February 2017 Lightning Round: State of Exception

I occasionally want to say “one or two things” about a blog post I’ve read, but it is hard to start writing a short piece without it spiraling into something much longer than I intend to write, or (if it’s an aside in a longer post) distracting from the flow of the argument.  So I am going to try the blitz format on two pieces, to force them into a containment area.

A.  Now two weeks old, Arthur Gordian’s stylish essay on Schmitt is certainly worth a read.  There was one point on Schmitt’s friend-enemy distinction I wanted to make explicit.

  • Schmitt’s “enemy” is meant to correspond to hostis in Latin, i.e. “enemy of the state”.  In Latin, one contrasts the hostis (a foreigner against whom one wages war) and the inimicus (a neighbor with whom one has a quarrel).
  • As Schmitt points out, this ambiguity obscures an important passage in the New Testament, wherein we are exhorted to love our enemies: that is to say, to love neighbors with whom we quarrel, rather than hostile foreigners.
  • The friend-enemy distinction defines the political, according to Schmitt, because a political order exists to protect its people from hostile neighbors; under normal conditions, political rivals are merely inimici who quarrel over how best to do this.
  • Thus Schmitt condemns Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. War is rather the culmination of politics; politics is a (friendly) conflict with inimici about how to prepare for a (merciless) conflict with hostes.
  • But in 1930s Germany, Schmitt was happy to make an exception to this general rule.  What was called “politics” in Weimar Germany was a struggle between those loyal to Germany and a fifth column of bolsheviks (and their “liberal” enablers) who wanted to destroy German society at the behest of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  So in this exceptional case, German politics was a form of war.
  • In the 2010s, our political opponents are not in the service of any foreign nation (or at least, no one particular nation) but contemporary bolsheviks still seek to strip each nation of its sovereignty and destroy the foundations of its common life; so Gordian’s conclusion that the Left must be destroyed still holds.

B. Kantbot recently pointed out that the bottom half of the broad coalition of which Trump is the focal point is a raucous carnival: traditional attempts to “expose” Trump by investigating low-level supporters and tracing responsibility for their misdeeds up a hierarchical pyramid lead nowhere, and so each attempt to smear Trump with guilt-by-association only leads more spectators into the midst of a riveting spectacle.

>Here the raucous energy of the theater is recreated before our eyes. Enterprising personalities adopt complex characters to win fame and earn a living. Moralists gather to instruct the digital Public in the appropriate use of its power. Reputations are ruined. Participants go mad.

However, I want to focus on the rich Schiller quotation with which Kantbot anchors the essay:

>Where the influence of civil laws ends that of the stage begins. Where venality and corruption blind and bias justice and judgment, and intimidation perverts its ends, the stage seizes the sword and scales and pronounces a terrible verdict on vice. The fields of fancy and of history are open to the stage; great criminals of the past live over again in the drama, and thus benefit an indignant posterity. They pass before us as empty shadows of their age, and we heap curses on their memory while we enjoy on the stage the very horror of their crimes… Sight is always more powerful to man than description; hence the stage acts more powerfully than morality or law.”

  • Schiller proposes a simple model.  Law attacks crime; vice impedes law; the stage judges vice.  Vice (venality, corruption, intimidation) limits the influence of the law, so past a certain point the influence of the law gives way to the influence of the stage, and sight must stand in for description.
  • But is the role of the the theater as check on the vice that vitiates law meant to be part of the normal function of the theater — continuously shaming the vicious and minimizing the injustice vice causes — or as an emergency function that saves us when vice subverts justice entirely?
  • Schiller’s rhetoric make it sounds like the latter, and deep-rooted moral values really can act as an emergency brake (I referred to a recent example as the last stand of the Anglo-Saxons) but what does it mean if a playwright gets to tell us when and how our commonwealth has gone off the tracks?  To quote Schmitt once more: “Sovereign is he who decides the exception.”  Cf. Rousseau. [English version]
  • Drama is, from this point of view, a sort of satanic counter-religion. This is the meaning of the ban on the burial of notorious actors which Kantbot mentions.  The responsibilities of each dramatist are limited, but, like those of a bishop, when united in the hands of one man or one clique they acquire that indirect influence over popular perceptions of justice and injustice that I have previously which I have previously referred to as informal capacity. Thus they must either be subordinated to a sovereign, or dissipated so as to become meaningless.
  • However, I want to suggest a hypothesis: it is possible to arrange a society such that its public spectacles are dissipated into many hands, such that its culture is weak and its spectacles limp, with the result that the state declines to exert theocratic power over its subjects without ceding that power to any other body; however…
  • (version 1) …aesthetes find the vapidity of entertainment-culture nauseating and would rather see anybody wield cultural power rather than see it castrated.
  • (version 2) …freedom from the power of theocratic spectacles is the informal-capacity version of anarcho-capitalism; the absence of oppression by informal capacities might feel good at first, but informal-capacity-fiefdoms reemerge and re-centralize, only now not coordinated by formal power.
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