Mees van Hulzen
Sometimes we come across a book that makes us feel uneasy, causes a degree of uncertainty and poses more questions than it answers. This does not have to be a bad thing, and it certainly is not in the case of Michael Marder’s latest book: Political Categories, with the telling subtitle: Thinking Beyond Concepts. In it he unfolds an ambitious project of developing a theory of political categories, based on a phenomenological reading of Aristotle’s Categories and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Not only does Marder wants to demonstrate how these classical categories can be translated to political philosophy, but he also aims to show that the constitution of the categories themselves is already political, as he elaborates in the two appendixes the book has. The boldness of this undertaking makes it an exciting book, filled with unexpected turns, and rich with various philosophical insights; only, one cannot help to feel a little lost at the end of it. In what follows I will give a commented summary of the book and a brief critical reflection at the end.
Marder has over the last years, in a rapid pace, published a great number of books. Not least of all on plants. Marder is probably one of the few experts on the planet when it comes to philosophy and plants. Most well-known is his book Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). Clearly his interest in the being of plants resonates in his other philosophical work where he writes about phenomenology, ecology and politics, such as in his book on Heidegger: Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology and Politics (2017). In it he tries to demonstrate how some of Heidegger’s major ideas support an ecological and leftist politics; a conclusion that Heidegger infamously failed to draw. Another noteworthy book is that on Carl Schmitt’s idea of the political: Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010). Many of the themes Marder discusses in his previous work reoccur in Political Categories. However, it is not to be thought of as a synthesis of his previous work, but rather a continuation of Marder’s explorative thinking, devoted to the project of developing from a phenomenological methodology, a critical political theory, that is directed at the political things themselves (xi).
Marder begins chapter 1 of Political Categories by positioning himself in contrast to two extremes in the political landscape, who, according to him, both suffer from the same problem. The first extreme goes by many different names, such as ‘economicism’ (7), ‘neoliberalism’ (8), ‘progressivism’ (9) or ‘capitalism’ (1). The other extreme is that of ‘ultranationalism’ (98) or ‘reactionary modernism’ (7). Marder’s critique in the book is mainly directed at the former, partly because he holds the conviction that the latter is a consequence of the former. Hence, the predicate ‘reactionary’. The problem with both positions – that make up for the two evils that plague many societies today – is that they both represent a type of thinking that limits itself to one particular category, and reduces the whole of political reality to it. In the case of neoliberalism everything is reduced to that what is calculable and quantifiable. In the case of ultranationalism it is the exclusive and distorted application of the category of quality that poisons social relations by reducing social reality to different homogenous sorts.
By broadening the political categories, the theory of political categories provides, according to Marder, a solution to both extremes of the political spectrum. First of all, because the multiplicity of perspectives that the theory presents offers a better and more thorough understanding of political entities. Second, it would also lead to better politics, in so far as it would more adequately fit politics to the plurality of political reality (8). The idea that a theory of political categories can help to oppose neoliberalism and ultranationalism is promising, but how does Marder exactly substantiate this claim?
Key for understanding the theory of political categories is the Husserlian adage: ‘Zu den Sachen selbst!’ We should also in the case of political theory return to the things themselves, according to Marder, not merely by directing our attention to things that are political, but first of all by perceiving politics as a thing. Not only does politics revolves around a public thing (res publica) but the constitution of things in general is a public affair. (12). Things are not just simply there, but as Marder repeatedly phrases it: they ‘present’ themselves or ‘give’ themselves. He warns us not to think of things as objects. The thing does not stand in front of me as a complete alien entity, but rather I unfold myself in my perception of the thing: ‘The categories and self-consciousness do not lay siege of things, walling them behind freestanding conceptual structures. From the outset, they take the side of things, sometimes with such fanaticism that they do not longer recall who takes this side’ (15).
Categories are according to Marder crucial for the way in which a thing is interpreted by us. The role the categories play in our understanding of a thing should not be confused with classification. In classification a thing is ascribed certain fixed properties and is classified accordingly. Categories do not seek to do away with something but are directed at maintaining the borders of that which they categorize (21). They enable us to form judgments and help us to distinguish one from the other.
What does this have to do with politics? What makes the categories of quantity, relation, quality, substance etc. political? There is no political sphere for Marder per se, since he, on the one hand considers politics as a thing, and on the other hand thinks that the interpretation of things is political. However, for him this does not result in the meaningless expression: ‘everything is political’. Everything is only political in so far as everything is potentially political or ‘politicizable’ (24). That things are constantly politicized follows from the way in which Marder equates the ‘mobilization of the categories’ to politicization (22). ‘Political categories’ is in this sense a misnomer: there are no political categories but categories themselves are inherently political. They politicize the non-political by enabling the accusation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, without reducing the thing to one particular category. Categorization is not a static process, like classification, but rather it is the interplay of highlighting different modes of being of the thing that is given.
After having introduced the political dimension of his theory, Marder gives in chapter 2, on the basis of Aristotle’s table of categories, a first description of the political workings of various categories. Aristotle distinguishes 10 categories, Marder however limits his discussion to 6 of them: ousia (beingness), quantity, space, relation, positionality and quality. He distances his own phenomenological position from that of Aristotle, by siding with Husserl. For Aristotle the categories belong to the things themselves, they are always of something. However, from the perspective of phenomenology the categories are always to something, according to the axiom of intentionality. Marder’s phenomenological critique of Aristotle remains unfortunately only limited to a few comments.
The most significant paragraph of this chapter is the first one: ‘Ousia-beingness-presence’ which can be read as the blueprint of Marder’s project. In it he discusses the first category of Aristotle’s table of categories, that of ousia, beingness or substance (44). It is a special category and is different from the others, since in it the passage from the non-political to the political takes place. Marder describes the way in which a thing presents itself to us as the passage of ‘this’ singular being that presents itself ‘as that’. This passage he defines as the passage of the first to the second ousia. The undifferentiated singular being that presents itself as ‘this’ has to be interpreted ‘as that’, for example: this singular being presents itself to me as human. And it is in this passage from the first to the second ousia, that the other categories play a crucial role: ‘Other categories must be in place for us to make a hermeneutical leap bridging the divide between this and that, which is why, by itself, ousia eludes identification and is a category on the verge of the uncategorizable.’ (46). Because ousia is primary to interpretation, the possibility of various interpretations is inherent to it. The other categories are an actualization of the possibility to interpret this singular being in a particular way.
The passage from the first ousia to the second is primarily how Marder understands politics. This means that he primarily understands politics as politicization (122). But politicization can also be hindered or obstructed. He gives the example of someone who is denied interpretation as a human being based on her racial, ethnic, religious, sexual or gender identity (45).
Marder further argues that the passage from the first to the second ousia can help us to confront some of the most fundamental social problems of modernity. First of all, he argues that ousia holds the possibility of peace, in so far as it ensures the ‘equality of the incommensurables’, by which he means that no thing ‘is’ more than another thing, and also in the access they provide to political presence they are equal (51). Second, the category of ousia does not merely reveal the sameness between things, but in the transition from the first to second ousia also their differences. This corresponds to the idea that in this transition the gap between the singular to the universal is bridged, without reducing the one to the other. Something that is a necessary condition for the creation of political solidarity according to Marder (78).
The rest of the chapter consists of a discussion of other Aristotelian categories: how they help us to understand politics as a thing, how they complement each other, and how they become destructive when taken in isolation from each other. The tension between the category of quantity and quality is most noteworthy. In line with his general critique of the technocratic way in which neoliberalism reduces everything to quantifiable entities he points us to the inherent lack of meaning in the category of quantity. Like the category of ousia, the category of quantity does not have contraries (a square is for example not the contrary of a triangle, nor is 1 the contrary of 0), but whereas ousia, in the transition from the first to the second ousia, allows for differences, quantity remains on the level of a limitless sameness: unable to recognize real differences. This is why the reduction of political reality to the category of quantity proves to be most disastrous for politics. The focus on numbers in the census of representative democracies, for example, tends to neutralize and depoliticize the whole political spectrum to a form of ‘procedurally democratic bookkeeping’ (60).
The category of quality, in contrast to that of quantity, brings forward the differences within politics by asking: ‘what sort?’. The contrast with the category of quantity is that the category of quality reveals the differences of particular political orders and enables us to think of them as alternatives to each other. The quality, the sort, of one thing determines its limits in respect to the limits of others. This is why Marder emphasizes repeatedly that categories constitute the boundaries between things. The quality of a political order is reenacted and repeated in certain habits, such as democratic practices, but also the spatial embeddedness of a political order in a particular climate determines its quality. The reason why he probably wants to think of the spatiality of a political order as quality, is that it enables him to link it to his philosophy of ecology. However, it is also a dangerous move to take up the category of quality and spatial embeddedness within political theory, since it runs the risk of getting dangerously close the regressive parochial politics of ‘belonging to’ (82). Marder seeks to avoid this risk, by emphasizing that the categories form together one whole which forms a synthesis between the particular and the universal, as mentioned before in reference to the category of ousia. It is however questionable and in need of a more elaborate argument, if and in how far, the universality of being can form a counterbalance to nationalistic concepts of belonging.
The third chapter on Kant, undoubtedly presents the biggest challenge to the reader who cannot directly reproduce the ins and outs of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. However, it never becomes a real Kant exegesis, and the parts that deal with the details of the Kantian categories are clearly subordinate to Marder’s attempt of developing a theory of political categories. One might wonder why it is at all necessary for Marder to invoke the Kantian apparatus after having developed a first understanding of political categories on the basis of the Aristotelian framework. The reason for this can be found in the different orientations of both chapters. In the second chapter he discusses the Aristotelian categories in relation to politics as a thing. However, in the third chapter he redirects his attention from politics as a thing to the experience of politics, using thereby Kant’s framework of the categories. Where one might have the impression at the end of the second chapter that Marder fails to stay loyal to his phenomenological method, this is adequately reestablished when he shifts his focus to political experience.
The third chapter he begins with the dramatic statement: ‘We have forfeited, or perhaps never had access, to, the experience of politics’ (91). By this he does not mean that politics today takes place far removed from everyday life, but that we, in the first place, have lost the capacity for political experiences. The reason for this is that we have lost the form that provides the conditions for political experiences (92). Without form, the content of experiences, such as voting or resistance, becomes empty and meaningless. For Marder this is also the reason for the impossibility of the constitution of a political ‘we’ under the conditions of neoliberalism (97). This is one of the central claims of the book.
The way in which categories form the condition for political experience, should not be understood as taking up different categories at various occasions. Marder uses the Kantian conception of synthesis to explain the interplay between, and the mutual dependence of, various categories in experience. He uses the unity of the various categories and experience as an important normative benchmark: below the experiential threshold of the categories, things can no longer be interpreted, and all appear the same in their singularity. Above the experiential threshold we have the well-known problem of rigidity and abstract conceptualism (96 -97).
However, Kant does not hold all the answers Marder is looking for. The major problem of Kant’s epistemology for Marder is its hierarchical structure based on the divide between the transcendental and the empirical. Political categorial reason is according to Marder ‘transtranscendental’. He introduces this neologism to describe that political categories go beyond ‘the beyond’. They do this on the one hand by helping us to understand the political make-up of the categories (which is worked out in the two appendixes of the book), and on the other hand by going beyond the political themselves, like he shows in reference to the nonpolitical stage of first ousia. With the term transtranscendental he attempts to put Kant upside-down, denying the hierarchical order of the transcendental and the empirical. As exciting as his suggestions are for those who like to annul the subject-object divide, it is unlikely that it will convince devoted Kant scholars.
After having set up the theoretical framework in chapters 2 and 3, he puts it to full use in chapter 4, as the title of the chapter already indicates: ‘Categories at Work’. Here he discusses four political themes: state, revolution, power and sovereignty, thereby using and mixing up both the Aristotelian and the Kantian categories. In the case of the state for example he explains how people that view it merely from the perspective of its territorial boundaries, limit themselves to the Aristotelian category of quantity. This perspective is inherently imperialistic since the only way it can be improved is through expansion (148). Kant, however, points out that boundaries are not given by quantitative but by qualitative categories. Marder implies here that taking up the category of quality impedes imperialistic tendencies: ‘limits give the thing its particular qualities, and, in exchange for this service, it gives up its drive towards a potentially infinite expansion in a general atmosphere of indeterminacy’ (149). Not only in reference to the state, but limits and borders play overall a prominent role in this last chapter, and forms a welcome critique of meaningless popular expressions like ‘everything is political’ or ‘everything is connected’.
Take for example the section on power in which he develops a critique on Michel Foucault’s conception of power. Although his critique becomes at this point a bit repetitive, it is interesting that his theory of political categories is not only directed against the proponents of neoliberal politics, but also at various other continental (leftists) philosophers, such as Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri et al. Like the other positions criticized in the book he also criticizes Foucault for reducing social reality to one particular category within his conception of power, namely that of relation. According to Marder power is not merely relational but simultaneously ‘substantive, (…) qualitative and quantitative, active and passive, (…) potential and actual’ (169). It is especially the category of substance, ousia, to which Marder pays most attention in relation to power. What Foucault fails to see is that in the interpretation of ‘this’ as ‘that’, there already is a pregiven, concrete subject (174). Marder’s claim here, in line with his interpretation of ousia, is that Foucault denies the non-political reality of being. This is of crucial importance for him since his whole theoretical framework rests on the non-political being of a thing, or its political potentiality, that offers the possibility of politicization and thereby of politics.
To conclude, Political Categories is undoubtedly one of the most interesting books today for a new phenomenological approach to political theory. The central theme of developing a theory of political categories is highly original and inventive, but also somewhat problematic. Especially when it comes to the normative horizon that Marder believes is offered by them. The difficulty for him is not to convince the reader that they offer an alternative to neoliberalism. The descriptions of the ways in which the political categories unfold the plurality and the singularity of particular beings, make up for to the most convincing parts of the book. More problematic, is the way in which he believes that a theory of political categories also gives an answer to regressive anti-modern nationalism. His answer that the political categories form a synthesis of sameness and difference, that includes the universality of the incommensurable sameness of the first being of things, seems to be too far removed from political experience, and needs at the very least extensive elaboration. This last point is a general structural weakness of the book: due to its programmatic character, it touches upon many different themes and authors, without discussing any of them at length. When he puts the categories ‘to work’ in the last chapter this is not any different. However, it sparks the curiosity of the reader to see what the political categories bring to the surface when they are really put to work, maybe, and hopefully, in a follow-up to this thought-provoking book.