February 26, 2024

De(ma)cracy, Part 3 (Philipp Quell)

The following is the last of a three-part series. The first can be found here, the second here. The article originally appeared in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 22:1, and was originally in German.

But things are even more complicated (in the original sense). Specifically – as already indicated – the one organization of the manifold (molecule, cell, …) does not replace the manifold, but rather, the organization clears by the manifold. This is due to the second, possibly more important aspect regarding the genesis of society. The immanently manifold allows for the formation of an infinite number of organizations without losing its multiplicity. An organization is an immanence level in the infinite chaos which we called the immanently manifold.

These immanence levels can complicate themselves transversally and thus form new, more complicated organizations which again constitute the immanence level. The organism can be decomposed into cells and these again into molecules, but with each new degree of complexity there emerge qualities that are not explained exhaustively by the less complicated levels. The problem known by the formula “the sum is greater than its parts” is currently keeping neuroscience on its toes. How can a dislocated network of neurons, representing a diagram of a division of labor, lead to the emergence of a self-consciousness that cannot be located in any of its parts?[1]                             

Due to the second aspect, we can speak of parallel immanence levels from a certain degree of complexity which at the same time form a common immanence level. The molecule in the organism exists and does not exist at the same time. It leads a schizophrenic existence where it can never be quite sure what it is. Is it a member of a mitochondrial colloquium or a warrior in the military of the cell membrane when it maintains a connection with both, and sometimes does this or that, while its structure varies constantly?                  

In this sense, there are also societies (macro levels), but they are never conceivable without individuals (complicated micro levels). Nevertheless, the society is not the sum of its parts and vice versa, the individual is not a specific position in the macro level of society. Precisely because both are considered different levels one can speak of the big beast of society, but this body is not composed of many small bodies like Hobbes’s Leviathan.                                                           

So there exists the macro level of society which has its own social taxonomy. On this level there is a perpetual, material, performative iteration of determining (acting) and experiencing (re-experiencing, along which a historicity unfolding and a concrete nomos becoming actual. Here again, determining and experiencing refer to the interaction of complicated micro-levels which consequently experience variations (the complicated level of the organism can vary structurally or even establish new transversal connections). This leads to a differentiation of the potencies of individuals which thus interact differently again. In parallel, on the macro level there is a sedimentation of the events of interaction, which in repetition stabilizes into a nomos.

The macro-level is nothing more than an archive of failed or successful interaction either dislocated in the memories of individuals or organized by rites or documentation, or by the material design of a territory. In both cases they constitute a macro-level. Let us make this clear by way of a simple example. The discovery of leverage opens the possibility for a community to generate such a large torque through a long lever arm that large masses can be moved with only a small amount of force. In this way, a material reshuffling of the milieu can occur. A community can build agricultural areas protected from the weather and from animals, e.g., by walls, because improved agricultural yields allow for more abundant nutrition.             

The following generations, affected by this nutrition, can see through pure facts that they and their groups are stronger than others and that they are superior to these others in physical strength. It is now possible to connect this difference to a higher plan and to legitimize from it why the stronger ones should enrich those they consider to be weaker with higher insight and why they must therefore gain power over the weaker ones. Of course, the invention of such a plan would again be the expression of many different moments not only of torque. It would also need architectural knowledge, ways of understanding, etc. Nevertheless, the discovery and the sedimentation of these discoveries are both a condition and an enabling element for a certain coexistence of the immanent levels to actualize themselves.                                              

The second stage of this example, when by means of the visibility of the different bodily expressions conclusions are legitimized regarding a hierarchy, when therefore the de facto (visibility) allows for the evidence for a judgment de jure (categories of being), there is a gap to the image of a social taxonomy that is merely an archive of the interactions in a community. Strictly speaking, a social taxonomy is an immanence level or a macro-level of power only when it has made this leap. It is in any case entirely questionable whether such a genesis from sediment to immanence level can capture anything essential at all. The nomos is an archive of rules and categories whose genealogy is grounded in a local practice, but to try to understand how a concrete nomos came to be will inevitably, ultimately lose itself behind the immanence levels of the molecular.                                                                            

But if we complicate individuals in a macro-level to which at the same time they remain peculiarly external, how is this relationship to be understood?  Previously we have separated between the levels of power and potency. With this complication of vague matter there came the possibility of design, of self-interpretation, and this through the new level of the imaginary. The macro-level is that level in which the visible gives itself and produces sayability.

Archimedes sits down in the bathtub. After the anger about the water at the bottom has evaporated, volume and weight combine to form a sentence. If he had jumped up in anger and a wooden slat on the floor had come loose so that the next kick would easily lift the vase on the other end of the slat which three grown up men could only carry into the room while sweating, the length of the wood, the weight of the vase, and his weight might have connected. All this presupposes language, words, and concepts: everything has a weight, ever thing has a length, everything has a volume.                                                      

The complication of individuals in a macro level is a specific configuration in space and time and of space and time. How this is possible is not something we can delve into here. However, it is important that in this specific configuration visibility and sayability as such are actualized at each micro-level of an individual. The macro-level enables a kind of bond that allows for understanding the expression of another, and both see this or that thing. But seeing does not refer to an original idea, as hearing does not refer to an original meaning but to the quasi-original sphere of ideas of the macro-level which is itself an image of sedimented interaction. Signifier and signified both refer to a complicated becoming of assemblages of vague matter.                                       

Through the macro-level, vague matter is empowered, but on the other hand that archive that is the macro-level is kept alive. Here again we see the double figure of reproduction at work. The macro-level on the one hand is constantly reproduced by empowering micro-levels to take positions in it and interact according to the nomos. The micro-levels of the bodies on the other hand are the vague matter reproducing the nomos, yet not in the same way but according to their own potency. But what are the consequences of the process of empowerment for the vague matter, for the micro-levels of the bodies? For we must not get tired with emphasizing that the micro-levels are partes extra partes which do not compose, as partes iuxta partes, the whole of a macro-level.

The body that occupies the position of the judge is no integral part of the whole but a judge-body, not just juridical subject or body being in and for itself. It is both at the same time: the judgement of the judge fills this body completely during its action, just as the body merges completely with the position of the judge. Even though both are one hic et nunc, they are different in real terms.                                                                                       

Now what happens when vague matter enters in the context of a community, ergo is empowered? First, we must realize that this empowerment is no lightning-like consummation. No micro-level of a vague matter folds in such a way that it becomes a full member of a community from one breath to the next. Learning of a language proceeds in stages, from the basic structures and basic vocabulary to the specialized areas, just as the customs at table progress from the basic rules to concrete problems (the elbow on the table, slurping, chewing with the mouth open).             

Moreover, we must again accentuate the character of thrown-ness. Bodies are born into a world with a social taxonomy that has already become. They are not asked if they want to root there. The micro-level of bodies is already rooted in a macro-level, without ever having chosen this. They render blind obedience to the “One must…,” “One speaks…,” “One sees…,” etc. of this macro-level without even knowing the difference between obedience and disobeying orders. The command that emanates from this macro-level of social taxonomy through the aspect of thrown-ness knows no other answer than “yes.” For this “yes” manifests itself through the mere continued being of the body, i.e., the continued actual-being of this specific micro-level.                                                

The empowered micro-levels of the bodies are inflicted with a decisive sting that folds them according to the range of variation of the macro-level (of possible visibilities, of possible sayabilities). Since Foucault, we call this folding of the micro-level subjectification: this clitoris or that penis is still the same, but after being thrown it belongs to a female or male body.

By this example we see how immediately the macro-level machine gets to work. The doctor calls out only a few moments after the birth “It’s a girl/boy!” And this is only the beginning of the macro-level regime of signs and visibility. It cranks up its many little machines, and in the micro-levels spaces of perception and expression are folded within the limits of the macro-level regime. Previously we called this the range of variation. And this implies the necessary permanence of the drift of the macro-level.                                                           

For, as we have said before, actualization is at the same time a new configuration of potencies. By the empowerment of micro-levels, micro and macro both overlap in such a way that ostensibly the macro-level dominates and the micro-level is shaped accordingly. And this is quite true from this point of view. The plurality of the clitoris or the penis is subjected to the totalitarian signifiers of the woman or the man. But with the folding of a specific micro-level, potencies actualize themselves, which are then possibly (not necessarily) transversal to the vectors of the macro-level.                                    

Each position within the macro-level is not spanned by only one vector (signifier). Being a woman or a man is defined, besides the vector of sex for example, by vectors of other physical characteristics but also by specific vectors of behavior. It is in the latter that the potency of the micro-level comes more strongly into play. In education, some bodies exhibit immense resistance to dominant codes and schemas. Any actualization close to the border, that is, any behavior that is simply tolerated, for example by other vectors such as those of freedom and individuality, transforms at the same time the range of variation of the vector, ergo the vector of the macro-level itself. One hundred years ago, girls playing soccer were unthinkable, let alone real.                                                        

Of course, this is not merely due to variation through bodies. Intellectual discourses on the categories of the human being and the separation between biological and social gender opened a space for the variation of the space of women. And this is only one discourse that was at work. We see the complex workings of rules and codes at various macro-level positions that never persist without their micro-levels, which form their outside. At the same time they form the ground of permanent drifting, as the macro-level is instrumental for the folding of the micro-levels of the bodies.                                         

And although now we have shown one way to the subversion of existing norms by means of the range of variation, at the same time there are subjectivizations that limit the body up to an unfortunately filled being. The mechanics of the part without share that we have outlined earlier would be an example of such a process. Interestingly, in this context Ranciere says that the stratification of the macro-level into a democratic one is accompanied by an original injustice.[2] He is not alone with this diagnosis.  Laclau also writes, “The recognition of the constitutive nature of this gap and its political institutionalization is the starting point of modern democracy”.[3] They do not mean that democracy is genuinely wrong or groundless with respect to the celestial sphere of the right or the reason of a state. They merely show the development of democratic taxonomy which emerged from a poly-differential process of contingent and local historicity.

What is peculiar to the taxonomy of the democratic is that it makes this becoming its essence, by making it possible for the interests of individual micro-levels or groups of micro-levels to become universalized at the macro-level. As Laclau says, universalism, previously legitimized by for example, God’s grace, becomes particularism where a hegemonization of interests leads to new injustice/suffering of other or new micro-levels so that a new movement of universalization begins to rise. But this always from the elements and vectors that span the macro-level.                              

Is this not that thesis we proposed with de(ma)cracy? Δημοσ is the name of a macro-level that determines its nomos in a contingent game. However, this δημοσ lags, because once it is expressed it already enters new micro-levels (content forms and thus acquires the drifting of itself. And what does the δημοσ enter? If it is an expression of a structure, it must also enter it again.  Thus, we see the democratic process sketched as a drifting wherein substance (vague matter) and essence (δημοσ) mutually produce each other in a materially processual chiasmus. In short, de(ma)cracy. Implicitly, only the keeping open of this drifting is demanded if it should be called democracy in the future.

***

With the creation of a text there is always the reason for its necessity on the line. It is the question of sense if you grasp “sense” in a very vague and wide manner. This being-in-question is most of the time so silent that it is hardly perceivable. But if it comes down to the final passages of the text, the tone of asking rises. So, what is the meaning of this text? The most trivial answer would be: It is for the deduction of the notion “de(ma)cracy”. However, the process of writing and reading does not end with the definition and deduction of a notion. Writing is also a kind of emptying. Often it is the attempt to speak about things which could not be mentioned or discussed because in the moment of the notion and definition of these things they suddenly vanish.                                

Then, what is the use of writing anyway? Probably it is of quite little use, almost of no use at all. But as we have seen, the very little could impose a huge difference, if it just finds the right lever. In the best instance, a philosophical text is not just an analytical work but obtains a transformation of horizon and understanding. And all this for the better? What is “better”? It is probably key to be aware of the importance of a counterpoint for anything being better. The necessity of at least two seems inevitable. Neither the macro-history of a socio-territorial taxonomy nor the histologies of bodies is better per se, but both constitute the other by a contingent process of becoming. From which injustice a society will have emancipated itself stays an open question without a final answer, but this is no loss of dignity for emancipation itself. Hopefully, just the opposite is true.

Because if something like a ζωον πολιτκον should exist, it could not be less than the material becoming of a genuine pathos. This pathos is the experience of being thrown into the world and thus of being able to respond to this world in this world. Nobody was asked for this ability to respond. It is the bare factum of responsibility that is a sudden opening of the political. Behind this opening one will only find a yawning void. And what is the potential of the notion of democracy as de(ma)cracy? Much could not be discussed in this text, but this could hopefully give grounds for further discussion. Two examples are worth mentioning.   

First, a further investigation of the becoming of a subject on this ground could be useful. Especially in a neoliberal context, this implies the question of property and the foreign: of mine and yours. How much of me is to be found with this “I” that I call my own, and how much do I contribute to my own self-fulfillment or to myself becoming an “I” of the American dream.                                                     

Second, the notion of vague matter implies the question: “Who or what could be considered an agent?” One inspiration for this notion was Jane Bennet´s Vibrant Matter. Another was Latour´s idea of the “actant”.[4] Both conceptions differentiate classical conceptions of the actor which are restricted to human beings.                                                                             

Let us close, however, with a final reference from Crowd and Power. He devotes an entire chapter to the “sting” that, through the underlying threat of death in every command, penetrates the instructed.[5] On the premise that learning a language is not “to be believed, but to obey and to compel obedience”,[6] Deleuze and Guattari elaborate that this sting forms “a cyst, a hardening […] that never goes away”.[7] For Canetti himself, however, there is a way to rid oneself of the sting of command. He calls it “reversal”.[8]

“Everything that makes [a man] recognizable will change sooner than the shape of the command which has lodged in [man] a sting and which is preserved unaltered until he himself produces it again. But the occasion has to be there; the new situation which releases the command must be the exact replica of the situation in which it was received.”[9]

This reversal occurs through the exchange of the positions of commander and commanded. However, this does not necessarily take place on the level of commander-commanded but can also take place on the genuine level of the threat of death and its execution. The form of such a reversal is found in the formation of a “reversal crowd”.[10]  Canetti himself describes the reversal crowd as liberation from the “most monstrous” stings which can only appear by the constant repetition of orders by different commanders.[11]                                                                          

With Canetti we have described the development of crowds as trans-substantiations where the tremendous quantum leads to a transformation of quality. Commands are crucial for modern society and their social taxonomies. Canetti describes the crowd as a phenomenon of the modern epoch which did not emerge in the times of packs. Is it a phenomenon of nationality though? Is there a monster slumbering in every nation, which eventually devours its whole habitat? Like cancer being able to destroy the whole organism? One must admit that instances of cancer have increased rapidly in modern, western societies under a neoliberal horizon where everything is schematized and therefore determinable. Under a horizon of food supplementation, the genetic manipulation of food, with the inherent and prominent urge to grow, with the belief in growth, in exponential growth, like the amounts of pollutants in the air.                                                                                   

Probably this analogy between cancer and crowds is useful for showing how vague matter resists a macro policy that tries bringing the whole world to one denominator. The binary option offers either order or chaos. There is nothing in-between. We find that by the so-called pleas for saving the planet we hear so often nowadays on the political stage. A more accurate wording would be “saving humankind,” and this does not include all human lives but only those lives as proving their humanity by their nationality. Although this description uncovers an abyss, we should not ignore the motivation of all these pleas, specifically, reading it as an expression of an individual conatus.                    

Consequently, we want to offer a re-formulation: Should something like the human life stay in its becoming, we may not forget the Singular-Plural of life which means a process of permanent re-stratification, by which the individuals have a life. Life means public orders and individual orders coexisting and thus allowing for the emergence of binarity. These order(s) are also orders which call for responsibility, for an ongoing response-ability. This should probably also be a plea for an ongoing response to life in life with no last word. Or like some Jewish traditions say: “If the Messiah is someone, he is the wrong one.”

Philipp Quell is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Vienna.


[1] Cf. Antonio Damasio, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (London: Vintage Books, 2012).

[2] Rancière, op. cit., 6.

[3] Ernesto Laclau, Emancipations (London: Verso, 1996), 46.

[4] Cf. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (New York, New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993).

[5] E. Canetti, E. and C. Stewart, Crowds and Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), 383-426.

[6]  A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., 7.

[7] Ibid. 525.

[8] Canetti and Stewart, op. cit., 388.

[9] Op. cit.,

[10] Op. cit., 419.

[11] Op. cit.

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