A noncatastrophic politics. Some notes on Erich Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921). by Gerardo Muñoz

Erich Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921), published just a year before Political Theology (1922), fully captures the spirit of the epoch: it is the moment when politics becomes catastrophic; a vehicle for war conflagration, an instrument for the acceleration of technology, and the spatial fragmentation of civil society and state. The overcoming of man through technology meant a new ‘reality principle’ in which the species were forced to adapt to an abstract process of catastrophic metabolic regulation. Unger’s essay, thoroughly ignored at the time of its publication, was a product of what in Political Theology (1922) was labeled as the force of indirect immanent powers. And from his side, Walter Benjamin, in his preparatory notes for his essay on violence, made the obscure remark that Unger’s Politics and Metaphysics (1921) ultimately favored the ‘overcoming of capitalism’ through errancy (at times translated as “migration”, which has been recently corrected by Fenves & Ng’s critical edition of the “Critique of Violence”) [1]. Indeed, in his short tract, Unger called for a “non-catastrophic politics”, which he understood as coming to terms with the problem of metaphysical structuration and positionality, and for politics to have a chance a principle of exodus was needed. This goes to show why Schmitt reacted against this spirit of the epoch, going as far as to say that his “concept of the political ” was the unified response to a sentiment of a whole generation, as well as the detector of enemies of the political demarcation [2]. In contrast, for Unger modern political autonomy had collapsed, and catastrophe now expressed itself as a civilizational problem of living forms, and so it demanded a confrontation with the problem of unity and separation of politics and metaphysics.

Politics is not metaphysics, but it had to be confronted with it if a non-catastrophic politics is to be imagined. This meant a new conception of the problem of “life”, which in Unger’s speculative philosophy received its historicity from immanence through the temporality of the tragic. The psychic separation between metaphysics and politics (a politics of the subject and subjection) meant fundamentally a catastrophic politics, which Unger read against the backdrop of the Oskar Goldberg’s Hebrew speculative reversal as a new re-constitution of the people (Volk) outside the fixation of the state. All of this is connected to his previous work on the stateless dimension of the Hebrew people in a short tract entitled Die staatslose Bildung eines jüdischen Volkes (1922). For Unger, the Hebrew prophetic rulers were not just a form of government, but rather also of healers, practitioners of a “techné alupias” of psychic intensification in the business of instituting an autoregulation between the metaphysical and the political.

The contrast with Carl Schmitt’s position is, once again, illuminating to say the least: whereas the figure central to Schmitt’s juridical thinking is that of the Pauline Katechon, the restrainer against the apocalyptic catastrophe; for Unger, no stranger to theological myth, appealed to a Parakletos of a universal People (Volk), coming to one as a single consciousness against unreality. The theological drama that informed the positions of both Schmitt and Unger, recasted the problem of separation the central concern of a particular thinking in a time of constituent power (and its infrastructure in the principle of civil society). But whereas Schmitt’s Katechon depends on an institutional mediation conditioned by revelation and authority; Unger’s non-catastrophic politics evokes a ‘people’ emptied of patrimony as reservoir of new energies for the unification of reality against psychic imbalance. Against the “relentless forms of domination”, Unger did not appeal to institutional mediation of the moderns, but instead to the interiority of the species that, in turn, required a “political principle of exodus”:

The principle of the exodus can end the civil war and represent the presupposition for the emergence of real political units, thus putting an end to those centrifugal tendencies which are lethal for any real synthesis. This principle of separation of communities operates an external delimitation of the Material to give rise to a possible real unity. It now considers establishing the basic regulatory principles of its internal structure.” [3]

The principle of exodus of politics meant, all things considered, the opening the metaphysical order of the possible against what was understood as domination of the species within the paradigm of civil war. It is telling that for Unger, like for Carl Schmitt, the true force to be confronted is that of the stasiological force, or nihilism, as the condition for the catastrophic politics in the perpetuity of separation during time of finality (Endgultigkeit) in historical transformation. For Unger this was no easy task, nor fully passive and open to gnostic reversal. On the contrary, it is connected to “a kind of intellectual orientation required of anything who might wish to understand this reflection” [4]. This is ultimately tied to Unger’s most enduring idea in Politics and Metaphysics (1922) – at least for some of us that look with suspicion anything that the contemporary has to offer today, or that has ever offered – which is the metapolitical universities, not mere supplementary communities against the politics of catastrophe, but rather practical forms of encounter, languages, and exercises in thought that return the dignity to the shipwrecked fragments in the field of immanence.

Unger knew very well that there was no absolute “exteriority”, and so the defense of a metapolitical university was offered not as a “new political unit” of intellectuals leading the masses, but something quite different: the encounter of a finality that is not knowledge but “the effective treatment of the concrete” elevating itself from mundane understanding of social knowledge [5]. This is no collective practice either, since the discriminatory point assumes the internal perspective of the instance of “intensification” [6]. And intensification is not executed from the coordinates immanence of the social but rather as a ‘possibility of an elevation (Steigerbarkeit) capable of returning to reality against a non-catastrophic politics. For Unger the notion of elevation – necessarily to destroy the compulsory mimesis and automatic recursiveness of subjection – is predicated as a path of innerness, “that is, in the inclusion of originally alien psychical factors within a single consciousness” [7]. The metapolitical universities were, hypothetically, hubs for the concrete practice of elevation vacant of any universal pretensions of unreality. Here Unger, like Schmitt, does not propose an exodus from politics, but rather an elevation to a coming politics whose mediation is neither annihilation nor exchange, but rather the imagination and concrete practice of organization. The question, of course, is whether the politics of exodus today has not also collapsed to the catastrophic (no longer an exception to it but immanent to the logic of equivalence), which means implies a relocation: the practice of the metapolitical university, mutatis mutandi, now presupposes an exodus from politics.

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Notes 

1. Peter Fenves & Julia Ng (eds.). Walter Benjamin: Toward The Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition (Stanford University Press, 2022), 92.

2. Carl Schmitt. Glossarium: Anotaciones desde 1947 hasta 1958 (El Paseo, 2019), 240. 

3. Erich Unger. Politica e metafisica (Edizioni Cronopio, 2009), 87.

4. Ibid., 92.

5. Ibid., 23.

6. Ibid., 100.

7. Ibid., 24.

Friendship at the end of the world: On Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (2020). by Gerardo Muñoz

The publication of Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020) marks an important break in contemporary thought, which has been seating comfortably for too long in the pieties of identity, culturalism, and politization. One of the most immediate effects of Afropessimism is how it unmasks the way in which identity and cultural hegemonic discourses, far from constituting a different horizon of the existing cliché, actually mitigate a spectacle of devices for the domestication of other possibilities of thought. Of course, some were aware of said spectacle, but now with Wilderson’s experiential writing the allure of subaltern subject position is finally destroyed from within. Wilderson’s account escapes two routes of the witness position: that of the personal memoir that contributes to a narrative of redemption; and on its reverse, that of testimonio, which in the postcolonial debates of the 1990s solicited a politics of alliance with the subaltern voice for a new politics of truth. In this sense, Wilderson’s Afropessimism is a post-hegemonic work through and through insofar as it destroys the hegemony of the citizen-subject of Liberalism, but also that of subaltern as a mere stock in the production of hegemony. As Wilderson claims early in the book “Black people embody a meta-aporia for political thought and action”, as such, Afropessimism is a radically unstable force that brings to bear the unthought of the most predomination critical paradigms of university discourse (Marxism, Postcolonial theory, feminism) as aggregation of politics of the subject  (13-14). 

Afropessimism is first and foremost a dislocation of the toolbox of critical of theory as always already complicit with the general movement of the imperial policing of thinking. The strategy is always the same when it comes to administrating a regime of reflexive order: posit a paradigm of a subject position and then mobilize it against other subjects. There is nothing radical about this validation; quite the contrary, it coincides with the arbitrary hierarchization of values proper to Liberalism’s current designs. Wilderson wants to destroy analogy just like he wants to be done with narrative of redemption, or ethical alliance since all of these are forms of reductions of the true experience of living at the “end of the world”. This is the apothegm from Fanon that creates the apocalyptic circuit in the book. What does it mean to live at the end of the world? This the vortex of Afropessimism, the atopic site that inscribes the existential conundrum of the Black form of life. The apocalyptic “end of the world” must be read as a concrete inhabitation of life, that is, “being at the end of the world entails Black folks at their best”, writes Wilderson (40). This entails that there is no world without Blacks, but Black experience is an incessant drift at the limit of the world as captured by the entrapment of Humanity. I take it that Wilderson means that “Afropessimism is Black folks at their best” in relation to a form of life at the level of experience that is not only constitutive of sociability, but that it also an intensity that rejects any domesticating efforts into a more “democratic” or “hegemonic” civil society. Under the rule of equivalent demands, where subjects and objects are exchanged (or camouflaged in the name of “Rights”), the Black can only constitute a “social death” that breaks any equilibrium, or that sustains the hylomorphism of its others (102). This goes to the heart of the articulation of hegemony, which for decades has been the leftist horizon of a good and democratic politics, but which for Wilderson amounts to the very logistics of the democratic plantation. In an important moment of the book, Wilderson argues against the theory of hegemony: 

“In the solicitation of hegemony, so as to fortify and extend the interlocutory life of civil society, ultimately accommodate only the satiable  demands  and  legible  conflicts  of civil society’s junior  partners  (such as immigrants, White women, the working class), but foreclose upon the  insatiable  demands and illegible  antagonisms of Blacks. In short, whereas such coalitions and social movements cannot be called the outright handmaidens of anti- Blackness, their rhetorical structures, political desire, and their emancipatory horizon are bolstered by a life- affirming  anti- Blackness; the death of Black desire.” (240)

There is no hegemony that is not conditioned by a non-subject, an abyss that marks the aggregation of their equivalent subjective demands. This is why the non-demand of the Black, who has nothing for exchange, remains at the limit of hegemony, or rather what I call a posthegemonic fissure, in which democratic desire and hegemonic articulation enter into an incommensurable zone. Given that blackness is the site of “social death…the first step toward the destruction if to assume one’s position and then burn the ship or the plantation from the inside out. However, as Black people we are often psychically unable and unwilling to assume this position. This is as understandable as it is impossible” (103). This is consistent with Wilderson’s label of Afropessimism as an aporetic meta-theoretical paradigm. The question of the possibility of an experiential exodus to an outside, and not just an internal limit to the metaphysics of Humanity is most definitely one question that one could raise about its “epistemological void” as parasitical to the infinite production of subjectivity (164). It is clear that by rejecting hegemony, Wilderson also has to give up any liberationist horizon at the service of a political project committed to Black emancipation. For Wilderson the legitimacy is somewhere else: “Afropessimism is not an ensemble of theoretical interventions that leads the struggle for Black liberation. One should think  of it as a theory  that is legitimate because it has secured a mandate from Black people at their best; which is to say, a mandate to speak the analysis and rage that most Black people are free only to whisper” (173). It is a rage that one could counterpose as the opposite of the subaltern politics of truth; in order words, it is a rage experienced against the “gratuitous violence” that divides the antagonism between a singular life and the world of the state of things and its people. 

The vortex of Wilderson’s Afropessisism, however, is not just the rejection of hegemonic articulation or the benevolent solidarity as administrated domination, it is rather the emphasis of a new world caesura that he frames in this way: “…the essential antagonism is the antagonism between Blacks and the world: the centrality of Black people’s social death, the grammar of suffering of the slave…” (174). This essential conflict stages the antagonism at the level of the debates about the frontier of Humanism, for which the Black, insofar as it is a figure of the non-subject, already acts an archipolitics that frees the intensification of any politics of liberation now transfigured as a liberation from politics [1]. This archipolitics dwells in the intensification of a non-identity that is irreducible to any hegemonic fantasy that labors on solidarity, equivalency, unity, program, demand, projection. And why not, also against the democratic polity (insofar as democracy cannot be thought outside the jointing of two apparatuses of civil society renewal: citizenship and mobilization). This archipolitics of Afropessimism puts into crisis the general categories of modern political thought, I am also tempting to limit this claim to the very notion of democratic practice as previously defined. Here the “legitimacy” that Wilderson evokes is no longer at the level of a new democratic renewal – which is always within the spirit of the modern liberal design; indeed, recently some have made legitimacy and hegemony conceptual couples – but rather as a poking outside the democratic imagination, which ultimately feeds Black social death, even when sustained by the social contract of hegemonic alliances.

Is there something beyond the subjection to alliance? In other words, what if being at the “end of the world” is also the time to undue the mystification of solidarity in the name of friendship? I agree with Jon Beasley-Murray, also writing about Frank Wilderson III, that the idea should not be to win over friends, but rather to suggest that friendship is still possible flight [2]. I would go as far as to call friendship an event of thought. Indeed, friendship has no stories to tell and does not seek redemption; it also betrays normative ethics each and every time. This is not to say that there such a thing as an archipolitics of friendship, nor a political program for a friendship of community. We have enough of that in every community form. Perhaps if we accept the event of singular friendship, we can move beyond the logistics of antagonism and hostility that are constitutive of Humanity, but irreducible to the specie that confronts the destiny of the inhuman. As a great thinker of the twentieth century wrote: “there are infinite possibilities of inhumanity in each man. There is no external enemy; this is why the tragic exists. This simple maxim confirms the fundamental thought of Robert Antelme. The “no-man” in man, attentive to perfection is what allows the sedimentation of the concentration camps. […] Friendship for me is not a positive thing nor a value, but rather a state, a multiplication of death, of interrogation, a neutral site where I can sense the unknown, the site where difference only expands in the place of its contrary – in proximity to death” [3]. One question that must accompany Wilderson’s formative book is whether the “spirit of friendship” with inhuman can be something like solace without redemption at the end of the world. Friendship could be understood here as the marker for the disunification of forms of life outside the condition of hostility without falling into nihilism. At the point, perhaps psychological categories such as optimism or pessimism now lose their relevancy as forms of life realize that they are already dwelling at the of the end of the world. 

Notes

  1. The conceptualization of Afropessisism as an archipolitics I owe to Alberto Moreiras. See his note “Whiteness and Humanity”, July 2020: “https://afropessimismandinfrapolitics.wordpress.com/2020/07/07/whiteness-and-humanity/
  2. 2. Jon Beasley-Murray. “Afropessimism”, July 2020: https://posthegemony.wordpress.com/2020/07/06/afropessimism/
  3. Dionys Mascolo. En torno a un esfuerzo de memoria: sobre una carta de Robert Antelme. Madrid: Arena Libros, 2005. 57. The translation to English is mine.