perhaps for this reason the most effective, safeguarding of the becoming necessary of contingent authority, and authority figures.

The problem opens a different question.  For it would be possible to claim that if we do away with this figure, then we are immediately in the realm of a politicity that remains ensnared in the all-too-political framework of tragedy, where cutting the head of the leader is the central future of that form.  The most vivid theoretical work in this regard, to my mind, is Roberto Esposito’s conclusion to Categories of the Impolitical.[3]  There, in relation to Bataille’s acephalism and the image of Numancia, he points out to what extent Bataille’s writing elides the political and the impolitical:

the impolitical, pushed to its extreme, where what is in evidence is its own acephalism, the cutting of its own head, finds once again a political configuration, it recognizes (or it imagines) a point that is originarily prior to the ‘rupture’ with politics.  This point remains rigorously unrepresentable, but that unrepresentability can itself be represented, in its radical absence from the modalities of presence, but nevertheless represented. (308)

Which results in the perhaps contradictory fact that the impolitical becomes political at the exact moment in which one recognizes that there is something that remains before or outside of the political.

Though it is not the path I want to follow as I conclude, it would be possible to track in some of the literature of the 20th century attempts to think through this problem which eschew both the tragic as horizon for politics and the absolute commandment of ethics while insisting on the singular without equivalent that Levinas has done so much to make thinkable in our time.  Celan, Lezama Lima, Alejandra Pizarnik, among others, would be important reference points.  In that configuration, the issue concerns the relationship between the words of the poem and the deformation of the Muses, who ultimately are interrupted just as intentionality is interrupted in Levinas texts, without the loss of the singularly inequivalent.  But that is not the path that interests me today, as we are gathered here in Los Angeles at a time when people are out on the streets and the sound of police helicopters hovers over our heads.

I would like to return to the situation at hand now that Trump is the president elect.  And to the question of what kind of politicity, if that is the appropriate word here, would obtain if we allow the deformed time of singularity without equivalence to be heard as we think together in this difficult time.  Furthermore, I want to ask you to allow me to shift from the praxis of the militant to our own praxis as people who think and write about what is happening in our contemporary historical situation.  A praxis that is on the same plane as the actions of any militant, for our work can no longer simply be imagined to stand somewhere outside of time.

My feeling is that some of the difficulties that arise today do not only affect and compromise words like ethics, politics, subjectivity, and so forth, but that they also unground the frameworks in which we attempt to make them intelligible.  Latin Americanism is just one of those frameworks.  And whatever politicity can emerge from these ruins must begin by reimagining not only what we understand by politics, but also the function of knowledge when it is exposed to (the) singularity without equivalence (of the other).  It will not come as a surprise for most of you here today, that it is my opinion that the kind of thought that takes it upon itself to work through these problems goes by the name of infrapolitics.  But rather than say anything more about infrapolitics per se, I want to close by turning to the notion of psychoanalytic delirium and point out to what extent the style of that thought can be illuminating in what seems like a very dark post-Trump night.  That is, its style or its way of falling into meaning might be of help not because of any doctrine of the subject or of subjectivity, which might seem to be antithetical to what I have been outlining so far by way of Levinas, but because of what it can teach us, perhaps, as academics struggling with the relationship of knowledge and the exposure to the singular without equivalence.

For Jacques-Alain Miller, whom I cite here without the slightest need to presuppose his dominion over the exegesis of psychonalaisis, the formation of the unconscious is “the signifying alienation ([in which] the signifier represents the subject for another signifier) and sometimes, when a signifier calls upon another, it is produced for the subject as a lapse, through which it appears that he himself has produced it” (12).[4]  The difficult question, or the matter for psychoanalytic debate, is how to take this point of departure into account when differentiating between the formation of the unconscious (in neurosis) and the claim regarding elementary phenomena (in psychosis), while maintaining that these elementary phenomena are not simply a form of organisism.  How to reconcile something like an elementary phenomenon while rejecting organisism?  Miller proposes that there is an elementary phenomenon, but it is not quite certain what it is, much less that it is the address of god to us.  The elementary phenomenon represents a “we don’t know what” for someone else.  Elementary phenomenon, S1, represents an unknown X for someone, for the subject.  “In the formation of the unconscious, signifier links with signifier and the subject emerges as the effect of this link.  … the subject is not aware of this procedure: the signifiers link up among themselves and the subject is a little relegated to the background, as we see in the [case of a] lapse” (12).  And delirium is nothing but the address of this elementary phenomenon or sign, which represents an X for the subject.  Something comes to be taken as addressed to me, this tells me something, it speaks to me (19).  Thus the mysterious perplexity that the intuitive phenomenon produces—an intuitive phenomenon to which we add the delirious intuition implied.  There is here a supplement: the production of meaning.

For the analyst, “it” speaks to him.  The first evidence, the elementary phenomenon, the signifier alone, no one knows what it signifies.  It is only when another signifier appears (S2) that the signification of S1 emerges (22).  My students crying on November 9th, or the Trump supporter walking around campus with his celebratory gear, remain a “sinthomic” or formless thing that is yet outside of the symbolic fabric until I begin to assign them places like oppressor and victim, and the like.  Yet, they are not only both equally deserving of our responsibility to them, but are also responsible one for the other. Only when we instrumentalize in each case their singularity, reducing them to the sameness of our representations, bringing them into the light of conscious attention, do these individuals become the elementary phenomenon that authorize us to say: see, that is the thing that allows me to claim that politics speaks through my academic mouth, that is the ground on which I find the authority to say what needs to be done.  Yet what is happening here is the mistaking of “reality” for the constitution of delirium.  What if meaning comes from delirium in every case?  Delirium as equivalent to S2.  Which is to say that delirium would have an inextricable relation to knowledge.  Knowledge as delirium (22).

I do not mean to be simplistic or dogmatic one way or the other.  Nothing against knowledge, just as there is a new valuation of delirium.  Nothing against the delirium that makes knowledge possible, even as there is no rehabilitation of knowledge as a form of certainty.  For knowledge as delirium is exactly what undoes the certainty of the political or ethical materialist, he or she who thinks that somehow everything has been made clear and neatly tied to Reality.  We are reminded by the most devoted of Lacan’s students that

Lacan invites us to be a little psychotic, a little more perplexed.  He invites us to read things without understanding them and he helps us with his style that produces perplexity.  He teaches us not to efface the moment of perplexity, not to run away with our S2, our knowledge, supported by our phantasm, in order to decipher and affirm that we have no difficulty and that we understand what is happening.  To try not to understand what is happening is a discipline. (24)

Can this be the beginning of a deformed politics, a politics that is no longer the creation of hegemony, of the all too-quick answer regarding “what is to be done”?  To reject the pose of he or she who understands without perplexity?  The risk of running away too quickly with our bit of knowledge, with our S2, with the little plot of ground on which to stand and grandstand, is that we simply could mistake our phantasm for Reality.  Let us not demand of ourselves, or of others, or of the other in us—let us not demand write and think so that I can understand without perplexity!

[1]           E. Levinas. Entre nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other. Trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 174, 167.

[2]           James Hatley. “Beyond Outrage: The Delirium of Responsibility in Levinas Scene of Persecution.” In Addressing Levinas. Eds. Eric Sean Nelson, Antje Kapust, Kent Still.  Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 2005, pp. 34-51.

[3]           Roberto Esposito. Categorías de lo impolítico. Trans. Roberto Raschella.  Buenos Aires: Katz Editores, 2006

[4]           J-A Miller. “The Invention of Delirium.” Lacanian Ink 34 (Fall 2009): pp. 6-27.

1 thought on “Politics, Trace, Ethics: Disciplinary Delirium—On Trump and Consequences

  1. Pingback: Retreating from the Politics of Eternity: on Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. By Gerardo Muñoz | Infrapolitical Deconstruction

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