Two motivations guided my writing of Political Categories. The first, revealed in the preface, was the need to outline the defining features of politics in the face of a neoliberal assault that purposefully and systematically conflated this domain of human activity with economics. The second emerged in the measure in which the book’s argument unfolded: the desire to recover political experience, or, more precisely, politics as a matter to be experienced in its institutional and revolutionary, formal and informal, variations. Succinctly put, I aimed to elaborate a phenomenology of res publica, to which all things political, and even those usually set outside the political sphere proper, referred.
While the theoretical pillars for my work were Aristotle’s and Kant’s reflections on the categories, my constant interlocutor—indeed, a philosophical frenemy—was Carl Schmitt. It may not be obvious, but the very title of the book is polemical: it suggests that political categories offer a better, more nuanced, vigorous, and flexible approach than Schmitt’s “concept of the political.” I do not, in fact, believe that there is such a thing as the political. To my taste, the term is too vague and abstract to be meaningful; it perfectly matches an eviscerated politics, shorn of res publica and its corresponding experiences. Together with the concept, the political dispenses with the irreducible plurality of politics, the plurality we may access by resorting to the categories that do not, taken singly, exhaust the complex meaning of the things they comprehend. I much prefer politics—a noun saddled with multiple and frequently contradictory senses that are still connected, in one way or another, to actual practices and everyday life.
In the brief remarks that follow, I would like to zero in on one of the Aristotelian categories and, in the spirit of the phenomenology of res publica, elaborate its relation to the question of sexuality and the eroticism of power. That category is positionality. The germs of the elaboration are scattered throughout Political Categories, especially in the chapter dealing with the state. Here, I want to flesh it out further in light of the sexual ontology of individual bodies and of body politic as a whole.
When we hear the word position in a political context, we immediately interpret it in terms of a demand to situate oneself on a spectrum of practical options in response to a problem or question. These options are not the expressions of ideas but of worldviews and opinions that, typically polarized, become so banal (if emotionally charged) as to turn into something like caricatures of themselves. What is your position on abortion? On universal healthcare? On migrants? The clashing camps that endorse diametrically opposed positions are utterly predictable in their argumentation, and much of the 24-hour news cycle is based on replaying them over and over again.
A more phenomenologically grounded approach to political positionality has to do with the division between the right and the left. Although these designations refer to the ideological differences among adherents of various positions, they stem from the spatial arrangement of the French National Assembly in the aftermath of the 1789 Revolution. There, the deputies sat to the two sides of the president’s chair, to its right or to the left, according to their allegiance to the king or the revolution. A lived orientation underpinned the division: positions of bodies in (a politicized) space were imbricated with political positions and reflected in miniature a complex position of the body politic at the time.
In the absence of the monarch (and, later on, with the decline of centralized authority), positional markers outlive their initial phenomenological raison d’être. To us, the point of reference in the question to the left and to the right of what? is the center, a fluctuating agglomeration of the widest possible consensus situated between ideological extremes. The recent collapse of centrist parties and coalitions all over the world renders the political positions “left” and “right” meaningless. It completes the process of decoupling them from their experiential foundations—the process, which has been ongoing for over two hundred years that have elapsed since the French Revolution.
What interests me, nonetheless, is the embodied positionality of political groups and their members. The state, for one, is, at the semantic and at the symbolic levels, a political unit in a standing position. Its status is that of something erect. Confronted with the state, its own citizens must assume a passive position: they must lower themselves in comparison to the power transferred to and accumulated in the institution. The citizens are on the receiving end of the state towering over them, unless the sovereign fails to fulfil its protective function, in which case rebellion is justified. That, in a nutshell, is Hobbes’s take on the matter.
Evidently, the position of the state is phallic. But its never-ending erection is as much an instrument of authority as a seed of its demise. Always standing, the state does not respect energy cycles, whether they are sexual or cosmic: the period of relaxation that follows the phase of excitation; the rotation of planets, colloquially and experientially expressed, for example, in the rising and setting sun. The state cannot afford to change positions, despite all the rhetoric surrounding the decentralization of its power. It is a faithful inheritor of the phallic-solar fetish in politics—of the Sun King who morphs into the sun that “never sets over the British Empire.” Never setting or sitting, never going down, state sovereignty is all-powerful and, by the same token, powerless: exposed in its perpetual genital display, even if this exposure is meant to be blinding (and so, concealing a great deal) in its solar brilliance. Compared to sitting or lying down, standing is also a position that is less stable, less supported by a solid stratum, which, in the last instance, has to do with the earth. As such, the one standing is more prone to overthrows, confirming a piece of common wisdom that proclaims: “what has come up must, at some point, go down.”
While, in relation to the state, citizens assume a passive and lower position, as its representatives, they stand up and, regardless of who they are, are rendered phallic. We should interpret “a standing army” in this vein. The admission of women into army ranks is, therefore, not quite an advance in gender equality, but another mode of submission—by identification with phallic authority. Curiously, Trump’s objections to transgender people serving in the US military impose a discriminatory, but, perhaps, also an enabling limit on this process of identification. Trump denies a particular group a “standing” (the legal translation of the state’s erection); he puts in doubt the very possibility that it can stand, that it can threateningly expose itself—as who or as what? Effective resistance, then, should not buy into the typical liberal demand to be accepted into the expanding domain of a proudly erect center. Instead, it should take another position (sitting, or lying down: we will turn to these in a moment) from which to undermine the dominant standing.
In Levinas’s occasional forays into political thought, the question of position is quietly operative behind the scenes. His ideal view of political life makes solidarity prominent in a collective shoulder-to-shoulder stance of the citizens. To extrapolate from this image, although members of a polity do not expose themselves to each other, they are still standing and standing up. Before whom?—that would be Schmitt’s question to Levinas. Does being side-by-side make sense without a confrontation, a united front the group presents against another group? For Levinas, it is, curiously, the ethical relation, rather than politics, that hinges on a face-to-face confrontation, asymmetrical as it may be. In facing and being faced with the other, the standing of the parties in this strange relation is unequal, if not altogether incommensurate. It is a standing, nonetheless, characterized not only in vertical terms, with reference to height, ascendence and transcendence, but also with regard to the aiming (viser) of the face (visage). Levinas himself concurs that any part of the body can be a face—say, the hunched back of a grieving mother standing in a line of people eager to hear news of their loved ones arrested by secret police in the Stalinist purges.
Sitting seems more pacific than standing, and more stable at that. The seated bodily position is also ambiguous, compared to standing, because, unlike the latter, it does not reveal the sexual organs of the one who sits. To us, hypermoderns, being sedentary sounds like the negation of mobility, a symbol or a symptom of the feudal past, of a fixed politico-economic order where the lords and their surfs were attached to specific plots of land. Human settlements are fundamentally agrarian, inseparable from the places of plant cultivation and phenomenologically aligned with the sessile nature of vegetal existence. That said, sedentariness and sessility are the positional sites of intensive movement, of movement in a place, with growth, decay, and metamorphosis for its salient modalities. In other respects, too, sitting is far from passive. The resistant position par excellence, it negates the unfettered mobility of capital and the more conditional mobility of labor glorified in our era. And that is not even to mention sit-ins as effective forms of protest, or “squats” that occupy disused buildings and repurpose them for housing.
Physically more stable and sexually indeterminate, the sitting position challenges the verticality of the human body and its potency, doubly coded in terms of political power and masculine sexuality. The upper portion of the one who sits retains a vertical stance, while the lower part is horizontal in relation to the floor or the ground. Sitting is a physico-symbolic fold imbued with mystery and vegetal eroticism, a crease of activity and passivity, oppositionality and receptivity.
The crease of sitting is undone in a lying position that unreservedly embraces the kind of horizontality capable of subverting power hierarchies. Lying down is not just a position of the corpse (which is, actually, the most difficult and deeply energetic yoga pose, savasana), of what, with a great deal of irony, Kant called “the peace of the cemeteries”—even if it has been adopted in “die-ins” in the course of recent Extinction Rebellion protests. Nor is it the outcome of absolute submission. A horizontal position is that of grassroots movements, as well as anarchic networks, that, at their core, oppose the state’s stance, its standing as the erect embodiment of hierarchical power. The paradox of horizontality is that it must oppose verticality without opposing it, without engaging in a standoff, which would draw it into the orbit of what it resists. From the standpoint of someone or something standing, it would appear purely passive and available, up for grabs, ready for the taking. The lying position, however, renders one both exposed (from a different side than that of the genital exposure embodied in the ever-erect state) and elusive, unwilling to engage with the powerful stance on its terms. To lie down is to receive the most support from the ground, which ultimately cannot be appropriated despite being carved up into plots of land and territories forming the basis of possession. It is to be suffused with this non-appropriability and to impregnate the ideality of power with the materiality of gravity.
A revolution, as I note in Political Categories, is the inversion of a position occupied by the entire body politic. In this respect, revolutions are more radical than revolts that signal slight shifts in the body politic, but they are less radical than resolute insistence on horizontality. Revolutionary overturning may put the collective subject legs up, or, on the assumption that the standing of the status quo is itself perverse, invert it the other way, restoring the morally and physically upright stance. “Taking power,” revolutionaries re-eroticize it still with the view to the phallic fetish. That is, arguably, why historically accomplished revolutions invariably fail. Their historico-phenomenological contexts beg a broader question: are all varieties of power that attain hegemony necessarily circumscribed to the vertical axis of spatio-sexual experience?
Note: An earlier version of this essay was published here and here.