Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

The partisan review

Joe has a new review up of Carl Schmitt's
Theory of the Partisan. Like all of Joe's reviews, this one is cunning and provocative. Since this book by Schmitt is still on my to-read list, I cannot comment on its adequacy of Joe's review qua review, but as an essay in its own right, it's a small gem. I'm particularly struck by his imaginative reconstruction of the encounter, mentioned by Jacob Taubes in his book on St. Paul, between Schmitt and Kojève. (Taubes I have read, and his application of Schmitt's notion of "political theology" to Paul is just one of the dazzling anachronisms which fill this slim volume. Such anachronisms are part of the inevitable motley which scholarship must don in the courts of philosophy.) Joe suggests that Kojève, the "universalist" philosopher-cum-civil-bureaucrat, and Schmitt, the "particularist"jurist-scholar, very likely discussed Theory of the Partisan when they met in 1967, soon after it had been published. The "partisan" is simply the fighter for a particular cause, unaligned with a state but attached to a locale, irregular and mobile, and, in short, very hard to tell (despite Schmitt's demurral on this point) from what today's headlines call the terrorist, formerly known as the freedom fighter. Joe is understandably awed by Schmitt's prescience in pointing to the partisan as the key figure in contemporary history, to risk an oxymoron, and suggests that both Kojève and Schmitt would have seen in the partisan "the vanishing of Reason from History. For the one this meant the impossibility of (Hegelian) Knowledge, while for the other this meant the impossibility of Political Order."

Interestingly, both Joe's review, and this other one I have found online, trouble to underscore the same phrase from Schmitt's citation of Lenin, whose thought clearly impacted him strongly. Lenin of course had thought long and hard about the way the partisan could be employed in the struggle to bring about a Communist revolution, and considered that unless it was directed to this end, partisan struggle was mere "anarchistic riffraff." "For Lenin, only revolutionary war is genuine war, because it is based on absolute enmity. Everything else is conventional play," a game with "good guys" and "bad guys." Why? because only the class struggle gives one a genuine
enemy, an irreducible entity for Schmitt. Reading this in the wake of the second Iraq War, I shudder to recall the characterization of the first one by Baudrillard: it was a spectacle, a T.V. show, a video game. Could it be that Lenin rightly saw that within liberalism, all warfare would ultimately reduce to a diversion? And if so, at what price would we regain the seriousness of war, the nobility of struggle that would be more than dressing up and mouthing to ourselves, "Dulce et decorum est..."?

So what remains for us of Schmitt's critique today? Today, the movement today which most strikingly exemplifies the position of particularism in the face of a certain version of the universal--that is to say, the anti-globalist movement--stands almost at one with partisans the world over against the politico-economic hegemony of corporate "democracy." There are times when one could be forgiven for suspecting that the radical edge of anti-globalism--say, the Invisible Committee, for instance, or the John Zerzan-inspired anarcho-greens--envies the more stereotypical "terrorist" of today (say the partisan of Islamist extremism); envies their headlines, their apparent ideological coherence, and even their semtex, or at least their willingness to use it. Schmitt likely would not recognize today's anti-globalists as the partisan in his sense, even if they do have recourse to armed struggle, except in certain cases like the Zapatistas where there is a clear "telluric" connection to place. It is possible that Lenin might be more generous, though he too would have his doubts. Are we left then with a case of dwindling significance, a curious book with a kind of "period piece" interest and nothing more?

This I doubt.
Schmitt's account may need to be expanded to account for certain permutations that were still hidden fifty years ago, but both Schmitt and Kojève were aware of a certain kind of seriousness that comes only with the "existential struggle," that is, the willingness to risk and to inflict death. (This is the key to Kojève's whole reading of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit.) In the proximity of this boundary, is it any wonder that themes of religion, "political theology," and so on arise? Quite to the contrary of the easy critique of the old "new" atheists, it might well be that religion does not generate martyrs, but vice versa. If so, the "vanishing of reason from history" could well be, as Vico might have guessed, the end of one era and the beginning of a new one, full of gods and terror.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Bryan, thanks for the shout-out. Regarding 'the adequacy' of my review of Schmitt, just to be clear, I cut it off a little more than half-way through in order to end it in the pessimistic manner that I did. After Lenin, Schmitt turns to Mao, and finds hope (I mean allows himself to find hope) that Mao will be willing to allow the world to be partitioned between sovereign competing blocs. In this manner there would be, for Schmitt, Order; - because for Schmitt Order is (and can only be) a relation between Sovereign Parts (i.e., States or Empires). (For him, Universalism is Chaos.)

    Schmitt's essay ends, some thirty-forty pages after where I ended my review, with the words:

    "The theory of the partisan flows into the question of the concept of the political, into the question of the real enemy and of a new nomos of the earth."

    Schmitt wrote the whole essay in order to get to that sentence. The rise of the partisan was the end (for Schmitt) of coherent history. Schmitt was interested in how to get past all that. My review was not...

    In perhaps a more adequate fashion I will say that the development of the theory of the partisan leads to absolute enmity. But in the cold-war world Schmitt wrote in so too did weapons of mass destruction. Modern Technology and the Partisan were both dragging the world down into chaos.

    Thus there can no longer be, in principle, any limited wars. Limited wars still happen, of course, but only for merely pragmatic or tactical reasons. Partisanship goes from resistance to extermination while the logic of state war tends towards total war. - This is why Schmitt calls for a new Nomos of the Earth. ...There is no longer any true Order at all.

    Bryan, I think you are right; the new always rises out of terror and chaos. Schmitt, however, did not at all want the new. All he wanted was the old European Sovereign State/Empire system 'globalized'. (Although, obviously, he would never put it like that...)

    The Jurists search for Order is always for a pre-existent order. Only philosophy is competent to decide the question of the new.