Something Always Escapes: Excess and Lack

Something I've been working through is the way constituted power structures, ideas, networks of power, systems, etc. gather power and then exert that power. The binary between constituted and constituent power has value, but only up to a point. It seems to lend itself too easily to static conceptions that ignore the co-constitutive and processual nature of each with the other. Similarly, hegemony vis-a-vis direct domination also seems insufficient. According to Gramsci, hegemony requires consent, like a social contract of sorts (the extent of the consciousness of this hegemony is debated). The hegemonic logic is 'consented' to by the people who then have the perpetual threat of direct domination if/when they refuse their consent. There is an indecidability that characterizes the hegemon. Like Agamben's state of exception, the hegemonic power is always threatening violence to those under its scope. The issue with this model (even as much as I find Agamben's work quite compelling; moreso generally than Gramsci's formulation) is that it does not account, at least to my mind sufficiently, for the ever-presence of its own dissolution. Sure, there is always the threat of revolutionary tumult from below. But the mechanisms of this irruption of freedom (and the subsequent potential of the reconstitution of hegemonic control) are not sussed out enough. 

One way I've been thinking through this is through a strange connection between Freud, Sartre, Deleuze and Badiou. Taking from Freud and Sartre the idea that (to paraphrase Freud) 'the more innocent you are, the guiltier you are', we can conceive of the reason power-images form, grow, and redouble in their exertion of power. That is, the more piety given to an idea (think: the logic of the Empire or the State or the Theological Doctrine), the greater its actuality increases, which then imposes an increasing guilt (i.e. a debt) that must be serviced. For Sartre, this process occurs through the logic of the practico-inert. As we work on objects (physical or non), our 'labor' is imbued into them. This labor is then stored in the object. The object then becomes a mediator over and between our social relations, imposing limits and demands on how it can be used, how we are oriented towards it, and thus how we relate to one another. Similarly, the piety attended to the image of Empire, for example, stores this immaterial labor (think of an ever-elastic balloon into which energy/air is blown). As it expands, its power increases, and so too does the extent and form of the demands imposed below. 

The curious thing that must be noted about this tendency is that it requires perpetual energy infusion. The balloon is never tied off. Rather it either expands or contracts based on the intensity of piety infused into it. Transgression of the law, for instance, diminishes the logic of the State (this is why it must be punished - to prevent the mimetic spread of transgression and the further decrease of State control). In this way, we can say that the State as such does not 'exist'. It is an artifice of collective piety - a transcendent fabrication. However, this piety is not conscious, nor is it ultimately based on consent. Rather, it is based on the control of affect in the perpetuation of habit. That is, the habitual practices that prop up the State are contingent. If they were to cease completely, so too would the State cease to 'exist'. This is why the State (or any power structure) requires endless worship - what Agamben calls 'glory' or 'doxa' and what we might as well refer to as 'liturgy' or 'allegiance'. Thus: take away the glory, take away the power. 

But what does this taking away of the glory look like? This is where Deleuze and Badiou come in - albeit only as sparring partners at the moment. For Deleuze, we might say that the way this glory is taken away is precisely because of the excess of life that perpetually tests the bounds of the Power. He would refer to this Power by many names. For now, we'll just call it 'territorialized' power. This power is a momentary, static snapshot of processes of perpetual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. As soon as power escapes, it is brought back into the fold. As soon as glory is directed elsewhere, it gets reconstituted - and then another flight away, and further reconstitution, ad infinitum. This is one of the ways neoliberal logic is so 'powerful': its ability to capture those 'lines of flight' (those excesses of piety) is due to its perpetual ability to decenter itself and reconstitute around new creations, endlessly morphing in response to the production of new flows. 

For Badiou, on the other hand, 'worlds' are constructed according to what he calls 'transcendental coordinates'. These are the transcendental conditions that constitute identities, knowledge, rules, codes, social norms, etc. Life lived in worlds, any world (a university is a world, a State is a world, a home is a world, a football pitch is a world, etc), is conditioned by these transcendental coordinates. And the logic that constitutes their emergence and that sustains them is based on exclusion, hierarchy, and restriction. Some worlds are more constituted thusly, and some less so. The extent to which these worlds are so constructed will determine what can be done politically (the extremes of which he calls either a Tensed World or an Atonic World). The point being this: for Badiou, in order for political action to emerge, there must be a dissolution of these transcendental coordinates. The power of their hold must be undone... but how? Is this through a shift in piety? Or is a shift in piety only possible after the softening of the stranglehold of these worlds?

This is where Deleuze and Badiou part most drastically. For Deleuze, piety is always excessive precisely because it is always productively creating new attachments that exceed the bounds of the 'world' which can't keep up initially to the speed of these lines of flight. Whereas for Badiou, there must be an irruption that dissolves the power of habitual glorying. This is where his notion of the Event enters. The potential for the transformation of the world is there, but it needs to be sparked to life by a transcendent force that breaks the stifling parameters that reproduce the logic of the world.

To bring this to a concrete example, I have been reading John Beasley-Murray's Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America and he spends considerable time discussing the logic of the Conquistadors. In one section, he discusses the journey of Christopher Columbus and the threat of mutiny that hung over the latter half of the journey to the West Indies. As the crew tired and weakened, as they grew frustrated with no land in sight far beyond promises made, they debated throwing Columbus overboard. Their limits had been reached. Their piety to the crown was diminished. Their affect and habits were morphed. And thus, so too was Columbus' authority. Beasley-Murray suggests that this highlights the idea that even under Empire, even under supposed hegemonic control, something escapes. But what is this something that escapes? Is it that the transcendental coordinates (a la Badiou) have dissolved releasing subjective freedom? Is it that a death-of-godding has taken place, where faith in the constituted powers are being challenged because of this dissolution? Or inversely is the death-of-godding taking place because pieties began to shift (the Deleuzian answer)? 

I'm not entirely sure how to answer this. I am tempted to side with the Deleuzian approach. I am inclined to think that there is always an excess of life and that the paradigms of control are always playing catch-up, and so it was just a matter of time before discontent with Columbus would emerge (which would then require his reassertion of power and the logic of the territorialized power, which is precisely what he did by bargaining - which itself is an example of power perpetually reterritorializing the lines of flight). But Badiou's orientation also has explanatory purchase in that it seems to allow for the release of freedom, the spark of subjectivity, under the conditions of dissolving power. Perhaps the two approaches can learn from one another. My tendency is very often both-and. Most people read these approaches as starkly either/or. I'm never satisfied with that. I'll keep pressing on...