REVIEW OF: EMILY APTER, UNEXCEPTIONAL POLITICS: ON OBSTRUCTION, IMPASSE, AND THE IMPOLITIC, New York: Verso, 2018.
288 pages. ISBN : 9781784780852
In the film The Favourite, there is a scene that finds the hapless co-protagonist, Queen Anne, contemplating the future of the expensive and unpopular War of Spanish Succession. The year is 1708 and the Queen is debilitated by gout, bedridden and barely conscious, muttering semi-sensical responses to a group of military advisors, who seek in vain to present her with their various strategies for the war effort. Lord Marlborough, a Tory statesman who stands at the foot of the royal bed, attempts to direct the Queen’s attention to a map of Europe with a pointer. “We gather our forces here,” he explains,“The Austrians mass here.” As the camera circles the bedroom, mimicking the dizzied disorientation of her fever state, the Queen, evidently unable to keep up, asks, “Which country is that again?”
It is a hilarious and troubling depiction of the inner-workings of statecraft but, more than that, it perfectly captures the intersection of the micro and macro scales of politics. The Queen’s illness-induced inebriation, compounded by her preoccupation with the sores festering on her legs, influences a governmental decision that will radically affect the entire European geopolitical landscape. The scene conveys how the highly contingent and relatively minor affective, attitudinal, or sanitary condition of a powerful individual can have ramifications on a massive scale. It is an emblematic moment of The Favourite, a film that repeatedly depicts how the personal whims of a ruler—whomsoever or whatsoever they might favour at a given moment—intervene in every facet of government, from legislation to war-waging to the management of the national purse. Indeed, the staging of the scene, with the map of Europe pitiably laid, like a blanket, over the body of the Queen, literalizes the overlap of the political and the personal that constitutes something like The Favourite’s central theme.
Although published several months before The Favourite was released, Emily Apter’s Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse and the Impolitic, is, among other things, concerned with examining precisely the mutual imbrication of politics and personality that Yorgos Lanthimos’s film so brilliantly captures. In the introduction to her book, Apter provides an account of how the personal components that are ostensibly only collateral to the political machine (desire, error, mood—in short, everything that makes humans human) end up inflecting politics in all of its forms. This is one of the ways in which Apter approaches her vital project of “taking stock of politics in its messier, everyday guises” (11). In a meditation that could well be taken as a Coles Notes accompaniment to The Favourite, she writes of how “the quirks of human personality—complacency, wounded narcissism, lassitude, bloody-mindedness, bureaucratic reflex—transfer to the workings of political institutions” (7). The point serves as a sort of retrospective gloss to the film, whose claustrophobic dramatization of courtly machinations exudes a fascination with the everyday phenomena that overdetermine governance.
Unexceptional Politics is an exuberant work of political thought that is deeply preoccupied with the minute scales of politics. Apter is a professor of French and comparative literature at New York University whose previous two books—Against World Literature (2013) and the co-edited Dictionary of Untranslatables (2014)—are concerned with the concept of untranslatability. She takes a slightly different tack in this most recent work: Unexceptional Politics does not directly reckon with translation per se, but nonetheless preserves the linguistic fascination and encyclopedic drive of her previous monographs. In this book, Apter is most immediately concerned with expanding the conceptual lexicon we use when we talk about politics. Her mission is more properly linguistic than explicitly philosophical; the book is perhaps best described as a work of political philology. Apter’s goal is to “[build] out a non-classical, non-canonical vocabulary of microphysical or molecular or non-transcendent disarticulations of power” (11). In this admirable endeavor, she assembles a plethora of concepts that variously intersect the mundane, marginal, and micro aspects of everyday life with politics in all its manifestations. These concepts are aptly organized under the heading of “small p politics,” the diminutive relative of the Left’s concept of “the Political” around which Apter finds less well-trodden theoretical ground (9-10). She convincingly insists that there is a great deal at stake in the re-emphasis on the microphenomena of politics, arguing that their effects are felt through the various echelons of politics from “the ordinariness of exceptional crisis and the routinization of habitual politics, to, the micropolitics of molecular cultures implanted in the byways of managed life” (17).
With its granular fascination, Unexceptional Politics participates in critics’ recent fascination with ever smaller units of analysis. Mark Seltzer has dubbed this late development “the incrementalist turn,” referring to a methodological movement that exudes a kind of “onedownsmanship” in its effort to engage “the minor and the scaled-down” (Seltzer 727). Indeed, Seltzer’s cursory description of a hypothetical study of “political forms” that examines “little resistances, infantile subjects, minute, therapeutic adjustments” (727), first articulated in an issue of Critical Inquiry in 2011, seems in some ways to have anticipated the project of Apter’s book. Undergirding Apter’s own incrementalist approach is the startling but revelatory claim that, “we really do not know what politics is, where it begins and ends, or how its micro-events should be called” (1). This assertion provides the impetus for a comprehensive elaboration of a genuinely fresh cartography of concepts for a scaled-down engagement with political praxes and discourses.
The book is divided into four sections—“Resistance to Political Theory,” “Scenes of Obstruction,” “Political Fictions,” and “Economies of Existence”—each in turn subdivided into its own handful of chapters comprised of curious and often composite terms: “Thermocracy,” “Nanoracisms,” “Psychopolitics,” “Milieu.” In their deployment in the text, such “glossemes” (4) are either wholly neologistic or else mobilized in some ingenious manner or counterintuitive context that deprives them of their automatic significations. The chapter on “Thermocracy,” for example, I half-expected to engage Elaine Scarry’s recent work, Thermonuclear Monarchy (2016), which considers “the deformation of governance that occurs when a country gains nuclear weapons” (cover copy). Instead, the chapter traces its eponymous idea back to the twentieth-century French philosopher and mathematician, Gilles Châtelet, using his neologism to describe “a stultifying atmosphere of corrupted democracy” (Apter 169). According to Châtelet, thermocracy “shatters politics into ‘microdecisions’ and relies on a thermometer that calibrates and neutralizes the market-chaos of opinion” (quoted in Apter 169n16).
The unexpected trajectory of this conceptual genealogy, which also visits the political fiction of Émile Zola, Walter Benjamin’s theorizations of empire, and the influence of Machiavelli on nineteenth-century French fiction, exemplifies the remarkable synthesis that Apter so frequently achieves in Unexceptional Politics. Each section of the book performs an impressive feat of constellation, bringing together a wealth of thinkers, concepts and cultural artifacts that fall under a given heading in the rubric of political unexceptionality. Opening to a page at random, you might just as easily find the author discoursing on “the structure of impolitic speech” in Armando Ianucci’s political satire, In the Loop (92), as discover her problematizing the concept of the “state of exception” as it has been “inscribed in theories of ‘The Political,’ from Thomas Hobbes to Carl Schmitt, from Hannah Arendt to Jacques Derrida and Giorgio Agamben” (1).
Perhaps the most masterful of her conceptual genealogies is performed in the chapter entitled “Obstinacy,” which limns the abiding political relevance of Bartleby’s “I would prefer not to” from Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Appraising the multiple and multivalent contemporary resonances of Bartleby’s axiom of apathy—which has, for example, served as a slogan for the Occupy movement—Apter describes how “Melville’s canonical motto . . . has played host to political resistance tactics ranging across civil disobedience: work stoppage, interference, suspension, and obstruction to obstruction…” (114). Yet, Apter is also sensitive to the possibility that the complacency iterated by Bartleby’s phrase can lend itself as a credo for reactionary politics, or else buttress the bureaucratic heel-dragging that can impede social change. This is the malign underside of a radical “Bartleby politics” (115) that “highlights obstinacy as the site of reserves of resistance” (130). One shade of this dark obverse of subversive obstination is “Talk Politics,” the blustering, posturing, and histrionic (read: bullshit) side of politics that, according to Apter, is “Bartlebyesque by its resistance to facts and its phatic dimension” (126).
Apter’s willingness to explore the various valences of her terms as they can be appropriated and instrumentalized by agents in a plethora of positions along the political spectrum is a case in point of her generosity of scholarly attention. Unexceptional Politics is a lively and—in a Trumpian age when the boundaries between populist politics and the cult of personality have eroded—necessary work that should contribute to the rejuvenation of political discourse and discourse about the political by reinventing its calcified terms and giving substance to its often hollow rhetoric.
The University of Toronto
Apter, Emily. Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse and the Impolitic. New York: Verso, 2018. Print.
Scarry, Elaine. Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom. New York: Norton, 2014. Print.
Seltzer, Mark. “The Official World.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 4, 2011, pp. 724-753.
The Favourite. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Performances by Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2018.