We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish.
– Marshall McLuhan
Jacques Rancière posits that the political sphere is tacitly organized around the “part of no part,” a virtual demographic composed of what Slavoj Žižek refers to as “the excremental remainders” of a political rationality which systemically disavows human suffering that is antithetical to the smooth functioning of the state’s political-economic machinery. For both Rancière and Žižek, western style democratic politics began in ancient Athens when the demos, the marginalized individuals that had no place allocated to them in the political system, joined forces and demanded to have their voices heard, to be treated as bios politikos rather than “bare life” in the public sphere.
In direct opposition to Habermas’ hygienic take on the reasonableness of liberal democracy, Rancière and Žižek underscore the bewildering irrationality of democratic politics; whatever admixture of economic and political logic the polis manifests, it is unavoidably the product of a cacophony of voices, each with its own idiosyncratic demands and vested interests. And every society, every “distribution of the sensible,” no matter how fair, is orchestrated at the expense of “the part of no part.” However, there are other protrusions and involutions in the post-Lacanian field that merit the attention of anyone who is interested in political struggles and radical democracy. The scene is, in fact, strewn with skandalons that merit the label “part of no part.”
First off, at the other end of the political spectrum from the orphaned remainders of the system are the Lacanian “quilting points,” the paternal lynchpins that suture together particular configurations of ideological content. Today, if Judith Butler, Hillary Clinton, and Madonna can all coherently characterize themselves as feminists, for instance, it is not because “feminist” is a faulty category but because it, like so many other vital political categories, functions as a floating master signifier that can effectively button down diverse configurations of discursive content. In the era of digital modernity, even some of our most dominant and persuasive master signifiers are being unhinged from their signifying chains. Without a clear sovereign exception to the law, a monarch or universally revered deity that can claim to stand above the order of things and keep our symbolic coordinates in place, our most firmly held beliefs are at risk of mutating into David Lynchpins, enigmatic signifiers that jut out of the socio-symbolic field and bethorn our various paths through the labyrinths of digital capitalism.
According to Eric L. Santner, who performs a breathtaking survey of the contemporary coordinates of biopolitical thought in The Royal Remains: The People’s Two Bodies and the Endgames of Sovereignty, we modern denizens of western liberal democracies no longer benefit from the ontological security engendered (for some) by the irrefutable sovereignty of literal monarchs. But this isn’t because the figure of the King has simply been usurped by Parliament. Even though his crown no longer sits firmly atop the body politic, his sublime body, the monstrous remainder of a royal presence that has been more or less subtracted from the political operations of liberal democracies, now saturates the field at the phantasmatic level. Far from guaranteeing the truth value of the law of the land, this royal shrapnel lodges itself in the modern liberal subject’s Being, lacerating her exposed ontological skin from every direction.
The undead remains of the Sovereign ex-cite the liberal subject, Santner suggests, into a kind of frenzy that she cannot possibly dis-charge (Santner 64). Here, he neologizes his terms in order to stretch out and amplify their energetic-biopolitical resonances. To ex-cite literally means to “innervate” or “titillate”; but the Latin ex-citare also harbours the sense of “calling out” or “summoning” one to perform a duty or even attend a court hearing. By the same token, one can “discharge” a battery of its electricity, but the term also refers to the dutiful performance of one’s job; on top of all of that, in a juridical context, a defendant can be “discharged” from court when the judge decides that he is not to be punished for a particular offense. If, as Santner maintains, a deracinated digital modernity is constantly calling us out to account for ourselves (both ontologically, by way of our superegos, and ontically, by way of our iPhones), it is because we are, in a profound experiential sense, always guilty before the virtual Law.
Jacques Lacan frames the issue with a corrective to a now hackneyed maxim:
If God doesn’t exist, [Father Karamazov] says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day. (Lacan 128)
Pace Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov (and, tacitly, Nietzsche’s madman), without ultimate sanction, without access to a supreme authority whose mandates we can cite, we are constitutively incapable of properly acceding to our presumed symbolic mandates, our rightful stations in the world, and this disorienting predicament readily induces a paralyzing experience of imposture. We might say that from the vantage point of those afflicted by this neurosis (a pathology that inheres to a much larger swath of the population than most would acknowledge), the brute fact of their existence implicates them in an inscrutable criminal conspiracy for which there can be no proper apprehension.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk introduces another warp into this field with his concept of explication (literally, “unfolding”), the process that incessantly brings into relief our most primordial medium, the air we breathe. Modernity, for Sloterdijk, was conceived on April, 22, 1915, in Ypres, Belgium, where the German military forever altered humanity’s relationship to its “atmo-sphere” by launching the first lethal gas attack on French Canadian soldiers. Sloterdijk characterizes this assault on the soldiers’ air envelope as the inaugural flashpoint of a techno-epistemic epoch whose defining feature is the ceaseless practical and theoretical “making explicit” of our enabling environs. This “unfolding” entails an ongoing reciprocal relation between an accelerating cascade of disclosures about the (ecological, biochemical, statistical, algorithmic, and technological) constitution of “life” and its infrastructure, on the one hand, and the ceaseless emergence of new methods for attacking and protecting life’s immunitary habitats, on the other.
The implications of this vaporous epistemic shift are vast. Sloterdijk tracks the unfurling miasma of modernity as the gas attack takes on an undead life of its own, morphing into the Zyklon A developed for “peaceful” pest control, the Zyklon B that the Nazis used to murder concentration camp prisoners (who were systematically figured as contagion carriers whose very existence threatened the integrity of the Aryan Teutonic body politic) during WWII, and the manifold pervasive assaults on declared enemies’ “acute environmental living conditions” (Sloterdijk 29), ranging from American gas-chamber criminal executions to the full gamut of contemporary “atmoterrorism” (including the persistent attacks that militaries, riot police, and corporations have been unleashing on our environment since World War II).
It is in light of these distinctly modern methods for “explor[ing] the environment from the perspective of its destructibility” (ibid. 26) that Sloterdijk probes what he characterizes as their peaceful counterparts, including the emergence of air conditioning, climate control, and climatology. Modernity, according to Sloterdijk, acquires its definition by means of the constant unfurling of this “atmo-spheric” tension, and the prevailing mood is irremediably coloured by polymorphous sensitivity to the toxic waves and radiation crackling through the atmosphere. Even the most tranquilly insulated air conditioned space never ceases to expose “bare life” to new zones of vulnerability:
If, in their history to date, humans could step out at will under any given stretch of sky, in- or out-of-doors, and take for granted the unquestioned idea of the possibility of breathing in the surrounding atmosphere, then, as we see in retrospect, they enjoyed a privilege of naivety which was withdrawn with the caesura of the 20th century. Anyone who lives after this caesura and moves within a culture zone in step with modernity is already bound … to a formal concern for climate and atmosphere design. To show one’s willingness to participate in modernity one is compelled to let oneself be seized by its power of explication over what once discretely under-“lay” everything, that which encompassed and enveloped to form an environment (ibid. 50).
The ultimate “part of no part,” then, for both Santner and Sloterdijk, is the contemporary liberal subject, the bios politikos that suffers not from a lack of voice so much as a apoplectic seizure induced by hypersensitivity to the paradoxically acute but nebulous deluge that constitutes the Heideggerian “mood” of modernity. Your carefully-curated Facebook profile picture would lead us to believe that you are on top of the world. This may be the case, but only because you are a curiously ornamental lightning rod.
In the broadest possible sense, humanity is in a spasmodic state of environmental crisis, a word whose etymology signifies both “turning point in a disease” and, by way of the Latin cribrum, “crime” or “judgement.” But Sloterdijk offers no panaceas for what Freud once called our unbehagen, our disturbance amidst the dis-eases undulating through the fabric of modernity, because any attempt at parting the fog would only add another layer, another toxic fold to the “making explicit” of our environment.
Instead, inspired by the work of Samuel Hahnemann, the progenitor of homeopathy, of all people, Sloterdijk advocates for a radical reconstitution of our technological mindset. Rather than continuing to view ourselves as the agentive masters of our cybernetic habitat, we must be compelled to recognize the extent to which, in every technophilic manipulation of our thoughts, bodies, and ecosystems, humanity has always already been the object of a perverse self-experiment, a perpetual form of self-vivisection. As an astute reader of Heidegger once put it, “Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell.” Such a perspectival shift, according to Sloterdijk, holds out an abstruse hope – not so much for a New Age reconciliation with nature (which would be naïve, given his account of the coordinates of our alienation) as a newfound measure of poetic consubstantiality with our dwelling, even as the globe spirals off its axis.