Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Eternal Return of Politics

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Eternal Return of Politics

Article excerpt

Politics of Historical Signs

In his text The Contest of Faculties, Immanuel Kant makes an attempt to answer the question "Is the human race continually improving?" He identifies such an attempt as belonging to a history of future times. Nevertheless, according to Kant, such a history must start from some sort of experience. He reasons that "[w]e must, therefore, search for an event which would indicate that such a cause exists and that it is causally active within the human race, irrespective of the time at which it might actually operate; and it would have to be a cause which allowed us to conclude, as an inevitable consequence of its operation, that mankind is improving." (1) By reading such a situation he hoped to recognize a historical sign (in a triple sense as signum rememorativum, demonstrativum, prognostikon) which could be taken both as an indication and a prediction of the tendency of mankind to progress, and, I would add, to progress in the political sense in terms of the right of every people to create for itself a civil cons titution that is disposed to avoiding wars of aggression. (2)

For Kant this event was the (French) Revolution. Kant, however, emphasized that he lived in "a country more than a hundred miles removed from the scene of the revolution." (3) In Kant's reading, this distance is significant. What is of importance in this event as a historical sign, was not the Revolution as such, but the Revolution as a spectacle. The question of whether the Revolution succeeded or failed was not important from Kant's perspective, since "[w]e are here concerned only with the attitude of the onlookers as it reveals itself in public while the drama of great political changes is taking place." (4) The effectivity of the Revolution as a spectacle was manifest in that "this revolution has aroused in the hearts and desires of all spectators who are not themselves caught up in it a sympathy which borders almost on enthusiasm, although the very utterance of this sympathy was fraught with danger." (5) Kant recognizes in this passion an ideal or moral disposition that provides a politically progressive cause or historically progressive sign serving philosophical prediction and providing the impetus of popular enlightenment exercised by the free teachers of right, that is, the philosophers. (6)

The Revolution as Spectacle

When Michel Foucault wanted to specify the form of reflection within which he has attempted to work, he used two of Kant's essays as points of reference: "What is Enlightenment?" and the aforementioned sections of The Contest of Faculties. Foucault carefully points out what is at stake in Kant's question "What is the Revolution": the Revolution is seen as a spectacle and not as a gesticulation, and from this perspective its specific content and outcome become unimportant. (7) It is the "will to Revolution" that counts, and "its existence attests to a permanent virtuality which cannot be ignored: it is the guarantee for future history of the continuity of progress." (8) As a result of this virtuality, Foucault may conclude that this question has continued to haunt a great deal of modern thinking since the nineteenth century. (9)

For Foucault, the question "What is the Revolution?" is a kind of sequel to another question that has haunted us since Kant made it the title of his 1784 text "What is Enlightenment?" Foucault reasons that this is a question of the present, and more precisely the question of "What is there in the present that can have contemporary meaning for philosophical reflexion?" (10) The question "What is our present" pertains to the form of reflection practiced and named by Foucault as an "ontology of the present" or an "ontology of ourselves." (11) It is an intellectual style of reasoning that reflects on and poses the question of what the contemporary field of possible experience is by problematizing its own discursive presentness as an event. …

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