a bit of a leap

Adam MortonAdam Morton responds to my brief account of Althusser’s Machiavelli and Us with a fairly lengthy blog post on “Machiavelli, Gramsci, Althusser, and Us”. But he doesn’t so much respond to my reading itself; what he intends is a more comprehensive swipe at the notion of posthegemony as a whole. Which is fair enough, but a bit of a leap.

Anyhow, on Althusser… Morton asks “whose reading” this is that detects in Althusser “a posthegemonic reading of Machiavelli,” to which I unapologetically confirm that it is indeed my reading. Whose would it be otherwise? But it’s a reading that, I hope, is attentive to some salient aspects of the text, not least its ambiguities, product in part of fairly constant revisions over a long period. Morton reiterates what I call a hegemonic reading of Machiavelli and Us, a reading that I point out myself; it is admittedly pretty obvious. My own interest is in the tensions between that aspect of the text and another that is in sync with the late Althusser’s aleatory materialism of the encounter, which I term posthegemonic. Morton’s interest is in consolidating and underlining only the first of these two readings so as to show Althusser’s resonances with Gramsci. Again, fair enough in its own way, but it’s no less an “appropriation” than my focus on the tensions within the text.

Indeed, compared to conventional readings of Althusser, Morton’s take is perhaps even more idiosyncratic, as neo-Gramscian theories of hegemony were quite explicitly opposed to an Althusserianism understood in terms of over-determination, history as a process without a subject, and the like. Another way of putting this is that Machiavelli and Us is interesting and problematic precisely because it points to two possible ways out of canonical Althusserianism: both towards the concept of hegemony and radically away from it. As such, it anticipates the contemporary dilemma of cultural studies. Morton likes the first path; I acknowledge it’s there, but prefer the second.

Morton then jumps to a lightly revised series of quotations from his book on post-revolutionary Mexico. There’s a certain tension here, as whereas on the blog the claim that “calls, then, to analytically displace hegemony and move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” is presented as following on from the discussion of Althusser (“then”), in the book the rather similar claim that “calls for a wholesale retreat from the logic of hegemony and the move towards a posthegemonic politics should be resisted” comes merely as the start of the second of three discussions of critiques of hegemony. And the subsequent sentence, that “A posthegemonic condition [. . .] refers to the presumption that ideology critique is now superfluous in an age where affective relations or bodily dispositions are regnant” is sourced in the book to my 2003 article “On Posthegemony” (as well as to an article by Benjamin Arditi) while on the blog it’s apparently derived from my 2010 book, Posthegemony. On the blog, Morton then refers directly to his own book, but Revolution and State in Modern Mexico is hardly much more “detailed” on this point than the blog post: both contain almost exactly the same assertion that (in the book’s words) “this extremist take on hegemony theory and its attempt to decentre analysis from the strategic field of the state, however, merely collapses into a ‘pluralism of micropowers’, conceiving ever more microcosms of meaning within a world of individuated actors (Poulantzas 1978: 44)” (10). Despite the invocation of his student Poulantzas, we’re now far removed from Althusser, even though we are oddly enough still dealing with what, in discussing Machiavelli and Us, I described as “a strange, tortured text that bears all the marks of its” revisions.

What’s more, then Morton shifts to quoting an article of his from 2007 that is a critique of Randall Germain, and which never mentions posthegemony in the slightest. In that article, it is Germain’s notion of a “collective ‘us’” that prompts the comment: “I am troubled in IPE by something Raymond Williams (1980, p. 3) long ago articulated: the acceptance of total contingency when attempting to assess forces in struggle over hegemony” (“Unquestioned Answers / Unanswered Questions” 135). I’m not entirely sure how what we can only call Morton’s “appropriation” of his own critique of Germain relates to my blog post, my book, or posthegemony in general–though I would note that questions about determination are indeed properly Althusserian, if not (of course) the concern of Machiavelli and Us.

In Althusser’s interpretation of Machiavelli, there is no “struggle over hegemony” at all, in that he observes that The Prince and the Discourses alike are books about beginnings: they are about the leap, always under-determined if never entirely contingent, that establishes a new political regime. It is its under-determination, its element of contingency, that opens up a space for politics–and for Althusser, Machiavelli’s work is fully political, fully inscribed in a political space that cannot be determined in advance. Whether or not you feel that what is to be instituted is a form of hegemonic politics (Morton will probably say it is; I stress rather Althusser’s ambivalence and increasing hesitance), there’s no doubt that the leap itself has nothing to do with hegemony. As with all the many ruptures that mark Althusser’s thought (from the famous “epistemological break” he claims to detect in Marx’s work, to the “lightning flash” in his discussion of the “Piccolo Teatro”), the real political moment is this posthegemonic fracture that his texts themselves re-enact. Perhaps Morton’s blog post, too, is trying for a similar leap?

The Prince

Machiavelli, The PrinceFor a political writer renowned for his commitment to realism–to real politik, indeed–it’s remarkable, and surely significant, that Niccolò Machiavelli should open and close The Prince with a couple of extended metaphors. The resort to literary tropes frames what is otherwise often taken to be the founding text of a political “science” that simply tells it as it is, without ideology or obfuscation. After all, Machiavelli himself tells us in his preface dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici: “I have not ornamented this book with rhetorical turns of phrase, or stuffed it with pretentious and magnificent words. [. . .] For my intention is that this should be a book without pretensions” (5). The frame, however, turns out to be rather more decorative than this preface (itself in point of fact hardly lacking in rhetoric) admits. And it’s perhaps precisely because this surprisingly gilded frame is in tension with what it contains that it’s worth further investigation.

On first sight, the metaphor with which the book concludes is conventional and, however disturbing, frankly not that interesting: “Fortune is a lady,” Machiavelli reports. Hence “it is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her” (76). Yet it’s precisely the conventionality of the image, or rather conjunction of images–of both the fickleness and the subservience of women–that reminds us that for all his originality and scandalous novelty, for all of what Louis Althusser terms his “solitude,” there are plenty of ways in which Machiavelli is very much of his time, part of the crowd.

The book’s opening metaphor is rather more complex, not least because it is also a self-referential comment on the status of Machiavelli’s theory itself. It’s worth quoting at length:

I hope it will not be thought presumptuous for someone of humble and lowly status to discuss the behavior of rulers and to make recommendations regarding policy. Just as those who paint landscapes set up their easels down in the valley in order to portray the nature of the mountains and the peaks, and climb up into the mountains in order to draw the valleys, similarly in order to properly understand the behavior of the lower classes one needs to be a ruler, and in order to properly understand the behavior of rulers one needs to be a member of the lower classes. (6)

This is an image of an image, of the ways in which images are produced: it is a representation of the proper process of representation, an analysis of how best to analyze. Moreover, it concerns the proper perspective or point of view from which images, representation, and analysis should be drawn. One might ask immediately from which standpoint is this image itself drawn, which after all takes in both the mountain and the valley and purports to compare both. Doesn’t this already indicate the strange slippage in Machiavelli’s work: that he presents it as though envisaged from the valley, from the humble advisor; and yet he needs endlessly to imagine how things look from the mountain, to identify with the view of the prince.

At issue here is the place of the book and Machiavelli’s theory itself. Why would the virtuoso, the man gifted with virtù, need a guide like this at all? He who is sovereign should surely not have to depend on another; he who is decisive should not waver by looking for advice. The book is called The Prince, not “The Prince and His Advisor.” The prince should be singular, independent, and free. And yet it seems he is always haunted by his shadow, by the man who can see from the valleys and acts as a mirror in which the ruler can see his own reflection but in that same moment is divided, distanced from his own image of himself. Equally, as the prince follows the advisor’s counsel, so he begins to reflect him, to take on the attributes and characteristics of the lower man. A strange and dynamic symbiosis emerges, in which the true source of influence and power becomes increasingly obscured.

However much Machiavelli tries to resolve this tension, it persists and even colours his infamous reputation. Who, after all, is more fully Machiavellian, more the “Machiavellian type”: the heartless prince or the sinister advisor? Marlowe’s Duke of Guise of Shakespeare’s Iago? Nixon or Kissinger, Blair or Campbell, Bush or Rove? Should we fear the cruel autocrat or the eminence grise? Is it enough to say that one could not subsist without the other, that the prince is thereby doubled, his sovereignty fatally split? Or perhaps it is more to the point to note that sovereignty is always split, always both lacking and excessive, and that without that essential fissure it would not exist. And would it be too quick to identify this doubleness at the heart of sovereignty, enabling and yet undoing its basic claims, with the perpetually unresolved tension between constituent and constituted power?