Nancy on the excessive use of the term “political”: the death of politics?

In his book Philosophical Chronicles (a published set of radio addresses), Jean-Luc Nancy deals with a host of issues from daily life from the perspective of a philosopher, and some of them are deceptively simple, yet profound. His address from January, 2003, which addresses the word “politics” [politique], makes two very important points that have been haunting me for some three months now. First, Nancy points out the excessive use of the word politics, and its use in realms not normally considered “political.”

In the artistic domain in particular, it is often seen as necessary to declare that a work or an intervention has a political relevance, a political sense, or even a political nature. Whereas in the past we would come across the notion of the political commitment of an artist (of a writer, a philosopher, or a scientist), today we must refer to a necessarily political dimension in their practice itself. What cannot be said to be “political” appears suspect in being only aesthetic, intellectual, technical, or moral. (24)

I am appreciating Nancy’s point as one who is likely to always look for the politics of an artistic piece—whether a movie, novel, or even a TV commercial—or really in anything that deals with ideas, stories, or life in general. I think that it is good and right to illumine the hidden politics in “everything,” but I also think that this can be constrictive and destructive to make absolutely everything political.

The second point Nancy makes, which is a consequence of the first, is that this excessive use of the word political is vague, leaving the term empty of content.

…“political” would mean that which goes beyond all the particular delimitation of discipline and activity, operating at the level of the entire society (even that of humanity), of its conditions of existence and meaning  “Political” is thus invested with unlimited content. This usage of the word derives from a more or less conscious idea that everything is or should be political. [Now the big sentence] Now, this idea constitutes nothing other than the content of what one calls “totalitarianism.” (24-25)

Nancy elaborates briefly on how this manner of thinking absorbs everything into the sphere of the political. The consequence is this: if everything is political, then nothing is political, because the political has lost its specificity as “political.” This totalitarian use of the word politics tends to assume that political or communal existence is an end in itself, a self-justifying entity. Nancy thinks that the inability to limit politics (and to see it as directed at ends other than itself) has contributed to the loss of the artistic nature of politics (“as art in the old sense,” techne).

Nancy’s main point is simply that we ought to specify what we mean when we use the word “political,” but beyond that I think there is a danger of which he is warning us—that of making everything so political that we choke the life out of it, or subsume creativity to the ends of a “politic” in a way that betrays that very creativity. This would seem also, to me, to be a death of politics, parallel to the death of art proclaimed by artist-thinkers like Alexander Rodchenko (for if everything is art, then nothing is art, for there is nothing to define and distinguish as art, and no thing has more artistic value over another thing).

8 thoughts on “Nancy on the excessive use of the term “political”: the death of politics?

  1. If everything is political, then nothing is political, because the political has lost its specificity as “political.”

    This may well be correct (and I think Žižek makes the same argument somewhere). But what’s usually missed is a discussion of what the consequences of this might be; the assumption seems to be that we can’t allow nothing to be political, therefore we must deny that everything is political. But we could just as well go the other way: yes, because everything is political, “political” has no specificity and is merely a pseudo-category. Is the “death of politics” a bad thing?

  2. Voyou,

    My concern is not to protect politics (or “save” it), but to avoid totalitarian forms of it. I think the “death of politics” is a bad thing insofar as the statement “nothing is political” could so easily function as an ideological cover-up of the real politics going on. I think the actual enactment of a “death of politics” would result, ironically, not in the cessation of politics (or “politicking,” as Nancy says, to refer to the abusive from of politics), but the reign of ideology and the possible “death” of everything else in its wake.

  3. I think it’s possible to distinguish between the under-appreciation of the political dimension of all things and the kind of death of politics in which the descriptor “political” does not demarcate a specific set of practices and ideas. In other words, I don’t think that the “nothing is political” that comes after “everything is political” is the same as a kind of pre-critical naivete. That’s not to say that Nancy’s point is incorrect. I’m very sympathetic with his analysis here, but it simply may be the truth of things that “everything is political” but I don’t think that results in a kind of erasure of our ability to make distinctions regarding the political, necessarily. So maybe it’s more like having moved from a binary since of political, in which something either is or is not political, to the realization that the political character of all things must be described in terms of modalities and degrees, all while acknowledging, that according to the binary understanding of the distinction: “everything is political.”

  4. Also, I don’t think that “everything being political” is constitutive of totalitarianism as it is commonly understood. If one presume a sovereign, monolithic, political center to which all politics must defer, then yes, once everything is political, it is totalitarian, but the monolithic center is the contingent feature here, since it seems that everything is in fact political. When one finds oneself under this political arrangement, it is only realizing that everything is political that allows one to become aware of the totalitarian structure of it. This seems to be the real value of continuing to affirm that everything is political.

  5. And finally, good to see Thomas contributing here (and Dave appearing elsewhere in some comment discussions). I shed a tear when I saw that La Perruque had been suspended indefinitely.

  6. Hill,

    Thanks for the kind words (and my apologies in the delay in responding–I was not ignoring your words; I was simply not by a computer).

    In regards to your first comment, I find all of your analysis agreeable. In regards to the second comment, I just want to clarify that I was not saying that the realization that everything is political=totalitarianism. I am saying that it is totalitarian to subordinate everything to politics, or to treat politics as its own end. (I think we don’t have a disagreement here, but I am simply clarifying).

    I have not yet read the essay BT gives us a link to, but the abstract makes sense in saying that Nancy is suggesting several possible senses of the term “everything is political.” One sense is “a domineering gesture (in the first or last instance, the “political” sphere is that which determines or controls the activity of the other spheres)…” This would be a sense of “everything is political” that I am wary of (in addition to my comment about ideology).


    Thanks kindly for the link.


  7. Of relevance: Bloomberg’s current campaign for mayor has the slogan “Progress Not Politics.”

    He also boasts that he never took a penny from special interests, though does not mention the fact that he himself is a special interest.

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