Philosophical-Historical Triangulation: Sartre-Agamben-Hobbes, Research Time, 14/09/2013

This weekend, I thought I’d try out an experiment. Some of you might remember a post earlier this week where I described, in a little footnote, how ridiculous it is to waste time composing a journal article showing the links between different philosophers across eras and cultures. The best philosophical works and corpuses are remarkably singular creations, taking the unique starting point of a cultural perspective and creating a complex system or assembly of conceptual tools and machines that really can’t be compared to the works or any other such figure, except in details so superficial that you can’t really do anything with them anyway.

However, it can also be fun. So today and Sunday, I’ll post brief meditations on some common themes that different figures from the history of philosophy have with the ideas Jean-Paul Sartre explores in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. These will mostly be fun comparisons, just around to provoke some curious thoughts. All these posts come with the caveat that the concepts of the actual philosophers I’m discussing are vastly more complex and intriguing than the brief, almost stereotypical accounts I give them here. Just the thing for a weekend.

One of the central stereotypes of Thomas Hobbes’ political philosophy was that, without some overarching governmental authority, human life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” I’ve even heard people use this phrase in casual conversation when I was doing my undergraduate degree. This is because, without a single party having a monopoly on violence, all members of a society can commit violence on each other, resulting in a paranoid social state where everyone is under continual threat, or at least the possibility, of being killed.

Friday’s post discussed the paradoxical fraternal love of revolutionary communities. One aspect of this ability to do violence to each other is that violence actually brings the group together, in contrast to the vision of Hobbes. Solidarity through mutual violence would work something like this. Each member of a revolutionary community has a right to commit lethal violence toward each other member (including oneself, perhaps) in the case of their betrayal of the community or the cause, or some other serious internal threat. Because every member has the right to kill every other member in this case, the threat brings the community together. The ubiquity of possible killers means that death is inescapable in the case of betrayal, so the revolutionary brothers are brought closer together by the legitimacy of killing each other.

The violence of killing traitors includes its victim in the community even as the community rejects him in murder. The murder of traitors is the limit case of the community, but the members never sever their relationship with the betrayer. Truly severing their relationship would mean that their killing of him was illegitimate; he would no longer have been a betrayer, simply an enemy. Killing a traitor would actually affirm the traitor’s inclusion in the revolutionary community. Precisely because he remains a brother, the community has the right to kill him. This notion is reminiscent of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the sacred man. Such a person has had their humanity rejected by the community: his punishment is that anyone in the community is allowed to kill him at any time. But the rejected person is still included in the community, because if he were rejected in every sense, he would simply be an exile. Because the community can legally kill this person, this person remains part of the community. He’s a limit case, but still a member.

As far as the utopias project is concerned for the moment, a principle like this shows just how ridiculous and terrifying political violence, no matter the justness of the cause, really is.

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