- The Practice of Philosophy within its Limits
BY ETIENNE BALIBAR
TRANSLATED BY STEVEN MILLER
New York: Fordham University Press, 2017
In reviewing Etienne Balibar’s Citizen Subject: Foundations for Philosophical Anthropology, it is important to grasp what kind of book, what kind of work, one is dealing with. The immediate answer would be a collection of essays. This superficial apprehension makes sense, especially because Balibar has written predominantly essays since he emerged on the scene with his contribution to Reading Capital. With the exception of the short studies on canonical figures, such as The Philosophy of Marx, Spinoza and Politics and Identity and Difference: John Locke and the Invention of Consciousness, as well as the Welleck Library Lectures, Violence and Civility, Balibar’s publications have mainly appeared as a series of essays collected in such books as Masses, Classes, Ideas; We, The People of Europe?; and Politics of the Other Scene. Treating Citizen Subject as merely a collection of essays misses the methodological point. Not only were the essays not intended as an organized book, but their episodic character belies a fundamental methodological point. As Balibar writes in the Introduction
all the essays in this volume consist of readings; they bear upon texts or traverse the interpretation of texts. These texts are always rigorously individualized not only in the sense they are authored but also in that, above all, they are each time unique. I compare these texts to one another but I do not discuss “works” in the sense that literary and university ideology gives this term, nor, even less, the “systems” or “tendencies” [End Page 152] that would be represented in each product. I propose a new reading of the Second Meditation and not of Cartesianism . . . of the Phenomenology of Spirit (or a few moments therein) and not of Hegelianism, of the section from Capital on “commodity fetishism” and not of Marxism and so forth.(2017, 9)
Balibar’s attention to the specific moments of reading is framed by a theoretical interest in what it means to “write in the conjuncture,” to write within a specific historical moment, with its constitutive tensions and contradictions. As Balibar argues, “not only do philosophers write within a conjuncture, but conversely, within the conjuncture, they write” (2017, 10). Balibar’s emphasis on the conceptual pair of the conjuncture and writing suggests that the context determines but does not define writing. Text exceeds context. The specificity of the moment is short-circuited by the practice of writing, which inserts the moment in a longer signifying chain, while this chain is in turn broken, or turned into knots by the exigencies of the conjuncture. The two of these converge in aporias, tensions, everything that Althusser formerly identified through symptomatic reading, now slightly reconfigured as a symptom of the tension between thought and its historicity. Balibar does not seek some balance between text and context or situate these texts in some overall historical progression but puts them to their maximum tension, seeking the point of heresy, the moment where the conjuncture interrupts the writing of philosophy and writing of philosophy breaks open the conjuncture.
Despite this attention to the moment, to the points of heresy, Balibar’s book is not without its overarching theme, its large problem. It is more than a series of interventions and readings of particular conjunctures. As the subtitle suggests, it is work in philosophical anthropology, on the intersection of citizen and subject as ways of conceptualizing and problematizing what it means to be human. These concepts and problems, philosophical anthropology, citizen and subject not only are concepts that are in some sense implicitly universal, as perhaps all concepts are, but also make an explicit claim for universality. Philosophical anthropology claims to be an understanding of humanity as such. The citizen is in some sense the political corollary of such a universal figure. If one wanted to sum up in a word why “philosophical anthropology” has fallen out of favor as a philosophical problem or why the citizen is no longer seen as the center of politics, the criticism could [End Page 153] be summed up with one word: “universal.” The problem...