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Strategies of Critique 14: What is Political?

Conference Presentation Abstracts

March 24 25 2000


"Strategies of Critique" is a conference hosted by graduate students in the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University. The "What is Political?" "Call for Papers" remains available.

Go to the Conference Programme and Schedule page.


"A Judging Politics"

Keith Anderson, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

This paper argues that the activity of judgment is essential to the preservation and development of the substantive and critical dimension of political life. The thought of Marcuse and Levinas is central here. Marcuse’s erotic, dialectical conception of judgment is played off Levinas’ notions of desire and alterity to produce a conception of critical moral and political judgment that enables individuals to make sense of their world and act to reduce the suffering produced by the established order. Moreover, Levinas’ and Marcuse’s respective notions of a world in-common are used to conceptualise shared moral-political spaces opened through acts of judgment themselves, spaces which could undermine social orders that function systematically to suppress the experience and claims of individuals as particular, desiring, injurable bodies.



"Movements of Power and Acts of Resistance: Falun Gong, De Certeau and the Political Strategization of Everyday Practices"

Michael Blackburn, Graduate Programme in Contemporary Social and Political Thought, University of Victoria

"This was an apolitical protest but it also is a very political act." This description by a Chinese academic brings into immediate focus the paradoxical and fascinating story of the Falun Dafa (or Falun Gong). The group came to international attention last year, when a series of peaceful protests throughout the People's Republic of China revealed a significant gap in the seemingly omniscient gaze of an authoritarian government which is so often successful at its attempts to neuter acts of resistance.


The central question to be explored is how the protests of the Falun Dafa can be interpreted as acts of resistance. One useful way of exploring the tactical potential in the "non-political" activities of Falun Gong members is provided in the theory of Michel de Certeau, who follows on Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault in extending an analysis of how everyday activities and practices can be employed to manipulate society's disciplinary forces, providing a weapon in the weak's struggle against the violences of imposed orders and repressive systems.



"Utopia and Melancholia: Psychoanalysis in Marcuse and Poststructuralism"

Colin J.Campbell, Graduate Programme in Contemporary Social and Political Thought, University of Victoria

Judith Butler's Foucault-inspired genealogy of psychoanalytic discourse, The Psychic Life of Power, can be read as a critical analysis of tactics of political intervention and change. Butler reiterates the problematic posed to Marxian theory by poststructuralism - namely, that no revolutionary subject can be found innocent of the claims of social power in its drive to change the social order. The social-psychoanalytic theory of Herbert Marcuse is mentioned obliquely in her text, but is quickly dismissed on grounds of essentialism. This paper analyses Marcuse's appropriation of Freudian instinct theory in relation to the problem of essentialism, and then considers the relationship between Marcuse and poststructuralism in a wider sense, focusing respectively on utopianism and melancholia as psychic performances.


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"On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Intellectual History for Political Theory"

Jonathan Havercroft, Graduate Programme in Contemporary Social and Political Thought, University of Victoria

Taking my cue from Nietzsche’s essay ‘On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life’, I would like to propose two ways in which intellectual history, as practiced by the Cambridge School, can serve the present. First, intellectual history can liberate us from aspect blindness regarding the concepts that we employ in our current political discourses. In order to demonstrate how this is possible, I will look at how the debate surrounding Isaiah Berlin’s "Two Concepts of Liberty" has tricked us into believing that there are only two concepts of liberty. I will argue that if we turn to intellectual history, we will encounter other theories of liberty that do not fit into Berlin’s categories. Second, I believe that political theorists can translate theories from the past and employ these translations in contemporary political debates. In order to develop this point I will examine the work of Dario Castiglione and Richard Bellamy as an example of a translation of the political theory of republicanism from early modern Europe to contemporary political debates surrounding European integration.



"Trafficking the Union: (Dis)locating the Political in European Integration Theory"

Robin Kells, Graduate Programme in Political Science, University of Victoria

In exploring the issues around trafficking in women for prostitution in EU countries, I will argue that the predominant conceptions of Europe proffered by dominant European integration theorists do not generally capture its workings despite attempts to do just that, nor do they provide space for positing conceptions that speak in a language outside of a realist/liberal/rational/utility-maximizing dialogue. The debate around European integration erects boundaries that cannot account for "the political" in a case such as trafficking due to its narrow definition rooted in state centricity.

Trafficking in women, both physically and figuratively, demands the transgression of boundaries from national borders, to the constitution of woman as whore. These boudaries, artificial, strategic and violent, serve to categorize people and relations into valuable and valid or worthless and inauthentic, thereby marginalising voices that should be heard. A politics of relationality, that is to say that the relational qualities of gender, ethnicity or citizenship must be brought to the fore in order to illustrate the functioning of power and authority that dominates these constructs.



"The Nation-State and the Politics of Global Capital Flows: A View From the South: A View from the South"

Tariq A. Khan, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

Notwithstanding the different outlooks on "globalization" — whether they enunciate the "weakening of the nation-state," the "self-equilibrating" of the world economy or do not notice any change in Late Capitalism — the theorization is largely from a Western perspective. This has little relevance to countries of the Third World.


The paper will argue that the South has been forced to play a catalyst’s role in the movement toward the globalized economy. Being prodded and pushed by major developed economies of the West, the Third World has been captive to the dictates of transnational corporations, financial capital, multilateral institutions and supranational bodies. In turn, this has led to civic and economic spaces becoming increasingly blurred. Under this debilitating burden, the democratic alternatives are fast diminishing in the South, giving way to economic uncertainty, growing human depravation, and the rising tide of ethnic and national conflict — all under the aegis of the powerful nation-state .



"Poetics/ Aesthetics/ Politics: Heidegger on Holderlin"

Kir Kuiken, Graduate Programme in Political Science, University of California, Irvine

To ask the question "what is political" seems to necessitate the classical question "what is THE political". The moment one asks this question one finds oneself located in the problem which has haunted thought on the political since Plato, namely, that the essence of the political is nothing political. What this paper will do is chart Heidegger's attempt to think this non-political essence of the political together with a certain poetics/ aesthetics through his reading of Holderlin and a choral ode from Sophocles' Antigone in the 1935 lecture course (translated as "Introduction to Metaphysics") and the 1942 lecture course on "Holderlin's Hymn the Ister". It will attempt to sustain this question by unfolding Heidegger's determination of the political and its relation to the non-political which haunts it. What it will attempt to pursue are the stakes of thinking this question, of determining or figuring this non-essence, as well as the stakes of its apparently necessary relation to poetics/ aesthetics.


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"Judging/The Gap: Rereading Hannah Arendt's 'Political' through the Aesthetic"

Pamela Leach, Graduate Programme in Political Science, York University

Arendt's category of 'action' represents an incomplete account of her concept of the political. Her aesthetic theory, including her understanding of 'judgment,' supplements and eventually subsumes action as the definitive political activity. This has profound impacts upon the vita activa and the notion of politics as the free actions of individuals in concert. Arendt builds on Kant's aesthetic theory, a foundation that proves highly problematic for her project. Upon it she develops a theory of the political that highlights the reflective dimension of politics, and 'permanence' as the definitive historical and political objective. Her conclusion reveals a hypostatized notion of the historical as 'past' and agency as a 'gap' between past and future. Aesthetic dimensions of the political, including taste/opinion, and judgment's formative relation to the object expose the underlying contradictions of Arendt's 'politics.'



"Soviet Pins"

Alex Levant, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

This paper illustrates the transformation of social relations in post-Soviet Russia through the journey of a Soviet school pin from being a rite of passage to becoming a souvenir for ‘Western’ tourists. The transformation of this pin is accompanied by its fetishism as a commodity and the reification of social relations. This commodification offers insight into the emerging relations between people in Russia, as well as between Russians and ‘Westerners’. It is a reading of Marx through Benjamin, which focuses on the exploitation and colonization embodied in ‘cultural treasures’ such as these pins. Moreover, it uses Benjamin’s critique of the triumphal procession to reflect on the problem of the ‘Western’ tourists’ relation to such souvenirs.



"Contested Closets: Sexuality, the State and Social Movements in Developing Areas"

Juan Marsiaj, Graduate Programme in Political Science, McGill University

The paper explores he role of the state in the construction of sexuality in developing countries. Nevertheless, using a "state-in-society" approach, the role of society at large is not disregarded. More specifically, it emphasizes on the construction, control and repression of homosexuality in developing countries, with special attention to Latin America. The state, being a very important actor in the politics of cultural (trans)formation, is of vital importance in the discussion of sexual politics. Through direct and indirect ways, using legislative, coercive, political, cultural and economic means, the state is clearly very present in the politics of sexuality. The emphasis on developing areas highlights issues of democratization, malfunctioning states and dependent development, with the corresponding discussion of the creation, expansion and effective implementation of citizenship rights in a context of a highly unequal class structure. To conclude, a tentative elaboration of gay and lesbian movement strategy framework (a "two-pronged" strategy) will be sketched, drawing from the implications of the analysis that form the body of the study.



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"On the Limit of the Political: The Case of the Refugee"

Peter Nyers, Graduate Programme in Political Science, York University




This paper approaches the question of the location and character of "the political" by examining the limit-concept of the refugee. It argues that contemporary refugee situations force us to confront the (violent, constitutive) limits of modern conceptions of political space, identity, and practice. The paper begins by critically examining the connections between the categorization of refugees as an 'emergency' situation and the way in which 'humanitarianism' has come to constitute a hegemonic discourse in which academics, policy-makers, international organizations, and refugee advocates must formulate their arguments and actions. Once these concepts are conjoined, the resulting twin-discourse of "humanitarian emergencies" has the effect of de-politicizing refugee situations by subsuming refugees into allegedly aberrant, victimized identities. While refugees are said to be "aberrations" because they lack the "authentic" political identity of citizenship, the paper argues that the paradox of the refugee is that the constitutive practices which create and sustain sovereign identities and spaces also create the condition of possibility for refugees as well. The paper therefore emphasizes the difficulties and paradoxes involved in humanitarian responses to the refugee phenomenon which work to reinscribe the hierarchy of state/nation/citizen as the foundational premise of modern conceptions of the political.



"What is ‘Outside of Politics?’ Levinas and the Ethics of Face-to-Face with the Other"

Pierre Ouellet, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

In Totality and Infinity, Levinas writes: "Politics left to itself bears a tyranny within itself."

This paper will proceed through three distinct moments. First, it will examine the intellectual trajectory which allowed Levinas, in his readings of Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s ontology, to propose "ethics as first philosophy."

It will then consider the particular language chosen by Levinas to articulate his conception of the relation to Other, in notions such as "proximity," "the accident of encounter," the rejection of the "urge to kill"and the irrevocable "demand and the claim of the neighbour."

This paper will conclude by discussing some of the implications of this "irreducible responsibility" articulated to some of the most prevailing egocentric forms of social and political thought, asking, in fact, "what is political" in the for-the-other of a subjectivity where the mode of comparison of ethical judgment must be superimposed on the "unique and the incomparable" of the face-to-face encounter.



"The Betrayal of Utopia: Politics and Opacity"

Mike Palamarek, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

That the question ‘What is political?' needs to be asked in the current historical and theoretical conjuncture already betrays the extent to which the social whole has become fragmented, confusing, and opaque. As an integral set of historically variable relations within larger society, the political as such likewise suffers from a confusing array of competing concepts, claims, and definitions. Despite the range of possibilities offered by this array, there is a marked poverty of theoretical and public discourse that aims beyond the status quo. The political is disparaged and denigrated out of cynicism, frustration, and most importantly, I argue, by a sense of betrayal of utopic impulses. This world-weariness or disenchantment with the political registers an enforced closing off of political imagination, as well as the disappearance of the hope that ‘things could be otherwise.' Such disenchantment further conditions and supports a retreat into an ethos of individual self-preservation and self-enclosure, fueled by the ideology of the free market and hyper-privatization. To develop the thesis that the underlying character of contemporary politics is one of disenchantment, this paper will trace the operation of the utopic impulse in Plato, Machiavelli, and early modernity. The contemporary betrayal of utopia in favour of power politics and administrative objectives continues to close off the possibility of a radical, democratic politics that seeks to create the conditions for real individual and collective fulfilment.


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Political Critique as Love

Joseph Rosen, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

To think and speak about "what is political" is still to think and speak. I contend that the political is not a mere subject, theme, or topic of thought.

Rather, I hope to demonstrate that what might be called 'political' is the very heart of thinking and speaking. Through Emmanuel Levinas's ethical critique of philosophy, I argue that the essence of 'thinking,' 'philosophy,' or 'theory' is a critique of violence. I define violence as a certain relation to the self that is the necessary co-condition of violence toward others. The recognition and expression of this violence is the goal of a thinking and a speaking which open upon the terrain of alterity and community. Philosophy -if it is to be sufficiently political--must be a critique of this violence. Inasmuch as philosophy engages in this practice, it is love.


"Benjamin, Foucault and the Spaces of politics: In search of Heterotopia"

Jon Short, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

Although often indirectly, for both Benjamin and Foucault the category of space comprises a central part of their discussions of modernity and its forms of politics. The ways in which spaces are configured directly affect the possible modes of experience, and are thus directly political. Aside from the more obvious ways in which dominant urban spaces are designed to facilitate repetition, both theorists place significant emphasis for politics on what Foucault terms ‘heterotopic space’: spaces adjacent to dominant spaces, but which seem to display a different logic. For both the question of what possibilities heterotopic spaces create for oppositional politics is crucial. This problem opens up the more conceptual space of how political change is conceived in general. Despite their similarities on this issue, Benjamin’s understanding of historical redemption can be used to critique Foucault’s ‘endless play of dominations’.


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Working Emergency

Sharon Sliwinski, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

Working Emergency is a segment out of a longer video project that deals with narratives of resistance. The truncated segment offered for presentation here is the narrative of a downtown restaurant and the kinds of labour housed within its walls. The video works on questions of space and place in terms of sites of domination and resistance in a to gesture to the work of Marx, Benjamin, Spivak, and Foucault. The "documentary" is presented as a meditation on relationship between the narratives of class, race, gender, and sexuality held together by Benjamin’s Messianic model of time. In "telling the stories" of the workers in the restaurant, I am not trying to articulate "the way it really is" but I am instead trying to seize hold of the images in a constellation which establishes the a conception of the present as the "time of now" as Benjamin has described of social history.


Love for Money

Kathryn Walker, Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought, York University

The figures of the prostitute and the gambler manifest the pathology of capitalist logic. The prostitute, both salesperson and commodity in one exemplifies both the extreme reification of the commodity and the extreme alienation of labor. The gambler relating immediately to money, forsaking the procreative moment of capitalism represents the addictive hook of pure and abstract exchange. Marginalized and excluded these figures stand for a logic that is ubiquitous, yet repressed. The figures point to the social taboos of money, specifically of the relation between love and money -love that costs money and money that is itself the object of love.


Addressing the political through the figures of the prostitute and the gambler the proposed paper will disclose an implicit social-political mechanism. The proposed paper on one hand, considering discourses on love as that which must transcend the economic, will address and reveal the rhetoric of the repression of the love/money taboo. On the other hand the proposed paper, considering the manifestation of the love/money taboo in the figures of the prostitute and the gambler, will argue that these figures speak of a logic that is inherent to capitalism but as disclosive of an essential though necessarily denied moment of the capitalist logic, can only be manifested in the margins through figures socially established as aberrant and pathological.


"When the Walls Come Down: Arendt and the Possibility of Truly Human Action"

Michael Weinman, Graduate Programme in Philosophy, New School for Social Research

The set of individuals deeply concerned with, and sympathetic to, the destabilization of sex/gender dichotomies, and the set of individuals deeply concerned with, and sympathetic to, Hannah Arendt?s vision of the political sometimes seem to be mutually exclusive. So much so, in fact, that my tentative and partial identification with both of these sets makes me feel in conflict with myself. This paper is an attempt to profit from that conflict. In it, I present an account of the performative character of Arendtian action which seeks to apply that performative element to a politicization of identity that Arendt no doubt would have objected to very strongly. Along the way, I will show that the politicization of facets of human existence which aspire to univocal unquestionability as performative possibilities, which Arendt would abhor, undermines what Arendt calls ?the rise of the social" in a way her own politics never could.



"The De(con)struction of the Economic, and the Political: A Japanese Intervention"

Richard Westra, Graduate Programme in Political Studies, Queen`s University

Contra Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe claim that the economic does not exist as the rational essence of history, and argue on the basis of the notion of the discursivity of the real and the "privileging" of social practices and relations as the articulators of discourse for instating the political as the horizon of the social and the fulcrum of all social change. My argument from the perspective of the Japanese Uno approach to Marxism is that the economic is not so easily dispensed with. In the particular case of capitalism there exists a demonstrable tendency for the discursive practices of humans to be co-opted by the commodity economic for its own self-aggrandizement. Further, study of capital as an ontologically peculiar social object produces essential insights into the anatomy of material existence upon which all political initiatives for progressive social change must necessarily be predicated.



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Go to the Conference Programme and Schedule page.

Review the previous three Strategies' conference programmes:

Strategies of Critique X: The New Right (1996) with abstracts.
Strategies of Critique XI: Ends of Knowledge or the Knowledge of Ends (1997)
Strategies of Critique xii: (in)justiced subjects (1998)
Strategies of Critique 13: Superstition (1999)

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