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The Void of Modernity

The Void of Modernity

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Published by feldallen
Lefort’s understanding of society was, like for Cornelius Castoriadis but in different
terms, predicated on the assertion that human beings are historical animals that create
ontological forms.
Lefort’s understanding of society was, like for Cornelius Castoriadis but in different
terms, predicated on the assertion that human beings are historical animals that create
ontological forms.

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Published by: feldallen on Aug 11, 2014
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1 THE VOID OF MODERNITY Lefort’s understanding of society was, like for Cornelius Castoriadis but in different terms, predicated on the assertion that human beings are historical animals that create ontological forms. Societies, in other words, create their own worlds in time, in the full light (but not always cognizance) of the fact that these worlds are 1) always finite and 2) can be radically new, i.e., radically other than those existing worlds that make this othering possible. For Lefort, history is discontinuity – and I’ll come back to this issue. What I want to lay out just first is that history means ontological genesis, whose terrain has a specific significational geometry, if I may call it that: the conjuncture of
mise en  forme
 (forming/shaping – this is a poietic notion);
mise en scène
 (staging/realizing – this is a theatrical and perhaps practical notion – I mean in terms of
 praxis
 as opposed to
 poi
 sis
) and
mise en sens
 (creating/realizing meaning, which is both poietic and practical  – this is a neologism coming out of the psychoanalytic theory of Piera Aulagnier, whose incomparable contribution was to show how psychotics in fact create language and  produce meaning, albeit meaning signifiable only to themselves). In these terms, Lefort’s thesis, roughly speaking, is that modernity ushers in a new historical-ontological form, even if by “mutation”: an other social imaginary (this would  be the poietic), an other framework of social realization (this would be the theatrical/  practical), an other way of creating meaning for itself (this would be the
mise en sens
). The content of this proposition, for Lefort, is that modernity is the social historical form that realizes the political. Society is no longer in a closed circuit where the symbolic and real coexist in a stable network of meaning, but enters a kind of existential rift: the symbolic and the real are distended by a kind of primary void. In obvious political terms, this void appears precisely because the double body of the king is severed from its head –  both the crown (symbolically) and the actual head (in altogether literal terms).
1
 There’s much to say here about the figure of the body. Certainly, for Lefort the popular  body-politic of modern democracy does not substitute for the king’s two bodies. Whatever the discussion about the uncertainties of secularization, there an arithmetic incommensurability here: the multitude cannot be divided into two. First of all, its symbology is entirely worldly, and this worldliness cannot be fissured. I’m not saying
1
 Lefort speaks of the fact that parading captive Louis XVI before the people makes visible the body of the King in such a way that his
humanization
 makes the transgression of regicide even more traumatic. Philippe Roger, a renown French historian of this period, argues the contrary: Louis XVI loses access to his symbolic body when he  begins to adopt the language that challenges the Ancien Regime, even before Bastille. When he addresses the issue of
les classes priviligiées
 he has automatically entered the domain of the people, and when he is finally (re)named Citizen Capet, his execution is a matter of course – the perils of citizenship. I am suggesting we keep these two interpretations in juxtaposition.
 
2 that the multitude carries no metaphysics. Its metaphysics is perceptible eventually  precisely insofar as it desires to become
one
, but as this is constituted differentially – totalitarianism, for Lefort, is the outcome of democracy internal antagonism – it can never be divided to two bodies. “We, the People” retains this untenable grammar. The singular plural is an antagonistic figure in itself, but it remains peculiarly indivisible in the very process of fostering a demand for social differentiation. While this contradiction is maddening from the perspective of radical democratic politics, nonetheless we need to distinguish the metaphysics of oneness that this figure provokes from the classic monotheistic metaphysics that precedes it. The crux of Lefort’s argument in “The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?” is really the attempt to theorize the terms and significance of this distinction. The question mark should not be taken lightly. Grammatically, of course, it signifies the interrogation of  permanence, but I would like to add that it also casts a shadow on the notorious hyphenated figure. What is the figure of the “theologico-political”? What sort of figure is it? Or in other words, what is the domain of its performativity? Insofar as it is a figure, does its rhetorical constitution extend to social reality – that is to say, beyond mere rhetoric? I confess that I’m uncertain as to whether it does. In any case, I would much rather see extensive inquiry into the rhetoric of political theology than reiterations of the  presumed authority of its reality. If nothing else, the advent of modernity demands that we interrogate the tacit harmony of the figure of “political theology” – not only in terms of imagining a politics that is no longer theological, but also creating a framework of critique focused on the political history of theology. Imagining a non-theological politics goes hand in hand with deconstructing the political in theology. Consider Lefort’s question: “Can we say that religion has simply disappeared in the face of politics without asking ourselves what its investment in the political realm once meant?” The insinuation is “of course not” but to interrogate the investment of religion in the political realm is itself the result of conceiving the political beyond the theological. And how is this configured? The political is tantamount to the self-representation of society in the symbolic sphere – not society’s representation via an externally constituted authority (the divine king), and therefore an externally constituted symbology. In another language, derived surely from Merleau-Ponty, we could say that the political occurs when and where politics become visible. In an admittedly grand gesture, Lefort recognizes and situates this occurrence as the social-imaginary emergence of modernity and the advent of democracy – the “democratic invention” as he calls it early on. Democracy is a historical regime, identified as a social imaginary institution of modernity, whose radicality is to stage its internal conflict openly for itself. Visibility and openness, however, are paradoxically expressed in a co-incident veiling or concealing of their occurrence, a kind of self-instituted invisibility which Castoriadis has termed (more  pointedly, I believe) as “self-occultation”. A very crude sketch of how this takes place is
 
3 as follows (and the whole
mise en forme – mise en scène – mise en sens
 is fully played out): 1.
 
The social imaginary of modernity dismantles the closed symbolic circuit of  premodern society by rendering visible the secrets of its performativity: the fact that the divine authority of the King is not divine at all, but dependent on the consent of his subjects, who thereby de-subjugate/“de-subjectify” themselves by realizing their ability to take off his head. (Given the importance of the embodiment of power in Ancien Regime, this dismemberment of the Sovereign’s  body is more than just a symbolic act.) 2.
 
The immediate consequence of this revolutionary
mise en scène
 is the emergence of a void in the symbolic constitution of power (since, at the most elemental, there is no body in power). Because, as I just mentioned, the People (as revolutionary multitude) are too much of a differential antagonistic plurality to simply move into the place of the One, the void becomes a constitutive principle, thereby producing an altogether radically other
mise en sens
 – an entirely new framework of meaning (which might be said, simply speaking, to make visible a kind of primal meaninglessness of power). 3.
 
Although, the creation of the political institutions we recognize as elemental to modern democracy surely derives from this new framework of meaning, the  psychical sensors of society cause it to recoil in horror before this void, of whose visibility – one might even say, of whose actuality – society recognizes itself to be the agent. So, we have a self-recognition that paradoxically produces self-denial.
2
 4.
 
So, the void is thus concealed by the very political institutions that it fosters in the name of, by, and for the People: the constitution, the sphere of political parties, the realm of the law, etc. – that is, the entire framework of both canonical and agonistic constituencies that characterizes the new politics of democracy. I want to reiterate the usefulness of Castoriadis’ designation of this concealing as not just occluding but occulting oneself – that is, producing a new form of transcendental secrecy that veils the void. It would be absolutely misguided to consider this a matter of failed secularization, thinking à la Schmitt that the religious imaginary  persists in secularized guise. Instead, we should emphasize the fact that a new mode of heteronomy is fostered by the very recoiling before the abyss thus  produced (or rather, unconcealed – and I’ll return to this) by the Revolution.
2
 It occurs to me that the schema here parallels the figure of Kant recoiling before his own discovery of the abyss of the imagination, which threatens the sovereignty of reason, as it is pointed out, in different terms, by both Heidegger and Castoriadis. Castoriadis would go on to argue that Heidegger too experiences the same recoil before the abyss opened up by the godlessness of Nietzsche.

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