Don’t Forget the Black Jew I: When Power Turns Into Force, Research Time, 17/05/2017

I could get really deep and trippy with this post, because it’s about an essay I came across a little while ago about Niccolò Machiavelli and Jacques Derrida, “Political Ontology and the Problem of Force.” Yes, the essay is just as dense as it sounds.

There are a few reasons why I won’t go into much detail tonight. One is that I’ve been super busy this week with my new teaching job, and I don’t have a lot of time to devote to long, involved blog posts during the week. So I’m just tracking some immediate reactions and some broad reflections.

Two is that this essay by Thomas Mercier is an interesting example of a tedious phenomenon in academic philosophy – the bog-standard Derrida.

He was always a little to the side of my research interests, despite my
thinking his work was fascinating. I think because I found so much of
the work written about Derrida completely insufferable.
Mercier’s argument follows a simple Derrida-style line, deconstructing his topic concept in what’s become a pretty standard way in the line of cultural studies he’s influenced. Now, one of the things that Mercier does that’s genuinely interesting is that he’s bringing this critical technique from cultural studies to his background in political science and international relations theory.

That alone is pretty cool, because he’s bringing a purposely destabilizing model of criticism to bear on some of the foundational concepts of a very socially conservative discipline. Remember, IR theory is the discipline where places like the RAND Corporation and the Cato Institute recruits their researchers.

We aren’t dealing with bastions of radical democracy here. If anything, the premises and core concepts of IR theory conform to the traditional uptake of Machiavelli as the proto-cynic of global politics. So the world of IR theory could use a good blast of Derrida-inspired deconstruction.

My only problem with Mercier’s paper is that I’m way ahead of the audience it’s meant to provoke. Straightforward deconstruction is understanding a concept in such a way that your thinking is adequate to it, but that shows its internal paradoxes. And your argument strains those internal paradoxes until it breaks the concept itself.

Using Machiavelli’s work as a springboard, Mercier applies Derrida-style deconstruction to the familiar and ubiquitous IR concept of power. He makes the concept of power’s potential legitimacy collapse under its own contradiction until we’re left with collisions of forces.

That’s ultimately the ontology underlying Machiavelli’s own analyses of politics in the ancient Mediterranean and his contemporary Italy. The ontology of force. It’s his foundational contribution to the retroactively constituted tradition of materialist radical democracy.

And I’m going to leave this here, because I want to keep this blog short today. Plus, I think I’m on an interesting idea, and I want the ability to go long. . . . To be continued

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