July 2009, Johannesburg
Perhaps the task of defining something like “the political” is complicated by the fact that such an effort is itself entirely political. In today’s seminar at the JWTC, Tel Aviv University-based philosopher Adi Ophir led us into a conversation which attempted just this. While various ontological and philosophical debates emerged in the discussion, I would like to draw out the theme of temporality, something which I think is central to understanding the political as Ophir suggests we define the concept.
Ophir proposes “the political” as a predicate, and thus a declaration. The political comes into being as humans gather publicly to articulate their dissatisfaction with the powers-that-be. The work of the political is the problematization of power, and here Ophir follows Foucault’s historico-philosophical understanding of power. For Ophir, power is a structure of repetition which is imagined as external – and thus naturalized – and experienced as asymmetrical and hierarchical – and thus not equally accessible or transparent. The political, then, emerges in the moment in which power is recognized, confronted, and denaturalized. Importantly, political acts require an audience. The public as witness and participant in the political is a direct challenge to the hegemonic understanding of electoral and legislative politics as the singular site of the political.
An event, as Foucault defines it, is a reversal of power-relations, a particular shift in temporality in which the regularity of structures and systems is actively contested. The political is a moment of sovereignty which thrives in what Ophir refers to as the “excess” of power, that which power does not subsume in its repetitive technologies. As this excess is necessary to power’s formation, so the political too exists in a complementary relationship to power, engaging the space outside it while remaining within it.
What, then, is the temporality of the political? As Ophir says, the political is an “always-already there”; in other words, the political lies in waiting, and it is called into being through words and actions. This always-alreadyness, however, is in tension with a not-yetness that restricts and suppresses the political from within its own imagination.
Perhaps it helps to think of the political as the production of alterity – that which is unrecognizably Other, yet demands to be recognized in its being-ness – through a temporality of untimeliness. This is to say that the relationship between the political and power is also a particular conception of the subject with respect to time and history, and thus truth. Untimeliness is characterized by Nietzsche as the rejection of the separation of the modern subject into “inner truths” and “outer truths,” which correlates here to Ophir’s notion of the problematization of power. As much of our debates during this session of the JWTC have revolved around Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri ’s notion of the common, it fits to inquire, what is the temporality of the common? We talk about an imaginary of the future, in which post-apartheid South Africa and occupied Palestine can drop the adjectives preceding their proper names, but what are the structural regularities of power that place such an imaginary in the future – as opposed to the day-to-day, the here-and-now? In other words, the relationship between untimeliness and the political is one which ties discourse to actions, which calls upon those who problematize power to “[act] counter to our time and thereby [act] on our time.”
It might be one of the tasks of the political, then, to problematize time itself by bringing the future into the present, that is, by acting in an untimely manner, without deference to history and its narratives, and instead grasping onto the emergent, that which is, perhaps, unrecognizable as the political. I would like to raise the question, then, of how the political, through temporal prolongation, can become a mechanism of power. For example, resistance movements themselves can become de-politicized as they are made regular, as they repress alterity from within. Temporality, as untimeliness, is therefore imminent to the political.