Why Balibar ?, par James D. Ingram

mardi 20 janvier 2015, par James D. Ingram

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How does Balibar matter for my own reflection and/or political engagement ? For me the answer lies precisely in the conjunction of these two things, reflection and engagement. What I would like to discuss as a way of paying tribute to a thinker who has played a large role in my own theoretical and political development, then, is a way of articulating the theoretical and the practical, the philosophical and the political, that for me he exemplifies.

I will approach this theme indirectly, by way of two other characteristics of his work that are perhaps somewhat less abstract. The first has to do with a skill that I would certainly like to learn from Balibar, but am resigned to never being able to – at least to the extent that to learn means to take in or grasp, with the implication of assimilate or master. The second, meanwhile, represents an ability that is conversely highly communicable, that all readers, writers, and teachers – perhaps everyone – can cultivate in practically every interaction. To introduce them I will yield to the temptation, all but irresistible in an informal forum of this kind, to relate a personal anecdote.

Some years ago, as a still quite new graduate student, I was somehow entrusted with preparing manuscripts for publication in Constellations, a journal based at the New School in New York. Not too long after taking up the job, I received a manuscript from a famous author (we had many of these, the journal being one of the first stops for scholars associated with the Frankfurt School) whom I had read once or twice, but without – as I sensed then and only really appreciated later – understanding very well : the subject of our symposium. He had written the paper in English and, with a combination of solicitude and comradely informality that those who know him will recognize immediately, told me that, since it was not his native language, he would be grateful if I would come to him with any questions or suggestions that might occur to me. I took him at his word and, with a presumption that can only come from profound ignorance of one’s own ignorance and now astonishes and embarrasses me in equal measure, did just as he suggested.

The article was an early version of his reflections on the concept of ‘possessive individualism,’ which he of course takes from C.B. Macpherson but runs through a series of increasingly complex variations in the work of Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and Derrida, making it a key to unlock how different systems of thought address what he calls the transindividual. A longer version is now the second chapter of La Proposition de l’égaliberté, and it is in this form that I recently had occasion to return to it as the book’s English translator. The essay contains, in my view, some of the book’s subtlest and most difficult moments, developing questions concerning the nature of the social bond, identity, being and having that underlie all his work on equaliberty, but on a more purely conceptual or philosophical register. It was in certain respects the hardest part of the book to translate. What I recalled as I went through it, however, is how patiently more than a decade ago Balibar answered my impertinent questions, which even a modest familiarity with his work or the texts he was discussing would have made unnecessary, and how carefully he considered my naive suggestions.

Balibar the philosopher and Balibar the teacher, then. On the one hand, daunting erudition and subtlety across languages and traditions ; on the other, an extraordinarily democratic (perhaps even communistic ?) openness and intellectual generosity, a will to engage without condescension. The former, Balibar’s accomplishment as a philosopher, is obvious ; the latter perhaps less so, which makes it all the more worth calling attention to and trying to learn from. It appears again and again in his work, for instance in his tendency not merely to criticize or refute, but rather to uncover real points of disagreement on which something important depends. Could we call this, adapting a term from his recent work that has caused some readers difficulties, ‘civility’ ?

Before turning to the central point I take from my anecdote, though, I want to note that this combination of qualities bears a striking formal resemblance to the most important substantive idea I have taken from Balibar. In pointing out to the proximity between what is most rarefied, most inaccessible, and what is in principle ubiquitous and available to everyone, I have inadvertently traced the shape of his thinking of the universal. My own work on cosmopolitanism, which has occupied most of the last decade and finally appeared in print last year (with a very generous endorsement from Balibar), took shape in part through a process of very slowly and by degrees coming to understand some essays of his that I had read years before. (The same, incidentally, is true of what I intend as my next larger piece of work, on the concept of the political, whose inspiration I can date very precisely to early summer 2003, when I first read his “Three Concepts of Politics.”)

What I took from Balibar’s work on universality and became central to my own work was the notion that the universal must be thought simultaneously on three levels : (1) as a real condition that affects us all and puts us all in relation, whether we like it or not ; (2) as a fiction, ideology, or symbolic system, by means of which alone we can think it but which can only ever be partial and particular ; and (3) as an aspiration, a project, and above all a demand by real political agents denied access to the universal who nevertheless assert their claim to it.

Such a three-fold construction of universality is, so far as I am aware, original to Balibar. It seems to me absolutely decisive for a number of reasons. It shows that, at least in our globalized world, the universal already exists and is not something we can simply ‘opt out’ of, but at the same time it portrays universality as an aspiration that forever exceeds any partial and particular realization. It recognizes the universal as always compromised, coopted, and corrupted, yet holds it out as worthy of political pursuit. It acknowledges the irreducible plurality of the forms in which we encounter it, yet honors its underlying – ‘ideal’ – unity. Has this conception entirely slipped the bonds of (onto-, politico-, etc.) theology ? Perhaps not. But I am aware of no other that has tried so determinedly to do so, all the while acknowledging how difficult that might be.

Without further preliminaries – but I cannot resist observing that another thing we learn from Balibar is that such preliminaries are often essential, and indeed may represent nearly the whole of the matter we want to get to – let me come at last to where I began, to what I have come to appreciate most in his work. It lies at one of the classical (and classically Marxist) meeting-points of form and content, namely in his theoretical practice : I have in mind his knack for combining, on the one hand, what I will call a sense of politics with what Balibar himself has termed, borrowing from Hegel, the patience of the concept. My claim is that his work, from his most erudite disquisitions to his most urgent (and, according to conventional assumptions that would no doubt have to be troubled, therefore most ephemeral) public interventions, manages, to an extraordinary and perhaps even singular extent, to at one and the same time do justice both to politics and philosophy.

What exactly do I mean by this ? With a sense of politics I am invoking first and foremost Max Weber, for whom it was comprised of two things. On the one hand, it is what Weber calls a ‘sense of reality,’ an appreciation of how the world is and works that is as far as possible undistorted by how we would like it to be. Such a sense of reality requires a keen interest in what Balibar terms ‘the conjuncture,’ but also, on the level of epistemic virtues, the openness and curiosity to investigate how an evolving state of things continually exceeds the concepts one has at one’s disposal for making sense of it. In its most developed form, it implies not just shrugging and allowing that the world is complicated and understanding always falls short, but an active will to continually adapt one’s tools and invent new ones in order to grasp it. But that is only half the picture.

The other side of a sense of politics, which Weber (wrongly, I think) denied to the ‘scientist’ but discussed astutely in the case of the politician, is engagement, a deep investment in what is occurring, an awareness that there are sides and that one is on one of them, without which Weber believed political action (and I would add political thought) would be empty. All of Balibar’s work conveys such an engagement, a sense of practical involvement in the questions he asks and the social and political phenomena he studies. Even his most recondite writings always represent, in the formula of the early Habermas, theory with an emancipatory interest. To see this it is enough to look at how his writings have tracked, and often anticipated, the most important political questions of the day, from racism, nationalism, and identity to citizenship, migration, and postnationalism to the possibility of a politics of equal freedom under and against the latest transformations of global capitalism. To combine such engagement with a sense of reality, without illusions, is no small feat, though it is one that the whole tradition descending from Marx has aspired to. But to do so while honoring the patience of the concept is in my view a rarer accomplishment.

What, then, is this second, reflective or philosophical side of the balance I see Balibar as maintaining in such an exemplary fashion ? What I would characterize as remaining true to the spirit of philosophy – or perhaps, so as to avoid reifying the discipline, more simply theoretical inquiry – means always respecting the specificity, complexity, and indeterminacy of conceptual things. It means never prematurely closing a question, but always letting it lead where it may, even when this is somewhere we would rather it did not. In Balibar’s work, it takes the form of always adding another perspective or consideration, another complication or turn of the dialectic – a tendency that does not, to be sure, always make life easy for his readers (or translators). But what seems to me essential is that he manages this without ever losing sight of why a question matters or of the real-world conflicts and dilemmas that give rise to it.

There is a temptation, especially in my field (political theory in the English-speaking world), to want to solve theoretical and political questions together, as if settling one could automatically settle the other. By more or less convincingly connecting some concept or relationship between concepts to a real-world example, the theorist hopes to resolve a problem on one level by solving it on another. From Balibar I have gradually learned that this is almost invariably a sleight of hand, a maneuver to circumvent real conceptual or conjunctural contradictions and dilemmas, and that it may be not only more illuminating but also more practically useful to learn how to dwell with and in the contradiction. The lesson of his example, for me at least, is that it is not necessarily depoliticizing to recognize difficulty and complexity and resist the temptation to simply decide the matter. Following this path may tend to block the way to programmatic positions, elegant solutions, clear applications, or neat conclusions – indeed, it is a trope of his work to say that there will be no conclusion. But if this deprives us of the satisfactions of reconciliation, it leaves us always with something to do.


James Ingram teaches political theory at McMaster University in Hamilton Canada. He is the author of Radical Cosmopolitics : The Ethics and Politics of Democratic Universalism (Columbia University Press, 2013) and the translator of numerous works from German and French, including Balibar’s Equaliberty : Political Essays, forthcoming from Duke University Press.

par James D. Ingram

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