Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Given the hoopla around Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor's ability as a "wise latina" to rule impartially and also heated discussions among poets regarding the strategic necessity of groupness, schools and movements in the arts (notions crudely equivalent to the idea of a political party) it might be useful to consider the value (arguably the necessity) of open and unswerving commitments to forms of prejudice, discrimination and partisanship without party, constituency, group, school or movement.

Watching several youtube clips of protests organized around last week's G8 meeting in L'Aquila, I was reminded of a Perry Anderson essay on Berlusconi published in the London Review of Books earlier this year. This essay links to another LRB piece by Anderson from 2002 that carefully historicizes Berlusconi's success and moves through the conditions and contingencies that paved the way for his political ascendancy. Half way through the essay Anderson takes a moment to meditate on spregiudicato, a word specific to Italian politics which in contemporary usage has a disturbingly contradictory character:

Literally, this just means ‘unprejudiced’ – a term of praise in Italy, as it is elsewhere. Such was the original 18th-century meaning of the word, when it had a strong Enlightenment connotation, which it preserves to this day. The first entry in any Italian dictionary defines it as ‘independence of mind, freedom from partiality or preconception’. In the course of the 19th century, however, the word came to acquire a second meaning, which the same dictionaries render as ‘lack of scruples, want of restraint, effrontery’. Today – this is the crucial point – the two meanings have virtually fused. For other Europeans, the ‘unprejudiced’ and the ‘unscrupulous’ are moral opposites. But for the Italians spregiudicatezza signifies, indivisibly, both admirable open-mindedness and deplorable ruthlessness. In theory, context indicates which applies. In practice, common usage erodes the distinction between them. The connotation of spregiudicato is now generally laudatory, even when its referent is the second rather than the first. The tacit, everyday force of the term becomes: ‘aren’t scruples merely prejudices?’

As a praiseworthy quality spregiudicato blurs the boundary between acting without discrimination (impartially, as judges are expected to) and acting indiscriminately (without concern for specificity or difference; i.e. when military forces refuse to discriminate between strategic and civilian targets). But spregiudicato as it presently means in contemporary Italian usage may in fact disclose a truth or contradictory quality otherwise concealed in praiseworthy notions of impartiality and fairness. In other words, even beyond the context of Italian politics I suspect there may be some measure of indiscriminate behavior (or an impulse toward indiscrimination) in every act or decision that appeals to a logic of impartiality and fairness. And so I wonder about the usefulness of taking to task the homogenizing logic of equality and fairness that potentially effaces or refuses to acknowledge difference: the notion that all (especially under the law) are equal.

If as Anderson suggests scruples can be imagined as prejudices, what about the possibilities embedded in disavowing both the logic of impartiality and the (related) logic that would allow one to act indiscriminately?

To be scrupulous is to take pause and consider a decision further, to hesitate at a moment when others might act boldly and without consideration. Morality — which the OED regards as "ethical wisdom" — precedes ones ability to act with pause, to behave scrupulously. What interests me here (albeit in a flighty and pedestrian way) is the relation of notions like scrupulousness, morality and ethics to forms of discrimination and partisanship — even notions of commitment, fidelity, loyalty. To be loyal to ones family forecloses in some cases on an ability to be loyal to ones community and a decision made in the best interest of the nation is scarcely ever in the best interest of all communities that reside within or cut across the boundaries of the nation.

Alain Badiou's theory (actualized with some success through his politcal work) of a politics without party is useful here. In the interview that closes out Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso 2002) Badiou says:

'Politics without party' means that politics does not spring from or originate in the party. It does not stem from that synthesis of theory and practice that represented, for Lenin, the Party. Politics springs from real situations, from what we can say and do in these situations. And so in reality there are political sequences, political processes, but these are not totalized by a party that would be simultaneously the representation of certain social forces and the source of politics itself.

I write this in haste, without adequate space to responsibly think the issue — though it nags and I wonder here about the possibility not of a politics without party but a form of partisanship without party. Partisan = an unreasoning, prejudiced or blindly fanatical adherent. Rather than act without discrimination and also act indiscriminately, I wonder about the possibility of an ethics built on non-negotiable forms of partiality, discrimination and prejudice. In short, partisanship. To be unreasonable is to refuse the terms through which a conversation is mediated or legislated. Put differently, to be unreasonable is to engage in a politics of no compromise. (Recall the proliferation of anarcho-socialist organizations throughout the 1990s that mobilized around non-negotiable forms of refusal — i.e. the slogan "No compromise in defense of the Earth.")

Or why not let's talk. Or why we can't all get along. If I enter into conversation with Nurse Ratchet or Bill Lumbergh I knowingly enter into conversation (the only legitimate game in town) at a disadvantage. To accept the structure and terms of this conversation is to forget the conversation has already been performed in advance (viz. to acknowledge and develop game plays around an opponent's home team advantage is to accept teamness and territoriality — i.e. the terms and limitations of the playing field.

Grappling exclusively with the work of philosophy, Althusser addresses the problem of impartiality and partisanship through a careful rereading of Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism in "Lenin and Philosophy" (surprisingly one of the least cited essays in Lenin and Philosophy):

This word [partisanship as Lenin deploys the term] sounds like a directly political slogan in which partisan means a political party.

And yet, any half-way close reading of Lenin ... will show that it is a concept and not just a slogan.

Lenin is simply observing that all philosophy is partisan, as a function of a basic tendency, against the opposing basic tendency, via the philosophies which represent it. But [and this is the clincher] at the same time, he is observing that the vast majority of philosophers put a great price on being able to declare publicly and prove that they are not partisan because they do not have to be partisan.

Within the frame of the western tradition philosophy is philosophy and not politics — a position Derrida famously maintained until the end. However:

In Lenin's view, these tendencies [claims to impartiality via the universality of reason in western philosophy] are finally related to class positions and therefore to class interests.
For Althusser, as for Lenin, appeals to impartiality on the terrain of philosophy are a smokescreen. The statement is fair.

Again, these thoughts are sketched out in haste. Nonetheless — and regardless of whether or not one situates class as the determinate element in a theory of philosophy, science, politics or poetics as I am inclined to — partisanship as a concept is indispensable. But at a moment when a number of poetry communities are committed to ideas of groupness, it's also crucial to imagine an idea of partisanship without party, without school, without movement.