Joshua Clover | Two Questions of Assembly

By Joshua Clover

Tahrir Square, January 25, 2011

Given the capacious scope of this text, I want to limit my remarks to what are for me its two core questions, one asked, one unasked. By unasked, I do not mean the usual suggestion that the book had the bad manners to pursue its own scholarly interests rather than mine; I simply mean to designate a matter that is immanent to the text and yet goes unaddressed.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start with the great question the book does ask, that of the so-called composition problem: how might we bring together a political aggregation, a coalition or front or shared unity, that extends across seemingly disparate interests and is adequate to contest an intolerable political situation? It is fortuitous to discuss this at Columbia, as this longstanding question has taken on particular significance in the west since the arrival of the New Left, signaling the erosion of faith that the category of “the working class” persists as the subject of history, is endowed with a unique capacity to resolve the composition problem, etc. — and so must be replaced with what would be called “a movement of movements,” assembled from nominally identity-based struggles. This proved easier said than done. Since that moment, it has been clear, and is decisively clear in the present, that the composition problem is in some sense the metapolitical problem for anything beyond single-issue or local reforms, and this indexes the extraordinary significance of the book in the present.

The most philosophical approach to the composition problem, which is to say the most subtle and the crudest, is perhaps Hegel’s gnomic affirmation of the fundamental identity of identity and non-identity, which among its varied significations insists that one can lump together the lumpers and the splitters in so far as both use the same logical operation to produce their results. The approach in Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly (Assembly, henceforth) negotiates between on the one hand abstract principles of composition, perhaps most simply named as ethical interdependency, which can form a unity from non-identity (one clear evocation of this, adduced to Levinas, though I still see Hegel hiding in the wings, is found on page 107: “the set of ethical values by which one population is bound to another in no way depends on those two populations bearing similar marks of national, cultural, religious, or racial belonging”), and on the other hand the more practical bases of such unity that can be found in concrete situations and subjects that we recognize from our present, such that we can finally say, as the book does at its conclusion, “My life is this life, lived here, in the spatiotemporal horizon established by my body, but it is also out there, implicated in other living processes of which I am but one” (199).

The practical bases of this ethical recognition of practical interdependency is discovered — as it must be — again and again, beginning from a series of discrete subjects all of which swiftly turn out to be not-at-all discrete, a series of identities or non-identities, trans, queer, disabled, women, among others. We can see in this the book’s bravura performance of the composition problem’s overcoming, in which multiple fractions of a potentially adequate political aggregate are addressed in turn, and each in its particularity is disclosed as a fraction for whom a livable life must support and be supported by a livable life for others, a livable life in general. The metacategory that comes closest to coordinating all of these categories is precarity, or vulnerability: “Precarity is the rubric that brings together women, queers, transgender people, the poor, the differently abled, and the stateless, but also religious and racial minorities: it is a social and economic condition, but not an identity (indeed, it cuts across these categories and produces potential alliances among those who do not recognize that they belong to one another)” (58).

I find this line of reasoning deeply persuasive. It does not tell me something that I wish to know, which is whether the practical being-together and acting-together (I am less fixed on appearance and speech than is Assembly) of these ethically bound fractions is dialectically produced within a matrix of material forces or is understood to be entirely or almost-entirely volitional upon recognition of their own demands and the way these must also be the demands for and of others. Nonetheless, as I intimated earlier, it is all too clear in the present that in, for example, the vitriolic resurgence of race vs. class debates on the left, we can see the practical and conceptual blockages that underlie the composition problem, and see how profoundly debilitating they continue to be, even in advance of the matters of being-together and acting-together, as they bear on the basis of what “together” can mean in the first place. Assembly is in the first instance a profound meditation on this, and offers a framework for overcoming the false oppositions of universal and particular currently on offer.

In setting forth its central logic, the book makes a repeated gesture: “For the struggle for the rights of gender and sexual minorities to be a social justice struggle, that is, for it to be characterized as a radical democratic project, it is necessary to realize that we are but one population who has been and can be exposed to conditions of precarity and disenfranchisement” (66, emphasis mine). Or, another example, “On the contrary, the point is to call for an equally livable life that is also enacted by those who make the call, and that requires the egalitarian distribution of public goods. The opposite of precarity is not security, but, rather, the struggle for an egalitarian social and political order in which a livable interdependency becomes possible—it would be at once the condition of our self-governing as a democracy, and its sustained form would be one of the obligatory aims of that very governance” (69, emphasis mine).

We have been asked, wisely, not to offer a book report. I quote at length simply to remark on a textual operation which, in its repetition, bespeaks a certain presupposition or horizon of the book, one that is in some sense constantly spoken and in another sense never appears at all. That is to say, I have arrived at the book’s unasked question: is democracy the only horizon? The role of democracy in the book is practically metaphysical and certainly exists beyond the sustained and nuanced inquiries which otherwise characterize the text. In its absence it is present instead as an invariant, one which has been more and less corrupted in different times and places and has been the subject of a ceaseless testing by those who can lay claim to the mantle of “the people” and those who cannot, but remains as a transcendental value.

This is, I guess, a thing that philosophers think. In a recent interview, Bernard-Henri Lévy, whom Wikipedia assures me is a philosopher, declares that “Democracy is a universal value and it can be adopted in any situation.” This is not a speech act but a tautology; once the former clause is presupposed, the latter appears always to have been true. Now BHL is not Butler’s crass to bear; I nonetheless note that we cannot avoid an encounter with the distance between this 2500-year ideal of democracy, which appears transcendental because it is synchronized with western philosophy, and democracy as it comes into being in what some have called “modernity.” The term “modernity” simply begs the question, as it has no meaning anterior to naming the era in which democracy designates the most effective management regime for capital’s self-expansion, being particularly well-suited for the task of integrating disparate parties into a labor regime.

Alexis de Tocqueville saw the entanglement of democratic rights and dynamic labor markets early on: “Equality not only ennobles the idea of work itself but also enhances it, even if it is for money…. But in democratic societies, these two ideas [work and profit] are always visibly linked…. As soon as work seems to all citizens an honorable necessity for the human race and is always clearly performed, at least in part, for payment, then the wide gap which used to separate the different professions in aristocratic societies disappears. If they are not exactly similar, at least they share a common characteristic” (Democracy in America). The scholar Jodi Melamed makes a similar point more critically, referring to “the degree to which ideologies of individualism, liberalism, and democracy, shaped by and shaping market economies and capitalist rationality from their mutual inception, monopolize the terms of sociality” (“Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 2015).

All of which is to say, I do not think the question of democracy can be left unasked, as its real existence across space and time is anything but ahistorical or transcendental. Indeed, it has a concrete historical trajectory. Here I find myself in a somewhat perverse relation to Wolfgang Streeck, one of the leading theorists of democracy. Early in his writings, his “self-professed objective was always to prove that capitalism and democracy could be reconciled, and that under the right institutional arrangements the power of the market could be harnessed to the ends of economic progress, social solidarity and a more equitable redistribution of resources” (Jerome Roos). This optimism waned in the eighties and nineties alongside social democratic hopes and, since 2008, his work “has been characterised by an increasingly radical reassessment of the inherent incompatibility between capitalism and democracy” (Roos) and by the concern that the former threatens to annihilate the latter.

There is probably some elegant Greimas rectangle to be drawn here, which I will spare all of us. I share Streeck’s pessimism about the fate of democracy, but this is because I think democracy is entirely compatible with capitalism, is indeed born from it and form-determined by it, and that through this unity — in a sudden optimistic turn — democracy faces a bleak future because capitalism is doomed, or at least capitalism in its full sense, premised on the endless absorption of inputs, most notably labor inputs, the very procedure that democracy arose to manage. Once capitalism ceases to be absorptive, that is, once it reaches levels of productivity that render new labor inputs more or less superfluous, once it ceases growing, the need for the mode of managementality we call democracy is left without its raison d’etre. This helps us locate, I think, Streeck’s grim lurch to the right, wherein closed borders and fortress nationalism appear as the last bulwark against international capital; this is the dark consequence of opposing democracy and capitalism rather than recognizing their non-identical identity.

One might say, finally, these words are coincidences. Democracy in its deadly existence as a historical fact is one thing; the rule of the demos, another. Maybe so. I am not sure we gain by preserving the confusion rather than simply identifying democracy as a problem to be overcome. Moreover, what good is a word if it is not testable against history? I am not sure we gain by rendering the political horizon unthinkable because presupposed; and most particularly, not sure we gain by ratifying a framework in which the horizon is political in the first place, risking as it does the separation of the political from the economic, an idealization which is, after all, the foremost antinomy of bourgeois thought.

From these two questions, asked and unasked, at least two further questions arise, also interrelated. One concerns the public/private antinomy drawn from Arendt that is rightly troubled in Assembly, and how it bears on the particularity of the square where bodies assemble — a scene and problem that I take to depend from the composition problem. The other is the book’s relation to the question of non-violence, which I take to depend from the foreclosed matter of democracy. These will have to wait for our public discussion.