“Michael Marder’s Political Categories is much more than a book about politics. It takes a step back and looks at the conceptual apparatus we rely on when we talk about politics and engage in it.”
~ Slavoj Žižek, author of Disparities and The Incontinence of the Void
This week we are featuring Political Categories: Thinking Beyond Concepts by Michael Marder. Yesterday you read the first part of “Position as a Political Category: Phenomenology and the Eroticism of Power,” a guest post by Marder. Below is the continuation of the piece.
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In Levinas’s occasional forays into political thought, the question of position is quietly operative behind the scenes. His ideal view of political life makes solidarity prominent in a collective shoulder-to-shoulder stance of the citizens. To extrapolate from this image, members of a polity do not expose themselves to each other, but they are still standing and standing up. Before whom?—that would be Schmitt’s question to Levinas. Does being side-by-side make sense without a confrontation, a united front the group presents against another group? For Levinas, it is the ethical relation, rather than politics, that hinges on a face-to-face confrontation, asymmetrical as it may be. In facing and being faced with the other, the standing of the parties in this strange relation is unequal, if not altogether incommensurate. It is a standing, nonetheless, characterized not only in vertical terms, with reference to height and transcendence, but also by the aiming (viser) of the face (visage). Levinas himself concurs that any part of the body can be a face—say, the hunched back of a grieving mother standing in a line of people eager to hear news of the loved ones arrested by secret police in the Stalinist purges. But in a face-to-face relation, the frontal assault of aiming cannot help by evoke a phallic stance, always ready to turn into a missile, to become mobile, to be mobilized toward the goal of hitting me, of treating me as a target to be hit.
“Physically more stable and sexually indeterminate, the sitting position challenges the verticality of the human body and its potency, doubly coded in terms of political power and masculine sexuality.”
Sitting seems more pacific than standing, and more stable at that. The seated bodily position is also ambiguous, compared to standing, because, unlike the latter, it does not reveal the sexual organs of the one who sits. To us, hypermoderns, it sounds like a negation of mobility, a symbol or a symptom of the feudal past, of a fixed politico-economic order where both the lords and their surfs were attached to specific plots of land. Human settlements are fundamentally agrarian, inseparable from the places of plant cultivation and phenomenologically aligned with the sessile nature of vegetal existence. That said, sedentariness and sessility are the positional sites of intensive movement, of movement in a place, with growth, decay, and metamorphosis for its salient modalities. In other respects, too, sitting is, far from passive, the resistant position par excellence in our era that glorifies the unfettered mobility of capital and the more conditional mobility of labor. And that is not even to mention sit-ins as effective forms of protest, or “squats” that occupy disused buildings and repurpose them for housing.
Physically more stable and sexually indeterminate, the sitting position challenges the verticality of the human body and its potency, doubly coded in terms of political power and masculine sexuality. The upper portion of the one who sits retains a vertical stance, while the lower part is horizontal in relation to the floor or the ground. Sitting is a physico-symbolic fold imbued with mystery and vegetal eroticism, a crease of activity and passivity, oppositionality and receptivity.
“The paradox of horizontality is that it must oppose verticality without opposing it, without engaging in a standoff, which would draw it into the orbit of what it resists.”
The crease of sitting is undone in a lying position that unreservedly embraces the kind of horizontality capable of subverting power hierarchies. Lying down is not just a position of the corpse (which is, actually, the most difficult and deeply energetic yoga pose, savasana), of what, with a great deal of irony, Kant called “the peace of the cemeteries”—even though it has been adopted in “die-ins” in the course of recent Extinction Rebellion protests.Nor is it the outcome of absolute submission. A horizontal position is that of grass-root movements, as well as anarchic networks, that, at their core, oppose the state’s stance, its standing as the erect embodiment of hierarchical power.The paradox of horizontality is that it must oppose verticality without opposing it, without engaging in a standoff, which would draw it into the orbit of what it resists. From the standpoint of someone or something standing, it would appear purely passive and available, up for grabs, ready for the taking. The lying position, however, makes one both exposed (from a different side than that of the genital exposure of the erect state) and elusive, unwilling to engage with the powerful stance on its terms. To lie down is to receive the most support from the ground, which ultimately cannot be appropriated, despite being carved up into plots of land and territories forming the basis of possession. It is to be suffused with this non-appropriability and to impregnate the ideality of power with the materiality of gravity.
A revolution, as I note in Political Categories, is the inversion of a position occupied by the entire body politic. In this respect, revolutions are more radical than revolts that signal slight shifts in the body politic, but they are less radical than the insistence on horizontality. Revolutionary overturning may put the collective subject legs up, or, on the assumption that the standing of the status quo is itself perverse, invert it the other way, restoring an upright erect stance. “Taking power,” revolutionaries re-eroticize it, albeit still with the view to a phallic fetish. That is, arguably, why historically accomplished revolutions invariably fail. The phenomenological context for their practices begs the question: are all politics and varieties of power that attain hegemony necessarily circumscribed to the vertical axis of spatio-sexual experience?