Draft: Not To Be Quoted Without Author’s Permission
What counts is the idea of the
overflowing of objectifying thought by a
forgotten experience from which it lives.
The villains and heroes get all mixed up.
Homely/Unhomely: The In/Domestication of Being Political(ly)
My intention is to move towards the elaboration of categories that might be
used to think about the political from a perspective that is based on the premise of the
necessary end of the sacrificial structuration of history; the premise of the necessary
end of the principial epochs in the history of metaphysical thought, which I correlate
to the former; and the premise, which seems to me a corollary, of the necessary
abandonment of the thought of freedom as a negative relation to political sovereignty.
I am sorry I don‟t have the time to go further into an explanation of what I mean by
these notions, I simply want to state them as such. I will draw on literature as the
repository of a certain number of treasures for this endeavor. The following
reflections are in debt with the thought of Martin Heidegger, Maria Zambrano, and
Reiner Schurmann among others. They are preliminary and only meant to start a way.
I am also cutting my paper down in order to stay within the time limits. Apologies,
therefore, for the excessive brevity—I will leave aside entire sections on Cormac
McCarthy and Javier Marias and concentrate on a discussion of the Preface to
Emmanuel Levinas‟s Totality and Infinity and on a short story by Jorge Luis Borges
entitled “The Maker.”
Let me start with a brief definition of what I call infrapolitics. Infrapolitics is
the kind of politics that refuses to totalize the political as its own sphere of action. It
affirms, and even enacts, a break away from the political, not in the name of politics,
rather in the name of an essential affirmation that involves ethics but that is not itself
limited to ethics. An enigmatic sentence towards the last pages of Immanuel Kant´s
Metaphysics of Morals might point us towards that essential affirmation: “The human
being is a being meant for society (though he is also an unsociable one), and in
cultivating the social state he feels strongly the need to reveal himself to others (even
with no ulterior purpose)” (216). The need for anti-moralist revelation, for a self-
exposure without calculation—it is not yet ethical, and it certainly has nothing to do
with politics. It is something else and points to a realm of practical reason that can
hardly be captured by the division of the latter into ethics and politics. Is it a
rhetorical need? It conditions all rhetoric. It is perhaps from the incalculable abyss of
this need that there can be something like an infrapolitical position, which is in itself
neither properly ethical nor properly political, but which nevertheless abhors moralist
betrayal. We should wonder whether this is not the reason why there should be
My question is about literature and the possibility of democracy. I am not too
concerned with the idea of a democratic literature, however. The need that Kant
registers for self-exposure without ulterior purpose seems to exceed the very
mandates of unsocial sociability. It would seem to send us towards an alternative
realm of inquiry: an excess, or a beyond. Within the totality of the social, there is this
need that is not justified by the social, although it needs the social. What is this
revelation of oneself to others without purpose? This excess beyond justification,
beyond justice even, does not seem the locus of a democratic right. It points towards
the unfamiliar, towards the radicality of an outside that will not be domesticated
within democracy itself. It reminds me of the verses pronounced by the Chorus in
Sophocles‟s Antigone, where the human is described as pantoporos aporos, where the
site of politics is described as hipsipolis apolis, and of course of the Heideggerian
interpretation of those verses in Holderlin‟s Hymn „The Ister‟. This is the same book
in which Heidegger claims that Holderlin‟s poetry stands outside metaphysics (“this
poetry must stand entirely outside metaphysics and thus outside of the essential realm
of Western art” ) to the extent to which, in it, an essential thought of historicality
as homecoming is enacted. “Coming to be at home is thus a passage through the
foreign. And if the becoming homely of a particular humankind sustains the
historicality of its history, then the law of the encounter [Auseinandersetzung]
between the foreign and one‟s own is the fundamental truth of history, a truth from
out of which the essence of history must unveil itself” (49). I want to associate
Kant‟s self-exposure without calculation to this passage through the foreign, through
the Auseinandersetzung with the other and with every other as fundamental truth of
history. My question is whether this excess from subjectivity out of subjectivity—an
excess that literature, beyond Holderlin, can express--first opens the possibility of
democracy or sends us elsewhere.
Immanuel Levinas´ “Preface” to his first major work opens with the question of
war and morality. War and morality are incompatible. If war, then perhaps no
morality. “War is not only one of the ordeals—the greatest—of which morality lives;
it renders morality derisory. The art of foreseeing war and of winning it by every
means—politics—is henceforth enjoined as the very exercise of reason. Politics is
opposed to morality, as philosophy to naiveté” (21). Politics and war are the same, or
rather, politics is the art of winning wars. And of course, Levinas says, “we do not
need obscure fragments of Heraclitus to prove that being reveals itself as war to
philosophical thought, that war does not only affect it as the most patent fact, but as
the very patency, or the truth, of the real” (21). So, for philosophical thought,
Levinas says, being reveals itself as war, that is, as politics. War is “the pure
experience of pure being” (21). In Cormac McCarthy‟s Blood Meridian we see it in
Judge Holden‟s words: “In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the
defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement
of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war,
whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war
is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one‟s will and the will of another
within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War
is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is
But Levinas does not leave it there—neither does McCarthy, but that is another
story--, because something haunts war. Levinas calls it “the eschatology of messianic
peace” (22). I will not follow Levinas all the way to his conclusions, but, like him, I
do not believe that war is the unity of existence. There is an exception to war, an
exception to politics. Heidegger‟s essay on Holderlin‟s „The Ister‟ says that the sense
of the political is not itself political. It is this structure that calls, or has always
already received in itself, an exception to war and to the thought of war. I want to
know whether this exception to war that not just Levinasian philosophy but literature
may express is also the very possibility of democracy—a thought that may have been
remote from Heidegger, as everybody says, or not quite so remote from the late
Heideggers, as parts of Schurmann‟s work seem to indicate.
“Eschatology institutes a relation with being beyond the totality or beyond history,
and not with being beyond the past and the present” (22). The point is that
eschatology does not refer to the past or the present or the future, that is, that it does
not refer to temporality or to the supratemporal understood as what sustains the
temporal. It refers, rather, to what is beyond the totality. Eschatology is, therefore,
not a teleology. It is not a teleology because it does not have a temporal structure. It
is, simply, the announcement of something beyond the totality, which means, beyond
the totality of time, and thus outside time, outside finitude (but then again not simply
as what is beyond time but still within ontology). If it is outside war, and outside
politics, it is not because it comes at the end of war or at the end of politics. What is
that something named in the expression “messianic peace”? And how do we have
access to it? He says: “Infinity” (23). And he says: “It is reflected within the totality
and history, within experience” (23). Although it is outside totality and outside
history, that is, outside the purveyors of experience, it is nevertheless reflected within
them, and thus reflected in experience. Indeed, Levinas will say, it constitutes
experience, because “[t]he idea of being overflowing history makes possible existents
. . . that can speak rather than lending their lips to an anonymous utterance of history.
Peace is produced as this aptitude for speech. The eschatological vision breaks with
the totality of wars and empires in which one does not speak” (23).
Experience is linked by Levinas to this capacity for speaking, for speech or
language, for saying. A vision of experience makes speech possible, and speech is
only possible out of this vision. Without it there would be no language. This would
be a “vision without image,” and a “signification without a context” (23). In Blood
Meridian the kid speaks not just when he tells Sproule “I know your kind . . . What‟s
wrong with you is wrong all the way through you” (66), but also when he tells the
Mexican mummy, in halting Spanish, “?No puedes escucharme?” (315). Kant‟s
notion of a need for exposure without ulterior purpose is matched by Javier Marías‟
understanding of the basis of the need for writing in the phenomenon of haunting that
Manana en la batalla piensa en mi explores and by McCarthy‟s thematization of an
inner fold in the practice of war. Those are glimpses of Levinas‟s experience of an
overflow in objectifying thought: a signification without a context, immemorial as
such, beyond history, atemporal, without which, I add, any narrative, provided it
could happen, would be just another narrative of effective war.
That something is infinity, in the Levinasian language, as precisely the presence
that “overflows the thought that thinks it” (25). It is an excess or a beyond, and it is
reflected within experience to the extent that experience comes into itself in that
haunting: “if experience precisely means a relation with . . . what always overflows
thought, the relation with infinity accomplishes experience in the fullest sense of the
word” (25). Haunting is first and foremost the trace of infinity in the thought that is
overflown. And it is beyond war, beyond history, beyond totality, beyond politics.
Because it is beyond politics, it can found a politics.
But it is not that there is a haunting, and therefore infinity. It is not that there is
infinity, and therefore a haunting. No: both haunting and infinity are simply the
consequences of an essential “non-adequation” (27). It is factic, essential facticity:
thought “contains in itself what it can neither contain nor receive by virtue of its own
identity” (27). Whatever arises is absolutely other, yet thought must welcome it.
Haunting is the condition of all hospitality, or hospitality is the condition of haunting.
“To contain more than one‟s capacity is to shatter at every moment the framework of
a content that is thought, to cross the barriers of immanence” (27). This is the
essential violence: “What . . . breaks forth as essential violence is the surplus of being
over the thought that claims to contain it” (27). It is the call of redress within war,
outside revenge, that guides every infrapolitical narrative, perhaps all literature.
Essential violence may even be the precondition for any anti-teleological
understanding of the political as the possibility of a space beyond sacrifice, beyond
principles, beyond sovereignty. It may therefore be the very possibility of the
political as democracy.
Experience is therefore the essential non-adequation to the reality of war, to the
reality of politics. Experience is always the experience of an essential violence.
Essential violence is the condition of infrapolitical narrative. For Levinas it is also the
condition of ethics. Indeed, Levinas says, to that essential violence, understood as the
experience of metaphysical exteriority, as the relation with the absolutely other,
“ethics is the royal road” (29). But what if, before ethics, there were another practice
that makes of the double suspension of the ethical by the political and of the political
by the ethical its very possibility? This practice, which finds its expression in
literature, but is not limited to literature, is infrapolitical practice. It exposes us
without ulterior purpose, and therefore remains, itself, beyond the double suspension.
It remains haunted, and lives in the haunting. So haunting, like literature, may not be
beyond war, and it is not outside war, it is no exception to the war. Just a fold within
it: infrapolitical. It does not pretend to sanctity since, as infrapolitics, it is also a
suspension of ethics, and not just of war, even just war. This practice of the
infrapolitical fold is the experience of essential violence in the political. No more.
But it makes a difference.
Let me now turn to Jorge Luis Borges, and concretely to his story called “The
Maker,” because it begins with a warrior and ends with a poet. It is blindness that
mediates between the two, in such a way that the experience of literature comes, in
Borges´ text, to be associated with blindness as such, or with a certain blindness. The
warrior is he who “had never lingered among the pleasures of memory,” as everything
was for him “satisfaction and immediate indifference” (292). Even stories are for
him sheer immediacy, which he takes in as he takes in “reality—without asking
whether they were true or false” (292). But blindness set in, and “the splendid
universe began drawing away from him” (292). This withdrawal of the world, which
at first causes despair, is also however the return of the world, as the man “[descends]
into his memory, which seemed to him endless, and managed to draw up from that
vertigo the lost remembrance that gleamed like a coin in the rain” (293). His
memories, memories of love and adventure, Ares and Aphrodite, war and encounter,
come to him “without bitterness, like some mere foreshadowing of the present” (293).
It is then that he understands that he is Homer, as he hears “the rumor of glory and
hexameters . . . , of the Odysseys and Iliads that it was his fate to sing.”
The story tells us little else. It recounts simply the experience of literary memory
upon the withdrawal of the world in blindness, and it is an experience of (the memory
of) war and love, of war or love. These are the elements of a haunting only
encountered in vision‟s withdrawal from the world, only encountered through
memory like, the text says, “a coin in the rain.” Literary haunting remains, however,
in Borges‟s story, absolutely circumscribed by either war or encounter, by war and
encounter. Perhaps we can understand this notion of encounter as the Heideggerian
Auseinandersetzung that links the homely and the homely, that makes of historical
homecoming a necessary passage through the foreign, through the other. And the
other emerges first of all as the strange haunting of the blindness.
Borges‟s notion of blindness refers in this text to essential violence. If essential
violence, in the Levinasian definition, is the surplus of being over the thought that
claims to contain it, then literature is an opening to the facticity of such an overflow.
Literature is an opening to eschatological vision, that is, to that vision without an
image that nevertheless, as literature, necessitates the image to express itself. Hence
the haunting, which is the expression of the non-adequation between image and
essential violence. Literature is the haunting of the image. Literature is idolatrous
dwelling. Blindness is the haunting of the image. Blindness is the cult of images.
Isn‟t literary blindness, then, understood in this precise Borgesian sense, the
possibility of a new understanding of political desire? Even of the political as such?
Of the two memories that haunt “without bitterness, like some mere
foreshadowing of the present,” the first memory is, for Borges, a deeply
autobiographical one: “Another boy had insulted him, and he had run to his father and
told him the story. As though he weren‟t paying attention, or didn‟t understand, his
father let him talk, but then he took a bronze knife down from the wall—a beautiful
knife, charged with power, that the boy had furtively coveted. Now he held it in his
hands, and the surprise of possession wiped away the insult that he had suffered, but
his father‟s voice was speaking: Let it be known that you are a man, and there was a
command in his voice” (293). We know how deeply disturbing such memories can
be, indeed how disturbing this particular memory was for Borges himself. But this
text recovers it, and it says: “It was the precise flavor of that moment that he sought
for now; the rest didn‟t matter” (293). The rest didn‟t matter: only the memory of an
experience that can now be recovered in its difference with itself, in a “flavor” whose
trace is a witness to the fact that we contain more than our capacity, because there is
language. The young warrior follow the paternal order. If the young warrior could
once think or unthink of himself as wandering the cities of men “with no law but
satisfaction and immediate indifference” (292), the blind poet is now subject to an
entirely other law. Is it the moral law? Would the poet who dreams of the child in
Borges‟ story be calling, in his attempt at recovering the imageless vision, at finding
an image for his vision and thus recover it, the “flavor” of the encounter with a
despotic father, for a moral reenactment that could provide an abstract
“foreshadowing of the present”? No. “In this night of his mortal eyes” (293) the
poet lives through the haunting of his images, experiences the haunting as that which,
in the image, stands beyond the image. This is poetic dwelling. The literary, like the
political, is not content with recovering the experience of violence done and
suffered—it points, beyond it, to the essential violence where war and encounters first
arise. And it remembers it.
In the section of the Critique of Judgment entitled “General Comment on the
Exposition of Aesthetic Reflective Judgments,” Kant says:
Perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish Law is the commandment:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing
that is in heaven or earth, or under the earth, etc. This commandment alone
can explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people in its civilized era felt for its
religion when it compared itself with other peoples, or can explain the pride
that Islam inspires. The same holds true for our presentation of the moral law,
and for the predisposition within us for morality. It is indeed a mistake to
worry that depriving this presentation of whatever could commend it to the
senses will result in its carrying with it no more than a cold and lifeless
approval without any moving force or emotion. It is exactly the other way
around. For once the senses no longer see anything beyond them, while yet
the unmistakable and indelible idea of morality remains, one would sooner
need to temper the momentum of an unbounded imagination so as to keep it
from rising to the level of enthusiasm than to seek to support these ideas with
images and childish devices for fear that they would otherwise be powerless.
Levinas echoes this Kantian thought, where a blindness to images is praised as
essential to morality, in Difficult Freedom when he says: “Judaism has decharmed
the world, contesting the notion that religions apparently evolved out of enthusiasm
and the Sacred. Judaism remains foreign to any offensive return of these forms of
human elevation. It denounces them as the essence of idolatry” (14). But if both
Kant and Levinas condemn the very notion of idolatrous dwelling in the name of a
strict respect for morality, it is because they are talking about morality, not about
literature, not even about politics. The haunting of the image remains primary for
literature. It is a haunting because literature knows that there is no image vision, that
the vision can only search for an image, and that the search overflows the image. And
it is what makes literature infrapolitical in the sense of the double suspension. It
suspends the political in the name of the ethical, but it also suspends the ethical from
the political. Literature, as such, makes no ethical judgment. It is a double suspension
of judgment, or the haunting of judgment.
Borges‟ “The Maker” could be taken to be an illustration of the Levinasian
position according to which “consciousness is the impossibility of invading reality
like a wild vegetation that absorbs or breaks or pushes back everything around it. The
turning back on oneself of consciousness is the equivalent not of self-contemplation
but of the fact of not existing violently and naturally, of speaking to the Other”
(Difficult 9). Things, for the young warrior, sensual things “could flood the entire
circuit of his soul” (292). Blindness is consciousness for him, and it is experienced
first of all as a deprivation of images: “Now (he felt) I will not be able to see the sky
filled with mythological dread or this face that the years will transfigure” (292). The
return of the images is the encounter with infinity or messianic peace precisely insofar
as it is experienced as a return, as the creation of a dimension of inwardness: “Days
and nights passed over this despair of his flesh, but one morning he awoke, looked
(with calm now) at the blurred things that lay about him, and felt, inexplicably, the
way one might feel upon recognizing a melody or a voice, that all this had happened
to him before and that he had faced it with fear but also with joy and hopefulness and
curiosity” (292-93). What he understands is then, “with grave wonder,” that his
work was destined for others: that it would remain “echoing in the cupped hands of
human memory” (293). This is homecoming, in the encounter with history as such,
even with the history of the future.
The renunciation of war and politics is not therefore the immediate shelter in
morality. This is what seems important to emphasize, perhaps against Levinas, but
certainly also with Levinas: that literature, and hence also politics, points beyond
war, as the unity of being, and remains in the space of an overflow where a dwelling
that is not yet ethical, except in a rather elementary or trivial sense, absolutely refuses
a political definition. To the poet a second image comes: “A woman, the first woman
the gods had given him, had awaited him in the darkness of a subterranean crypt, and
he searched for her through galleries that were like labyrinths of stone and down
slopes that descended into darkness” (293). The overflow: the infinite displacement
between awaiting and encounter, the void of a haunting where only images dwell or
A new foundation of the political, in the non-teleological, non-sovereign, non-
sacrificial, non-principial way, can only point to the releasement of those images, to
letting-them-be. To my mind, no democracy otherwise.
University of Aberdeen/University at Buffalo
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