Why Balibar?, par Judith Butler

Saturday 24 January 2015, by Judith Butler

Version imprimable fontsizeup fontsizedown

A l’occasion de la parution du dossier "Pourquoi Balibar?" dans le n°19 de la revue Raison publique

When I first saw the question, “Why Balibar?”, I was inclined to say “ and why not?” When I scrutinized the proper name, I asked myself, which Balibar? Am I to write on Balibar on Einstein? Or am I to reflect on theatrical performance in several languages on stage and film? And then I realized that the question sought to return the patronym to its place among other patronyms. Of course, I have no problem asserting and showing that Etienne Balibar is one of the most thorough and wide-ranging political philosophers of our time. But perhaps he is also the one who has produced a certain confusion about the name, since he seems to surround himself with accomplished women. So after making my way through that quandary of the patronym and even the presumptive gender of greatness, I was able to reformulate the question in a way I could try to answer: Why Etienne Balibar?

Still, even this version of the question disturbs me, since I am not sure who is posing this question, “why Balibar?”Is it perhaps a skeptic wanting to know the reasons why he or she should read Balibar? That puts me in the position of defending the work or supplying the reasons why it should be considered. That seems nonsensical since, for me, the work has become part of the very horizon of thought. Of course, there are reasons why Etienne Balibar has re-established the coordinates of political philosophical thinking for our time, but to ask, “Why Etienne Balibar?”, is to act as if we could think outside the coordinates of this historical time. Maybe the better question is, “how did Etienne Balibar become possible? Comment Balibar?” or better, “what form of thinking did Etienne Balibar make possible?” Of course, he is not the only one to map or articulate the contemporary coordinates for political thought, but my contention is that a major disorientation would ensue – and a terrible loss - if we could not seek recourse to his philosophical thinking to consider the recurrent and vexed question of democracy. If we ask, “Why Etienne Balibar?”, we might as well ask, “why think at all?” Or “why think about democracy?” So those who pose the question might be already lost, or miming the skepticism of those who are clearly lost in order to expose their folly. As for me, I [Moi, je…] cannot think without the thought of Balibar, so the question, “why Etienne Balibar?” translates into the question, “why think at all? Why think about democracy?”

For the purposes of this brief presentation, I returned to his early work, Spinoza and Politics, an effort not only to situate Spinoza’s philosophy within the political demands of the Dutch Republic, but to articulate a sense of the demos in a new way. The question already posed by this work published in 1985, is who are “we” or, rather, how do we understand the people, or the multitude, who seek to exercise their freedom in relation to a commitment to equality as a collective sovereignty? In a way, this is a question to which Balibar returns time and again as he makes Spinoza contemporary, laying out what the social covenant might be, how theocratic rule might be overcome, but also arriving at the idea that a certain limit to popular sovereignty must be self-imposed. The exercise of collective freedom in the service of political self-determination has to be accompanied by a commitment to equality, and this is not always a harmonious venture. Finding in Spinoza a trenchant critique of the repressive ideological state (and so discovering Spinoza as a precursor to Althusser), Balibar tracks how the exercise of freedom and the commitment to equality can develop without recourse to a divine or transcendental external political authority .

According to Spinoza’s monism, a “true Religion” is one that establishes its truth within the domain of nature, the sum of its powers, including the exercise of “right”. In this sense, it is opposed to theocratic rule. But it is also opposed to egoistic individualism. “True Religion” in political life takes the form of suspending personal greed and ambition in favor of realizing a socio-political world in which the general welfare of the whole prevails. This is, however, not the sacrifice of individuality to or for the collective, but the understanding of individual freedom as requiring a check or limitation in order to be reconciled with principles of equality. Perhaps “reconciled” is too optimistic a term. And yet, the question of what the people want is linked to the matter of how the people determine themselves as a people. Thus desire is bound up from the start with the problem of equality, and the task of its realization.

Although one might expect that, for Spinoza, the sovereignty of the state is destroyed or replaced by popular sovereignty. What happens, rather, is that the state gains its legitimacy and perhaps also its “expressive power” precisely as the living embodiment of the people. The state is or, rather, can be the legitimate expression of the body politic. Harmony cannot be presupposed since whoever the people are, they will want various different kinds of goods, and they will doubtless run into conflict with one another. The people do not subject themselves to a contract with a sovereign power (104), but, as individuals, they “transfer” their sovereign and natural right (potestas) to some collective sovereign on the condition that the sovereign power does not repress its own citizens, and safeguards their various desires and views. A set of individualized body thus coalesce into a body politics, but always with conditions. In Balibar’s words, there is

“the process by which individuals with their natural right (that is, their own power) come to create a collective individual, that is, the State as an individual of individuals. This collective individual has a “body”, which is produced by the combination of the bodily powers of each and every one, and a soul, which is the idea of that body,” (116)

A natural right has to be exercised to be a right at all, and so has to be conceived as a power. Thus, it is already entered into the domain we might call cultural or social. A natural right is not inscribed in nature, conceived as a static and pre-cultural domain; there is no natural right prior to its exercise, and its exercise is precisely the operation of nature in the individual as potentia (which is why the critique of “abstract” rights is part of the Spinozistic position – linking it to both Hegel and Marx). Equally important, the collective body does not imply that everyone speaks or acts in the same way; in fact, it is a democratic collective only insofar as the diversity of opinion and belief is safeguarded – Spinoza’s doctrine of tolerance follows. That diversity cannot easily be explained or reconciled through recourse to a dialectical unity, since it is not reducible to a contradiction in the process of being resolved. Rather, those plural differences that come to characterize the multitude have to be affirmed and preserved precisely through a check on any effort to impose ideological conformity on a population by a party, a vanguard, or any other authority. Balibar thus writes that for Spinoza,

“freedom does not need to be added to nature or promised as another ‘kingdom’ that is to come. Freedom is certainly opposed to constraint – the stronger the constraint, the less freedom one has – but it is not opposed to determinism, or rather, to determination, that is, it does not consist in the absence of causes for human action….our liberation has already begun. It is the conatus itself, the movement by which activity preponderates over passivity.” (123) This conatus, the desire to persevere in one’s own being, where one’s “own” being turns out to be constituted by a set of dynamic social inter-relationships, becomes then the basis for thinking about democratic movements, multiculturalism within and beyond the nation, and the role of popular sovereignty for legitimating the state. And yet, Balibar is not championing the expressive and democratic potential of the multitude without limitations. And this becomes more clear as we follow the development of Balibar’s own democratic theory post-1984. What becomes clear is that some requirements of citizenship necessarily impose limits upon the upsurge of any multitude. Even mass movements, or perhaps especially mass movements, have to honor and incorporate that limitation on freedom that is imposed by intersubjective constraints and broader commitment to equality. These constraints are importantly distinguished by those that are coercively applied by repressive state apparatuses – they belong, rather, to the practices of collective self-determination and self-legislation. Indeed, if we consider Balibar’s important work, We, The People of Europe? (Nous citoyens d’Europe: Les Fronteres, l’Etat, le people: La Decouverte, 2001), we find that many of the same issues resurface that we found in the early work on Spinoza. But in this later work, the concept of political self-determination, so often allied with notions of popular sovereignty, receives closer attention. Taking up Habermas’ argument in Between Facts and Norms that collective self-determination is necessarily self-referential, presupposing “logical space” for a “political community” of citizens united with one another, Balibar poses two separate questions about the presumption of that “unity”. First, is there, operative in the Habermasian view, a generic notion of the ‘common’ that is out of synch with prevailing socio-political differences, multiplicities, and antagonisms? Second, is the logical space to which Habermas refers really a unified one? That position, Balibar argues, presupposes a questionable metaphysical basis for politics in which “unity” operates as a regulatory ideal: the “the people” constitute themselves as a unity and in both the people and the space in which they constitute themselves are presumed to be internally unified. Thus the very premise of popular sovereignty is that a unified people can exist in a unified space. Balibar shows that this postulation of unity is something of a phantasm, leaving us with a quandary), namely, whether popular sovereignty can still make sense if the people are themselves internally divided or characterized by a series of differences that cannot be gathered into any possible unity (184). The political alternative, Balibar argues, seems first to be radical individualism, since no common attribute or concern can collect the people into a unity. But that option destroys the demos, and democracy. Balibar affirms that the spectral function of the demos is essential to “projects to enlarge or transpose democracy beyond the limits of the nation-state.” But this means that as a spectre, it can never be tied to one space. In Balibar’s view, the notion of the people is of necessity both “real” and “unreal”: “it must be real enough to exist in the face of the state whose legitimacy it founds and unreal enough not to absorb (or reject) rights-bearing individuals.” In this way, popular sovereignty is supplemented and checked by transnational rights. For Balibar, then, “the dilemma raised by the notion of popular sovereignty.” (185) is that of the relation between “constituent ” and “self-limiting” powers. Any collective that overrides individual rights or rights of citizenship is one that fails to mark its own unreality. One might say that the unreality of the people limits any descriptive claim of the people as internally unified and existing in an already established place – specters travel. The principle of reality, on the other hand, names the performative or constituent operation of power that is understood to be the sovereign exercise of the people. The sovereign power of the people is at once performative and self-limiting. And that limit follows from the transnational and democratic rights of citizens who are precisely not bound by national affiliation alone; indeed, this latter framework provides a principle of equality that the notion of popular sovereignty cannot provide. After all, taken descriptively, “the people” always fails to include some portion of the people, and so tends to be the object of an ongoing hegemonic struggle over who “the people” are. What corrects or limits the implicit nationalism of “the people” is the idea of democratic citizenship that is unrestricted by any particular framework of national belonging. The democratic rights of citizenship are formalized, articulating rules of representation that seek to be inclusive. Although such rules cannot precisely define a people – a people must define or constitute itself through its own performative exercise – they limit any possibility of mob rule or even demographic majority rule that marginalizes some groups or differentially allocate rights of citizenship. In this sense, representative democracy is constantly undermining those provisional unities, such as “the nation” that are often synonyms for “the people.” Interestingly, it is here, even in the more recent work, that Balibar returns to Spinoza, to make the claim that rules of participation and inclusion disrupt the idea of “the people” precisely because the dominant notions of the people or the nation are broken up by rules that pertain to all citizens despite forms of local or national belonging. This is, in fact, the dimension of democratic politics that interested Habermas as he affirmatively tracked the continual breakup of German nationalism. And yet, Balibar’s rejoinder to Habermas via Spinoza who is to affirm the principle that “the people” are always at a certain distance from itself (187). This internal fracture can turn to civil war, but under certain political conditions, those divisions and fragmentations can be worked with and sustained as part of democratic practice itself – a multitude structured through transnational citizenship that qualifies popular sovereignty, rejects radical individualism, and refuses hierarchical forms of vanguardism and party rule. It is not only in the name of tolerance that it becomes important “to guarantee and inspire… the plurality of opinions and parties.” That plurality also names the dynamic and open-ended process of popular self-determination allowed to develop unconstrained by a repressive state formation.

So when we ask what we have begun to think about because Etienne Balibar has opened up thought in a certain direction, we find not only that we return to the basic question, what is democracy? but also, what is it that I desire and we desire, and how is it possible to desire and think precisely as we do (understanding thinking as a permutation of desire). If our power and obligations as rights-bearing citizens is not restricted by the nation, and if we are nevertheless “a people”, how do we work with the phantasmatic and real dimensions of that category? Can we wish for equality at the same time that we desire to exercise our own powers as individuals, and can we do both in a way that is not restricted by the laws of the nation-state? If we can pose such questions, we have opened up the question of democracy in new ways, linking freedom with equality, a critique of repressive and violent state power, moving between the “I” and the “we” without being captured by errant forms of individualism and collectivism. This is what I meant by saying that a horizon of thought has been opened – it is now our pleasure, honor, and obligation to continue to think within it, and to take joy in this opening.

by Judith Butler

Version imprimable fontsizeup fontsizedown
Pour citer cet article :

© Raison-Publique.fr 2009 | Toute reproduction des articles est interdite sans autorisation explicite de la rédaction.

Motorisé par SPIP | Webdesign : Abel Poucet | Crédits