Coding ‘The Political’

Code-Black-Coding-Programming-Technology-Computer-Words-Numbers-Free-ImagesA couple of weeks ago a dozen or so PhD students at the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations –politics rather than political science– presented  in a highly summarised manner their research projects, research questions, hypotheses, and the like. I am referring, of course, to the whole experience of the ‘thesis proposal review’. Most candidates had begun their research no more than 10 to 14 months ago. There were also a couple who were about to complete their projects, and in such cases we heard ‘final thesis presentations’ looking back at what had been done and achieved rather than what was to be done and problematised.

While listening to quite a few of the projects I found myself wondering what was particularly political about the phenomena being researched. That is, how were political objects and political phenomena thematised in these research projects, indeed how they ‘coded’ the political. The reference to coding, ambiguously borrowed from quantitative research, seems apt.

The point I would want to make, following Aristotle –and thus invoking some kind of orthodoxy on the issue — is that that which is political according to Book 1 and 3 of Politeia, always involves dealing with a particular kind of ontopolitical problematic of equality/inequality. Indeed what Aristotle referred to as ‘political rule or authority’, could simply be summarised as the putting into play of rule, the enacting of authority amid or as equality. The basic problem the text was putting forward, in my view, had been about who should rule given the equality of citizens. But to stress the point, political phenomena involve the playing out of forms of equality against a backdrop of inequality. Cf. the history of ancient Athens.

As I have been reading Jacques Rancière lately and indeed Rancière picks up on this essential understanding of the political in Aristotle, I might add a Rancièrean gloss on the thought of political phenomena. Rancière reads Aristotle and brings up the importance of equality, though he gives it a critical or revolutionary twist. And by critique I am referring to the kind of thing that takes place in Marx’s project: critique of political economy not as a new political economy or system, but as a critique of the existing that would seek not replace what there is, but a critical intervention that will alter what exists radically.

Politics as democratic and thus premised on the problematic of equality will stand in opposition to politics as usual. And ‘politics as susual’ is best understood not as politics at all, but as policing, as a police order, as a realm of policy invariably invoking not a principle of equality but rather hierarchy and inequality. Thus, I might say, that to study the latter would be to engage in ‘policy studies’, but we might have the option of studying the latter politically. For political studies would have the matter of equality at their heart, the manner in which equality appears historically in particular social (and political) relations, etc. The point would be to resist any wish to identify policy with politics.

To come back to Marx for a moment. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) Marx had written as regards the ‘truth’ of the State, that is, its democratic essence that ‘it is evident that all forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy’. The Rancièrean argument seems to me to be entirely analogous. But I’ll finish for now on a quote, though not from Ranciére himself, but rather from the early pages of a good book by one of his readers. Samuel A. Chambers writes in his The Lessons of Rancière (2013, p. 28) on the interplay between the political logic of equality and the order of inequality:

‘Equality does not reside in or create its own space; there is no sphere in which pure equality reigns. Instead equality only ever contaminates the space of inequality –what Ranciére calls an order of the police. The police order is an order of domination and of hierarchy, and it operates according to its own presumption of a logic of inequality. Politics occurs when that police order is interrupted by the heterogenous logic of equality. This makes equality a ‘one-off act’ and it explains why equality can never be institutionalized: ‘Equality turns into the opposite once it aspres to a place in the social’ (Rancière, Disagreement, Politics and Philosophy (1999, p. 34)’


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