The ‘Ismos’ of the Many
21 November 2020
Detail of Cupid Untying the Zone of Venus by Joshua Reynolds; Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
‘Populism’ can be defined as politics conducted in an impoverished language about poverty. The questioning of the realities of these two poverties—of thought and living conditions—whose provenance is the same, still retains the meaning of the more recent division of politics into the bio-spatial coordinate of right and left.
Man has to awaken to wonder—and so perhaps do peoples. —Wittgenstein, Culture and Value
Populism’ can be defined as politics conducted in an impoverished language about poverty. (1) The questioning of the realities of these two poverties—of thought and living conditions—whose provenance is the same, still retains the meaning of the more recent division of politics into the bio-spatial coordinate of right and left. The slick hierophants of the former tactfully assert that a reason is still being exercised in the impoverished language. The latter assuages, sugar coats, by comparing the fact of poverty with the scale of historic poverty and accuses us of exiguity of the desire to pursue radical changes, such as veganism and other moral determinations of everyday life, in other words, hypophysics.
It is important to register that today the bio-spatial coordinates have a meaning only in relation to what is being called ‘populism’. But before we come to reckon with the conditions under which ‘populism’ sustains itself—primarily the technological condition—it is necessary to understand what it means to call a collection of men ‘people’. The mysterious value invested in this notion—‘the people is the good’—has allowed confusions of concepts (for example, Heidegger on the ‘volk’ and ‘dwelling’) and the logics of miracles (Walter Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’) to cover over the ground of politics. Instead of falling into the temptations of ‘the people’ (which helped to create ‘Anna Hazare events’ in India that led to the Hindu fascist ascension) one must ask ‘what is a people?’ in order to find out if there is such a thing. Further, one must examine the functional isolations through which men are determined as a people such that an ‘ismos’ assigns to them a state of being self-immured and according to which they come to be the end for which they alone are the means.
Populism says nearly nothing. When one defines a doctrine in accordance with a genus it would certainly delineate that which lies outside it, in the manner of recording a gentle contrariness as Aristotle would have thought. For instance when we consider ‘Zoo-ism’ it retains within it the possibility for something like a ‘humanism’ to be articulated as a species, although explicitly it merely separates itself from the ‘non-Zoos’. The people implies a collection of men who are distinguished from a collection of petals, of stones, of prime numbers; more precisely the ‘non-people’. That is, an ‘ism’ of the people does not say much, except that it is concerned with the abstracted people from the various determinate gatherings of men and that it is not concerned with any other animal. But it indicates an underlying condition; it is difficult today to define any ‘ism’ as such without some embarrassment, or that there is a consensus that we have found the end of ‘ismos’ (-ισμός). We resist witnessing the contours of what is now called the people because it may be a certain image which could force us to abandon all our familiar notions of politics and, we are forced to reckon through it with something other than ‘man’ (as that which makes ‘the people’) emerge in the determination of all values which is technological determinism.
But before we come to the new image of politics we have to have familiarity with the ‘ismos’. The ‘ismos’ suffix is used to create abstract nouns that refer to something which is not a particular thing but that which may define a particular thing as that very thing, such as truth rather than something true, or Marxism rather than Marx. The abstract nouns derived through the suffix – ισμός tend to indicate something of a doctrine which corresponds then to a set of practices with regularity. For example, one would not speak of a ‘pollen-ism’, unless we had already derived a concept through analogy from pollens. On the other hand when we speak of ‘Marxism’ it refers to a set of doctrines derived from the corpus of Marx, from which one can then obtain a limited number of distinct regularities through the selection of groups from the given set of doctrines. The Marxism of Lenin, say, is distinct from that of Mao, although they are both Marxisms.
The mysterious value invested in this notion—‘the people is the good’—has allowed confusions of concepts (for example, Heidegger on the ‘volk’ and ‘dwelling’) and the logics of miracles (Walter Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’) to cover over the ground of politics.
The practice of denoting states or defining regularities or creating abstract nouns through –ismos has had a theological passage and not a theological origin. Its early religious use was to denote doctrinally bound religious practices that could display regularity of conduct in the everyday life of the believer, including Judaismos and Christianism. The schoolmen would continue to derive abstract nouns to mark doctrines and distinct theological approaches such as Thomism and Scottism. The secular usage of–ισμός came to be common from eighteenth century onwards, as we can see in the ‘Spinozism’ contests of Germany. Politics was soon defined as a battle of competing–ισμός which we often mistakenly called ideological battles. (2)
The regularities of practices and regularized projects include socialism, communism, liberalism and situationism. We also found the extrication of doctrines from the corpus of individuals to derive –isms, the–ισμός of proper names—Leninism, Maoism, Trotskyism and Gandhism. It is well known that these constitutions of abstract nouns in politics that originated in the nineteenth century were reliant on the place of ‘rumen’, a room for turning over and over, vacated by Christianism. The ‘rumen’ was where Christian theologies determined human essence through the permutations of the relation between the creator and the creatures with respect to being in such a way that one could set a for-what or telos for man which in turn could be used to prescribe forms of regularity for familial civil life. For example, if one were to argue that the creature and the creator are determinations of something prior, say being, this would grant man the status of a finite god and for the creator the position of the infinite man. Following from that, people would be a collection of finite gods.
There are versions of this problematic in both Duns Scotus and M.K. Gandhi. However, by the time Christianity vacated the ‘rumen’, the conceptual resources and the tendencies of thoughts had been the engines of the turning over of man—that is, the discoveries of various regularities of man with respect to the infinite man—were exhausted. Yet, in the political abstract nouns derived from proper names entertained the sense of a finite destiny which did not refer man to the creator or the infinite man, rather to man himself as something which could determine a historical bound for itself. We should note for now that the practitioners of all these political abstract nouns of the past would not deny that they were concerned with the people and only the people.
The proliferation of ‘isms’ in the last century denoted the confidence in the creation of new regularities while we must note that it was also the century which extended the critique of ‘essences’ towards the ‘criticalisation’ of –ισμός; a related but distinct group of activities of the latter kind came to have their own schools, and ισμός including deconstructionism and existentialism. The –isms of the last century while proliferating it were at the same time relieving it of any ‘essentiality’ and in that they were ‘anti-isms’.
The secular usage of–ισμός came to be common from eighteenth century onwards, as we can see in the ‘Spinozism’ contests of Germany. Politics was soon defined as a battle of competing–ισμός which we often mistakenly called ideological battles.
To a political–ισμός belongs a man who is then the –ianus of it; the latter is the man who adheres to the doctrines named by the former abstract noun, such as a socialist is someone adhering to socialism—the model of doctrine and the adherent. The doctrine makes it possible for the adherent to constitute various regular relations within the milieu of the doctrine, such as ‘friend and enemy’, the blasphemer, the renegade and the dissident. One can observe this tendency in the doctrinal schools of philosophy too, where the followers of a certain doctrine would either designate other distinct and interesting doctrines in their neighbourhoods to be a species of their own or some other similar doctrines which are less interesting as belonging to the opposite doctrinal school. The little distinctions that make the greatest differences in philosophy thus remain hidden for the adherents.
We can now come to the beginning of our search for the –ismos of the people: populism or, people-ism, came to be when the –ισμός had already lost its provenances and for this reason in a crowd named as ‘populist’ one will not find an –ianus or the doctrine and the adherent. As we know Walter Benjamin sought to find the occasions and the conditions under which a crowd emerges through the screens of doctrines and laws that had established regularities for it. Benjamin’s text, despite the efforts at remaining elusive, has a simple thesis: The regular forms of the people comprehended by law are maintained only through what he called mundane ‘violence’ and it is broken through a form of ‘violence’ which cannot be comprehended by the law that prescribes (and describes) the regularities of the people and for this reason he called it ‘divine’ that was his way of retaining a relation to the theological problematic of contingency and miracle as the conditions for the moral life of man. If this model could explain the people-isms of analog today then we will have arrived at the epoch of Benjamin-ism, and what we call ‘populism’ will be the beginning of the perpetual reign of divine violence. However, ‘populism’ may indicate something else altogether as we will find.
We know that this is not quite the case with almost any particular phenomenon we have been designating as populist. Rather, we find that most populist political formations resemble ‘fascisms’ and that the exceptions constituted by ‘welfarisms’ and ‘socialisms’ indicate that people have come to be something easily determinable, a collection of men with a propensity to any regularity whatsoever as long as it is not meant for a long time. In other words, programmability marks men in the era of populism.
Martin Heidegger, while aligning with Nazism, was aware of the incipient forms of politics. Heidegger delivered a lecture course in 1934 at the University of Freiburg that was published later under the title ‘Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language’. The relation between the title of the lecture and the contents are not evident at first since the contents of the lecture are concerned with the determination of a people, of ‘volk’ and Nazism.
As with his other texts of this period, Heidegger was pursuing here something like a decline in the history of being. That is, the departure from the experience of being filled with the wonder found in the texts of the pre-Socratics was set aside by Plato’s determination of being as ‘Idea’ in favour of the explanatory power given by the gathering of things under their ‘aspect’ led to the path marks through which metaphysics—the determination of being as a being—would lead to technology. The text refers to the original experience of logos as the comportment or being in the same milieu which unsettlingly differs with itself, as the gathering. The experience of coming to be in the milieu of ‘the same’ was eventually surrendered to logic as the rule-governed ordering of propositions—‘It is the science of the forms of the fundamental structures and fundamental rules of the proposition’. (3) Further, language too is found to reach the status of a mere domain of things to be ordered and organized in his time.
All of these changes—from logos to reason and language to linguistics—are found to be in a reciprocal relationship with ‘the people’ which Heidegger would explore later in his texts on technology. In 1934, Heidegger would expose something that remained mysterious about his own works, and now unambiguously revealed in the recently published ‘Black Notebooks’: We can call it the meaning of the community, ‘the gathering’, of being which determines the meaning of being.
Then, the question will be what is the community which is the ideal milieu which can be home to being’s mystery? There are several divisions and distinctions throughout this text which explores ‘the people’ or ‘the volk’. To obtain a sense of being of those days we will have to look at a lengthy passage:
In a census, the Volk is counted in the sense of the population, the population, in so far as it constitutes the body of the Volk, the inhabitants of the land. At the same time, it is to be considered that in a governmental order of the census a certain part of the Volk is included, namely the part that dwells within the State’s borders. The German nationals living abroad are not included in the count, [they] do not belong in this sense to the Volk. On the other hand, those can also be included in the count, those who, taken racially, are of alien breed, do not belong to the Volk. (4)
There is much to be understood from these passages for which Heidegger’s own conceptual apparatus are inadequate, or perhaps their adequacy was always concerned with masking the quest for the community of being.
Two distinct logics are running through Heidegger’s corpus which are deliberately left entangled. We can call them analogy and homology. (5) Analogy, as we know, finds the proportion a thing has with some other thing and the discovery of the form under which the proportion is distributed is the work of reason; in general, analogy is presented through the mathematical expression A:B and B:C which can often be described under field laws. Analogy allows us to move between distinct domains that may have no prior relation or the domains which are without something common between them and reason invents the ground on which these relations can be formalized. For example, the function of flight is analogous between a hummingbird and a drone.
Analogy directs us towards the freedom for exchanging functions. Homology, on the other hand, is concerned with relations that reveal ‘the pre-formal’ (6) shared ‘something’; what we often insufficiently call the materiality is that which is designated by homology. It is through homology that we find the constructability of something held in some other thing; the reed turning to the flute is possible through the discovery of homology. These two relations can be contrasted through the example of the ‘population’ of a typical Indian village. Two men from the same village without any familial ties will refer to one another as brothers since most of the functions of brotherly relations can be extended to neighbours and friends; and often they expect brotherly commitments from each other. At the same time when they are concerned with their land and property only ‘the blood brothers’ can enter into sharing arrangements. In the former the latter relation finds its analogue—the village is analogous to the home, although homology distinguishes the blood brother from the village brother.
In most senses ‘Dasein’, ‘the being for whom its own being is the question’, is something prior to the faculties of analogy and homology. It is a being which witnesses in the nothing of the question—Why there is something rather than nothing?—the pressure of the unnameable plenitude which is its futurality; the nothing is the experience of more than everything. Yet, the abstract ‘Dasein’ which is both man and not-man, while experiencing in the ‘something’ homological powers and time as the freedom given by analogies, retains a particular determination of homology as ‘race’. The ‘Dasein’ of a racial community is different from that of a band of men constituted by chance or of a motley crew.
From here onwards, it is not a question of the precise nature of Heidegger’s racism, but the scale of values according to which peoples are ranked. Heidegger’s thought on the one hand, like all those who are called philosophers, thought without any regard to a particular person. On the other hand, as we have found he conducted himself like the worst of ‘bourgeois thinkers’ in the sense in which Wittgenstein used the term for Ramsay—’he thought with aim of clearing up the affairs of some particular community’. (7)
Underneath metaphysics lies another science in the corpus of Heidegger which is hypophysics. According to hypophysics, nature as that which is originary is identical with value, or a thing is at its highest rank in its originary nature.
Heidegger himself would remark on the two senses of ‘race’—on the one hand, it merely indicates bloodlines and on the other, it also indicates a certain hierarchy or order of rank—‘That which is racy embodies a certain rank, provides certain laws, does not concern in the first place the corporeality of the family and of lineage’. As we know Gandhi undertook similar embarrassing argumentative steps to justify the caste order. The experience of being given for the people who are in this sense of a ‘higher rank’ is greater than that of the motley crew. Then, we can also argue that the history of being corresponds to departure from ‘the people of rank’ towards the motley crew—the decline. Even in the Heideggerian sense, the nature of such a process cannot be called metaphysical; that is, metaphysics is the determination of being as a being such that beings appear as that which is free for any logical organization.
Underneath metaphysics lies another science in the corpus of Heidegger which is hypophysics. According to hypophysics, nature as that which is originary is identical with value, or a thing is at its highest rank in its originary nature. That is, unlike metaphysics which actively finds all the possibilities of things encoded in a domain that is unlike the domain of things, hypophysics claims a passive reception of the conjoinment of value in nature. From a hypophysical point of view, physics and metaphysics are operations that denature nature or the practices through which one descends in an order of rank (8) towards the motley crew.
The Greek men who were given the originary experience of being were not ‘an arbitrary population and residents’. On the other hand, the Americans who are the objects of Heidegger’s ‘Introduction to Metaphysics’ are precisely the arbitrary population, who signalled for Heidegger the pincer movement along with the Russians against the essence of the higher ranking Germans. Hence, a hypophysics articulates Heidegger’s history of being and his interpretation of metaphysics from underneath ‘the ground’, or as the ur-ground.
Hypophysics led Heidegger to another discovery. Population, as counted by the census operations of the state, is indifferent to races of men and their ranks and the highest possibility of the State is to dissolve all orders of rank. That is, it reveals a certain epoch of freedom—both the voluptuousness of homologies and the unhomeliness of analogies—in such a way that thought is left disoriented, without a right and left (9) for it to recover its position in the darkest night. He would call a moment in this epoch without orientation as ‘population politics’.
Heidegger designated through ‘population politics’ the comprehending of a people as the single empty aggregation exogenously corporealized, described and organized through the regularities given by the laws of the state which was made possible by the decline from logos to logic. We can now designate something more than Heidegger intended by this term; population politics (10) is the possibility of processing people as indifferent quantities through algorithms. That is, population politics is one of the limited possibilities of politics from the point of view of a new form of technocratic state that was anticipated by Heidegger and other thinkers. However, we are aware of another possibility that people can commune without the restricted homology of bloodlines. The idealized understanding of both America and Soviet Russia was something akin to it. Today this possibility is being realized and it implies that everyone can be everywhere. (11) It is perhaps the resistance to this possibility that dominates most political movements we call ‘populist’.
It is here that ‘populism’ comes to be the symptom of a crisis in politics. The two tendencies that underlie politics are seeking to be the law which comprehends all organizations of people, and the very meaning of community and the common which is stasis of politics today. The tendency to constitute communities by relying on the regularities founded on hypophysical principles where the understanding of homology is limited to bloodlines is opposed to the tendency of constituting a motley crew of people, indifferent to their blood ties banding and disbanding according to no determinate rules nor principles other than the pursuit of this very freedom.
Several religions express this unsettledness with the earth, the unhomeliness which projects another home in another domain. Most religions in this sense are the discourses of the refugee. Our literature and arts are the expressions of fugio-ness.
Most versions of communism are restricted understandings of the latter possibility or the unhomeliness of man. (12) This notion that brings people together in uncanny ways without –ismos can be marked as anismos. In the communes and occupations of many of the protest movements today, the ‘do it yourself’ cultures which came with them, and the networks of sharing services which came up in Greece during the anti-austerity protests, one can sense the tendency of anismos. In the protests against the migrants, the hate crimes on the basis of bloodlines, in the events which began with Brexit and in the increasing calls for the technologization of borders we can sense the politics of a people or Volk. In other words, a process which surrenders freedom for the retention of bloodlines discards politics itself for its only objective is freedom.
The assumption that populism is the co-existence of these two tendencies—anismos and Volk making—relies on liberalism in its metaphysical sense. The metaphysics of liberalism asserts that all tendencies can co-exist in politics. For example, it is known to us through experience that Nazism and constitutional liberalism could not co-exist. Rather a tendency—say anti-corruption—in politics either dissolve other tendencies—such as secularism—or appropriate the competing tendencies—such as ethno-nationalism. Across the world, and in India, this particular form itself has been witnessed in the past decade of ethnocentric fascisms which assume moral positions.
Thus, instead of the pure presence of a people without determinations, we find that there are two tendencies which characterize ‘populism’ Volk making and anismos and we know that the former apparently dominates populism. This could be because the milieu of Volk making, of social orderings which are concerned with their ceremonial repetition such that bloodlines are conserved, is disappearing. Instead, the real contest in politics today is between anismos and population politics; that is, these two tendencies have already departed from the vanishing milieu of Volk making. Yet, as we found earlier, they share an important difference—while assuming the unhomeliness of man as that which is capable of freedoms which are incalculable, population politics seeks to determine people as something which can be algorithmically organized and mechanically regulated. Population politics is in preparation within what appears to be technologized border controls and biometric attested tracking of people in real-time.
The Fleeing Being
Earlier we indicated that our familiar concepts which delineated man, and hence people, are inadequate to think the new milieu of population politics. In what appears to be the immune reaction against refugees in the ‘populisms’ of most parts of the world, the very essence of man as the fleeing being is finally being revealed, despite the disastrous resistance to this idea, including the holocaust. The relation between the refugee and the human should be reconceived in such a way that we may not end up with a fetishism of the refugee. We conceive the human today as the complete subject of a state with all the rights it provides, and the refugee as someone who lacks it. Then, the problem is with the very notion of this human subject—citizen if you like—who has created its other in the refugee.
The word refugee comes from the Latin ‘fugio’, meaning ‘to flee’, to depart. Our ‘species’ is essentially the being which flees, or takes refuge, away from nature—the being which masters hypophysics in order to evade it. As Kafka said, the being which is always in search of the ‘elsewhere’ or ‘away from here’. The migration of the human out of Africa is only an expression of this essential fugio-ness of man. When a human settlement, any stable arrangement, starts to crystallize we flee; when it is collapsing we flee. We are the species that can never be at home, at ease, or we are unhomely of the earth. Several religions express this unsettledness with the earth, the unhomeliness which projects another home in another domain. Most religions in this sense are the discourses of the refugee. Our literature and arts are the expressions of fugio-ness. Therefore, it is time for us to assert something fundamental—the refugee is the ground upon which the human is standing as a special moment. It will be calamitous if we will not begin to imagine and invent global institutions with this new fundamental towards receiving people as anismos.
Excerpt from Populism and Its Limits: After Articulation, P. Chakravarty, 2020, Bloomsbury Academic
1. See “The Between: The Dangerous Occupation of the Philosopher” in Revue des femmes philosophes (Special Issue Intellectuals, Philosophers, Women in India: Endangered Species) N° 4–5/December 2017
2. See Simon Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties, trans. Simon Leys, New York: New York Review Book, 2013
3. Martin Heidegger, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, trans. Wanda Torres, NY: SUNY, 2009, p. 4.
4. Martin Heidegger, Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence, p. 56; emphases added
5. See Shaj Mohan and Divya Dwivedi, Gandhi and Philosophy: On Theological Anti-politics, Bloomsbury UK, 2019.
6. It is possible to establish a relation between “das vorformale Etwas” of Emil Lask, Heidegger’s early conceptions of intuition, and homology.
7. L. Wittgenstein. Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1977.
8. We have called it the discipline which measures the hypophysical gradations of value “scalology”. Both the celestial hierarchy and scala naturae are species of scalologies
9. The ground of this question remains unexplored ever since Immanuel Kant asked the question “how to orient oneself in thinking?” in 1786.
10. These epochs cannot be understood through any of the versions of the universal. As Barbara Cassin, remarked all universals are someone’s universal. See Cassin, Eloge de la Traduction: Compliquer l’universel, Fayard, Paris, 2016
11. These epochs cannot be understood through any of the versions of the universal. As Barbara Cassin, remarked all universals are someone’s universal. See Cassin, Eloge de la Traduction: Compliquer l’universel, Fayard, Paris, 2016
12. See “The Between: The Dangerous Occupation of the Philosopher”.