Don’t Forget the Black Jew III: Looking Back, Research Time, 19/05/2017

The last two posts have been cracks at figuring out how to relate what I want to do with Jacques Derrida’s ideas to what I want to do with Machiavelli’s. Derrida developed destructive powers for philosophy, but their aim wasn’t the indiscriminate violence that deconstructionists apply them.

Derrida wanted to destroy, in the most profound way possible, the mainstream tradition of philosophy as the only set of ideas that mattered. He fundamentally concentrated, in the early years of his career, on those destructive powers. This was deconstruction.

He wanted to replace the metaphysics of presence, being, and the sovereign subject with a philosophy focussed around differentiation, change, and becoming. That’s why he developed the concept of differance.

If you know anything about the general shape of Derrida scholarship, then you know that differance was largely a failure as a positive philosophy. Derrida scholars spend their major debates over their complicated and divergent conceptions of what differance could be.

If Derrida could have known how he'd be
received and remembered, would he have
written what he did, the way he did?
Truth is, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were best of that whole school of thinkers surrounding Paris VIII University in the 1970s, when it came to building a positive, complex, useful metaphysics of becoming.

When I read Mercier’s paper, an interesting line stuck out for me (among many). He referred to the recent radical democrats (Antonio Negri, among other lower-profile scholars) creating a tradition of radical materialist politics in the modern period.

That tradition starts with Machiavelli and Spinoza, picks up steam with Marx and Nietzsche, then continues in the explosion of radical democrat ideas among Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Sartre, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Negri, and others in their crew.

Mercier seems to think that the Machiavellian roots of this tradition were a bit of a reach – Niccolò never described himself as an ontologist. But his critique forgets that a tradition is created retroactively. So what does this retroactive tradition achieve?

Here’s the point as I’ve been able to distill it so far. It follows from some of the reflections about subjectivity in the last post.

The politics of sovereignty conceives political activity as a matter of battling subjectivities. You can’t have sovereignty without a sovereign, of course, a law-giving voice. Humanity’s world is a matter of these voices fighting to dominate over each other.

The radical democrat philosophers of the last 60 or so years have picked out Machiavelli as a thinker of the earliest time of modernity, who articulated an alternative.

Machiavelli found a vision of democracy that conceived of politics as a collision of forces. People come together in communities driven by their desires – and those desires are shaped by the moral beliefs flowing around their families and societies.

Human society is fundamentally a product whose shapes emerge from countless collisions and conflicts among people, organizations, institutions, and ecologies. That’s what an ontology of forces is – to answer Mercier’s question in that paper about a complex and concrete concept of force.

More about this next week.

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