There is an odd but (perhaps) not unwelcome tension in Gareth Williams’s new book, Infrapolitical Passages: Global Turmoil, Narco-Accumulation, and the Post-Sovereign State. On the one hand, as even the title announces, this is a far-ranging survey of our contemporary situation (global turmoil!). Moreover, it hardly confines itself even to this broad critique of the present: it opens with an account, drawn from some words of Greta Thunberg’s, of imminent future apocalypse (“extinction,” in Thunberg’s terms, “perishing” in Williams’s) and then, in search of the origins of this catastrophe, proceeds to take us back to Prometheus, via a reading of Shelley. We are in the “epoch of the end of epochality” (121), Williams repeatedly tells us, of “post-katchontic” or “post-sovereign decontainment” (110), and it is clear that Williams has no wish to be restricted in the scope of his reflections or argument.
In short, this is a hugely ambitious work that, what is more, takes issue with many of the major thinkers of our time (Badiou, Agamben), seeks to demolish plenty of sacred cows (politics, hegemony, the subject), and gives short shrift to others, often via endnotes as if they were not even worthy of being dismissed in the body of the text itself. (Full disclosure: I am one of those whose work is despatched this way in the end matter, for “provid[ing] no evaluation of the place of the negative in any conceptual matrix, including [my] own” . But I do not lack company; elsewhere, for instance, another note summarily condemns “humanists, culturalists, hegemony thinkers, decolonials, populists, Marxists, post-Marxists, neocommunists, and antitheory types of all persuasions” .) To put this another way: this is a book that often gives the impression that it is endlessly sure of itself, as it seeks from its opening sentence to “clear a way through some of the dominant conceptual determinations and violent symptoms of globalization” (1). Clearing such a path sometimes requires a machete, and the will to wield it.
And yet. On the other hand, there is something quite modest and reticent about Williams’s project. After all, beyond the image of bushwhacking through conceptual thickets, the other metaphor that the book employs to describe its methodology is that of a retreat, for it is “in retreat” that “infrapolitics strives to clear a way” (26); “now the struggle is to find a way to backtrack [. . .]. This backtracking is the basis for the infrapolitical exodus [. . .]” (27-28). Or as Williams puts it, for all the talk of “passages,” by which he hopes to take us (for instance) “from hegemony to posthegemony” and from there to establish or prepare the way for “a renovation or potential turn in our thinking” (96), at best we are ultimately offered “a timorous step toward the possibility of questioning in such a way as to clear away inherited limitations in the realm of thinking and acting” (106). This is a highly qualified ambition indeed! And even that “timorous step” may not be forthcoming. As Williams admits at the outset: “This is a book that makes no progress, and intentionally so” (29). The passage may well end up being a “nonpassage,” and we may not even be able to tell the difference thanks to “a certain indiscernability” between the two (29). As Williams goes on to concede, “Some might feel that this offers in fact the formalization of very little” (29); “and it could very well lead to absolutely or virtually nothing” (32). Alongside the ambition and self-assuredness, in other words, this text also offers us a striking humility, a sort of pre-emptive bet or hedge that it will all end in something like failure, no progress made, nothing to show. Or at least it is prepared to take that risk, which is indeed (perhaps) quite a risk.
This resolute reticence or self-assured uncertainty is not new in Williams’s work. His first book, The Other Side of the Popular (2002) ends with a sustained meditation on the “perhaps,” a word which also becomes a refrain in its final section and closes (without closing, as it opens up) the text: “perhaps. . .” (The Other Side of the Popular 303). As he puts it there, with the same mix of affirmation and doubt, stating and yet taking back at the same time: “One thing appears to be sure, however: being toward becoming worldwide leaves us with the affirmation of perhaps ringing in our ears and suspended on the tips of our tongues. . . perhaps. . .“ (272). A “perhaps” rings, or perhaps it rings, suspended and so not (yet?) fully articulated. This is the “one thing” that is sure, or (perhaps) only appears to be sure for those who have eyes to see what cannot in fact be seen.
But I say all this not to criticize Williams. This unerring hesitation is not a flaw in his project; if anything, it is the project itself. Moreover, the minimalism of the gesture, and the willingness to take the risk that nothing may result, is perhaps its greatest contribution to our thinking about politics. For let there be no doubt: this is a thoroughly political book, which asks the most important, the most essential of political questions. Which is, precisely: What is the smallest difference that may actually make a difference? This is, after all, Lenin’s question (though I am not at all suggesting that Williams is any kind of Leninist): “What is to be done?” Not, note, “What should we do?”–more properly the question of the subject, and of ethics or morality, with which politics is so often confused these days–but, in the passive, what is to be done for some change to come, for a detour or turn to be effected that will not soon enough (or given enough time) be inevitably assimilated or appropriated or turned back such that we find ourselves merely back where we started, or worse. One step forward, two steps back; rather than one step back, two steps forward.
There is a double irony here. The first is that those who are so intent on “being political” or putting politics first, seeking a program or party line to proclaim or to follow, inevitably end up mired only in false pieties and the spectacle of morality (“virtue signalling” and the like) that we see all too insistently wherever we look. The second is that, as Williams (and elsewhere, Alberto Moreiras) shows at length, the one properly political question, the question of the “perhaps,” only arises when we step back from politics, when we try to withdraw from the turmoil, when we hesitate before entering the fray, when we realize that everything is in doubt, and when we acknowledge that “what is to be done” is far from self-evident, being as it is a matter that politics itself can never resolve. Without it, however, there is no politics at all. The very possibility of politics, in other words, as Williams eloquently tells us, depends upon the infrapolitical.