Fillip — Folio B

Economies of Common Infinitude
Patricia Reed

Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, exhibit much variety and fluctuation, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature.—Aristotle1
The crucial issue here is not really what is one’s form of life...but that one’s singular life has (or partakes in) a form, and that this form, which has no need to be further defined, is always already a source of power.—David Kishik2

The long and ongoing engagement with ethics in the context of philosophy and in living itself can be encapsulated by the ancient idea of eudaimonia—the search for a good, for a way of being, acting and orienting oneself in relation to a good life. Literally translated, eudaimonia is composed of two parts—eu (good) and daimon (a deity); painting a “good life” with a rather metaphysical brush, the term suggests that a good life arrives under supernatural forces, like a guiding spirit of sorts. Less literally, eudaimonia has come to be interpreted as “human flourishing,” the quest towards the fulfillment of an augmented human being, capable of more than mere survival (more life and not mere life). Whether one apprehends the concept literally or in its more contemporary variant, what keeps the supposition relevant is the very indefinition of a good life. Ethics may well mean the carrying out of action in relation to a good, yet this good is an abstraction, and the corresponding point of active orientation remains obscure. The history of ethics is marked by the preoccupation with ways to describe and valuate what a good could be, while the volume of various interpretations for said good (even among the ancients—from Aristotle and the Epicureans to the Stoics, etc.) indicates the utter instability of a steadfast conception of a good. A good is not a finite object (like goods one can consume or monopolize under principles of scarcity), yet it partakes in an economy of shareable imagination, of infinite assimilation, of infinite affect—the valuation of which increases by the very property of its utter impropriety.

A good is not a naturally given good, but is a constructed good. With no God-given or naturally determined “good” of human interaction and behaviour,3 Aristotle decisively linked ethics with politics, with ways of doing (ethos) inseparable from politics (Aristotle having defined “humanness” largely based on man’s capacity and outright need for politics). Considering, however, that ethics is above all an action, a doing, a way of dwelling, the principal question of a good is not necessarily what that good is or is not, but rather how a good is apprehended as such. Under what processual circumstances does this intangible sense of a good take hold of our symbolic imagination? How does a good become valued as such, and how does this “valued” good gain currency in the sphere of cohabitation?

A good, or a good life, as an apparatus of social cohesion is positioned as that which identifies a particular culture to a life-world of possible behaviours, underlying modes of being and governance in adherence to that very comprehension of a “world.” Within this dominant portrayal, a good operates as a force of social normalization, of delineation, of ordering exchanges and behaviours in a particular fashion; a good, as such, becomes the good as it marks a finite perimeter of possible modes of inclusion within a given order.4 The good, in this regard, operates as a spectre over social congregation, becoming a part of the everyday imaginary, and, one could venture, the history of human civilization has been a popular experiment in defining and disseminating varying conceptions of this evasive good. The good, in this case, is deployed as a stabilizing device, the definition of which functions as an unwritten bond uniting particular populations. Subsequent to the archetypical partitioning of the “world” into nation-state territories first enacted by the Treaty of Westphalia, this good has largely been defined (and contained) under the command of those very states. The delineation of the good sets forth systems of belief, action, and modes of dwelling, instantiating forms of identification and, ultimately, delineating forms over life by determining inclusion in a given system of order. Important here is the divergence between forms over life and forms of life; whereas forms over life impose an imaginary limit, drawn as a perimeter of possible belonging to a given sphere, forms of life, which are immanently limitless, instantiate other modes of belonging to a world. In such an apprehension, the good is rendered as a property specific to a particular identity of peoples. Conceived thusly, the good is a property of the state, and all those who wish to be members are compelled to perform and identify with this property. The good is not a thing—not a good in the sense of a product—yet it has dramatic material consequences as we have witnessed in countless bloody battles fought over its utter signification, the insurgency in Iraq and the “winning of hearts and minds,” being a quintessential example.5 In the current state of affairs, where battles are waged less in the hopes of territorial expansion and more in relation to the occupation of cognitive territory (noo-politics, soft power, and networked organization), the fight is precisely over the semantic territorialization of the good. When the good is deployed as a property that one must perform for ritual membership, the good becomes an imperative and thereby enters the category of the moral or unquestionable, finite good. In taking on the quality of a moral command, the good demarcates the very possible topology of living (forms over life), to the negation of potential and limitless forms of life.

The Virtuous Good
One should reduce and limit the realm of morality step by step: one should bring to light and honor the names of the instincts that are really at work here after they have been hidden for so long beneath hypocritical names of virtue...—Friedrich Nietzsche6

There are two key points to note in the preceding description of the good. The first is to note that the good is used as an apparatus for the normalization of relations; and second, that the good is deployed as an imperative.

In the first instance, the good becomes synonymous with “virtue,” what Bonnie Honig elaborates as a “virtue theory of politics”7—politics understood as that which reconciles social dissonance, seeking closure and administrative or juridical settlement (grounded or “archic” politics). In her argument, Honig contrasts “virtue” politics with “virtù” politics, a term borrowed from Nietzsche’s Will to Power wherein “virtù” is a politics of perpetual contest and augmentation. For Nietzsche, virtù is an ethical position that disrupts stabilized order through the articulation of remainders of the system. Virtù is the expression of a surplus: of all that is excluded, concealed, or denied in the delineation of a system of virtue—of what is permitted to make an appearance. It is here where we find a parallel thread in the work of Jacques Rancière, whose distinction between the “social” and “politics” is of utmost relevance. Rancière equates the social with the “police,” which should not to be conflated with those men and women in uniform enacting authority; the police or the social is wholly non-pejorative. The social or the police is characterized by a hegemonic consensus that is performed through modes of being and appearing that are in accordance with their appropriate function, place, speech-act, and identity, and as such mark an understanding of the “partitioning of the sensible” that can be internalized (sensed) by its constituent members.8 The “social,” as such, can be defined as a settled apprehension of virtue, the stabilized “good,” that traverses a given community as sense (the common understanding of the signification of the good).

Politics, on the other hand, for Rancière, is the contestation relative to the very formation of a territory-in-common, to the ways in which something makes an appearance and the ways of making sense of that appearance. Politics shifts the symbolic ordering of the social creating new economies of equivalence between those who “count” and those who do not. Akin to Nietzsche’s virtù, which takes into account the remainders of a system, Rancière’s politics is the demonstration of the “part with no part,” the surplus community, function, place, identity, and so on, unaccounted for in the given sensibility of the social order. The part with no part is that which does not yet exist (it is a potential party—a party being s/he or that which is recognized as partaking in the partitioning of the sensible) in the given symbolic order and, as such, it is not merely a dispute between parties; it is the very constitution of a party as a part(y). Politics is a clash of sense and sense, namely dissensus: the struggle between the partitioning of the sensible (the hegemonic social) and the ways of making sense of it.9

When the good is deployed as a normalizing force, it is apolitical; it is a virtuous good upholding the habitual symbolic order of the social—and to reiterate, this is not necessarily pejorative, simply normative. The social good subtends a particular community of sense to the neglect of all that is supernumerary to its condition and its modes of interaction. The good, as virtue, imposes an economy of scarcity of other possible worlds as it is reinforced by the repetition of its consensual performance played out in daily rituals. The good, then, portrayed as a social entity according to which relations of consensus play out—to and in the world—is a form over life, a sign that delineates a proper place, function, and behaviour of members who are (ac)counted (for), to the exclusion of any possible supernumerary condition.

The second aspect of the good (and not a good) to be addressed, in tandem with its normalizing force, is the notion of the good symbolically defined as an imperative. Are there ethical principles at work in the deployment of an imperative, and, if so, what becomes of subjectivity when the good is figured as a prescriptive undertaking? As Alain Badiou has said, there are no ethics in general but only the capacity of humanity to conceptually recognize a good in particular situations—a good is, above all, a situated good and not the given good.10 Giorgio Agamben echoes this point when he writes that there are no mere tasks in being that need to be fulfilled11 (being in the world is not merely composed of fulfilling a certain checklist of duties), and it is in this task-less nature of being that the need for ethics arises. The generalized good as imperative, thusly, falls under the rubric of morality as outlined by Michel Foucault, that is, a “prescriptive code one is obliged to follow.”12 When the good, as a symbolic imaginary, is used to normalize the social via a commandment to obey its force as virtue, it is the moral good—the social good and not a political good.

Unbounding the Naturalized Good

Although calling for augmented conceptions of politics in various, and often oppositional, guises, many authors, including Rancière, have denounced a so-called “return to ethics,” condemning such a return as the reification of normalized (and therefore exclusionary) consensual social structures. Rancière, for example, has condemned the celebration of an “ethical turn” (positioning ethics within the realm of the police/social), describing the “fashion” of ethics as nothing more than old-world morals—in other words, ethics apprehended as (absolutely) socially prescriptive. Rancière diagnoses a social condition in which ethics mirrors a generalized state of normativity within which a hegemony of judgment plays out; this state of normativity falsely identified as ethics neglects, as it were, potential or not-yet-existing forms of life.13 In his characterization, the ethical turn of politics dissolves norms into fact and fact into law, merging what is with what could be—Badiou’s concise definition of consensus.14 Ethics, positioned in these terms, functions as a quasi law against which the possibility of evaluation and decision, viz. judgment, is markedly impeded as it is continually subordinate to this (false) law. The lack of distinction between fact and law that constitutes the ethical turn of politics, in Rancière’s view, traps ethics within the confines of a consensual social system, resulting in the erosion of politics proper.15 In equating “ethics” with regimes of consensus, however, Rancière ends up relegating “ethics” to a natural law discourse and, consequently, its permeation throughout the social body—where ethics is apprehended as an outright (innate) task—becomes un-situated and non-negotiable. What we are faced with in Rancière’s “ethical” diagnosis is the conflation of ethics with morality. In heeding a philosophy that demonstrates the importance of “mere words,” and the relevance of defending them (Rancière having battled to rescue “democracy” from the shackles of its equation with a mode of governance),16 it seems crucial to deploy this defence of “mere words” against a conflation of ethics/morality suggested by Rancière’s own writing—towards the politicization of ethics, asserting the relevance of a good.

A Good as Demand

As Rancière reminds us, before ethics signifies moral norms, it signifies “both the dwelling and the way of being...that corresponds to this dwelling.”17 He goes on to acknowledge that in the ethical turn, when norms become law, our very ways of being and modes of action within an environment are conjoined—our modes of being (forms of life) are subjugated to this steadfast (false) law (forms over life) and we are trapped in a given order of things (we can only act in what is and not what could be). What Rancière’s etymological excavation of “ethics” precariously neglects, however, is the linking of the word with its enaction, with the activity that constitutes ethics. If ethics is a mode of being in relation to an environment, then it is an action subject to forces of will and motivation. In taking on the question of motivational force in regards to dissensus (not merely a normative imperative), Simon Critchley looks to ethics as a metapolitical moment that provides “propulsion into political action.”18 A good, for Critchley, is a concept that is subjectively perceived as a demand to which a self binds itself in approval. When the self adheres in fidelity to this perceived demand of a good, a system of ethics ensues. A good, as a subjectively identified sense, is thus a capacity for judgment enacted, that capacity of judgment for what could be against an environment and forms over life that already are.

In the unabashedly heroic tone of Badiou, the capacity to imagine a good is in fact what gives humans their humanity; it is what gives humankind what Badiou calls “immortality,” a humanity beyond the mere biological finitude of human existence, liberating it from the victimizing fate of certain organic death (where immortality is the affirmation of infinite forms of life). Consequently, to reject the possibility of imagining a good is to deprive humankind of humanity as such.19 For Critchley, the perception of a good is manifest in the figuration of the other; this perception is equal to the capacity to perceive what the other is demanding, and because the demand is immeasurable, it can never be fulfilled. The demand, as it were, is one’s perceptive, lifelong labour, an incommensurable labour. It is precisely this imbrication of “a good” or “could-ness” with otherness that constitutes an ethical system where we may articulate a conception of ethics dissensually, that is, towards the creation of other topologies of sense. Rather than denouncing the fashion of ethics trapped in the social, we need to reconstitute the could-ness embodied in the enaction of ethics itself to get out of the consensual bind. For it is by way of the could-ness of an intangible otherness that dissensus is demonstrated, a could-ness of a good, which, as I shall later discuss, comes by way of a wrong.

The Surplus Subject

The affective quality of Critchley’s perceived demand in approval and fidelity to a good is an aesthetic affinity—an affinity to that which is apprehended sensorially. Considering that a demand is aesthetic and must be perceived, the structure of the demand is always already relational. It is precisely in this ethical structure of an internalized relation (the apprehension of the could-ness of a good, the perception of an other possibility) where Critchley calls into doubt the sovereignty of autonomy, calling the subject dividual—that is, annexed—since one’s sovereignty is inflected by the experience of a relational demand; the dividual is thusly a subject that is more than one, an overfull subject, a surplus subject. Borrowing Deleuze’s term where the dividual is “neither divisible nor indivisible,”20 Critchley’s dividual is better understood as a compounded subject rather than a split self. The dividual is a self amalgamated by the demand of an other, an other that is not (yet) in existence, yet sensed as a good.

Non-sovereign Autonomy

Rancière’s lamentation of the “social turn of ethics” is less about a critique of ethics per se, but more a critique of how ethics has been conjoined with a way of life that must adhere to given conditions if it is to be considered ethical. The mistrust of the (consensual) ethical turn is ultimately linked to the collapse of situated judgment under a regime of morality-turned-law, displacing one’s capacity for autonomous negotiation.

What does it mean, exactly, to evoke “autonomous judgment”? When autonomy is defined as self-governance, what does it mean to “govern oneself”? Why is the association between autonomy and freedom (as absolute total licence) so pervasive? And why is autonomy so often reduced to functions of the ego, to the “me” generation of the 1960s and the “my” generation of the 2000s? Considering that we are thrown into a world of undecideable plurality, an inescapable life of cohabitation,21 self-governance, as a principle, is impossible, for the self is always in and of the world, and this condition is as ineluctable as the force of gravity on earth. If the precondition of autonomy is a relation to, with, and in the world, how may it be redefined outside of the rule of the ego—how may autonomy be supplemented with a demand of the other or of being otherwise?

In reference to the Italian Autonomia movement (beginning in Northern Italy in the 1950s and rendered more concrete in the late 1970s across all of Italy through the diffusion of localized radio stations and newspapers), Sylvère Lotringer describes autonomy as the “body without organs of politics.”22 The “body without organs,” a Deleuzian term, places emphasis on the virtual forces at work in all bodies situated in a perceived “stable” reality (actuality), such as the flows of language, information, and so forth. Deleuze’s conception of emancipation, as such, is deeply tied to the activation of the potential of said forces beyond the actual body, towards other immanent becomings of that very body.23 In Autonomia, autonomy is positioned as a mode of collectivity (through the co-determined nature of shaping one’s own life-rules), rhizomatic in structure, and “characterized by the refusal to separate economics from politics and politics from existence”24 (witnessed by the inclusion of wageless labourers, such as students and domestic workers, within the framework of class struggle from which they are excluded by conventional Marxism). Autonomia, as such, becomes qualified as a kind of connective (living) fibre, not merely seeking abstract policy reform in existing (actual) structures, but within the imbroglio of complex modes of existence—the material of life with forms of life and the creation of worlds in which those very lives partake in simultaneity. Autonomy in Autonomia is, above all, situated and relational, dramatically shifting away from island-states of autarchic governance, towards forms of life in common, tapping into the infinite reservoir of the virtual and not a particular structure of forms over life.

There are palpable echoes of Romanticism woven into Autonomia’s particular emphasis on modes of existence that can be traced back to Friedrich Schiller’s critique of the French Revolution. For Schiller, a “real” revolution works radically upon the sensibility or experience of life itself, undoing the polarities between a state of absolute non-governance and a state of what we could call outright moralism, the latter being demarcated by the quasi-transcendental hand of law and order and the blind obedience to said transcendentals. The third state, or “true” revolution, comes by way of play—what Schiller called Spieltrieb (play-drive), qualifying it as essential to humanity: humans deploy imagination towards the autonomous invention of new rules of the game (rules not blindly followed), thereby ascribing other uses and sensibilities to objects, forms, people, and places conventionally ascribed a specific place in the partitioning of the sensible. In Schiller’s revolutionary Romanticism (and most importantly, put into practice in Autonomia), autonomy is an apparatus of relational agency towards the creation of alter-experiences of living, the enactment of a surplus upon an economy of perception—with the “eco” of economy etymologically denoting a relation to the world.

If autonomy is political only insofar as it can demonstrate other modes of existing, other modes of sense-making, other modes of creating signs and signification, this form of autonomy is not only pertaining to the self but is shared. It is an affective autonomy as it were, since it holds the capacity to suspend normative categories of sensory apprehension, producing other communities of sense and sensibility. In this very contingency on relationality and the capacity to redistribute given topologies of sense, the desire for autonomy is not a sovereign desire, it is a certain drive of incommensurable communicability between the task-less decision to generate an experience of something other and an other that perceives possible otherness.

Co-autonomous Ethics

If the politicity25 of autonomy lies in its non-sovereignty (its creation of a relation of heterogeneous and shareable experience)—evoking Critchley’s ethical dividual—we are left with a notion of autonomy that is incongruous with sovereignty. I will name this paradox co-autonomy, and, in so doing, will not resolve the contradiction but deploy it as an ethical concept articulating a position of tension between self and otherness; between spectatorship and action; between self and (plural) world. The two-part composition of “co-autonomy” is both connected and separated by a hyphen, where the “co” indicates a situated “with-ness” or relational property of autonomy, a with-ness that is connected via separation. Co-autonomy inheres to the self, yet concurrently indicates a sphere of heterogeneous experience thus created. The with-ness of the “co”—which is a compounding of autonomy—indicates that it is not extracted from the world as a sovereign agent, but is implicated in the relational experience of other sensorial orders as an agency of perception. We can recall that the agency inherent to perceiving a demand is only ethical insofar as it affirms the demand in fidelity to its call—and, for Critchley, it can never be totally fulfilled because this demand is infinite. The fidelity to a demand, as such, operates as a mode-of-being (a processual state), rather than a normative measure, or a demand that can be completely satisfied through action. The complex of co-autonomy contains three interwoven claims:

1. Autonomy is not sovereign but relational. It constitutes itself on two levels: in the politicity of alter-experience of life and on the part of the actor who responds to the perceived demand of a good thereby creating alter-experiences, producing other sensorial worlds.

2. The “co” of co-autonomy does not strip a subject of agency (it is not sacrificial); it annexes the subject (Critchley’s dividual), but this separation also denotes linkage to a world via otherness—an affirmative (motivational) with-ness relative to contexts and situations within which, for which, and against which one responds. The “co” moves away from the “vacuum-state” of (modern) autonomy, and situates subjects in relation to environments of possible perception.

3. With-ness relative to the world is infinite (there are innumerable ways of being in the world); accordingly, the demands of co-autonomy are infinite. It is a life’s work, rather than the fulfilment of a work; it is incommensurable labour. Co-autonomy is a shared process among self, other, and territories of heterogeneous experience; it is not an exclusive property of one element over another, but the movement among these elements.

A Good as Critical Impulse?

How can we conceive and apprehend those elusive demands as demands with regards to the non-sovereign nature of co-autonomy, to the sharing of alter-sense? As a (co-autonomous) good is precisely what could be, it is of the domain of imagination, the domain of speculation. How does the fidelity to the imagination of the not-yet-there “good” manifest? The short answer is, through critique: a good can be manifest in a critical impulse, but only insofar as one takes on the enaction of critique as a process, and not as a position of privileged knowledge. While analyses and sensitivities towards the given spatio-social environments are wholly necessary in sensing a possible good, critique cannot stop at what is, self-congratulatory in a position of hierarchical knowing better. Critique, through the vital lens of Foucault and Judith Butler, is not merely diagnostic or accusatory in nature but is a space of resistant creation (negation through affirmation—that is, repudiation through the creation of something other); the “art” of critique is equal to the creation of conditions for other life practices to emerge. For Foucault critique is not definable apart from the object of its attention (as there is no ethics in general, there is also no critique in general); critique is always in relation to an object, it is always heteronymous, and it is always with the world. In taking up his genealogical position (a willful non-philosophy), Foucault suggests a more vague instance of critique—not merely imposing evaluations on objects, but demonstrating the scaffold of the process of evaluation itself.26 As Butler reiterates, how do our “epistemological certainties turn out to support a way of structuring the world that forecloses alternative possibilities of ordering?”27

Given the current plight of global neoliberal fiscalization, we may ask through which epistemological structures have we become limited to Margaret Thatcher’s alternativelessness, to no-such-thing-as-society world,28 for example. Critique, in this regard, becomes more about understanding how certain normative limits have been forged upon our very apprehension of the world (and its (im)possible becoming) in an effort to articu­late those very boundaries and how those delimitations may be questioned. This “art” of critique is not merely an impulse to take knowledge to the limits for the excitement of doing so, but arises under moments of epistemological duress relative to the world into which we are thrust, when an awareness presents itself that the partitioning of the sensible world produces a certain asymmetry to the exclusion of that which cannot be said, seen, heard, and shared. This awareness renders the epistemological network of the social fundamentally contingent, and it is through this rendering contingent that the “art” of critique takes hold in what Butler calls a discursive impasse—when a regime of knowing, saying, and sense-making arrives at a cul-de-sac. The “art” of critique becomes synonymous with the practice of virtue for Foucault, who, in an interesting turn, positions virtue as that which challenges the existing (given) order, as that which is not fulfilled by strict obedience to existing norms29—equal to what Nietzsche, as we recall, explicitly defined as “virtù” (which I will uphold as a distinct term).

The fidelity to an “ethical” good, manifest through a critical inclination, is thusly equal to the discursive impasse that may be perceived in the given partitioning of the sensible. The expression of this impasse, in the parlance of Rancière, goes by the name of a “wrong”; it is the antagonistic bringing into relationship of a supernumerary part with no part (virtù’s remainders of a system) within a given symbolic ordering. This articulation of this “virtù-ous” appearance sets “up a community by the fact of placing in common a wrong that is nothing more than this very confrontation, the contradiction of two worlds in a single world: a world where they are, and the world where they are not.”30 Rancière deploys the example of the Plebeians making their voice heard as speech, and not merely as expressive, noisy utterances, in relationship to the ruling Patricians, in order to illustrate the setting in motion of a wrong as constitutive of a political relationship. The wrong is the creation of a heterogeneous world in conjunction with the given territory of perceptibility, and, in this regard, it is the spirit of fidelity to a could-ness—an otherness—articulated in the face of what is.

A Wrong in Common

The perception of the could-ness of a wrong in common, the articulation of an impasse or that which does not yet exist, is a faculty of imagination (and not the imaginary, which already exists as a sense in the mind). Immanuel Kant declares imagination to be the “faculty of having present what is absent,”31 meaning that objects are in a way internalized so that the subject does not need to directly confront them in order to be affected by them. The important question then is, can this notion of imagination be extended to that which is not only absent (but is accounted for somewhere), but more importantly, that which does not yet exist (absolutely unaccounted for)? Can imagination become an imaginary? Can the figuration of the supernumerary, that which does not yet exist, be transformed into a palpable, shareable sense of the wrong as a good?

When the politicity of ethics is co-autonomous in nature, how is the imagination of a good/wrong rendered shareable (sensus communis) as a sense of impasse, rather than being a private sense (sensus privatus)? At work in this translation from not-yet-in-existence imagination to imaginary (and therefore shareable) sense, is the interplay of logos and mythos, of reasoned thinking and unprovable belief, the interplay between sign and signified, the interplay between the “rationality” of homo economicus and those “animal spirits”32 of market illogicality, the deployment of the virtual at work in the present, in the actual—and not the utopian. The path of translation from imagination to the imaginary in relation to the demand of a good/wrong is a “being under grace.” “Being under grace” is the expression used by Badiou to “indicate the path of the spirit”33 in fidelity to an event; the event, for my purposes, being the very articulation of a good/wrong in common. “Being under grace” is the opposite of “being under law”; it is the difference between a form of life and a form over life. For Badiou the intangible force of fidelity to a good/wrong is qualified as a truth, not because it is provable or tangibly known, but because the subject declares it to be so, the subject publicly speculates as to this declaration. This subject, Badiou continues, is a “not...but.”34 The “not” can be understood as the (sensible) suspension of the given, partitioned world (an impasse, a wrong), and the “but” is constitutive of the affirmation of a surplus (overfull) repartitioning of the sensible world. The “not” resides in the perception of the subject towards a demand of a good, inclining himself or herself in fidelity to said relational demand (a co-autonomous relation, the demand of an impasse or a wrong) all within the realm of imagination; the “but” articulates said “wrong in common” through the creation of a sign (something sensible, shareable) ascribing other significations to the given. It is in this movement where the given reality is made incomprehensible, that the “not...but” of the co-autonomous subject inscribes misunderstanding into the world.

The Politicity of Misunderstanding

To misunderstand the given is nothing less than the instantiation of relations of heterogeneity, of appearing otherwise in a world, of creating other possibilities for sense-making. The double signification of misunderstanding, as Rancière has noted, is both that of failed apprehension and of disagreement based on the misinterpretation of signs.35 Construing misunderstanding as a negative event reveals a will to solidify meaning, to freeze sense-making, to petrify the interpretation of gestures and modes of identification, thereby projecting a world where words, images, people, and events define things absolutely. The articulation of misunderstanding affirms the contingencies among signs and semantics, between what is given and what is possible—it disentangles the actual from the sensible constraints of unconditional reiteration. It is in the speculative work of creating conditions of and for sensory misunderstanding that demands a situated fidelity to an intangible good; a faithfulness to potential modes of sensibility in the face of a normative and consensual thrust towards semantic and operative fixity.

The given is a hegemonic condition through which “common sense” (customs, “virtues,” common identities, and so on) unites and binds particular communities. The economy of this hegemonic condition is, as we have discussed, not only real but symbolic (logos and mythos, actual and virtual), setting up a chain of equivalence between signs and signified, between things, people, places, functions, and value(s). Such an extended picture of “economy” mirrors the migration of the term from the domain of ancient household affairs (oikos), to its absolute presence (and utter dominance) of the political sphere (the polis). As David Kishik writes: “today’s world is not a cosmopolis, but more precisely, an ecopolis, where economic and political forces operate as a single field of tensions without maintaining even the pretense that they are independent of one another.”36 The “ecopolis,” as such, is a particu­lar world subtended by an economy of symbols, virtues, beliefs, and so forth—it cannot come into operation in any other way than through the consensual performance of these core interactions, values, and behaviours. Consumption of finite objects, is, of course, one (of many) of the core values and behaviours in our current neoliberal ecopolis, but, as Maurizio Lazzarato points out, consumption cannot be reduced to the operation of buying and selling, for above all, this practice involves adhering to, and, more importantly, apprehending, a particular world, a particular partitioning of the world.37

Inconsumable Commons

Efforts at politicizing this world as evoked by Lazzarato must begin with the presupposition of apprehending a particular world, without (falsely) limiting the ecopolis to economic categories of use value and exchange value, which ultimately do nothing more than attempt to measure value (and varied ways of distributing it). In resurrecting the work of Gabriel Tarde, Lazzarato places emphasis rather on the creation and constitution of values (beyond those that can be measured, such as truth value, pleasure value). This revaluation of value not only dissolves the dichotomy between material and immaterial labour, it situates the “cooperation between brains” as the principal force driving innovation (and not merely reproduction).38 As Lazzarato states, “Cooperation between minds, unlike cooperation in the Smithian and Marxian factory, produces public, collective or common goods [infinite informational and affective resources]: knowledge, language, science, culture, art, information, forms of life, relations with oneself, others and the world etc.”39 He distinguishes “common goods” from those outlined in political economy, such as water, air, nature, etc., relative to the goods of all that do not fall under producer-consumer relations, or those of finite availability. These cooperative common goods (knowledge, language, experience of art, science, and so on), are “inconsumable,” that is, they can be assimilated by anyone, but belong (as property) to no one, and, most importantly, their legitimacy increases by being imitated, taken up, and shared.40

As has been widely acknowledged, the sphere of co­operative common goods has itself been capitalized in the current state of affairs. In what Lazzarato qualifies as the “capital-labour relationship,” cooperative common goods are reduced to private property (some calling this the communism of capital). In such a procedure a false scarcity is imposed upon a productive shared “cooperation of minds” that is fundamentally infinite, indivisible, and that is always already a surplus (for one cannot deplete the resource of language, for example, as it knows no finitude). Considering the economy as not only the (re)production of ownable goods and services, but the particular life-world complex within which desires, beliefs, language, signs, and sensibilities of community circulate, the point of resistance cannot rest on the mere remeasurement and reattribution of wealth, but must work upon the transformation of the very forms of life that subtend such practices. As Foucault makes abundantly clear, “life does not become the object of power without it also becoming at the same time the basis for new forms of resistance.”41

The Force of Surplus Life

It is this very condition of surplus value reduced to scarcity that gives rise to an impasse, that makes a re-evaluation of value within the ecopolis acutely perceptible. If, as the postmodernists would have it, there is no outside of the system (all alternatives will be normalized and subsumed within the given social order), it is the speculative work within the conflictual complex core—symbolic and material—where new life-worlds can be articulated and reassigned, working towards other imaginaries of a good, a shareable good. The infinite production at work in cooperative common goods is mirrored in the dividual, the co-autonomous ethical self, that is also a compounded, virtual self. The surplus ethical self is, as such, inherently asymmetrical (the self compounded by the demand of otherness situated in a plural world), and it is in this asymmetry (an excess of being) that other forms of life may find their force.

It is precisely on this precarious adjacency between forms over live (the capitalization of life) and forms of life (the excess energy of cooperative common goods) where the demand for ethics presents an urgent call to articulate “the contradiction of two worlds in a single world,”42 the world where life is captured and the world where it expresses its inherent supernumerary potentiality. The creation of said world in difference can only be a shared one, and the ethical call, as it were, is towards the creation of alter-signs: that is, towards other economies of equivalence between sign and signified that buttress our apprehension of the world, and the “critical” articulation of misapprehension. The creation of signs endures, even when actual events may stagnate. Signs endure in virtuality and have the quality of communicability. At this moment when life seems caught in regimes of endless fiscalization, the real work begins with the reassignment of the force of living itself, an incommensurable force of living that is guided by the spirit of a shared imaginary otherness. This shared otherness is thrust into the world through the articulation of misunderstanding, the supernumerary apprehension of a good that generates misunderstanding, affirming the contingencies among signs and semantics, between what is given and what is possible—it does not delight in revealing the actual state of things, but disentangles the actual from the sensible constraints of unconditional (naturalized) reification. It is in the speculative work of creating conditions of and for sensory misunderstanding that demands a situated fidelity to an intangible valuation of a good; a faithfulness to potential modes of sensibility in the face of a normative will for consensual semantic and operative fixity. The enactment of critical misunderstanding is precisely where the normative equivalences between object/gesture/thing/life and value (fiscal or semantic) are rendered contingent, thrown into impasse and otherwise sensed. The affirmation of contingencies rendered shareable is nothing less than the enactment of the surplus innate to life and living itself—an articulation of life’s virtualities—always already more than finite and inherently composed of the more than singular.

  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, trans. W. D. Ross (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 3.
  2. David Kishik, The Power of Life: Agamben and the Coming Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 113.
  3. Paolo Virno, “Anthropology and Theory of Institutions,” in Art and Contemporary Critical Practice, eds. Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray (London: May Fly Books, 2009), 95–112.
  4. This, I believe, requires a distinction between ethics and morality. I deploy “morality” as a rule-based code of behaviour that one is obliged to unquestioningly follow (the law) and ethics as situated, behavioural negotiation (anarchic, or preclusive of grounding). Many authors refuse this distinction saying it has no base etymologically speaking (preferring to use terms such as “normative ethics” or “non-normative ethics,” for example), yet for the purposes of decisive vernacular, I will adhere to the distinction advocated by authors such as Michel Foucault to allow for more clarity.
  5. Andrew Garfield, “The U.S. Counterpropaganda Failure in Iraq,” Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2007, http://
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, ed. Walter Kaufmann, trans. R. J. Hollingdale and Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1967), 178–79 (§327).
  7. Bonnie Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 2.
  8. Jacques Rancière, “Ten Theses on Politics,” in Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, ed. Steven Corcoran, trans. Davide Panagia and Rachel Bowlby (London: Continu­um, 2010), 36.
  9. Jacques Rancière, “The Paradoxes of Political Art,” in Dissensus, 134–51.
  10. Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London: Verso, 2001), 16.
  11. Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 43.
  12. John Rajchman, “Ethics after Foucault,” Social Text, no. 13/14 (Winter/Spring, 1986), 165–83.
  13. Jacques Rancière, “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics,” trans. J. P. Deranty, Critical Horizons 7, no. 1 (2006), 2.
  14. Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2005), 56.
  15. Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran, 109–32.
  16. Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steven Corcoran (London: Verso, 2006).
  17. Rancière, “The Ethical Turn of Aesthetics and Politics,” 1–2.
  18. Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (New York: Verso, 2007), 11.
  19. Badiou, Ethics, 14.
  20. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: Athlone Press, 1986), 14.
  21. Judith Butler, “Hannah Arendt and Judgment,” seminar at the European Graduate School (Saas-Fee, Switzerland), August 2009.
  22. Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, “The Return of Politics,” in Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, trans. Peter Caravetta and John Johnston (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 8.
  23. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester (New York: Continuum, 2004), 214–24.
  24. Ibid., 9.
  25. A neologism in English, “politicity” is a translation of the French politicité, indicating the capacity to be political.
  26. Judith Butler, “What Is Critique? An Essay on Foucault’s Virtue,” Transversal, May 2001,
  27. Ibid.
  28. Margaret Thatcher, “Interview for Woman’s Own,” Margaret Thatcher Foundation, accessed March 27, 2012, Originally published in Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 27.
  31. Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, ed. Ronald Beiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 66.
  32. Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008).
  33. Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 63.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Jacques Rancière, “Literary Misunderstanding,” trans. Mary Stevens, Paragraph 28, no. 2 (July 2005), 91–103.
  36. Kishik, The Power of Life, 108.
  37. Maurizio Lazzarato, “From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life,” trans. V. Fournier, A. Virtanen, and J. Vähämäkip, in ephemera: theory & politics in organization 4, no. 3 (2004), 189.
  38. Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, 111.
  39. Lazzarato, From Capital-Labour to Capital-Life, 199.
  40. Ibid., 204.
  41. Ibid., 205.
  42. Rancière, Disagreement, 27.
About the Author

Patricia Reed is an artist and writer who has participated in research and residency programs including at CCA Kitakyushu, Akademie Schloss Solitude (Stuttgart), the Banff Centre, and CCA Ujazdowski (Warsaw). She exhibits internationally, with recent and upcoming shows at Kunsthaus Langenthal; Botkyrka Konsthall (Stockholm), 0047 Projects (Oslo), the Limerick Art Gallery, Audain Gallery (Vancouver), PROGRAM (Berlin), and Württembergischer Kunstverein (Stuttgart). As a writer, Reed has contributed to magazines and journals including Art Papers, C Magazine, Fillip, Framework, Shifter, and YYZ Essays. Selected book contributions include Cognitive Architecture (010 Publishers, 2010), And the Seasons (0047, 2011), Waking Up from the Nightmare of Participation (Expodium, 2011), and Critical Spatial Practice (Sternberg, 2012).

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