How not to mix the new realisms and politics

In his Manifesto of New Realism (SUNY Press, 2014), Maurizio Ferraris makes the following claim:

[T]he area where skepticism and the farewell to truth have shown their most aggressive side is politics. Here postmodern deobjectification was, exemplarily, the underlying philosophy of the Bush administration, which theorized that reality was simply the belief of “reality-based communities”–that is, unwary people who do not know how things go. This praxis found its most concise expression in the response by one of Bush’s consultants to the journalist Ron Suskin: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously, as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.” An arrogant absurdity of course.

I have seen this example used several times in recent years by self-proclaimed realists wedding, say, deconstruction to the right wing. Thus, I’m not picking on Ferraris, whose very clear writing style and knowledge of the traditions he’s critiquing are well worth the reader’s time. But count this as another example where those professing a certain realism make highly problematic claims when moving to politics. One need not be Machiavelli to acknowledge that politics is precisely about contestations over the ability, the sovereignty, to proclaim a performative: this is where the border will be; this is how this decree will be applied; we are now at war; etc. Political contestation does not happen in some academic discussion of transcendent or transcendental values or by pointing to a transcending reality (though, as Spinoza’s Theological Political Treatise made clear centuries ago, the claim to one or more of these realities or values can be politically and rhetorically valuable). Far from an absurdity, the quotation above points out the performative/constative distinction between that which “creates a reality” (which, hem, all action does) and those who would merely describe it after the fact. This is not postmodern relativism or “deobjectification,” because whence would come, outside the contestation and violence at the heart of the political, some “objective” reality or value that wouldn’t be open to contestation within the political? Political contestation is nominalistic; it is interminable negotiation: the realities it names are performed and re-performed and are nothing outside that performance. What is the reality of a border but its re-iteration, it re-mapping, for example? What is gender but its re-iteration? Race? That doesn’t mean, say, that one shouldn’t contest sovereignty, as in Derrida’s Rogues, in the name of the unconditional openness of the democracy-to-come (to use an example I’m teaching in my grad course this week), or that we simply accede to “might is right.” But to make claims to a “pre-political” reality or nature from within the political is itself a political move. And the danger of not recognizing this could come at the cost of reifying all those political categories (in the name of this supposed non-political reality), such as race and gender, and then making a claim to a realism that can’t recognize the reality of the political or how action takes shape therein. It also means not being able to diagnose, say, the state of sovereignty, the problem of the state of exception, the unstable relation of the law of force and the force of law, the distinction between constituting and constituted power, and so on. And then pretending it is those deconstructionists and genealogists and so on are who are the ones who are naive about the nature of reality.

2 comments

    1. Thanks. I think it’s a typical misunderstanding of all uses of realism or naturalism when discussing the political (and here we’re just at the surface level, saying nothing of biopolitics and such that you know well), which finds it hard then to talk about how politics does not concern a pre-given reality.

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