Turncoats

What happens to fidelity once it becomes avowedly non-symbolic? This is how we can interpret the problematic that has emerged in the wake of Alain Badiou’s theory of the event.  Badiou’s project has spawned realist and rationalist ventures which have assumed a neo-Jacobin disposition, but this work has remained quite unreflexive in its historiographical orientation. Where historiography gets whitewashed or disavowed by radical realism and rationalism, this elides the singularity of how political subjectivity has been disposed through the early modern period.  This oversight leaves an inauthenticity in that the theory fails to ground itself in necessity – it fails to account for the way it is passively disposed in the course of events.  This concerns the historicity which is implied in Deleuze’s first synthesis of time.  In what follows, I want explain how certain historical contingencies complicate the politics of fidelity in the contemporary era. 

During the English civil war of the 1660’s, some intellectual activists were called “turncoats”. These were pampleteers who switched between royalism and republicanism. What interests me is how ironic politics could coincide with profound religiosity. It seems that these writers didn’t assume any obligation to maintain permanent political commitments, because they believed everything was up to providence.  There was no issue of conscience for them about their switching political allegiances, because God himself might have switched sides. They were free to support whoever was ascendant, because that was assumedly God’s side. Among these writers were major figures of English literature including Andrew Marvell.  Those guys were writing under psydonyms, supporting Cromwell and then the king, getting thrown in jail, and getting executed.  And they were paid from both sides, and so the issue of mercenary intellect arises here as well.

The turncoats seem to have contributed something essential in the stylistic evolution of literary English, which was a witty equivocal Faustian disposition. This is a baroque reversibility of guises and folds, reflecting strains of political realism that runs through Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Hobbes. The Counter-reformation transformed the English language as the Elizabethan poets were influenced by the Spanish mystics surrounding Ignatious of Layola. This unanchored rhetoric from its moorings in textual dogmas, and moved it into the field of the image.  There was migration of providence beyond the realm of representation, and this occured because the religious authorities had lost control of representation.  The Society of Jesus initiated an ethics of the sublime, an institutional ideology that responded to both the aesthetic innovations of the italian rennaisance, and the peitistic innovations in scriptural hermeneutics of the reformation.

The equivocal baroque style led into the baudy polemics of the English civil war where politics became an unhinged irony.  There arose a strange Puritan irony…  “Blessed Ollie’ Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonweal, Depos’r of Papist Tyrants, and Ever-Righteous Knight of the Armaggeddon… “.  This style continued to develop over the centuries, through the irony of the “romantic nationalists” like Carlyle and Scott, and then the jocular ambivalent modernism of Joyce and Faulkner. What is most interesting about this development is how literature internalized a dialectics of imperialism and anti-imperialism that proceeded through a drunken, senile Witzeig. This arrives at something that we might call an aesthetic of liberal imperialism.

The idea of an empire based on the principle of liberty is deeply ironic, and this sort of irony penetrates into the foundations of our institutions. We are all subjects of an empire that forces us to pursue our nonsubjugation. This condition has received attention in recent studies of neoliberalism such as Willing Slaves of Capital (2014) by Fredric Lordon. The way we are subjected to ideals of non-subjugation seems to be a teleological culmination of the historial cycle that began with the counter-reformation. When Oliver Cromwell attacked Ireland, it was on the premise that he was liberating them Catholic serfdom. That ironic Cromwellian legacy was translated into the Washingtonian revolution a hundred years later – those liberators who owned slaves – and it established the symbolic coordinates of American exceptionalism and this world of self-trafficking slaves.

It seems that none of the available political discourses deal effectively with this legacy. More precisely, it seems that radicalism is susceptible to sliding into an exceptionalism that repeats these patterns. Today’s radicals often assume they are opposing imperialism, but fail appreciate how this strange liberal imperialism already opposes itself. The regime feeds off their opposition.  Perhaps the only practical politics in this situation would have to be turncoat.  Blessed Donald Trump, Lord Protector of the Empire…

Lacan admitted that his theory was “baroque”, and this is how we can read the doubling of subjectivity between statement and enunciation. This means that one should not overidentify with the subject of the address. Political principles should become more abstract, so they are not just words that can be manipulated in a discourse. Principle becomes a matter of secrecy, like the Puritan’s relation with their God. The order of enunciation would be the virtual principle of liberty, whereas the statement is the shifting symbolic masks of the political theater.

The separation of these levels might be a condition of political efficacy. The main obstacle among leftists to this distinction seems to be zealotry, particularly the hatred of American imperialism and Zionism. This sentimentality often is the currency of authenticity in leftist circles, but this leads to an over-identification with the statement which ensures ineptitude. There is a widespread tendency among leftists for hysterical performances of moral zealotry, and adopting extremely impracticable positions such as Palestinian nationalism. Continuing this critique farther, it seems that leftism refers either to this impracticable zealotry, or else it is secrecy.

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