Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon

Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon

Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon

Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon


Deciding what is and what is not political is a fraught, perhaps intractably opaque matter. Just who decides the question; on what grounds; to what ends--these seem like properly political questions themselves. Deciding what is political and what is not can serve to contain and restrain struggles, make existing power relations at once self-evident and opaque, and blur the possibility of reimagining them differently. Political Concepts seeks to revive our common political vocabulary--both everyday and academic--and to do so critically. Its entries take the form of essays in which each contributor presents her or his own original reflection on a concept posed in the traditional Socratic question format "What is X?" and asks what sort of work a rethinking of that concept can do for us now.

The explicitness of a radical questioning of this kind gives authors both the freedom and the authority to engage, intervene in, critique, and transform the conceptual terrain they have inherited. Each entry, either implicitly or explicitly, attempts to re-open the question "What is political thinking?" Each is an effort to reinvent political writing. In this setting the political as such may be understood as a property, a field of interest, a dimension of human existence, a set of practices, or a kind of event. Political Concepts does not stand upon a decided concept of the political but returns in practice and in concern to the question "What is the political?" by submitting the question to a field of plural contention.

The concepts collected in Political Concepts are "Arche" (Stathis Gourgouris), "Blood" (Gil Anidjar), "Colony" (Ann Laura Stoler), "Concept" (Adi Ophir), "Constituent Power" (Andreas Kalyvas), "Development" (Gayatri Spivak), "Exploitation" (Etienne Balibar), "Federation" (Jean Cohen), "Identity" (Akeel Bilgrami), "Rule of Law" (J. M. Bernstein), "Sexual Difference" (Joan Copjec), and "Translation" (Jacques Lezra)


We live in a time of fast-moving social and economic change combined with ever-growing political gridlock. Nonetheless, the overwhelming bulk of work in political theory travels along well-trodden and safe academic pathways. Perhaps the reason for this is that in our academic and intellectual culture there is tacit consensus that political thinking should remain within the confines of agreed-upon disciplinary practices. Creating a space where the rules governing this consensus could be questioned, and where different, sometimes unsafe, sorts of political thinking could flourish was, from the beginning, at the center of the “political concepts” project. Thinking about the meaning of a political concept should at the same time be a means of thinking about, and of making possible ways of intervening in, the political realities of the present. Such were the colloquia (held at the New School for Social Research, Columbia, New York University, and Brown) at which the concepts that make up this volume were presented, debated, and reframed. in this respect, the present volume presents a welcome break with academic conventions. Although each piece is signed by a single author who bears the ultimate responsibility for the position taken, all the pieces carry the mark of an openly contentious and public plurality of thought, question, and collaboration.

This book is a lexicon in the making. It seeks to revive our common political vocabulary, both everyday and academic, and to do so critically. Its entries do not seek to present a definitive history of a concept or an idea, nor do they at-

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