[En] Citizenship and Difference in the Land of Agonism

publié le 23 mars 2011 à 05:35 par Émulations Revue   [ mis à jour : 2 nov. 2011 à 14:44 ]






Par Eloi Saint Bris 
University of Massachusetts. 

On William E. Connolly’s Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. 

[Using a backslash,] I want to emphasize the way difference recoils back on identity and not just the other way. Of course, a lot of times this little gesture of mine gets lost in bibliographies.[1] William E. Connolly. 

“The will to system is a lack of experience, to say the least” (xi). With these words laid out in the preface of Identity\Difference, Connolly sets forth his atypical program of complication of the political experience. Written twenty years ago, the book was enormously influential throughout many disciplines, beginning with social and political theory. As one of the main representatives of agonism, Connolly inscribed his theory in the political landscape by problematizing and politicizing first and foremost the question of the other and difference in any societal project, making agonism henceforward incontrovertible. Twenty years after its publication, let us come back to the main implications of Connolly’s work.

His book is a critical address of the main political theories in the field which main contain a systemic element, namely transcendental theory (abiding to God’s will in Augustianism), individualism, collectivism and communitarianism. Through what he titles a “political paradox”—the complex relationship of identity\difference which, while it sets in motion a political identity that benefits human beings (from the possibility of peaceful cohabitation to being a privileged space for individualities to blossom), already creates difference within itself in the shape of repressed otherness, disciplinary tendencies and exclusion out of identity—, Connolly proposes an agonistic “politics of paradox” (92), one that embraces fully the paradox in a non-repressive way without nonetheless sacrificing the concept of identity considered essential to any living communities.

The author’s critical program is driven by different point of entries inside political philosophies, in particular the myth of collective unity in politics as the uniting interrelation of one and the whole, either provided by a natural, mathematical, harmonious or rational/reasonable interpretation, but always inherited from a religious idea of collectivity and which becomes dangerous when God is decreed dead and therefore when the contingency (the unfathomable and untamable aspect he represented) is now incorporated into the idea that the world is ours.[2] What then is our reaction to contingency—what is and will never be ours or like us? What happens if and when difference “recoils back” on our identity? While it can seem an aggression, difference, Connolly suggests, can recoil back into the arms of identity, into that life identity offered difference. The same one difference had offered itself. And vice versa. Recoiling also means provoking the retreat of the term behind it in the backslash relationship. However, less than a warlike retreat, recoiling is a sort of affirmation of weakness on the part of identity, the very re-appropriation of a power that it can achieve through its fault, its crack, that it now recognizes and welcomes fairly and peacefully, despite the agonistic set-up it requires. The recoil of honesty into trust.

Agonism, in turn, becomes the project. The Oxford English Dictionary defines agonism as both “a combat, an athletic match” and “the prize of a contest.” This very prize—the result of an addressed, embraced and embodied political paradox­—is aimed at in the agonistic democracy that Connolly calls for. Citizenship in the land of agonism is first and foremost grounded in these multifaceted relations to difference (not in the self-construction of a citizenry in myths surrounded by borders[3]), what Connolly calls the “care for strife and interdependence in identity\difference” (220), what I summarize by the expression the politics of a backslash.

The Religious Subjacency of Politics

The first problem that Connolly points to is the relics of religious structuring in political life[4]. Drawing on Augustinian philosophy of monotheism, he shows that one of the founding events of human life is the “primordial experience of suffering” (2), which leads to the constitution of evil to which this suffering is attributed. Since the divinity is the source of all things, is evil his or her creation? Augustine has endeavored to demonstrate that if good is the product of God, evil is the product of will. Evil rises when the bad angels raise their voice to say, “I beg to differ,” and step outside the realm of divine identity. Such a myth pervades more than we might think the relation of identity to difference. It sets the other as the one willingly not abiding by the rule that a fictional “we” adopts. It defines identity unilaterally in its opposition to a dissenting difference (the negative space generates the positive one) rather than allowing space for competing interpretations (“agonisitc competition” (3) or what Ricoeur calls the “conflict of interpretations”). And furthermore, it seeks salvation into gnosis, the “insight into the truth of transcendence” (2) that is, the transcendence of our differences from the dominant point of view of a given identity.

Although the separation of religion and politics is an achievement of modernity, Connolly argues that the very structure of the identity\difference relationship might still be pervaded by monotheism. Quite surely, secularized gnosis is still a significant part of political thought, may it be less transcendental but still justified by a teleology of a higher harmony, or the rational transcendence of public reason, reasonableness, etc.

Such is the religious subjacency that flows under contemporary politics. But why shall we criticize it? For it makes, as Connolly deplores, the identity\difference relationship—such as it was constructed in a religious structuring, that is, intrinsically exclusive and encouraging disciplinary correcting­—“indispensable.” Indeed, the expression of difference, the power to differ in an identitarian move, is the mark of will. In this interpretation, will is abolished without this distorted notion of identity\difference.

The whole raison d’être of an agonistic citizenship is not to override, ignore, or to make adjustments in contemporary terms within this indispensability, as it is the case in many political theories (which we shall indicate soon). Rather it is to address this paradox fully. First by becoming aware of it. And second by stepping out of the religious subjacency to embrace a reformulation of the paradox that includes a complication of identity\difference and embraces a “nontheistic” structuring of it, and that will still withstand the test of alterity. In brief, an agonistic citizen is one that does not believe in the myth of monist commonality but rather engages in the competing field of political interpretations in a respectful and caring way for difference. This directly contradicts the whole of “ontotheological” strategies (a term borrowed from Heidegger by Connolly) that bury the political paradox under myths of “transcendental proofs,” “fictive rational consensus,” “myth of the contract,” “discernment of a harmonious telos” (12-3) Those are just as many “compensatory strategies” within a religious subjacency which takes on identity are problematic and which representations of reality is dangerously unrealistic.

Contingency and Resentment

A second, not unrelated, problem pertaining to our traditional conceptions of citizenship derives from the fact that most theories rely implicitly on an ideal of brotherhood, of the higher good or of public reason and fail to invert the hypothesis entirely (but realistically). Yet if we are faithful to a phenomenology of life (the very ordinary experience of living one’s life—Connolly’s second point of entry), we discover that humans are more exposed to become intolerant to contingency—what makes their world uncertain, vulnerable, unmasterable, and therefore what escapes the necessity of their will. Contingency is prone to create resentment, a compulsory hatred of humanity within humans[5]. However compelling, this phenomenological constraint does not seem to be addressed by political theories. Individualists dissolve resentment in self-reliance. Collectivists “elevate the experience of connectedness to a larger community, thereby dissolving resentment into a solution of common identifications” (30). And communitarians will likely exclude resenting communities if they fall outside the realm of the reasonableness of “harmonious norms and ends for all.” These three approaches in their determinateness to do well are bound to exclude for they deny spaces for the unfathomable/unmasterable (the “incorrigible or necessary contingency” (30)). Connolly essentially summarizes this problem in a wonderful aphorism: “what injustice may I be concealing in my ideal so that I can dream my dream in a world of injustice?” (34)

Resenting your neighbor is a very likely experience. Hence the critical program that imparts to agonistic citizenship is, beyond the rational consensus of Rawlsian theory or the Habermasian deliberative democracy—two prominent approaches of these problems which flaws we now see clearly—, to understand that resentment comes from a theological mistreatment of contingency (God might be dead but contingency isn’t, as secularists might believe), to deconstruct the ideologies of mastery of the self or absolute harmony of the whole, and to reveal disciplinary tendencies that results from our treatment of difference in the identity\difference relationship as we have conceptualized it. The critical project shall in turn give rise to a constructive endeavor: creating a space in the self and in the world for free and creative expression/experience of the unfathomable. This space is ideally found within the text, through the postmodern practice of intertextual disruption (one that reveals what is invisible, addresses what is resented), which in other word is a politics of unrest toward the identity\difference relationship. Eventually the land of agonism will realize its project of common identity as “a lived conception that takes itself to be both historically contingent and inherently relational in its definition [and] might create possibilities for the strife and interdependence of identity\difference” (48) with existing differences beyond an internal and chastised otherness.

Politics of a Backslash

Connolly’s main contribution to the field of citizenship theories is to “refuse to bury the political paradox of difference beneath a complacent rhetoric of individuality, plurality, dialogue, tolerance or harmonization” (69), which are all, in their concealed ways, ontotheologies that “presuppose an ultimate answer to the question of being” (71). Begging to differ, agonistic citizenship wishes to be permanently attending a social ontology of the present, of what is currently happening in the being of identities, their interdependence and strife. For any other approach is bound to be “true to identity” and “false to difference.” In more concrete terms, citizenship in the land of Agonism is informed by aforementioned political theories but it supersedes them when it turns into a political theory of individuality, in the tradition of liberal individuality[6], which also accounts for contingency and the ambivalences of individuals (their proneness to resentment) and which opens spaces for the diversity of interpretations. Citizens recognize that politics is ambivalent. What it creates fulfills or generates humankind (in an ontological sense). But at the same time, it enables the fruit of its creation (the state) to have a life of itself that applies its discipline back on some humans. Embodying this paradox, they realize that difference is the highest stake of their polity. They endeavor to “politicize difference in a world in which identity is essential” (84). Rather than having an identity leaning on difference (as in identity/difference), they develop a sense of, and care for, a difference recoiling back on identity. Not only is difference an ineradicable constraint (as an element of discord), it is also a perpetual reminder of life, of its unfathomable variety and its inexhaustible possibility. Not only is identity defined by difference, it embraces this necessity with confidence in the productiveness of its perpetual discomfort; its unsettling force is a life-producing drive.

A whole civic education can be derived from the theory of agonistic citizenship that takes the shape of “a discursive ethic of cultivation that tap into fugitive experiences arguably submerged by alternative accounts and then strive to draw its interpretation of them into established terms of discourse” (167). Through cultivation, citizens come to recognize moments of their experiences—previously considered insignificant or doomed as different—as signs of agonal respect, which, when exposed to interpretation, can be build upon (hoping to be heard) and turned into a political discourse that itself will have to withstand in a daily fashion “a variety of experiential, existential, and dialogical tests” (167). The civic education acts as an initiator to living and recognizing the constellations of agonistic experiences that act in the very heart of a “phenomenology of life and death” that is now revered for what it is. It realizes the transformation of ethical experiences into political communities.

Difference as Otherness

I said earlier that I was prone to contend the definition of difference as negative alterity only. Connolly’s reformulation of the identity\difference relationship reverses this consideration by making a recoiling difference as the source of a fair agonism. However, some challenges survive. I believe that Connolly makes an essential step forward in the road toward the complication of politics by experience and interrelations[7], but he might seem to be stopping on his way… When he talks about the “double relation of identity to difference” (67) seen as both an essential and threatening element, he departs from the myth of communal unity of concepts to lay out their dualism but he doesn’t go further toward their multiplicity, as a fully agonistic position would require. Throughout the book, identity is truly pervaded by agonism. But what it faces is a constitutive difference, for “it requires difference in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order secure its own self-certainty” (64). It is later said that identity’s main activity is to “fix” difference.

Thus the reformulation of identity\difference, in Connolly’s framework, builds itself on a one-sided view of difference (which seems much less pervaded by the agonistic question than identity is). In epigraph of his text, Connolly quotes Jan Clausen fearing to become an “identity junky.” Less feared is the pitfall of being a “difference junky.”

The other often seems a big Other and we fail to interrogate the moment when the Other becomes an other (with a small ‘o’) and provokes the seemingly productive shock of proximate difference, an idea that has yet to be explored for its utter dissemblance from traditional otherness. One might ask: can we push further the complication of experience? Although self-definition of the self and the world as a constitutive element of the practice of politics is successfully unraveled to face a problematic paradox, the process leans dangerously on the incorporation of difference as antagonistic (despite welcoming this antagonism with reverence). It is dangerous for it leaves a concept unpacked, or rather, untouched by the complication of experience necessary to establishing a fair and probable political theory. The multiple levels of alterity may take us to meet a (big) Other and a (small, real) other. To encounter a very concrete ‘You’ is much different than dreading an abstract, disciplinary ‘We.’ The truth might well be that identity in the first place constructs itself in relation to very plural moments of difference that differ more than once from a strictly negative otherness-difference.




[1] Personal exchange with the author. Unable to detach my eyes from the backslash and not finding any explanation in the book on a detail that seemed to escape the attention of most, I resolved to email Connolly who cordially satiated my curiosity. The use of the backslash in identity\difference is not unrelated to programming languages either where it is used to “indicate that the character following should be treated specially. It is sometimes referred to as a knock-down or escape character. In various regular expression languages it cats as a switch, changing literal characters into metacharacters and vice versa” (Wikipedia). All in all, I think that a politics of “recoiling back,” if embracing the plurality of meanings of the word, is a very helpful guide to reading Identity\Difference.

[2]
“If God (with a capital letter) is dead (or at least severely wounded), then the World itself must be for us in one way or the other: it must be susceptible either to our mastery or to our quest to become attuned to a harmonious direction installed in being” (29-30).

[3]
Indeed, the nation is quasi-entirely eluded in Connolly’s analysis for the sake of the phenomenological experience of living together, dying one day, establishing oneself in the opposition of an Other. To this respect, I will have the opportunity later on to contend some aspects of difference as absolute alterity. I believe that the other is not always an opposition.

[4]
The oeuvre of the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet echoes a similar idea. Gauchet also points to a historical transition to a nontheistic structuring as what he calls the replacement of the religious primordial form of collectivity.

[5]
A concept which I find most dramatically and edifyingly treated in The Fall by Albert Camus.

[6]
A special care to the dynamic trajectory of individuality as developed by Emerson, Thoreau and George Kateb.

[7]
Called for by René Girard. See “Entretien” in Philosophie Magasine, n.23.