Paradox of the political – Benjamin Arditi

Benjamin Arditi, On the Political, Schmitt

Paradox of the political – Benjamin Arditi

In a long time of absence, a lot of thoughts come to mind. And yet, it remains very difficult to write about them. Everywhere one looks, he encounters one paradox or another – and yet, little writing is a result. My phone is by now full of paradoxes to write about. So an attempt has to be made to make the list somewhat smaller.

Today’s paradox is to be found in Benjamin Arditi’s view of the concept of the political (of Carl Schmitt that is):

“It is worth noticing that the friend-enemy distinction bears the traces of a rather productive paradox with regard to political friendship. It is that the same oppositions that pit groups against each other also contribute to unite a collectivity.”

What we find here is rather interesting, and I would say somehow forgotten by many Schmitt scholars. Just as Schmitt, most scholars focus on the meaning enemy and enmity. Arditi skilfully notices that in order to speak about enemies, one has to already have a conception of what the political is. The concept of friend is indispensable to that end. The paradox is not so much that we (i.e. readers of Schmitt) have missed this point, quite the contrary, it is present in Schmitt and is at least implicitly present in other scholars (Agamben, Mouffe, Strong, Zizek, etc.). The paradox is that the paradoxical nature of the concept itself: it is through divisions that communities are formed that did not exist prior to designating an enemy group. This type of designation is of course not always very productive (in the sense that the result of it is beneficial; it is productive in the sense that it produces something new – what Foucault sees as the productive force of power relations, but I’ll leave this for a different article).

The paradox continues: a ‘production’ of an enemy grouping may give some purpose (in fact, Arditi reminds us of the political arena prior to 9/11, where an absence of an enemy grouping led to most belligerent and unintelligible policies); the loss of an enemy results in a paradoxical non-identity – or precisely, lack of identification with any specific group in particular. Schmitt was of course very aware of this (cf. his discussion on association in chapter 4 of The Concept of the Political); loss of an enemy weakens the group’s purpose in their own intelligibility – the classic ‘whose side are you on’ by Florence Reece comes to mind. Interestingly enough, Arditi reminds us of the Clinton era, and in fact some specific words by Clinton:

“The painful lesson is that you define yourself by who you fight”

Let me elucidate the preceding by a somewhat technical exposition by Arditi:

“This tells us that the moment of victory—assuming that victory is the right word here—can be as lonely and disheartening as the Hegelian “loss of the loss,” which Slavoj Žižek depicts as “the experience that we never had what we were supposed to have lost.” What we never had—what we can never have—is a positive or purely self-referential political identity blossoming in the absence of an enemy. Enemies are our pharmakon; they alternate between being poison and cure, a threat to our way of life (or, less dramatically, an obstacle to our will to power) and something that helps us to become what we are. Henry Staten has a name for such a paradoxical outside that partakes in the configuration of the inside: he calls it a constitutive outside. That is why enemies are not a pure and simple moment of negativity; they function as a constitutive outside by endangering our identity and nonetheless making up one of its conditions of possibility.”

Both Staten and Zizek find the paradoxical move quite appealing. The creation of an identity by a referential point outward, it should be noted, is not a very new one – and in fact I think goes as far back as Ancient Greek philosophy. What is quite illuminating in the passage is that the enemy is not to be treated as an object of destruction, but as something that helps to look inward.

With this, we can enter the moral aspect that I am so fond of. Certainly, for Schmitt, it could be argued, the very reason to have an enemy is some form of destruction or annihilation (or at least a possibility thereof) – and indeed, most contemporary Schmitt scholars disagree with this (Arditi mentions it, but especially Schwab – the first translator of Schmitt into English – shows how this interpretation completely misses the mark). Nevertheless, I think they would at least admit that for Schmitt the possibility of annihilation must remain intact.

The moral point is exactly that such possibility need not arise in any form as long as a group can somehow (I am not sure how) look inward from the moment of an identification with a group. The role of the enemy thereby changes from an outward stance, to an inward one – one of reflection, and I dare even say overcoming (in a Nietzschean sense). We should not forget the role the enemy has in Nietzsche, and that one has to be careful whom to choose as their enemies. The point is exactly that the choice of an enemy is constitutive of your own thinking.

I should perhaps state that I do not fully agree with Arditi’s view of the political, but I should also refrain to some degree on the reasons why (as my paper is forthcoming and my publisher will probably not be too happy about it – and writing under a penname, one does not want to give too much away).

Arditi’s article (On the Political: Schmitt contra Schmitt) can be found here.

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You can find more of his work directly from Arditi’s website:

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