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Sade on Pontecorvo

From: Discourse
25.3, Fall 2003
pp. 48-75 | 10.1353/dis.2005.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Sade on Pontecorvo

I had to say all this for the people of France who will read my work. They must know that Algerians do not confuse their torturers with the great French people, from whom they have learned so much, and whose friendship is so dear to them. And yet the French must know what is being done here IN THEIR NAME.

—Henri Alleg, La Question, November 1957

However that may be, it becomes clear that we have gained nothing by replacing Diotima with Dolmancé . . .

—Jacques Lacan, "Kant avec Sade," September 1962; 1966.

Consider the "moment of the boomerang," the aboriginal revision of Hegelian reflexive thought that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire borrows from Sartre's "Preface" to Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth. The context: the "reciprocal destruction of the European Self—precisely because European society and its values are founded on the domestication and negative subsumption of the colonized. The moment of negativity is posed as the necessary first step in a transition toward the ultimate goal of a raceless [End Page 48] society that recognizes the equality, freedom, and common humanity of all." This "coherent dialectical logic," Hardt and Negri suggest, must fail because "reality and history . . . are not dialectical" (130–2). Fanon himself is less blind than Sartre, however, to the "illusory" identification of dialectical thought with "reality" and "history": for The Wretched of the Earth, Negri and Hardt argue, this boomerang-y "moment of negativity" has an additional political, non-dialectical dimension, that of "reciprocal counterviolence." Because "reciprocal counterviolence" does not imagine "any dialectical synthesis" or moment of universal recognition, it is not "a politics in itself; rather, [reciprocal counterviolence] merely poses a separation from colonialist domination and opens the field for politics. The real political process of constitution," Negri and Hardt conclude, "will have to take place on this open terrain of forces with a positive logic, separate from the dialectics of colonial sovereignty." It hardly needs pointing out that this "open terrain" is the landscape on which Hardt and Negri's Empire closes—the hills that Francis of Assisi walks, the plains on which "multitudes" can come together at last "and the postmodern posse arises" (411).

Much might be said about the apocalyptic tone that rings through these lines, and chimes throughout Hardt and Negri's work more broadly. For them, as for many other radical-democratic thinkers and post-colonial critics writing in Fanon's shadow, imagining how one passes from the local experience of antagonism (I desire to wear this veil to school, and you stand in my way) to the recognition that collective interests determine and overdetermine this local experience (your desire to wear the veil draws you into a contingent association with others who share that desire, here and now; when I stand in your way I express, or claim to express, a broad social interest in the secularization of the public domain) remains the most intractable knot in the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Negri and Hardt have it, the residual dialectic of colonialism furnishes our contemporary post-modernity with an account of the positive function of violence in the formation of communities of diverse, competing or irreconcilably antagonistic interests. Positive—but because it is merely preliminary: when the posse has achieved the goal of "recogniz[ing] the equality, freedom, and common humanity of all," that is, when we recognize that our contingent association under the aspect of this or that local interest occurs "commonly," as an effect of an identity we recognize that we share ("humanity"), then the violent means to that recognition will have been discarded, set aside like the notion of "race" itself. [End Page 49]

Every episode of this story, each step in Hardt and Negri's argument seems to me controversial; none more so than where Empire expresses the admirable desire that we set behind us the "violence" of the colonial encounter, a goal which Hardt and Negri share with other Utopian-humanist writers, from Ernesto Laclau to Giorgio Agamben. For on the shoulders of the desire to eliminate violence, and by means of the instrumental understanding of pedagogy that this desire entails, the Utopian-humanist...