On the Infrapolitical Image. Prep Notes for Conversation with Tarek Elhaik (U of California-Davis, April 24, 2017)


(A podcast with the actual exchange and a q&a session will be posted here soon. I thank Tarek very much indeed for this opportunity and for his generous engagement, which goes well beyond these questions, meant to facilitate conversation with his students as well.)

  1. Your concept of the “Infrapolitical Image” is a search for a new image of thought. Could you tell us a bit about its philosophical genealogy? How much is it indebted to Derridean deconstruction and German political philosophy?

I want to say first that I am not a professional philosopher, certainly not in their eyes, which makes me perhaps a bit of an antiphilosopher, so I will take your genealogical question from there, and only as far as I am concerned, since, you know, infrapolitics, the development of infrapolitics, is a collective engagement.

So perhaps infrapolitics is first of all the register of an insufficiency of common sense, an insatisfaction regarding conventional or philosophically conventional ways of apprehending the world. I suppose this is a kind of negative intuition that has been with me for as long as I can remember, my whole life, basically. In that sense infrapolitics is probably not the result of any conscious effort at developing this or that theory or the work of this or that thinker.

To a certain extent it may be the very opposite of that: the attempt to think, and to bring up thought as a problem, against every existing theory and certainly against every existing discipline.   You could ask from what perspective. I think from the perspective of the step back. Infrapolitics is primarily a thinking of the step back, I think—sure, it is a step back that moves towards no origin, it simply moves away from the obvious light to take a better look at the clearing. Robert Bresson, the filmmaker, had a nice way of putting it when he referred to the priest in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest as somebody gripped by the impossible “nostalgia of an immanence of the world that constantly escapes,” something like that. A similar feeling probably led me to break away from philosophy into the study of literature many years ago, until that, too, proved insufficient.

But, having said that, I broke my philosophical teeth with Nietzsche and from there there was a fairly straight path, with some detours, to Heidegger and Derrida. I have spent more time with their texts probably than with the texts of any other philosophers, even any other writers. But obviously I do not want to blame them for infrapolitics, a word they never used. They might turn around in their graves!

But yes, Heidegger and Derrida are the main inspiration for infrapolitics as a path or an exercise of thought and writing, I think. You see, both of them were thinkers of the step back, thinkers of the presupposition. Heidegger named the presupposition Being, and Derrida may have named it différance, as you know. And I detect in both of them also that deep nostalgia for something in facticity beyond facticity, something in life beyond life, ungraspable yet all-determinant.   I think infrapolitics also wants to think the presupposition in that sense—what precedes or sub-ceeds politics, political life, the condition of every politics in the sense of every possible politics. We call it existence—existence which is always in every case singular existence but is never solipsistic.   The infrapolitical register of existence is what I think needs to be thought out, and we barely have language for it, we lack words, thoughts.

Infrapolitics confirms in our way the Heideggerian or the Bressonian or even the Derridean obsessions with indeterminate existence.   Perhaps we could say that infrapolitics is the attempt to put existence, or a thought of existence, in deconstruction, if that doesn’t sound too silly. But why would it?

So, Hegel enables the step back in Heidegger, a movement of displacement, even radical displacement, and perhaps Heidegger enables the deconstructive move in Derrida. So perhaps there are traces in the Derridean text, and in the Heideggerian and Hegelian texts, that would enable us to enact a certain displacement as well.   So I guess one could say, hoping not to be arrogant, there is no arrogance here, rather the opposite, thinking the unthought of deconstruction is the great and endless task, and that would be the infrapolitical “rupture,” if you want, also a kind of transfiguration of the image of thought epochally speaking.

Derrida, however, kept existence at arm’s length, for personal and generational reasons that are no longer ours.

Let me go back to that “something in facticity beyond facticity” that I mentioned a moment ago.   This semester I have been working with some of my students on the Book of Tobit, I don’t know if you know it, one of the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. The story in the Book of Tobit mentions a young man, Tobiah, the son of a pious man living in exile who nevertheless never forgot to bury the dead or to help out widows and orphans.   Tobiah must travel to a remote land to collect a debt owed his father.   He finds help in a traveling companion, Raphael, who will turn out to be an angel, but of course Tobiah does not know it beforehand. Raphael instructs Tobiah on how to defend himself from a fish who attacks him in the river, and how to take advantage of that fish to do a number of important things in his life, they don´t really matter, or they do, to cure his father’s blindness and to exorcize the demons out of a girl’s life, but Raphael also shows Tobiah the way through the desert, how not to lose himself, how to reach his destinations.   And then, one day, Raphael leaves. Tobiah will live on many more years, and the reader is left to consider whether his life, the unknown life, the life without words, the life that is left, is not precisely a life of awaiting. So that life would be the waiting for the return of the angel, or the time that remains for it, until death comes. There is a kind of re-take of all of this in the famous last scene of Bresson’s Pickpocket, by the way, when the main character comes out to the visiting area in the jail and sees Jeane, and a revelation ensues, and he comments on the fact that all his life had been a kind of impossible waiting for that moment.

So, I was thinking this semester, perhaps that life lived in the absence of the angel that can however not forget that the angel was with us once, might always return, an anticipatory life in spite of all—is that not infrapolitical life?

I would not know what kind of genealogy that would imply. Perhaps a very ancient one.   In any case, it is what came to mind at some point during some difficult years in my professional life that perhaps you have lived too. In your recent book you constantly mention the need for a break against those images of thought that you connect to the ethnographic turn, to culture and culturalism, to any number of conventional images that have reified and can no longer sustain a life of thought, or the thought of a life. Perhaps infrapolitics is the same thing, part of the same thing.

  • Given the linguistic proximity of hope and waiting in Spanish (Espera / Esperanza) and given your reading of George Didi-Huberman’s and Pasolini’s “Fireflies”, the Infrapolitical Image seems to invoke a tension between telos, the destruction experience, and desire. As I read it, it is an image of a weak political life, a way of living life in the polis unmoored from a horizon and constituted community. It refuses to accept the catastrophic version of “crisis” as that which completely destroys experience. Crisis, we might want to remind our audience, comes from krisis, and as Koselleck has shown the concept contains a tension between the task of critique and the relocation of temporal gaps into a utopian future. What is the relation between the “Infrapolitical Image” of thought and the “Critical Image” of Thought?

The notion of image is of course complicated, I wonder whether there is an image of the image, for instance. If we take it in one of its senses, as a mental conception common to many, based on some received ideology or language idiom, a product of what we could call common sense, well, there are still images and images.   But take the pictorial image. I am very interested in images that break through into their frame, their parergon, images that exceed themselves. Since we were talking about the Book of Tobit, consider the series of etchings and oils that Rembrandt did on that story, usually having to do with the angel—the angel abandoning Tobiah, or the angel walking along with him, or the angel giving him advice or instructions, and there are other paintings on some other aspects of the story. There is an obsessive quality to those which is probably deeply singular, and through which the image kind of breaks out of itself into something else which is however not yet the allegorical or the metaphoric plane. We could say the image spills into the uncontained or indeterminate, and those images tend to produce thought, tend to have a genetic effect in the viewer, as it no doubt was the case for the producer. And they can be wrenching too. I think of them as demetaphorized images, but they are not just literal images.

But I know you must be referring to Deleuze’s notion of the image of thought, since it figures prominently in your recent work. You talk about the incurable image, which is a very nice formulation, I think. It is an image resistant to curation probably because it is an image that has exceeded itself, has abandoned common sense, and is now in some wild territory of thought.   I used to call such images “savage-hybrid.” The incurable image is at its best generative, but only after having a deeply anergonic effect, an effect of destructive unworking which is of course both critical and liberating, but potentially also catastrophic, and we never know in advance. If I remember correctly Deleuze says such images are proper to the “underground man,” he is referring to Dostoyevski’s notion of course, a radical stranger or rather an “intruder,” another figure you use.   An enemy of common sense, and therefore a man who, like the Comanche in the recent movie Hell or High Water, “only has enemies.” This underground man is the infrapolitical man, or woman.

Pascal Quignard, in his Brief Treatises, elaborates on why language, the logos in general, must be treated always and in every case as a deep deceiver, the alienator par excellence. Images are in that sense deep deceivers as well—they lie with the truth, or with a certain truth.   I think Deleuze talks about these things as “terrible revelations” that force the underground man into destructive critique, just to clear the ground, without ever knowing whether he is proceeding from stupidity or madness, from something savage in him, meant to generate an improbable “thought without image,” Deleuze says, a thought free of all empirical elements and yet at the same time radically empirical as well.   This “thought without image” is the very opposite of the “image of thought” understood as the dogmatic or “moral” image of thought—which, in my opinion, is the Deleuzian version of what Heidegger or Derrida would have called the metaphysical image of thought.   So Deleuze calls for a thought without image that would overturn the image of thought that comes to us from the tradition and would inaugurate a new politics. I suppose this is what he meant in the later work he wrote with Guattari under the name of “geophilosophy.”   But this geophilosophy, this new politics of the earth without image, is it not better thought of as infrapolitics?

I used the word “transfiguration” earlier. I meant to use it in a rather specific sense: for me transfiguration, in this context we are now using, the context of the passage from the image of thought to a thought without image, has to do with the parergonic valence of the image, the shifting potential of the image to something that is never the figural plane. The transfiguration does not leap into another figure, rather traverses the figure and makes it exceed itself.   This is the Bressonian “composition” (sorry, I have been working on Bresson over the last few weeks, also for one of my classes). Bresson says in one of his Notes on the Cinematograph something like our language of images, our writing, our cinematography, our audiovisual writing in general, must abandon the image, the images must ruin the idea of image, images are only relations, parergonic bonds with things and beings.   I think all of Bresson’s films are an extraordinary example of demetaphorized image, or if you want transfigured images under erasure, seeking to dwell in the radical immanence of the empirical that always escapes.

This production of relations against the image of thought—it may be madness or stupidity, but it is also infrapolitics, since it always points to whatever precedes politics as its condition. Take the wonderful Velázquez oil portrait of a kitchen maid in the Chicago Art Institute, do you remember it? The gleaming kitchen utensils—the cups, the silver or tin pots: they are already thought beyond the image, in a relational universe that includes the world as such, of which there should be no image. They depict an immanent world in its glory, and it is a world that does not want to point beyond itself. I think Velázquez also painted several versions of the same painting—obsession, or something else.   These are images that shatter the image of thought in the Deleuzian sense, because they won’t let themselves be tamed by any common sense or dogmatic conception: they are savage-hybrid images, or incurable images, as you put it.

This reminds me of something I also wanted to mention. In spite of the fact that Deleuze takes a hit on Heidegger in the very first page of his chapter in Difference and Repetition, I think that text on the image of thought is a repetition of Heidegger’s 1938 text on “The Age of the World-Picture,” that is, the world-image, Bild is the German word.   Heidegger’s main point throughout is that there is no notion of world-image that is not intrinsically associated to the modern conception of subjectivity—in other words, the image of thought is already a subjective appropriation of the world.   That text includes a radical critique of anthropology, by the way, and I know that your own notion of anthropology tries to undo subjectivism, along with any culturalism and any antropocentrism.   In that text Heidegger talks about subjectivism as the shadow of a passing cloud over a hidden land, meaning that the land is hidden, concealed, and the image of thought is itself the concealment, and the subjectivity of the subject hides, on its other side, as it were, the potential clearing of the shadow.   This would be the transfiguration, I think. We are far from it. But infrapolitics is a word pointing in that direction.

  • Until now we have used image in ways that might lead our our audience to think it means a picture or a visual.  I very much liked the way you substitute the image for a horizon in your reading of Pasolini’s Fireflies: a proposition I find quite beautiful because it is not suspicious of images as something that trick us. The infrapolitical Image is Anti-Platonicist. I like that very much.  Yet, I would suggest that some of your interlocutors and philosophical friends, such as Agamben, too often rely on Guy Debord’s hermeneutics of suspicion to illuminate an alleged “luz cegadora de la sociedad del espectaculo.”  Is this a fair reading?  If yes, I would like to invite you to compare your Infrapolitical Image with two foundational texts in which the “image” is deployed in uncertain yet productive ways. Hannah Arendt‘s “Truth and Politics” and Max Weber’s cautionary tale “Politics As Vocation.” Both texts, especially Arendt, are dominated by references to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (in Weber the explicit reference is given in the companion text “Science as a Vocation”)

I have great respect for both Weber and Arendt as political thinkers. I do not recall any specific reference in Weber’s essay to Plato’s allegory of the cave, but it certainly is very present in Arendt’s essay.   In her case it connects to the philosopher who returns to the people to tell them the ineffable truth resulting from his difficult contemplation of the sun. Arendt says that the people would probably kill this fellow, as his truth would damage all too many powerful interests, or perhaps just one interest, the interest of accrued interest, the interest of facticity. So perhaps Plato’s philosopher stands in Arendt’s text for what Weber calls the ethics of ultimate ends, the uncompromising commitment to truth, factual truth in the first place, which in Weber figures as an ethics of principle.   And politics would be something else, at best a negotiation with truth, at worst heterogeneous to it.

At a certain point in her text Arendt recognizes, however, that truth, in the strong sense of philosophical truth or theoretical truth, and politics are indeed heterogeneous.   The passage between the two realms is called metabasis, old Plato’s word. Arendt says metabasis is the passage from one way of human existence to another. Infrapolitics is also a metabasis in respect of politics, it invokes another region of existence, and it is from there that we may perhaps critique Arendt’s and Weber’s assumptions even in their own terms.   Infrapolitics is not anti-political, in that sense. It can still discuss politics.

For instance, what is the assumption in the great Weberian essay? What is Weber’s image of thought there?   His ethics of responsibility point to the presence of the great hero, the demagogue, the politician by vocation, a man (or indeed a woman, nothing prevents it), someone whose bottomline would in every case be the Lutheran “Here I stand; I can do no other.”   This is the responsibility of politics, its dignity, which in Weber, however, always falls on the side, and on the shoulders, of the great leader.   The leader wants power, wants tendentially a monopoly on violence, on political force, wants to dominate, even if not for the sake of domination, but for the sake of political accomplishment.   Political accomplishment requires domination, Weber is clear on that. And I do not dispute it. What I would dispute, however, is the exclusive adjudication of political charisma to the heroic leader.   In my opinion that is an image of thought that comes from the tradition—take a look at Hegel`s wonderful pages on the world-historical hero in his Philosophy of History.   In a sense Weber is rewriting those pages. The hero is for Weber the ruse of history, the ruse of reason in history, even if Weber has given up on the notion of absolute spirit, of an end of history, and talks rather about a polar night coming up—but even here the implication is that only the political hero could prevent that polar night from materializing.

Weber understands, even so, that there is a choice, a political choice, between what he calls a leaderless democracy and a leadership democracy, and he opts for the second, unambiguously.   He thinks a leaderless democracy is something like the purveyor of a domination without image, and only the leader can provide the image, which is of course always already the image of the people, of the nation.   The assumption is that the image is liberating, but this is an empty assumption. Your own book, Tarek, takes issue with “the Mexican condition,” linking it to all those troubles of modernity, post-Revolutionary Mexico and its image of thought, which has to do with nationalism and all the attendant phenomena and all the internal problems. And you want to break away from all of that, probably in the wake of a similar intuition.   Weber is still caught up in modern subjectivity, in modern premises concerning political subjectivity, from which derives a conception of power that we may want to reexamine.   Of course I would propose, against Weber, the political pursuit, today, of a leaderless democracy, where charisma would be on the side of things, of institutions and procedures, in the name of no apotheosic image of thought, which always implies a philosophy of history.

Arendt is probably more persuasive than Weber in her love of radical democracy and her rejection of domination, and would probably have been readier to endorse the notion of a leaderless democracy.   But her defense of philosophical truth and its particular form of coercion still privileges the hero as agent.   Remember when she elaborates on the notion that the Socratic principle “It is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong” is a valid political principle which may or may not have been implemented, but in any case should be implemented.   It does not matter that the philosophical principle is impolitical, as Arendt says. There is a certain coercion or domination of the principle in political life—in other words, Arendt seems to be claiming an ethics of principles in politics as well, from the philosophical metabasis. Her reasoning is: a man divided against himself, which is what happens to anyone who does wrong, cannot survive, so a political entity divided against itself cannot survive either. It can only be held together—through domination.   So, how can we guarantee the influence of philosophical truth—the Socratic principle, say—on politics, in order to guarantee an acceptable kind of domination? Arendt says that it is a matter of examples, and these examples are presented as intuitions that mark the imagination.   Socrates’ death is the great example here.   The Socratic metabasis happens through the example of his exemplary death, which is the way in which philosophical truth comes to have political import. So it is the exemplariness of a philosophical life that should, if it only could, rule democracy.   Obviously this is not a defense of the decisive and deciding leadership of the demagogue in democracy, it is something else, perhaps even close to the notion of a leaderless democracy (since the example, as such, has no coercive power).

But I think the limit in Arendt is precisely that. For her, politics is the place of freedom, the region of action where an individual can exercise his or her freedom.   And that is alright. It is serious enough. My point would be that, as an existential choice, and the same goes for Weber in a different way, Arendt’s politics are infrapolitical, a certain kind of infrapolitical exercise. In other words, one does politics, as a vocation or as a commitment to singular freedom, on behalf of oneself or on behalf of others, or both, for the sake of something in politics which escapes politics. That is the infrapolitical horizon, existence. So no politics is good enough whose outcome does not enact a radical expansion of the infrapolitical space. No politics is good enough for the sake of politics, politics is not an end. Which is also why one cannot have infrapolitics without politics. It is simply a change of emphasis. Let me put it this way: democratic politics aims at the liberation of a non-hegemonized space, a free space, which is infrapolitical space.   I am not sure Weber or Arendt ever glimpsed that.   And of course this is true for most political thinkers in the conventional sense. There is a blindness to infrapolitics which is in my opinion thoroughly connected to the radical domination of modern subjectivity in thought.   Another way of putting it is that all politics means to be heliopolitics, means to be politics of the light of the subject, of the apotheosis of the subject as light. The political subject wants to become political substance. Politics is always dialectic—there is a dialectical image of politics that happens to be almost all-pervasive today.  Paradoxically, perhaps, the sun blinds.

Against that, of course, infrapolitical or posthegemonic populism proposes a different thing, a transformational thinking that does not look at the light and does not find its impetus in or from the light—rather, in the dark, from the dark of existence as a possibility of freedom.   Infrapolitics is really a countergaze to dialectics and to dialectical politics.   It is also a countergaze in the sense that it does not function through the contemplation of the image of thought, which is always the copy of heliopolitical domination. The move to the countergaze is the metabasis eis allo genos infrapolitics proposes.   I know it is difficult, we must be patient.


  • But let us go back to Pasolini’s fireflies . . .

The metabasis from politics to infrapolitics, what I just called the countergaze to a dialectics of the subject, yes, it does not simply shun the light in favor of the shadow, it is not only or just a matter of moving from a heliopolitics to what we could call a skiopolitics (remember Pindar and his skias onar anthropos, man as the dream of a shadow, which Jorge Luis Borges, by the way, mistranslates somewhere as man as the shadow of a dream). The dark has its own light, the night has its own light. In that beautiful song by Patti Smith, “Because the Night,” which was actually composed by Bruce Springsteen, one of the verses is “if we believe in the night we trust.”   That is why I like so much the notion of the “survival of the fireflies” in Georges Didi-Hüberman.

He is talking about Pasolini, of course, the famous text from 1975 in which Pasolini gives up on the enchantment with the fireflies felt in his childhood. But the fireflies are in Pasolini’s text or texts an image of the glimmer of the night, the night of love. The fireflies are bodies in the night. By 1975, just before his death, Pasolini uncannily gives up on them.   And then you are right, Giorgio Agamben picks up on all of that, remembers the fireflights of his own childhood—I just saw some in Texas, by the way—and says in The Kingdom and the Glory that they have been burned by the blinding light of the society of the spectacle, which he links to the high beams of fascist police cars.   The fireflies, maybe, stand in for images of the night, but if so they are a special kind of image, an image that does not copy, does not represent, an image of pure desire or of pure awaiting—the images of the night are already thought without an image.   The notion of survival becomes important here for Didi-Hüberman, because he wants to deny the possibility of a total destruction of experience, and even says that it is in the destruction itself where the indestructible arises.   So, the fireflies are the locus of the impossibility of any apocalypse, the witness of a remainder, something always remains. But for Didi-Hüberman that survival is the survival of politics, and I think this is a failure of imagination on Didi-Hüberman’s part. The fireflies do not really point to the perpetual survival of the political as much as they point to infrapolitics. Infrapolitics is that indestructible remainder that, in fact, politics cannot but cover over.

Say, one should not argue, it would be rather arbitrary, which I think is the case for Agamben and Didi-Hüberman, that the wait for the return of the angel is political in the Book of Tobit.   The wait is not a wait for redemption, it is an action without action that has its own import. I would argue that the fireflies of the night are the markers of an attentive wait at the very vanishing point of politics. You can wait for politics or you can wait politically, but politics does not exhaust the awaiting, politics are in every case a compensatory formation for the awaiting.   Those images of the night are not subordinate to political redemption—if they were, we would be really be doomed, and there would be no survival.

In your book you use the notion of a second-order Latinamericanism, which I also used to refer to. Well, we can talk about a second-order infrapolitics. There is a factical infrapolitics that is everywhere—a quick example, the hands of the mother of three sitting next to me on the plain with her children around her, in the seat next to her and in two seats in the next row, they fascinated me as she cared for her children in all kinds of small ways. And then there is a second-order infrapolitics which is reflection on factical infrapolitics and, as such, to continue with the theme of the image, a search for the radically non-theatrical image, for the non-representative image, or, if you want, for the metonymization of the metaphoric image.   This is Bresson’s cinematography, by the way, of which he said it was “the art of representing nothing.”

Since we are coming to the end let me try to sum it all up, or let me try to say something else, in reference to two other sets of images that I find important. You must know the American painter Andrew Wyeth. He used to say he liked to “paint his life.” Well, part of his life happened in Cushing, Maine, and it is from there that we have his work entitled Wind from the Sea, where you see a window, a curtain, a landscape, and of course there is a book now with all the preliminary work, a big book, fascinating.   Wyeth paints his life, he also said he painted his emotions, but actually what he is painting is invisible, he is painting the wind, and the image can only refer to it, the image cannot paint the wind, the wind is only a trace in the image, but that trace is, precisely, what matters.   That trace is the figure of infrapolitics, or if you want infrapolitics transfigured.

And we could say the same thing about Paul Cézanne and his paintings of Montagne Ste. Victoire, which captivated Heidegger, by the way. Cézanne painted the same mountain obsessively, perhaps hundreds of times. What was he after?   In a note written towards the end of his life Heidegger wrote that Cézanne is also painting the invisible, or, as he put it, the appearing of presencing in the clearing of presence, that is, the very possibility of the image, of any image, the precondition or presupposition of the image, not just of an image of thought, but of thought as image.   And Heidegger says something important in that little note: he refers to Cézanne’s work as a “naming of the outstanding.”   Well, what out-stands—the image that exceeds or pre-ceeds itself and floods the parergon, floods the frame, com-poses relations that cannot be captured through any dogmatic image of thought. I think the infrapolitical image is always in every case that naming of the out-standing, if we can get to it. For the most part, however, second-order infrapolitics can only prepare for the out-standing, cannot yet see it.




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