A Report on A Workshop with Etienne Balibar
Kumar Das & Sanam Roohi
Research Group (CRG) with the support of Ford Foundation, had undertaken a
multilinear, multidimensional and an intense engagement with the concept and
realities of ‘Social Justice’. The second critical studies conference was a
part of this engagement with the concept of social justice and an effort in that
front. The Conference was held from 20-22 September 2007. The title of
the Conference was chosen as “Spheres of Justice”.
Second Conference had a special feature. Just after the conference there was
“A One-Day Workshop with Etienne Balibar” on 24 September 2007 which took
place at Swabhumi’s Rang Darbar. A select group of participants were invited
to join the workshop. On the first half of the day, Etienne Balibar spoke on his
the question of his recent research interest, current research work and his
reflections on it; and on the second half of the day there were five
commentators who took up five important topics of his work and commented on it.
It was followed by interjections from the participants and created enormous
thought provoking dialogue.
workshop was attended by Ranabir Samaddar, Samir Kumar Das, Paula Banerjee,
Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty, Pradip Kumar Bose, Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, Samik
Bandyopadhyay, Shefali Moitra, Manas Ray, Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Rajarshi Dasgupta,
Anirban Das, Anindya Batabyal, Sudeepta Ghose, Arup Sen, Shefali Moitra,
Neilratan Shende, Chittibabu Padavala, Ishita Dey, Ratan Chakroborty, Samaresh
Guchhait, Sanam Roohi, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, Justine McGill, Francisco
Naishtat, Ivaylo Ditchev, Ajay Gandhi, Brett Neilson, Biljana Kasic, Giorgio
Grappi and Sandro Mezzadra.
workshop was preceded by a day-long meeting on 8 September 2007. That meeting
was intended to (a) familiarize the participants with some of Balibar’s
current works; (b) discuss the introductory remarks to be presented by the
designated commentators in the proposed workshop on themes related to his works
and (c) work out the modalities of conducting the workshop with him.
this, the one day workshop aimed to delve deeply into the ways in which current
political and social thinking has addressed the issues of justice in its
discussions on themes such as citizenship, race and neo-racism, role of the
masses in democracy, borders, the nation form, etc. These are some of the
issues, which have not only engaged the attention of Etienne Balibar in course
of his work in the last forty-five years in the area of political and moral
philosophy, they are also considered as central to recent understandings of
justice. Balibar’s writings open up multiple entry points to our understanding
of justice in the present world.
day was divided in the pre-lunch and post-lunch sessions. During the pre-lunch
session, Etienne Balibar spoke on his current philosophical engagements. In
his remarks he recounted his engagement with “polemical issues of the
‘event’ and present” as a part of the series of the introductory lectures
on Philosophy and Current issues for the newly established Centre for
Contemporary study for French Philosophy.
the History of 20th C, Heidegger in his seminal work on Time and
Being analysed the category of the ‘event’. Certain contemporary
philosophers also contributed to the theory of the event. In Foucault and
Althusser’s work the category of “event” was part of the critique of the
teleological time. In this context he reminded us that philosophy of the
“event” is also about philosophy of the “present”. This is explicit in
Foucault’s later interest in Kant’s Essay “What is Enlightenment?”
For the first time Philosophers were debating with their own ideas; i.e,
what makes the time singular and specific and how the old and new are fighting
together. The leanings of these ideas can be found on concrete analysis of
this context Balibar highlighted that the concepts of “over determination”
and “under determination” should be taken together. Concept of
“conjecture” is some kind of trope. Althusser and Foucault break away from
the conventional use of “event” and instead uses it in a radical sense. He
recalled his conversation with one of his friends when he went to Algeria as a
Peace Corps Volunteer. His friend was the leader of the Maoist Students
organization who felt that he was obsessed with theory. Prof. Balibar reflected
on whatr drives him to find the subject of the theory. One possibility could be
divine intervention the other possibility and the relevant one is “masses”.
Masses have been the center of Mao’s writings. For Balibar, this question
obsessed him throughout his life.
is through encounter with masses, meeting people and institutions one can locate
the spirit of the times. It is important to disentangle the “social” of
social movements, to understand the differences and crystallize discourses,
practices and institutions. His personal experience is that “differences”
are never absolute which make communication and sharing of experiences
inexplicable. This is why he is favour of “‘dialogic’ way of making
philosophy” as it speaks of “plurality of voices”.
are two concerns that has been the subject of his writing in recent times. The
two concerns are question of universality and universalism. The strategies of
speaking the universal have sparked his previous interest in Spinoza. The return
to Spinoza has been marked by his interest to understand Spinoza’s position of
secularization of civil societies. The classical theorists like Hobbes and
Locke’s view on religion could be seen as points of departure for the
representation of the strategies of the universal.
contemporary transformation of the world capitalist market undoubtedly has
acquired new meanings for the strategies of the universal. This is where things
have become delicate. The utopian ideals of postcolonial tendencies, planetarism
are dead. What these utopian ideals share are the structures of power and
institutions which institute political community. The idea of utopia is an
imaginary compensation of the gap between the political institutions and
universal principles of rights which are invoked in the institutionalization of
the institution. In this context, he referred to Hannah Arendt’s critique of
rights of man as a severe blow to the nation. There are two possible reactions
to this. Firstly, that the universalisation of politics and cosmopolitanism
remained a dream and now we re residing in a post- nationalist and cosmopolitan
world. Second is a more pessimistic position and is rooted in the ideas of
universal and utopias as meaningless.
then focused on the Strategies of politics of universal. He referred to the
theological programme that is embedded in the genealogy of the politics of the
universal, which aims at bridging the gap between theory and practice. The
transferring of emotion to practice is a transformation that is entailed in the
notion of planetarism the way Spivak uses it. The idea incorporates desires of
postcolonial assertion. Studies on Post-colonial societies focus on cross-border
and civic movements. It is essential for people from old colonial powers to
revisit the post-colonial societies in a meaningful way. The concept of
planetarism in way proposes a framework to provide genealogy of politics. It is
not a history of ideas. It has to become associated in a more heuristic manner.
The genealogy must embody central aspect of history of hegemony and
counter-hegemony of the politics of the universal.
the typical hegemonic structure one cannot do way with the concept of crisis. To
understand the political diagnosis of the hegemony of crisis one can refer to
the existing sociological tradition of the linear evolutionist progressivist
explanation of history which does not include successive layers of domination
and idea of decadence. It includes disenchantment of the world and various forms
of rationality. One can draw the idea of secularization from Nisbet. It is
deeply rooted in Western tradition of thought. One crisis follows the other.
While the old ones are still unreserved the contemporary politics of
universalism contains a juridical-political framework of the Western Modern
state that has entered a crisis that is irreconcilable. The idea of the
political universality is embodied in the idea of the universal Declaration of
Rights and is situated in the “return of the religious” is deeper than the
universalistic claims in the West.
the post lunch session Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Pradip Kumar Bose, Ranabir
Samaddar, Manas Ray, and Paula Banerjee made the initiatory comments centering
on issues of citizenship, Althusser’s legacy, methods of political inquiry,
and neo-racism and borders, respectively.
Mukherjee highlighted how the idea of the nation has largely remained as the
unthought of liberal modernity. Philosophers who tried to defend the nation
ended up in serious philosophical difficulties. The nation is once again a major
area of conflict in the making of the EU or in the spread of globalization.
Balibar in some of his recent writings has tried to do two things; one, he
examines the writings of Rousseau and Kant on the formation of the people and
the nation, and secondly, he engages with questions of nationalism and
citizenship in the EU.
Bose, speaking on the Althusserian legacy in Balibar’s work highlighted how
Althusser, on several occasions, referred to Spinoza as the only authentic
antecedent to Marx's materialism. Some
of crucial spinozian features that Althusser invoked were the absolute
distinction between real objects and objects of knowledge, the notion of a
'cause immanent in its effects', etc. Etienne
Balibar and others have taken these ideas at length, whose writings on Spinoza
are important in contemporary revaluation of his work in France and elsewhere.
Samaddar spoke on how since the beginning of the twenty first century when the
latest spurt in capitalist development of the world, known more popularly as
globalisation, has been redefining class relations in a major way, affecting
inter-state, inter-region, and inter-group relations on a global scale, we are
in some sense back to the basics of class struggle. Following Etienne Balibar
asserted how politics carries with it the after image of an oscillation between
the scene of simulation where politics appears clean of the anthropological
conditions and the scene of raw power and contest where the disciplinary
functions are being constantly challenged. In other words, in politics power is
challenged and resisted in both of its forms: psychiatric power and bio-power
(including the subjection of the body to labour process). The issue of method is
related to this dynamics. In this way we can avoid what is largely a useless
debate today, namely, whether this method will produce a subject or not. What is
derided as “eclectic” will be rediscovered as plural, attuned to multiple
levels of reality and analysis, practical, and of course empiricist.
Ray’s focal point was the questions of sovereignty and contemporary strategies
of liberal governance as worked out in the political philosophy of Etienne
Balibar. The areas I focus on are rights, race and immigration in the context of
the post-War demographic changes in Europe, especially in the current phase of
‘war on terror’.
Banerjee critiquing the nationalist democracy spoke on the postcolonial
societies everywhere, which are caught up in the politics of borders leading to
extreme sensitivity about issues of security / insecurity around the question of
population settled/unsettled in and across these borders. Added to this
problematic is the understanding that the ideological construction of the state
is almost always weighted against ethnic, religious and other minorities who
then are usually relegated to the borders of democracy.
Democracy is affected by the socio-spatial consciousness of those who
construct it. Nationalistic
democracies aim at being a hegemonic form of territorial consciousness.
the course of the two meetings a few issues emerged as the focal point of
Liberalism philosophically has not been able to
successfully resolve its antinomy with nation. In this context, Balibar’s
resolution of the issue of democratization of citizenship merits discussion,
particularly on the alleged complaint that he hardly seems to take history
into account in his resolution of the problematic. Insofar as the nation is
located in history, it always pulls the liberal project from behind and
casts its shadow on it. However, it was also felt that in this understanding
of antinomy between reason and nation, reason is defined in maximal terms.
It is possible to define reason minimally in line with Aristotle’s concept
The Spinozistic turn in contemporary philosophy is
attributed to a transition from a very determinate and well-defined category
of class to a relatively under-defined category of ‘masses’ or
‘multitude’. Spinoza bases his politics on masses rather than on
individuals. It was also pointed out that this exercise in linking Spinoza
with Marx is not new. It is also traceable to Soviet publications of earlier
times. The question was raised, does the invocation of Spinoza take Marxist
structuralism to a kind of new humanism?
Immigrant politics per se is not of critical value, if it
does not radicalize the notion of citizenship.
Since the ‘illiberal’ (that expresses itself through
liberalism’s progressivist classificatory scheme of the improved,
improvable and the doomed) is constitutive of liberalism, it cannot be
corrected by it. For example, racism is not a negation of liberalism.
Balibar’s invocation of ‘politics of civility’ recognizes
‘im-politics’ – the point beyond the phase beyond which the
possibility of politics is closed. It is at that time that war replaces
The so-called ‘cultural turn’ in Social Sciences
propelled more by the failure of organized labour movements has finished
what is ‘political’. Politics first and foremost is an encounter. All
hitherto existing philosophies have been theories of self: they have seldom
dealt with political subject who gets constituted through politics and
political action. The subject does not acquire consciousness and then act:
it acts and thereby acquires consciousness. Rights do not stem from
disciplinary techniques; they emerge from collective actions. Politics
therefore is a mass vocation. Politics is the language of action (Lenin).
Philosophy cannot change the world. Politics may have its philosophy; but
the days of politics flowing from philosophy are over.
There is always an urge to control borders and one has to view borders through the prism of violence. Borders multiply them in different ways; they also exist within the entity, and multiply within. Border is now the site of contest. On the one hand, there is surveillance. On the other hand, there are resistances to it. Borders reflect sovereignty, but border is the site of production of mini sovereignties.