Uttering the word ‘I’ is – as modern philosophy has repeatedly stressed – an utterly ambiguous exercise, at least when considering the crucible of (more or less) implicit meanings that that pronoun invariably mobilizes.
There is no way, in fact, of confining its force within a self-contained ‘I’, since the latter also invariably refers to something that exceeds the narrow perimeter of subjectivity. Whenever, in an utterance, we claim for ourselves the status of subjects, we can only make our subjectivity appear within a constellation of objects (material, conceptual, virtual, living, dead) and signification (linguistic, visual, gestural or metaphorical) that can never fully coincide with the ‘I’ that we invoke.
Without this, at best, all we could do would be to rehearse, to infinity, the most tedious and senseless of cants, I-I-I-I-I… : except that even these sounds would not make any sense without the linguistic and social conventions that alone gives them meaning.
I hope you will not be discouraged by these rather abstract reflections. The point that I want to make, in fact, does not concern the philosophical consistency and logical structure of the argument. What I am interested in are rather its social ramifications – its implications for the ‘we’ that appears as its silent background and undertone.
As a matter of fact, there is no way of speaking of ourselves without there being some virtual or real ‘other’. More than anything else, in order to appear, I need another ‘I,’ receptive to and capable of making sense of that experience which is implied by the use of that pronoun. Presumably, you – the readers, the ‘others’ – already have an understanding of what I mean by ‘self’: this most personal and intimate of nouns thus appears, in a way at least, immediately sharable.
Your life, your world, your sentimental and intellectual horizons might be alien or hardly comprehensible to me – they might not ‘speak’ to me at all – and yet, I can still sense that they refer to something of which I have an experience too: this is, after all, what we call subjectivity. This is not simply a matter of empathy. I might misconstrue and misjudge your feelings and thoughts, but still this would not change the fact that I would recognize here, in front of me, a person who, just like me, is also capable – and in fact is constantly compelled – to recognize, narrate and give meaning to his/her own self and world. My ‘self’ is tied to – it necessitates and calls for a ‘we.’
There could be no doubt that this dependency between ‘I’ and ‘we’ is also invariably accompanied by some sense of anxiety and displacement. The moment I manifest my own ‘truth’ to you, I am compelled to recognize that that ‘truth’ is not really mine and that, indeed, I had to use words, ideas and expressions which were already there before I came into this world and shared in its life. I am bound to understand myself and tell my own truth through the voice of the others, and I soon find out that there is no way of overcoming this primitive fact – no way of retrieving the meaning of my existence without the social ‘grammar’ that constituted me in the first place.
For better or worse, being a subject is, in a way, a dreadful condition that we cannot undo and yet one that we can never fully master. The moment I say ‘I’, I am delivered to a world of signs, codes, institutions and regulations that I have not chosen and that, in fact, I might even dislike. I am bound to ‘us’. I have to face ‘us’ despite myself, since I find that ‘I’ would not be without ‘us’.
This is not in the least to say that ours is a wretched condition, or that we ought to do something in order to overcome it: I would rather refrain from presenting utopias to follow or in which to find shelter. My concern is different and, in a way, even opposite.
The question that I want to raise is how to inhabit a condition which appears as the unsurpassable premise of communal life. This is certainly no easy task: it may be disquieting, frustrating and conducive to despair. But it is worth reminding ourselves that our social existence also enables us to envision possibilities and ways of living that could not possibly transpire otherwise. It is precisely because I never fully own myself and I am never enclosed within my own individuality that ‘our’ encounter may engender something that exceeds our present potentialities, i.e. what we already are or fail to be.
This we may simply call politics. Man, we are told, is a political animal: he belongs to the community and could only exist within it – he is ‘doomed’ to it: and yet, while he cannot escape it, politics unfailingly draws his existence out of the perpetual monotony of life’s self-absorption.
When reflecting, then, on what politics is or may become in times of anxiety, I cannot help thinking that our political existence is premised, to a certain extent at least, on a sense of anxiety: our self-understanding (and, therefore, not only our material survival) depends on a ceaseless mediation with meanings and systems of rules which we have not chosen, which do not belong to us (as a matter of fact, they do not belong to anyone) and about which we might even be deeply skeptical. This suspicion and distress is, I think, fully justified: it is neither bad faith nor a malady. It is precisely because the political question cannot be answered once and for all that our being together always preserves some sense of disquiet, which is both its foundation and its permanent wound.
Los Entering the Grave by William Blake (1804). Public domain.
I do not believe there to be a society capable of living perpetually in bliss, indifferent to its uncertainties. This, of course, is not to justify abuses, oppression and inhumanities as inevitable evils. The question is rather the opposite: it is precisely because we cannot hope to manage any community ‘optimally’ – in an absolutely efficient way – that we are constantly compelled to question our role within it, as subjects who are tied up to other subjects who we cannot either fully comprehend or direct. The seamless and unproblematic coexistence between men is the classical paranoia of totalitarianism: a phantasm feeding on our darkest needs.
If it did not sound too eccentric or polemical, then, I would go as far as singing the praises of a politics of anxiety, i.e. a politics preserving the limits and enigmatic essence of social life. I would advocate our right, as political animals, to feel uneasy in the ‘polis.’ It is unfortunate that this point is hardly ever openly raised, for I think that this neglect is bound to reinforce the image of a wholly pacified society, whose spectre might be used to legitimize any kind of violence.
Just as we take for granted that our psychological ‘distortions’ have to be cured, without hardly ever questioning the reasons and implications of such curing, so do we believe that we ought to utilize any technological, economic and military means necessary to eradicate our social distress, regardless of their effective costs. And once that ‘heaven’ has been promised, everything – any apparently illogical cruelty – might be provided with a reasonable justification. In the meantime, in the lapse between our current desolation and future bliss, our lives can be legitimately besieged by a state of permanent emergency and fear: terrorism, cyberwar, nuclear and ecological disasters, mass migration, global viruses, collapse of financial markets etc.
The point, of course, is not that these threats are imaginary and that we should be better off relaxing and enjoying the harmony of our comfortable lives, rather than agonizing over these paper tigers. These tigers are real and even more than real: they have already clutched and encircled the whole of our social reality and, arguably, they are here to stay for a long time to come. No doubt, media and political apparatuses cannot help but inflate them in order to modulate our emotions and incite obedience, but this is still not a good reason to advocate a passive or indifferent attitude: these planetary disasters are not a destiny, and yet, they are always on the brink of becoming one.
The point is not even that we should move away from our petty fears and concern ourselves with our existential anxieties instead, since, allegedly, they are more profound and true. The truth is that these two dimensions are necessarily interwoven and that – however paradoxically – a reflection on the ineradicable distress of politics might also shift the perspective on our social fears.
There is always some irony in the fate of societies: the more we seek to eradicate uncertainty in the name of peace, order and ‘salvation’, the more we end up reproducing the conditions which created our fears in the first place. Analysts of international relations know this perfectly well and, in fact, they also have a name for it, the so-called ‘security dilemma’. The more a state seeks to secure itself against a hostile international environment by building up armaments, the more it increases global insecurity, as its move inevitably heightens the fears of other states, which are thus induced to increase their military capabilities too.
And once this dynamic is set into motion, it can only spiral up: the nuclear race between the US and the USSR is a textbook example. But, in different guises, the very same quandary is reenacted by many different security policies: the war on terror has done nothing but radicalize both its victims and perpetrators, while giving ‘rogue states’ a legitimate pretext to accelerate their nuclear programmes; the crisis in Ukraine is the obvious result of NATO’s eastward expansion in the last twenty years; while economic austerity appears to have already elicited a permanent social crisis, in which the first signs of recovery are indistinguishable from the next downfall.
Yet, I do believe that we are not bound to fall prey to the blackmail of these fears and follow them slavishly to their logical end. There is no guarantee – it is true – that we will not, if only because there is no ready-made prescription that could easily be applied here. We have never faced threats on such a scale, of such intensity and extension as we do today. But this uncertainty, I believe, is still not a curse, and it might well turn out to be the force that will outdo the destructive fantasy of security that saturates our political imagination.
These radical insecurities somehow summon and bring into the light that disquiet which I was describing earlier as one of the essential facts of politics, as though their paroxysms could reveal the ineradicable precariousness of our living together: as though anxiety could soothe the violence of our fears.
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005)
Esposito, Roberto. Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).
Dillon, Michael. Politics of Security: Towards a Political Philosophy of Continental Thought (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety (New York: Liveright, 2014).
Virilio, Paul. The Administration of Fear (Los Angeles: Semitext(e), 2012).