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Unexceptional Politics: Four Perspectives

Emily Apter's Unexceptional Politics​​​​​​​ "is a sprawling and remarkable mapping of the terrain of terms, idioms, and actions that constitute the philological and conceptual depth of our contemporary political lives." These commentaries were presented as part of a roundtable discussion on the book as "an entry port, a spur for continued engagement with the rich range of concerns that Unexceptional Politics raises."

Emily Apter 4 June 2019

Unexceptional Politics: Four Perspectives

One way to grasp the nature of politics is to understand the key terms in which it is discussed. In Unexceptional Politics (2017), Emily Apter develops a political vocabulary drawn from a wide range of media (political fiction, art, film, and TV), highlighting the scams, imbroglios, information trafficking, brinkmanship, and parliamentary procedures that obstruct and block progressive politics.

The four commentaries below were presented as part of a roundtable discussion on the book at Johns Hopkins University in 2018. An introduction has been provided by Swayam Bagaria. 

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Swayam Bagaria

Unexceptional Politics is a sprawling and remarkable mapping of the terrain of terms, idioms, and actions that constitute the philological and conceptual depth of our contemporary political lives. Apter construes the relation between ‘politics’ and the ‘political’ neither as a mereological aggregate through which small actions add up to larger political interventions, nor as a calculated transmission between the two, such that occasional engagements in the ordinary terms of politics might homeopathically keep the retreating horizon of the political from becoming completely oblivious. Eschewing analyses of politics that resort to a second-order settlement of its significance, Apter instead sees the plane, or more accurately the force field, of small ‘p’ politics as a philological composite where tactics of institutional engagement, modes of being that withhold from the calculative clutches of managed life, the small and incremental ways in which rights and entitlements are established, as well as the modified modalities of deliberative democracy, coincide. She creates a slanted political lexicon that pries open different regions of the messy realities of small ‘p’ politics and enables us to read these complexities across shifting horizons of use and meaning. While Apter’s method is to show how each ‘political concept’ charts singular itineraries of conceptualization, she is careful to suggest that no one concept can exhaust the set of possible contexts that it encompasses. Instead, each ‘political concept’ becomes a center of density, a pressure point which, while too easily papered or passed over in the canonical lexicon of political theory, here becomes a site of reading through which the palimpsestic histories of political engagement and thinking can be retrieved. As all the commentators in this forum vouch, such a work of mapping the terrain of political concepts—an almost topographical spread of philological eruptions—makes Apter’s intervention a highly generative one, cutting across the restrictions of disciplinary epistemologies and methodological specificities. While all the commentaries move outwards from Apter’s book to authors, texts, and questions that animate the commentators’ own disciplinary and intellectual locations, I want to briefly highlight a few overlapping themes that readers can use as possible pathways of entry into the conversation.

Foremost is the question of scale. As Rebecca Ploof wonders in her contribution, while Apter aims to unsettle the modality of exceptionalism that has animated discussions of political theology, is there still a possibility of sketching an “epic theory of the unexceptional”. Central here is the difference between the epic and the exceptional and the different effects it has for the question of scale. While the predominant gesture through which the exceptional manifests in the domain of action is that of interruption, the epic theorist “reassembles” the world according to a split vision. Turning to Machiavelli, who appears throughout in Apter’s book, Ploof observes that the prince is a figure whose “animalistic facility with force” allows him to be cognizant of the lapses in “institutional design” as well as be attuned to the “peculiarities of the human psyche”. Unmistakably aware of the domain of politics as a realm of “masks” where even one’s duplicity has to be camouflaged, Machiavelli’s Prince becomes an epic albeit larger-than-life instantiation of the kind of impolitical persona whose outline Apter sketches in her book. 

Andrew Brandel approaches the question of scale through a different route when he creatively juxtaposes Rosa Luxembourg’s critique of the Erfurt Program with Apter’s insistence on maintaining the micropolitical and revolutionary politics as being “seeded within one another”. Reminding us of Luxembourg’s rejection of the SPD’s program of revisionist state reform, Brandel juxtaposes Luxembourg’ charting of a theoretical trajectory for Marxism that resisted the twin pitfalls of reform and centralism with Apter’s project of a concerted attentiveness to the nuances of terms that compose our ordinary micropolitical engagements. Where Ploof outlines the characterological specificities, the “vulpine” and “leonine” traits that makes the Prince into a figure who is capable of caring for “public things” as well as maintaining the integrity of “political bodies”, Brandel considers the work of political theorizing as a practice of dispersed thinking that restrains the imagination of revolution from becoming a form of moribund utopianism. One might even go so far as to say that Ploof and Brandel represent two different directions that compose the self-scaling nature of politics: Ploof provides us the figure of the Prince as one who scales the heights of political power while acquiring a bifocal vision that allows him to simultaneously scan the needs of institutional politicking as well as public service. Brandel, on the other hand, upholds the impetus to constantly track the singularity of the political milieus within which we find ourselves as a way to renew the promise of political thinking. Scaling the ladder of political power also requires balancing the scales of everyday stakes in order to give full political reckoning to the situation at hand, thus giving ‘scale’ itself the status of a political concept in Apter’s sense of the term.

Such a cross-hatching embedded within the notion of scale requires a shift in the way in which the vagaries of language enable or obstruct the proliferation of political terminology. Apter’s engagement with language is distinct from the metapragmatic analyses of political oratory that consider the creation of a biographical “message” as central to the tactics of maintaining political clout. ‘Dog whistling’ is a particularly prominent example of this kind of stylized political ‘talk’ in the context of America, and the prominence of which can be traced as far back as Washington Irving’s 1807 diagnosis of American democracy as a logocracy, or a government of words. Apter is less interested in the rhetorical antecedents of political branding, and more invested in tracking the conditions under which the language of political change comes to acquire a desensitized and deadened quality in the first place. As Jennifer Culbert notes in her contribution, Apter’s project of compiling a lexicon of political untranslatables generates a more arborescent phenomenology of micropolitical effects that might otherwise not register in standing theories of political action and description. Taking the example of one such effect, that of ‘interference’, Culbert observes how the ambitions of untranslatability do not conclude in treating concepts as linguistic singularities, but instead lie in disaggregating concepts into their overwritten contexts of translation that form them. Culbert is skeptical of the extent to which such a project can bloom into a fully formed political engagement as she compares Apter’s intervention with the restricted therapeutic consequence that a psychoanalyst might have towards their patient. Although the results of such a diagnosis are open with regards to the future, Culbert’s observation raises a question about the prognosis that Apter’s book charts. 

Rather than asking what is the cure for our political despair, might we first ask what is the particular nature of the illness that demands such a course of treatment? There is a general answer that one could give. Apter herself notes that her book might be read as a response to a world in which history has merely become an “adjustment narrative”, and where the “suicidal endgame” of democracy necessitates an acknowledgement of the blockages and impasses that make comprehensive imagination of political change impossible. However, there is another, more implicit, domain within which the significance of Apter’s prognosis can be received. This domain is a zone of indistinction where there are no architectural boundaries that consolidate any substantive difference between the languages that are mobilized for rightful claims and languages that might further entrench an already existing state of injury. In such a zone of fluctuating affects and shifting meanings, political concepts, that have had canonized standing in political theory, become seized by a possessive spectrality, a blinding élan, that might occlude rather than illuminate the nature of political conceptualization. Apter’s book allows us to overhear the dissonances and semantic exertions that chafe at the endless discursive efforts geared towards managing the normativity of these concepts. The untranslatable, which in this book appears more often as in-translation, thus also becomes a mode of attuning our attention to the muddled textures of voices and traces that make a concept movable within and across languages, while simultaneously making us careful of becoming captivated by any one single imagination of what is absent from these itineraries. 

This requires, as Bécquer Seguín rightly notes in his contribution, that we also turn towards the “muck of political mobilization”, to the Left’s accounts of “its own palace intrigue – whether in activism, organization, or protest”. One may of course think here of the enormous body of work on the formerly colonial societies, and which documents how formerly disenfranchised groups carve up milieus of political action in ways that do not entirely coincide with the logics of civil society or administrative negotiation. Apter does not engage with this scholarship, as Culbert notes, but Seguín’s question opens up a possible trajectory of exchange. Using the example of Mathias Énard’s Street of Thieves, Seguín writes about the character’s inner dilemma between acting in his capacity as a strike-breaker and participating in that day’s events of the general strike, to show the potential contributions that Apter’s book can make in furthering the recognition of such quotidian moments of hesitation as the necessary “political fictions of revolutionary movements”. Foregrounding the question of genre, Seguín notes that Apter’s return to “political fiction” introduces a different method of encountering our literary histories. In this mode of encounter, works of literature become “how-to manuals” through which one is practically instructed in the minutiae of psycho-politics and palace intrigue. Brandel also highlights this turn in Apter’s book, but he places it in the same breath as early modernist critiques of bourgeois realism that had monopolized understandings of the ‘real’ while also staving off any concerns that might involve the nebulous zones of desire or fantasy. While it may well prove fruitful to explore how this mode of reading fiction to capture the diffused atmosphere of politics, square with Apter’s earlier critiques of “World Literature”, that is a conversation for another occasion. Perhaps, Apter might not even consider reconciling the two as the best way of approaching the in-translations of her own widespread oeuvre.

The contributions of this forum are a testament to the dizzyingly plural sites of inquiry that Apter’s book engages and illuminates. In that spirit, I hope that exchanges in this forum become an entry port, a spur for continued engagement with the rich range of concerns that Unexceptional Politics raises. All of the commentaries were presented as part of a roundtable discussion on the book at Johns Hopkins University. Acknowledgement is due to the departments of Anthropology, Political Science, Comparative Thought and Literature, and the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, for their financial support in making this dialogue possible.


1) Political Fiction and the Paleonymic Lexicon 
Andrew Brandel

Unexceptional Politics is a bold, and as others have pointed out, exceedingly timely attempt to shift analytical pressure away from the reliance on tropes of exceptionality that has defined classical political theory, and toward the region of politics “as it happens,” a region she describes as micropolitics, or an anthropology of politics. Her powerful critique of the theorizing of big “p” Political at the expense of a companion microphenomenology of political life (4) does not exempt nominally radical politics from its purview; quite the contrary, it takes aim most forcefully at the long standing refusal on the left to accept involvement in the ordinary terms of politics, in favor of a utopian deferment of the Political “for tomorrow,” holding out for what Badiou calls a “complete rupture with what exists” – a fact which, if critical already after the disillusionment following ’68 and ‘89 has taken on renewed urgency in our political climate today. “Big P’ Politics implies” she writes “a refusal to accept the terms of homogenized opinion and engineered consent on offer in the mediocracy” and which is often summoned “to delegitimize plurality of opinion.”(28) To retreat the political (to use, as she does, Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy’s formulation) is to conceive of the Political as the yet unthought, for a time “yet to come” (and implicitly thereby not for the muddiness of today). A perspective from Foucault’s felicitous “microphysics of power”, or from a micropolitics, points on the other hand to a measurement in “microdimentions” (37) which suffuse everyday life through modes of subjectivation and the management of space and time - that is, to politics as it really, ordinarily happens; to a view of political subjects with “their ear low to the ground, their attention trained on life beside the bridge.” (51) It is in this “messy space between policy and political theory” where scenes of obstruction, and where terms like “impolitic” “disentrenchment” “interference” and “obstinacy” begin to emerge as “supremely political” - revealing an “extreme incivility” from within political institutions, including political language, themselves. 

So how can we reconcile our conviction in the need for an ultimate overturning not just of particular instruments or terms of domination, but indeed an encompassing emancipation, with its “inarticulability” and with the very real need for action in the messy, everyday reality of political life right now? 

Apter’s negative reply takes us even further by subtly drawing our attention to the ways in which the unwillingness to engage in this “formless force field” in advance of the full abolishment of alienated labor makes us, in an important sense, complicit in the short-circuiting of an actualized emancipatory politics. She notes that she remains, as many of us do, committed to these “retreated forms of the Political (10)” that posit a full overcoming of extant structures of oppression – but, she argues entirely convincingly that we must begin to take “stock” of small “p” politics that we have abandoned to pundits and the “chattering classes”, and whose under-theorization has actually allowed the hegemonic order to remain in place. In this sense, a certain popular brand of the postmodern left might be understood as a symptom of the ideology of neoliberalism, as Jameson famously argues, in which radical thought has itself been colonized by the logics of capital through the demand that we rely exclusively on the terms of exceptional politics. This tactic, in which supposedly anti-capitalist theory functions to uphold Ubu-esque power by proliferating criticism in name only, via mere pastiche, and which can be maintained without upsetting the system, or engaging in this taking stock, has effectively deteriorated pathways to political action, through the erosion or cooptation of our language. 

One has but look at the form of knowledge production within the neoliberal academy itself, and its contemporary demands (through a regime of paper that includes the politics of citation, CV lines, tenure files, and diffuse notions of scholarly “impact”). We are required to constantly generate new concepts as if they ushered in a complete break with existing semantic and aesthetic orders. The ubiquitous language of “crises in knowledge”, the calls for new “turns” (as my field of anthropology well knows) are predicated on a picture of rupture between present and future, on exception, and which strives to incapacitate forms of theorizing that would engage little “p” politics to radical ends. It is easy to see how many brands of postmodern leftist thought then, to say nothing of “progressive liberalism”, through such a tactic of exceptionalism, bear the traces of managerial logics, of a marketing ethos, of the influences of a hyper-global capital. We can’t help but think that we have in many instances lost the fight against the colonization of the intellectual because it no longer appears to us, in ourselves, as a colonization.

If classical political theory runs the risk of being carried away by its own élan, it is perhaps an interesting double of the contest internal to the socialist movement in Germany in the early 20th century. We might read Rosa Luxembourg’s critique of Bernstein as an abandonment of the “big P” political for micropolitics, as it was evinced in the latter’s formulation: “The end goal, whatever it is, is nothing to me; the movement, everything.” Luxembourg writes in the 1899 forward to Sozialreform oder Revolution?

There can be no coarser insult, no worse abuse, [levied] against the workers than the assertion:
“theoretical debates are a matter only for academicians.” Lassalle once said: “Only when science and the workers, these opposed poles of society, unite, will they crush all obstacles to culture in their brazen arms” The whole power of the modern labor movement is based on theoretic knowledge.

Luxembourg reminds us at end of her pamphlet of that well-known passage in the 18th Brumaire, in which Marx comments on the proletarian revolution’s penchant for interrupting itself, often with critical talk. We recall that for Marx, the ultimate success of the transition from capitalism to socialism, unlike bourgeois revolutions, would be contingent on the emergence of a situation that “makes all turning back impossible,” and in which “the conditions themselves call out: here is the Rose, here dance!” Absent this precondition, the movement was fated to recoil at each moment from the indefinite monstrosity of their own purpose. Luxembourg’s critique of the Erfurt Program amounted to a rejection of opportunistic and dithering micropolitical machination at the expense of revolutionary ambition, as evinced in theoretical aspirations. The loss of the Political, moreover, was signaled by a lack in thought - Bernstein had “nothing to say…not a single splinter of a new thought!” Political theorizing happens, Luxembourg makes clear, day by day, in the streets and bars and factories, and it is likewise abandoned little by little and not in a ruptural collapse of the revolutionary impulse.  

It may be tempting to read Apter and Luxembourg as representing opposed tendencies in radical politics. But a moment’s pause reveals each to be articulating an immanent gesture of correction in response to a particular moment on the left. At each juncture, micropolitics has been severed from the Political, leading to a preoccupation with one at the expense of the other. Apter and Luxembourg represent mirrored possibilities for a critique of political reasoning. Both understand theory and micropolitics as seeded in one another. The task for the organic intellectual then is to resist the severance of one from the other. 

One of the ways in which this gap is manifest is in what Arendt describes as a certain dearth of terminology for the particularity in use of distinctions between key political concepts. Apter argues that we might take recourse to the paleonymic effects of language which allow us to rework “old names that draw out recessed political dimensions within ordinary language” (10) —she develops the example of the shift between adjectival and substantive meaning of “impolitic”, and which allows us to “articulate relations between micropolitics and psychopower that are both resident in and outside of classical political theory and political philosophy.” (84) Impolitic, tactlessness, seen from this angle, also thereby serves as an instrument for “desublimating the latent insecurity underwriting even the most casual, routine political transactions” (86). It is then, for Apter, worthy of the name “political concept” insofar as it marks a principle of political obstruction which becomes operant in a climate of “stymied legislative bodies [and] pointless point-scoring in the mediocracy” (96) It is a tactic that becomes especially potent—and this is the point I want to emphasize—in a space opened up by theories of political retreat. 

We might take our cue, then, from, among other things, works of what she calls political fiction, which have opened a space for “distilling” a new political vocabulary through which to confront politics as usual in the contemporary obstructionist moment, and which “flows out of the conditions of political obstruction, impasse and impolitic actions and speech.” (9) In political fiction, one finds “the random motion of backstories, conspiracy and calculation,” the disclosure of a Latourian “atmosphere”, and which dips into official and institutional languages—a kind of deflationary version of the historical novel…wanting in focalization, or a governable event.” (141) It is a mode of storytelling not constrained by the overdetermining drive to narrativity, the triumph of protagonists or the chronicling of transformative critical events, and instead given to conflicting fragments of political intrigue—what she describes as “chart lines of the psychic life of political calculation.” The grand scale of historical events may well appear in the background, but “history” here is “recessive, played out in the cramped arenas in which “what happens” is difficult to localize or temporalize” (155) or what she describes elsewhere in the book as ungovernability. Stendahl, Zola and Trollope are prime examples. Few American writers capture the existential stakes of the micropolitical as well as Baldwin, in part because he is the supreme thinker of that muddied quality of the micropolitical: that various trajectories of psychopolitical force simply cannot be disentangled into neat, or discrete, concept-categories, without doing violence to the experience. The vocabulary generated by political fiction must remain open and critical. 

The material quality of the television serial is, Apter argues, like the political novel, well suited to the disclosure of psychopolitics because it mirrors the formal conditions of the micropolitical; namely serialization, “endless reconfiguration into disparate modalities of existence” (249) Recent transformations in the technological capacity of recombinant serialization imbues such depictions with a certain resonant force. But I wonder too whether resurgent interest in the work of Margaret Atwood and Ursula le Guin doesn’t tell us something about these ordinary dimensions of political life. Writers like these remind us that the everyday is not at odds with the “fantastic” or the imaginary. Rather, they provide another optic on politics, and capture an essential aspect of psychopolitical reality. The work of political fiction of this kind thus ought to be held up alongside that of an earlier modernist critique of the realist novel, whose bourgeois claims to the “real” appear inadequate when we no longer cordon off regions of social or psychical life, like the “internal” world of fantasy, desire, and dread. As le Guin in particular was so keen to point out, the imagination of possible futures (and pasts) is essential to present micropolitical work, and is perhaps best deployed in service of avoiding the apophantic foreclosures of retreated claims to political reality. 


2) Epic Theory and Everyday Politics
Rebecca Ploof

Unexceptional Politics explores the material and immaterial stuff of everyday politicking that functions outside of and bubbles up around the edges of the norms and strictures of classical political thought. Where political theory has traditionally focused on big-P political concepts—like the “exception” and “the political”—Apter encourages us to turn our attention to micropolitics or small, serial, events that resist theorization, needle political institutions and institutionalization, and confuse our very understanding of what politics is. Shifting our attention in this way is critical, Apter underscores, because the left’s focus on big-P politics—in particular its categorical rejection of the neo-liberal status quo and insistence on nothing less than a full-scale “‘rupture with what exists’”—risks not only ceding small-p politics to the right, but also perennially deferring substantive political change.[1]This, I should emphasize, is a critique that I’m deeply sympathetic to and one that merits highlighting now more than ever. Unexceptional Politics undertakes to reorient our focus, then, by developing a new political language attuned to the micropolitical and elucidated through engagement with, among other media, art, fiction, and film.

Apter’s analysis notably plays on dimensions of scale. Big-P politics is contrasted with small-p politics. Micro-politics is differentiated from macro-politics. The exception, the extra-ordinary, and the unprecedented are distinguished from the unexceptional, the peripheral, and the everyday. Apter, of course, wants to draw our attention to the latter halves of each of these dyads. To the small stuff that gets eclipsed by grand theory with its emphases on hulking institutions and larger than life political moments. I wonder, though, if it’s possible to play with and maybe even blur this binary of scale. Might it be possible, in other words, to sketch an extraordinary theory of the ordinary? What would it look like to develop a grand theory of the everyday? In short, I’d like to tease out and advance a reading of Apter’s intervention as the starting point for an epic theory of the unexceptional.

To be clear, I realize that this may seem like a peculiar interpretive move. Apter situates the book less overtly as a work of political theory than a political lexicography.[2]And, of course, the word epic connotes something of the bigness that Apter sets aside as problematically reclusive and withdrawn about contemporary analyses of the exception and big-P politics. But hang in there with me.

I take the phrase “epic theory” from the political theorist Sheldon Wolin, who in turn relies on Thomas Kuhn, and an extended analogy between the humanistic sciences and the physical sciences, to develop the term. As will be familiar, for Kuhn “extraordinary science” breaks with all previous theories to “inaugurate a [paradigmatically] new way of looking at the world.[3]Similarly, Wolin argues, the epic theorist “seeks to reassemble…the political world” anew by seeing it from a radically new perspective or in an entirely new light.[4]In fact, the etymological import of the word theory brings this idea—seeing further or seeing differently—home for Wolin. Here theory emerges from theoria and theorein—to consider, speculate, or look at. And theorein itself is composed of theoros (spectator), thea (a view), and horan (to see).

Now, because scientific revolutions are likeliest to “occur when research begins to turn up persistent ‘anomalies,’” one could say that for Kuhn, new ways of seeing the world scientifically are responsive to “problems-in-theory” itself.[5]It’s the friction between data and model that provokes the visionary scientist and catalyzes paradigmatic conceptual change. By contrast, Wolin argues, epic political vision is responsive to “problems-in-the-world.”[6]Unlike the modern scientist who claims not to be “responsible for the political and social consequences of their inquir[y],” the epic political theorist begins from a place of collective concern—is motivated by an effort to care for the public and attend to its problems.[7]Hobbes, for instance, exemplifies the epic political theoretical intention when he represents himself as “one whose just grief for the present calamities of his country” has compelled him to theorize.[8]

Epic political theory, then, is characterized by two distinguishing features. First, a highly original and imaginative vision by which politics is somehow seen differently. And second, a driving concern for res publicae and res gestae.[9]

I’d like to suggest that perhaps Unexceptional Politics ticks, so to speak, both of these boxes. More specifically, I’d like to suggest that it both implicitly and explicitly engages the epic theoretical tradition. And, ifthere’s anything to this reading of mine, it would seem to raise the following question: how oppositional, in fact, are micro-political analyses and classical political theoretical ones?

First the explicit. It seems to me that the identification and development of a new language or new grammar might be requisite to seeing newly and differently. Novelty of sight and novelty of linguistic apparatus might, in other words, go hand in hand. The epistemic possibility of apprehending differently may be contingent upon—or at the very least facilitated by—thinking and speaking differently. Likewise, I take Apter to be concerned about and invested in the well-being of public things, even if the force of her analysis challenges us to see politics in places and spaces that we’ve previously tended to neglect. Hence her emphasis on moving away from discourses that unhelpfully delay and defer political change. And hence, too, the effort to redirect, as Apter puts it, her “critical ire (and profound political frustrations and fears) into compiling a lexicon whose terms flow out of the conditions of political obstruction, impasse, and impolitic actions and speech.”[10]

Now the implicit. One of the many figures Wolin takes to be emblematic of the epic theoretical tradition is also one that makes regular, if perhaps minor, appearances throughout Unexceptional Politics. This figure is Machiavelli. Machiavellian cunning and dissimulation—figured in his work as an animalistic facility with force, at once both deceptively vulpine and powerfully leonine—shade precisely into the stuff of unexceptional politics. Because politics is a realm of masks, one must know how to seem to be other than one is and, indeed, how to disguise this very duplicity.

Machiavelli lurks in the background of Apter’s entry on thermocracy too, and, insofar as he’s taken up by novelists like Stendahl and Zola, also appears to bear an affinity to the small-p politics on offer in political fiction. Moreover, in the same way that the various media Apter analyzes in order to develop her lexicography succeed in “depict[ing]…how the quirks of human personality…transfer to the workings of political institutions,” Machiavelli is exceptionally sensitive to the gaps between institutional design and the peculiarities of the human psyche, urging us to take human nature for what it is and theorize politics accordingly.[11]Finally, Machiavelli is exceedingly attentive to that which resists institutionalization altogether. Here the particular character of political actors —virtù—bumps up against and interacts with the forces of fate—fortuna—in ways that simply cannot be fully contained, channeled, or controlled.

Yet Machiavelli is without doubt an epic theorist as well. Although The Prince, for example, is sometimes read less as a work of political theory than a handbook for political actors, Machiavelli opens this text in epically visionary terms. “No one, I hope, will think that a man of low and humble station is overconfident when he dares to discuss and direct the conduct of princes,” Machiavelli writes “because, just as those who draw maps of countries put themselves low down on the plain to observe the nature of mountains and of places high above, and to observe that of low places put themselves high up on mountain tops, so likewise, in order to discern clearly the people’s nature, the observer must be a prince, and to discern clearly that of princes, he must be one of the populace.”[12]

Here political knowledge is the product of a dual register of perspectival vantages. The task of the political theorist is to seeand the success of the political actor is in part dependent upon this perspectival insight and power of vision. And, of course, Machiavelli, too, is driven by a commitment to care for public things and political bodies. As Wolin reminds us, he professes to love his country more than his very soul, positioning his theoretical intervention almost as a form of self-sacrifice. Machiavelli would seem, then, to exemplify the ability to think politics both at the micro-analytical level and from within the classically epic tradition at one and the same time, raising the question of whether, or perhaps, to what extent, these two modes are ultimately exclusionary.

Just as Apter encourages us to actually see politics and not just the political—on my interpretation Unexceptional Politics invites, I think, a mode of engagement by which the text itself opens up unanticipated vantage points and novel perspectives in much the way same way that the epic tradition has always privileged, out of a concern for public things and political bodies, newness of sight and novelty of vision. This is an exciting textual invitation—one that I’ve tried to engage seriously and productively inhabit.

[1]Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic (New York: Verso, 2018), 28.

[2]Ibid., 9.

[3]Sheldon S. Wolin, “Political Theory as a Vocation,” Fugitive Democracy and Other Essays, ed. Nicholas Xenos (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 26.

[4]Ibid., 27.

[5]Ibid., 27.

[6]Ibid., 28.

[7]Ibid., 27.



[10]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 9.

[11]Ibid., 7.

[12]Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, Vol. One, trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke University Press, 1965), 10-11.


3) Micropolitics for Dummies
Bécquer Seguín

How-to manuals are everywhere in Emily Apter’s Unexceptional Politics. Among the many rich political lessons offered by Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, she argues, is that it “performs as a how-to primer on squatting.” Mallarmé’s playful use of numbers in his 1898 poem “A Throw of the Dice” is, for Quentin Meillassoux, she writes, a kind of how-to manual for resolving the question of pure stochasticity, or Chance with a capital ‘C.’ Regarding Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, she argues that, for Fanon, the book was at least partly a how-to manual for understanding “the condition of [the black man’s] foreclosed access to universal humanity” (67-8). Stendhal’s 1834 novel Lucien Leuwen, she claims, is not simply “an aesthetic appreciation for the craft of political deception.” It is much more than that. It is nothing less than “a how-to manual for rigging election results or ejecting a sitting minister” (149).[1]Unexpectedly, how-to manuals surface across all kinds of political writing: nonfiction, poetry, novels, short stories, and more. In fact, as the references to Stendhal, Mallarmé, Melville, and figures elsewhere in Apter’s book suggest, how-to manuals may be the paradigmatic form of unexceptional politics in literary history.

But Apter, ecumenical as she is, also finds value in other kinds of manuals. Take recipes, for instance. Proust’s insight, in In Search of Lost Time, into the political importance of schadenfreude, she argues, “gives us a ‘recipe’ for how to win at the great game of the Social: the moves involve depriving others of satisfaction… selling high on a social asset… and then shorting the market.” Or take practical guides. Bartleby, she notes, not only registers the shift in the law from equity to equality, it is also a “practical guide to how to survive in the cutthroat arena of politics and business.” Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, she argues, is one practical guide cloaked as another. On the surface, the Tractatus is a “practical guide to the rules of monarchical dominion.” But, underneath, it is a manual for understanding how “individual passion and demands—the stuff of psychopolitics—complicate paradigms of enlightenment rationalism.”[2]Apter reads literature in a way that arguably shares little with the interventions that have come to dominate our moment. She is not interested in pushing readings that varyingly attend to the postcritical, surface-level, or newly formal aspects of literature.[3]These inspired interventions in the criticism of reading nevertheless push us ever further from grasping the text: Apter’s account instead dives headfirst into the ideational muck of the text itself. She recognizes that to read in this way—to account for the minutiae of politics through its quotidian, event-less daily practice—indeed requires the hand-holding of practicality and instruction. Fortunately, literature has provided us with an abundance of examples to follow.

The last kind of manual Unexceptional Politics is interested in is, of course, the instruction manual. Apter locates the potential of the instruction manual in the much used and abused category of political fiction, the subject of Chapter 3 of her book. If we understand political fiction as literature focused on micropolitics instead of grand politics, à la Nietzsche, she argues, political fiction itself can “provide a virtual instruction manual on how to survive ‘in the thick of it,’ with lessons in information trafficking, publicity-mongering, hamstringing the opposition, political hostage-taking and the use of proxies to bring down enemies.” Her account of political fiction urges us to reconsider our inherited understanding of the relationship between politics and aesthetics. For Apter, attending to small ‘p’ politics in literature means unearthing books that describe in detail the political machinations of everyday institutions, that is, “scenes in which characters gossip, talk politics or evoke temporal worlds made up of tiny, evanescent incidents that don’t quite make it into history.”[4]This account of the political novel would remove such staples in the genre as Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It would replace them with such novels as John Lanchester’s Capital (2012), Martha McPhee’s Dear Money (2010), or, in literary nonfiction, Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys (2014).

One of the questions Unexceptional Politics raises, with its provocative shift in our definition of “political fiction,” is the following: If we on the left have so much to learn about the muck of political institutions, should we not also turn our attention inward, toward the muck of political mobilization? Put differently, what can the left learn from accounts of its own palace intrigue—whether in activism, organization, or protest? Grassroots movements are fraught not only with infighting, negligence, aggression, and everything in between, they are also sites of rhetorical invention, unconventional strategizing, and unexpected community. For reasons both practical and strategic, the left often covers up or ignores this muck in the name of movement or party discipline. But Apter’s book suggests that we may indeed be able to learn a lot from the machinations of daily activism.

A slew of novels published since the 2008 financial crisis, from across Europe, but also from Latin America, Africa, and North America, certainly seem to raise this possibility. I’d like to briefly mention one example that, I think, appropriately fits squarely within the project laid out in Unexceptional Politics: the novel Rue des voleurs (2012) by Mathias Énard. Translated as Street of Thieves, the novel describes the political coming-of-age story of Lakhdar, a twenty-year-old Moroccan who witnesses first-hand the coming into being of the Arab Spring, in Morocco, as well as the indignados movement, in Spain. We’re given a front-row seat to the organization and execution of a major strike in Barcelona, replete with the trying naivety, organizational acumen, and the, at once, inspiring and grating utopianism of twenty-somethings who are becoming politically active for the first time in their lives. Here is Lakhdar, the protagonist, describing the general strike in Barcelona:

I hadn’t cancelled my class for the day: I was a strike-breaker. I had to go there on foot, since there was no subway. It was ten in the morning, and there were already gatherings, groups of guys with caps, flags, megaphones, and cops everywhere. Half of the streets in the city were blocked off. The big brand name stores were closed, just a few small businesses braved the picket lines—to their detriment: I saw a baker forced to close by a dozen unhappy union members shouting “Strike, strike!” and threatening to smash in his window with axe handles. He took less than ten minutes to abdicate and give his employees the day off. On the other hand, explaining to the Chinese in the Ronda shops the concept of picketingwas more complicated: “No work today.” “No work?” “No, it’s a general strike.” “We’re not on strike.” “Yes, it’s a general strike.” “We’re not on strike.” “Exactly, you have to close.” “We have to go on strike?” But in the end, used to the proletarian struggles of the Single Party, the Chinese could also recognize a big stick when they saw one, and ended up lowering their shutters, for a few hours at least. Their job became even more clandestine than usual.[5]

Just as in Apter’s accounts of Stendhal and Melville, of Proust and Zola, here too we see the stuff of psychopolitics. Lakhdar’s internal struggle over whether to join the strike is deepened, not resolved, by what he sees on the ground. As he witnesses on the day of the strike, internal guilt and threats of violence have become the currency of a labor movement whose political actions make as little sense to the Chinese shopkeepers as it does to him, a twenty-year-old Moroccan man. At one point, Lakhdar puzzles over why the general strike lasts for just twenty-four hours instead of the time it takes for the government to meet their demands. Lakhdar, we are meant to assume, is not alone in thinking this. As the scene demonstrates, the grand politics of ideas and institutions that are assumed to be so clear and obvious in a given political context can quickly become lost on particular actors, even unintentionally. Elsewhere in her book, Apter writes, “In place of the tragic allegories of revolutionary social change, we have the sideshows of Realpolitik.”[6]If our goal is to theorize what she calls the “formless force field”[7]that aids and abets neoliberalism, novelistic accounts of palace intrigue on the left, dare I say, are no less useful as how-to manuals than those that unearth the inner workings of the powerful institutions we aspire to helm. Apter’s book gives us resources for precisely this endeavor, that is, for grasping the political fictions of revolutionary movements in ways that can broaden self-reflection among left-wing movements and make political that which, even on the left, is often relegated to quotidian experience. In this sense, Unexceptional Politics is its own kind of how-to manual, not unlike those enumerated earlier. Thus, perhaps an alternative title to her book could have been Micropolitics for Dummies.

[1]Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic(London: Verso, 2018), 119, 226, 67-8, and 149.

[2]Ibid., 210, 120, 153.

[3]See Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Franco Moretti, Distant Reading(London: Verso, 2013); and, Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[4]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 156, 142.

[5]Mathias Énard, Street of Thieves, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Rochester: Open Letter, 2014), 214-5.

[6]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 156.

[7]Ibid., 10.


4) On Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic
Jennifer L. Culbert

We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason.

 – Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

Politics is dead, or so Claude Lefort suggests when he reports in Democracy and Political Theory, “there is no boundary between politics and that which is not political.”[1]Politics disappears when this boundary is undermined and the particular relationship between human beings that distinguishes politics as such is imagined to “invade everything.” In Unexceptional Politics, Emily Apter directly opposes this position. Reports of the death of politics are greatly exaggerated, she argues, as politics actually appears everywhere. We may not always recognize it when we see it though.

Apter suggests our impaired vision is due to the fact that the language of classical political theory and philosophy has a limited vocabulary for describing “the allness and everywhereness of political atmosphere and milieu.”[2]With Unexceptional Politics, Apter aspires to validate and strengthen our ability to see. Therefore, rather than developing a theory of politics, in the book she offers her readers terms that draw attention to the omnipresence of politics and enable us to critically appreciate and engage politics “in circumstances thrush with contingency and baffled institutional authority.”[3]

In these circumstances, Apter aims to describe what she calls “realist” or “‘small p’ politics,” or what she also calls politics “as it happens.[4]She opposes this understanding of politics to the politics inscribed in the foundation of theories of “the Political” or sovereign power from Hobbes to Schmitt, Arendt, Derrida, and Agamben. Apter is sensitive to the bureaucracies, technocracies, economic logics, spectacular violence, and slow lethality of contemporary politics about which these and other political theorists have written, but she rejects the exceptionalism that she thinks characterizes their manner of thinking about politics, an exceptionalism put on display every time politics is associated with (or against) a “state of exception.”

Instead of endorsing this thinking, Apter embraces micropolitics.[5]It is difficult to apprehend and appreciate politics at this level or on this scale because we lack the vocabulary for describing experiences “measured in microdimensions.”[6]Consequently, Apter’s goal in Unexceptional Politics is to provide a “glossary of terms” that may be used to identify and engage with political phenomena as they occur.[7]The table of contents of Unexceptional Politics is a list of the terms Apter invents, repurposes, or appropriates for this task. This list reflects Apter’s focus on four things: 1) “terms for the political that have no standing in classical political theory”; 2) an “untheologized politics” in which nothing is sacred and “there is no Homo Sacer”; 3) historical notions of politics as métier and praxis; and, 4) “concept-metaphors for experiments in underachieved socialism, states of care, non-capitalized labor time, the recalculation of social interest, non-exclusionary franchise, the undercommons, and micropolitics.”[8]Included among the terms on Apter’s list are “Thermocracy,” “identified not just with an imperial state bureaucracy propped up by apparatuses of spying, policing, and censorship, but more importantly, with the substances and currents that circulate by air—political atmospheres that bear aloft the confluence of influence”[9]; “Schadenfreude,” “a host of political tactics of ambush from behind, of techniques for harvesting the resources of deceptive plays or the rewards of second-guessing how the enemy or rival sees and thinks”[10]; and “Obstinacy,” otherwise known as “Bartleby politics” or “deactivated self-sovereignty coupled with active stasis.”[11]These terms are offered to help us describe otherwise elusive phenomena that contribute to general feelings of political frustration and fear, and articulate visceral suspicions that what we are experiencing is not simply the decline of deliberative democracy in the United States and Western Europe but actually a death wish made manifest in institutional crises and government shutdowns, a slow “suicidal endgame” played out on reality television, newscasts, and shows like House of Cards.

Unexceptional Politics provides not only a glossary of terms or words, however. It also offers an acknowledgement of these feelings and suspicions. We may wish this acknowledgment would do more than show awareness of the emotions, let alone the hunches, sensations, and opinions, we endure. Indeed, we often look to “critical” books like Unexceptional Politics to prescribe a course of action or response that would relieve the boredom, the depression, and the anxiety of contemporary life, or at least provide an alternative to the obsessive-compulsive search for an uncaused first cause or fundamental structure that explains “what went wrong.” However, and contrary perhaps to the view expressed by Gayatri Spivak on the back cover of the book, Unexceptional Politics does not argue for a particular strategy for action or provide a guide for activism. Instead, as a good psychotherapist might, the book accepts the reader’s feelings without criticism and helps the reader find words to describe these feelings in more detail, revealing dimensions and depths previously unperceived despite the fact that, of course, these dimensions and depths dispose the reader to relate to politics in particular ways.

This kind of therapeutic encounter may be sought out and staged to relieve the suffering associated with feelings of powerlessness and the futility of collective action—or, worse still, the inkling that what action that has been taken has only exacerbated “nanoracisms” (“enmities that are themselves identified with self-destructive practices of biopolitical annihilation, autophagy, baffled revolutionary telos, the continuous reproduction of sadomasochistic social relations and inferiority-superiority complexes”[12]). Alternatively, readers may find the book encourages and fortifies them to act on their own understanding of their experience of politics without the guidance of another authority figure. In other words, Apter’s text may not prescribe a course of action but it may nevertheless be useful to activists to the extent that it validates inchoate feelings and thus empowers readers to trust their own judgment.

To the extent that such a process may be identified with classical Enlightenment, despite Apter’s intention to take stock of politics “in its messier, everyday guise,”[13]we may still find ourselves participating in what Foucault describes as “the great movement of rationalization [that] has led us to so much noise, so much furor, so much silence and so many sad mechanisms.”[14]Indeed, the wary reader, armed with Apter’s glossary, might remember with Horkheimer and Adorno:

Knowledge, which is power, knows no limits, either in its enslavement of creation or in its deference to worldly matters. Just as it serves all the purposes of the bourgeoisie economy both in factories and on the battlefield, it is at the disposal of entrepreneurs regardless of their origins. Kings control technology no more directly than do merchants: it is as democratic as the economic system with which it evolved.[15]

Heeding such critiques of Enlightenment, the reader may fear that Apter’s success at putting into words the micropolitics of “adjustment, incoherent narrative, and unmanageable contingency”[16]may simply intensify what Apter calls “managed life” or “calculated existence.”[17]That is to say, by providing us with a more precise vocabulary for describing the almost imperceptible phenomena and elusive experiences that contribute to the “allness and everywhereness” of politics “as it happens,” Apter may make available for further exploitation the minutiae of our most intimate and idiosyncratic processes and sensations.

Apter is well aware of this hazard, however. Moreover, she is sensitive to the fantasy of exceptional power that Horkheimer and Adorno betray when they imply that when knowledge serves all of the purposes of the bourgeoisie economy it only serves the purposes of the economic system, and that when entrepreneurs dispose of knowledge their commands as agents of that system are perfectly carried out. That this is a fantasy is revealed by the fact it is necessary to criminalize “illicit interference” or “intervening wrongly.”[18]Why should interference be made illegal if what is commanded is always realized?

Apter’s extended discussion of attempts to proscribe certain kinds of intervention into systems of production and reproduction does not, however, occur in her account of the Occupy movement and its tactics of “anonymous intervention, hacking, leaks, flash mobs, decentered leadership, [and] viral imaging.”[19]Instead, this discussion takes place in a section of the book that focuses on matters of translation and “translation trouble.” In this section, Apter reflects explicitly on proscription of political “meddling.” Apter associates this proscription with the trial of Socrates who is famously condemned to death for “criminal meddling in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example.”[20]Even if in the Republic Socrates is “on record opposing interference in affairs of state,” according to Apter, “Socrates is a polupragmôn par excellence.”[21]Apter leaves polupragmôn untranslated not to suggest that the “correct” word in English cannot be found but to make a point about “the gaps and jumps in translation” and “the effort required to reconstruct what is not translated.”[22]To help make this point Apter cites Kay Gabriel who explains that polupragmôn, “busybody,” is derived from polupragmonôn, the word that Derrida’s translator, Peggy Kamuf, notes Derrida re-translates not as de simmiscer (“interfering” or “meddling” as provided in the Tredennick translation cited above) but rather as d’ingérance illicite (“illicit interference”). Such modifications, Apter argues, give rise to a greater appreciation of the way in which interference takes place. Uncovering and exposing the possibilities of a concept in a foreign language unsettles and upsets “protocols of the Political, and grooved ways of thinking, articulating, and socially comporting.”[23]In other words, translation trouble provides insight into the ways in which the smooth operations of power—like those assumed by Horkheimer and Adorno—may be and often are disrupted.

Translation trouble must not, however, be mistaken for “a defense of fundamentalism, universal dogma, political absolutism or censorship.”[24]While it concerns “hits and mis-hits, convergences and divergences, continuities and breaks, incomplete and imperfect translation, or even plain vanilla translation,”[25]the trouble is not a matter of finding (or failing to find) the just word in another language. What Apter calls “the Untranslatable” is not “a reified essence of linguistic singularity” but refers rather “to how concepts assimilate ways of speaking and being and how ways of speaking and being interfere with concepts.”[26]In other words, the Untranslatable relates to the fact that concepts sojourn in the world, mixing with events and everyday life in particular places at specific times. So instead of taking a “transhistorical approach” and forgetting the politics of translation—something that Apter says dictionaries of philosophy tend to do—Apter identifies the Untranslatable with a dual practice of “theoretical interference and workaround,”[27]a praxis of “cognizing philologically, deconstructively and politically”[28]that affirms “the presence of Unverstandlichkeit, un-understandability, unintelligibility, and inoperability.”[29]And she defines the political Untranslatable as what “disables the workings of instrumental language, ushering in the ‘foreign’ on a plurilingual surge and injecting the language of the street into the system of the laws.”[30]

Apter’s comments about the role the political Untranslatable is able to play in the obstruction of “politics as usual” and the efficacy she ascribes to the “foreign” for checking the smooth operation of power alert us to an oversight in her text, however. Specifically, these comments call to our attention the fact that Apter’s glossary is based on a very limited set of political experiences—those of people in the United States and Western Europe. This limited pool excludes the experience of politics of most people in the world, opening Apter up to the criticism that a version of political exceptionalism may, despite her best intentions, profoundly inform her “realist” understanding of politics. Certainly, the limited focus of the book deprives readers of Apter’s thoughtful reflections on political experience in places other than the US and Western Europe, reflections that might have enhanced or critically modified her accounts of the phenomena she does describe and name.

In other words, such reflections may have led Apter to develop a different, more globally nuanced vocabulary for our engagement with politics. For example, consider Apter’s discussion of “our raced actuality” in the chapter called “Nanoracisms.”[31]In this chapter, Apter issues an invitation to the reader to think about “psychopolitics” in a racist society. Specifically, she asks how with the work of Fanon we might “rethink the micropolitics of racist psychopolitics, especially at the historical conjuncture of militarized policing and the rhetoric of the new Confederacy.”[32]That is to say, she proposes we consider taking up the writings of the mid-20thcentury French political radical and humanist who practiced psychiatry and wrote about subjectivity, colonization, decolonization, and the necessity of violent struggle, most famously in Algeria, to think again about “microphysical or molecular or non-transcendent disarticulations of power”[33]associated with the interaction of human psychology and politics. While she emphasizes doing so at a moment when civilian police forces in the United States are being equipped and trained as if they were going to war against the members of the society they are charged to protect so as to more or less explicitly defend the inherited privileges of white Americans over and against those of black Americans, Apter does not suggest we draw on historical, sociological, psychological, or philosophical work concerned with race in the American context to investigate racist psychopolitics and “the rhetoric of the new Confederacy.” Instead, she proposes we address a general question about “our raced actuality” with post-colonial theory, continental philosophy, and black feminist scholarship.

Although it is tempting to suggest that Apter is simply being “impolitic,” readers may still criticize her for failing to refer to the “correct” authorities on the topic under discussion. In Unexceptional Politics, “impolitic” is rendered as a substantive and employed to refer to “the political uses, on both the right and the left, of insolence, impertinence, discourtesy, truculence, tactlessness, and intractability as well as a particular skill in the art of timing the political.”[34]However, in the discussion of “our raced actuality,” Apter does not seem to intend to be “political” or provocative in the sense her definition of impolitic suggests. Instead, she seems to make several hasty (and revealing) assumptions when she refers to “our raced actuality,” taking for granted a “we” that shares the same experience of that actuality and the way in which it is “raced.”

Apter’s discussion of “our raced actuality” would have been substantially different if she had perceived this actuality in a global context. Certainly, she would have had much more difficulty assuming “race” requires no translation. Indeed, she may have found that “race” cannot be translated at all, or rather, may be best approached as a political Untranslatable. In brief, because of her narrow focus, Apter misses the opportunity to explore how “race” calls for a theoretical intervention and workaround. She misses also the chance to consider how the word “race” left untranslated generates exactly the kind of disruptive effects she wants to call to our attention as a possible way of disabling instrumental language and interfering in politics as usual.

This last point demonstrates why Unexceptional Politics may be mistaken for a guide to activism, however. For Unexceptional Politics, in addition to providing a glossary of terms to help us articulate our political experiences, implies that even the Untranslatable can be instrumentalized. This implication arises when Apter suggests that leaving words in their original language has particular effects. Specifically she says these words operate “like interferon,” inhibiting the reproduction of the status quo by disrupting, recasting, and redeploying the dominant language.

As an example she discusses Maidan, the Ukrainian term for central square, and its appearance after the Kiev uprising:

Maidan in its philology connects Arabic, Greek and Ukrainian notions of public politics. It is site-specific, yet connected transpolitically to places of assembly and occupation all over the world where insurrection erupted…. It designates a particular instance of competing nationalisms in eastern Europe…., as well as strategic solidarity among regionally, ethnically and religiously conflictual groups. It is a lodestone of language politics, as well as a breakout scene of sexual politics…. The sexual politics are a particularly important feature of Maidan’s untranslatablilty: for as we know, gay-bashing in Russia is part of a Kremlin-backed effort to galvanize anti-European Union factions—and to force groups that might otherwise be strongly critical of Western neoliberalism into becoming aligned with it. The Maidanpolitical map is configured unpredictably according to its case-sensitive retranslation.[35]

Apter notes above the Untranslatable may be mobilized by oppressive forces as well as by forces of liberation. However, she suggests that the Untranslatable may be interpellated one way or the other because, in effect, every Untranslatable contains multitudes. These multitudes are at hand, so to speak, ready to be hailed by a political authority that recognizes and realizes their potential in a particular situation. The Maidan political map may be reconfigured unpredictably but how it is reconfigured depends on the translator. What is unpredictable is whose retranslation of the term will prevail. Exploiting the polyvalence of a word, political parties with competing agendas continue to use it. What they mean when they do so is not necessarily the same thing but the word still serves. Thus, in Apter’s discussion of the Untranslatable, the instrumental use of language is not as much disrupted as it is rendered agonistic.

That said, Apter’s notion of the political efficacy of the Untranslatable can be rescued if we acknowledge the limited agency of the translator in a wider material context than Apter allows. Apter herself recognizes the limits of the translator’s agency when she observes that the Untranslatable “imposes an exigent relation on the translator; it makes impossible demands, bringing the translation to the brink of failure, or brooking that failure in translations that never materialize.”[36]Nevertheless, Apter’s faith in subversive pedagogy and “forms of agency afforded by actions in the square”[37]to assist in the “transit” of words like Maidan to what she describes as “unfixed forms and sites of global interference”[38]belie the modesty of her claims for the ability of the translator to overcome (or interfere with and workaround) “particularities of translational resistance that account for a text’s singular unreadability.”[39]Apter’s faith may be understood as an expression of what James Martel calls “the phantasmagoria.” On Martel’s account, the phantasmagoria is a kind of idolatry of the forms of representation that construct reality, an idolatry that reflects “the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of grace.”[40]According to Martel, we can never be fully free from delusion and the misreading of signs because “the sign will always constitute the only ‘truth’ we can ever know.”[41]However, Martel argues, we can “come to recognize the way we are affected by the sign”[42]and rather than simply settle for being duped by our misrecognition of it for “the truth” we can conspire with the text to disrupt and decenter our own compromises with the representations we idolize as the truth.

The point he makes that is most relevant here is that such a conspiracy succeeds not through conscious effort but through inadvertent effects produced by the materiality of the text itself. In other words, these effects that are not the product of our intentions. Indeed, they are often experienced as failures, in particular as failures to mean something or to become true. Returning to Apter’s text, then, what Martel’s comments allow us to appreciate is how Unexceptional Politics does not so much supply us with wrenches and show us how to throw them in the works as it does remind us that when we contemplate these works and the tools we have to dismantle them, we do not fully comprehend, let alone master, the representations that make up this reality. Our impotence is not, however, a cause for despair or resignation. The translator’s efforts may not be rewarded with knowledge and understanding, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, for whatever accounts for the unreadability of a text may be the thing that makes a difference as it travels through the world.

[1]Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (London: Wiley, 1991). Cited in Emily Apter, Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic (New York: Verso, 2018), 2.

[2]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 2.












[14]Michel Foucault, “What is Critique,” in The Politics of Truth, ed. Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Lysa Hochroth and Catherine Porter (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 41-81, 53.

[15]Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 2.

[16]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 265.




[20]Plato, “Socrates’ Defense (Apology),” trans. Hugh Tredennick, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 3-26, 5.

[21]Ibid., 104.

[22]Ibid., 103.

[23]Ibid., 103.

[24]Apter, Unexceptional Politics, 106.

[25]Christopher Prendergast, “Pirouette on a Sixpence,” London Review of Books 37:17, 2015, 357.

[26]Apter, Unexceptional Politics,106.














[40]James R. Martel, Textual Conspiracies: Walter Benjamin, Idolatry, and Political Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 12.

[41]Martel, Textual Conspiracies, 14.

[42]Martel, Textual Conspiracies, 14.


Swayam Bagaria is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

Rebecca Aili Ploof is a political theorist and postdoctoral lecturer in the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies at Harvard University. Her research interests include the history of political thought, textual interpretation and hermeneutics, rhetoric, and the intersections of political and literary theory. Her book project, The Politics of Metaphor: Rhetoric, Political Theory, and the Figurative Human-Animal Divide, explores the relationship between rhetoric and political theory through modern theorists’ conceptual reliance on animal metaphors to explain human political development.

Andrew Brandel teaches social theory and anthropology at Harvard University. His current book project is an ethnographic study of literary migration in Berlin.

Bécquer Seguín is Assistant Professor of Iberian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he was an Andrew W. Mellon and John E. Sawyer Seminar Fellow at Cornell University. His scholarly work has appeared or is forthcoming in boundary 2, Hispanic Review, ARTMargins, and other journals. In addition to his scholarly work, he writes regularly for The Nation, Slate, Dissent​, and other periodicals.

Jennifer L. Culbert is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. She teaches courses in political theory and law. She has interests in a wide range of subjects, including state violence, jurisprudence, ethics, judgment, aesthetics, and language. She is the author of Dead Certainty: The Death Penalty and the Problem of Judgment (Stanford University Press, 2008) and the co-editor, with Austin Sarat, of States of Violence: War, Capital Punishment, and Letting Die (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[book-strip index="2" style="buy"]
Unexceptional Politics
Unexceptional Politics develops a vocabulary of terms drawn from a wide range of media (political fiction, art, film, and TV serials), highlighting the scams, imbroglios, information trafficking, b...
Unexceptional Politics
Unexceptional Politics develops a vocabulary of terms drawn from a wide range of media (political fiction, art, film, and TV serials), highlighting the scams, imbroglios, information trafficking, b...