Philosophy of Claude Lefort: Interpreting the Political

Philosophy of Claude Lefort: Interpreting the Political

by Bernard Flynn


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, November 16

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810121065
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 01/09/2006
Series: SPEP
Edition description: 1
Pages: 394
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bernard Flynn is a political philosopher who teaches at Empire State College/SUNY in New York City and lectures at the Graduate Faculty of New School University.

Read an Excerpt

Interpreting the Political

By Bernard Flynn
Northwestern University
Copyright © 2005

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2106-5

Chapter One The Prince

My intent in this section is not to evaluate Lefort's interpretation of Machiavelli by an extensive contrast to other Machiavelli interpretations but rather to view his work of interpretation as generative of many of the key concepts of his own thought. This section is divided into three chapters: first, his reading of The Prince; second, his reading of The Discourses; third, the general theory of interpretation developed in Le Travail de L'Oeuvre Machiavel. Whatever one might conclude concerning the adequacy of Lefort's reading of Machiavelli, it is impossible not to be struck by its richness and novelty. He brings to his writings on the work of Machiavelli a conceptual apparatus that is deeply marked by his long apprenticeship with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. In his reading of Machiavelli, we shall see how Lefort puts to work, rather than merely follows, some of the basic concepts of Merleau-Ponty's thought.

"How is one to read Machiavelli?" (TM, 313). Lefort's response is that one must read Machiavelli very closely, viewing it as a work that does something; which is to say, not as a work that pretends simply to mirror or reflect some state of affairs from an objective point of view but rather as a gesture that enters actively, with the aim of transforming, the field of discourse in which it is inscribed. But how, and in what direction? This will become apparent in the course of our reflections. From the beginning it must be emphasized that a recurring motif running through Lefort's writing on Machiavelli is his constant opposition to any attempt to read The Prince as an "occasional work," one written under the pressure of events-for example, in its most vulgar presentation, as an attempt to curry favor with Lorenzo the Magnificent; in other words, to get a job as an advisor to a tyrant. As Gadamer has taught us, such reductive interpretations put out of play the work's claim to truth, thus leaving our interpretive horizons intact and without contestation. While not by any means neglecting the historical field in which Machiavelli wrote, Lefort presents him as someone who contests our conceptual horizons and who leads us, perhaps for the first time, to the thought of the political field as such. Far from reducing The Prince to a text written under the pressure of events, he views the prince as a figure of man in his relationship to Being.

Some of the recurring themes of Lefort's reading of Machiavelli emerge in the form of an opposition to an interpretation of him that would praise his novelty as being one which, having broken with the moralizing religious and metaphysically inspired forms of political philosophy, inaugurates the modern form of political discourse called political science; that is, an empirical science which thinks the political simply as a field of forces, as the place of the operations of naked power. Read in this manner, the virtue of Machiavelli's thought is to have "demystified" the moral and religious representation of power, thereby permitting us to view it in its raw operations. In this interpretation, the corollary of Machiavelli's empirical discourse on the machinations of power is a moral and political cynicism, supplemented by an emotional patriotism, which he gives vent to only in the last chapter of The Prince. To this reading, one must pose the question: "If power is rendered naked, what are the articles of clothing that have been disgarded?" Clearly the response must be representation. Later we shall see that Lefort has much to say concerning the notion of demystification; for now suffice to say that, for him, what Machiavelli gives us to think is the metamorphosis by which civil society is transformed into political society, a transformation which happens precisely through the process of representation. Where others have seen a mystifying cynicism in the projection of the image of the prince, Lefort sees the very constitution of the political. Far from obfuscating the operations of power, the image of the prince is that through which force is transformed into properly political power.

According to the Russian formalists, the effect of poetic language is to defamiliarize language. Also, Merleau-Ponty argues that the true function of the phenomenological reduction is not to constitute a field of immanence but to break our familiarity with the world, "to stand back and let the world appear as sparks from a fire." And for the Heidegger of Being and Time, the destruction of the history of metaphysics destroys its familiarity as a "history of ideas" and allows it to be seen again as if for the first time. One of the first effects of Lefort's reading of The Prince is to render it strange, to defamiliarize this often, perhaps too often, read text which is standard material for courses in political science. Evoking psychoanalytic language, he goes so far as to speak of a "manifest subject" and a "latent subject" of Machiavelli's writings. The apparently straightforward character of The Prince is constantly put into question through a close reading of the text itself. Lefort is sensitive to the tone of the text and its obvious self-contradictions; he observes that Machiavelli claims not to speak of ecclesiastical politics and then speaks of them at great length, and that he writes, "a monarch that we shall not name" and then goes on to name him as Ferdinand of Spain, and so forth. Lefort is also well attuned to the ironic dimensions of these texts; for example, Machiavelli writes, "We should not consider Moses, since he was merely the executer of matters decreed to him by God," then, speaking of the action of the other armed prophet founders, "They will appear no different from Moses" (P, 145). Lefort also has an ear for the change of voices in the work of Machiavelli, particularly, as we shall see in the last chapter of The Prince and even more so in his analysis of The Discourses, when he contends that Machiavelli's practice of writing corresponds very closely to the subject matter it is considering. There is the necessity for a true discourse, "whereby the writer says things that others have passed over in silence, as there is the necessity of political action which demands that the prince do things that an ordinary man is incapable of achieving" (TM, 330). Nevertheless, if the writer must say them, he must not do so too clearly. As we begin to see, Lefort's reading complicates the apparent clarity of Machiavelli's writing.

Having put ourselves at a certain remove from some of the received ideas concerning Machiavelli, and having evoked the tone of Lefort's reading, let us now turn to his work on The Prince. In general his interpretation moves through this text chapter by chapter. I do not follow his progression in detail but attempt to grasp some of the leading threads which run through it. One of Lefort's first complicating moves is to show that the order announced by Machiavelli is not the order that he follows. In a letter to Vettori, Machiavelli writes that The Prince concerns "what is sovereignty, how many types of it there are, how one acquires it, how one keeps it, and why one loses it" (TM, 325). As such, one could consider it as falling within the genre of texts on the art of governing, similar to those written by the scholastics. Lefort begins his reflection by noting that it is what is "not spoken," what is unsaid, in The Prince that separates it from this traditional genre and also from the works of Antiquity. He writes, "The author does not situate the relation of the prince with his subjects within the more general framework of a relation of man with his fellow men, nor with nature, nor with God" (TM, 326). Machiavelli does not place the situation of the prince within other forms of human organization, as, for example, Aristotle does when he situates the ruler within the form of familial authority. For both Plato and Aristotle, although in different ways, the political order is constructed in analogy with the natural order, as, for example, Plato's tripartite division of the soul and the polity in the Republic. In the traditional Christian doctrine, elaborated philosophically by the scholastics, the political order is construed in analogy with the divine order, insofar as all authority descends from God. Machiavelli's silence on these issues is indeed deafening. The things unsaid remain "at the horizon of things said" (TM, 328). This silence signals that what the writings of Machiavelli aim at is a new object, namely, the autonomy and irreducibility of the political vis-à-vis cosmology and theology. Thus we see that his thought cannot be placed within the conventional definitions of philosophy, psychology, or history. Assuredly, Machiavelli turns our thoughts in the direction of history, man, society, the state, the motives of the prince, and good and evil. "At first glance, however, the field of his investigation, the reality that he aims at, does not let itself be clearly circumscribed" (TM, 327).

It is the novelty of the object of this work that troubles and contests the apparent clarity of Machiavelli's presentation. I will attempt to illustrate this doubling of perspectives. In its straightforward reading, The Prince appears to be a text consisting of advice to a new prince: Machiavelli prescribes certain actions, offers a number of illustrations of how princes have retained power, and also relates some cautionary tales of how, and under what circumstances, rulers of the past have lost their kingdoms and sometimes their lives. From this perspective, the prince is the subject of political action, and Machiavelli is offering him technical instructions based on historical knowledge and the readings of the classics. Nevertheless, on further reading, we see that the prince is far from being a sovereign subject who acts in a purely instrumental manner; he is not the precursor of the Cartesian subject whose self-representation provides the ground of certainty upon which objects are represented. He is not the sole subject who initiates the ends and means of his actions. "He is himself 'represented', his work is perceived as an effect, be it of virtu or of fortune" (TM, 333). The image of the prince, it will be shown, is not incidental to his reality but constitutive of it. This notion of the subject radically contests the conception of humanism elaborated by Heidegger, according to which humanism would be the regime of sovereign subjectivity, ultimately issuing in the Gestell of technology. Lefort shows that in The Prince the subject is constituted across the play of desires, as masking a fundamental void, a noncoincidence of the body politic with itself. This is the introduction of what he does not hesitate to call a new ontology and a new political philosophy, one that destabilizes the meaning of terms and the apparent structure of the argument.

Issues that seemed to be put out of play at the beginning of The Prince return in altered form further on in the text. Lefort writes, "Finally, little by little, we discern that the examination of particular hypotheses, that are the material of the first eleven chapters, gives way to a reflection on the present situation in Italy and on the political in general" (TM, 340-341). On a political level, for example, the first chapter seems to dismiss the question of types of regimes, claiming that there are only two types: republics or princedoms. In the second chapter, discussion of the first type of regime is foreclosed by the much debated remark "because I have discussed them at length elsewhere." It would seem that only princedoms remain, but in the fourth chapter, he does in fact distinguish different types of regimes by juxtaposing the rule of the Turks to that of the King of France, which is to say, he compares despotism to feudalism. Finally, in the fifth chapter, he distinguishes between regimes founded on their own laws and those that are not, remarking that whoever becomes master of, but does not destroy, a city living as a free community may expect to be destroyed by it, because "during an insurrection, the city can always take refuge in evoking the name of freedom and its traditional institutions, which are never forgotten whatever the course of time or whatever favors are accorded" (P, 139). Thus he makes a sharp distinction between a free community and despotism. Although it would appear that Machiavelli escapes all value judgments, it is not difficult to see a strong judgment in his description of the ecclesiastical state as one in which the prince neither defends nor governs his subjects.

According to Lefort, Machiavelli's discourse unfolds on many different planes: On the one hand, it is bifurcated by the transformations of research on the relations imminent in political action and the discovery of its limits; on the other hand, it is a transformation of an object of experience into an object of knowledge which engenders its own autocritique, through the recognition of a fundamental indeterminacy inherent in the field of both knowledge and action. Far from inaugurating and celebrating a technology of power and a positive science of the political, he reads Machiavelli as a thinker who adumbrates a fundamental critique of this project; as someone who elaborates an intertwining of knowledge and nonknowledge, and who views power not as a positive object, a sort of thing-in-itself, but rather as a relationship of poles in conflict. A fundamental ambiguity emerges in the relationship of a prince to the state; Machiavelli provides no theory of the historical origin of the state, no hypothetical state of nature out of which the state emerges. As noted above, he does not render the state intelligible in terms of a reference to the cosmos or a hierarchy of being. Lefort writes, "On the one hand, the object, the principality, is apprehended in a definition which constitutes it as the result of the operations of a subject. On the other hand, the subject, the prince, is himself determined relative to the place that he occupies in regard to the object" (TM, 348). For neither the prince nor the principality is it a question of the relationship between a subject and an object. The subject of The Prince is the imperio, that is, the place of nonorigin. The imperio is the name given to the power that certain men, or groups of men, exercise upon others, which refers to an exteriority beyond men. It is that in virtue of which their relationships order themselves in the framework of a State; "dimension" rather than "figure" of Society, of which it is perhaps as vain to seek its cause in particular human motives as to seek its cause in a religious or a metaphysical principle (TM, 348-349).

The opposition of dimension and figure plays an important role in Lefort's political philosophy. One might recall that in The Visible and the Invisible, Merleau-Ponty spoke of the flesh as a dimension, an element, recalling the notions of earth, fire, air, and water in early Greek thought. For Lefort the true subject matter of The Prince is the flesh of the political. It is "the space of an 'entre-deux' which announces itself as the place of the real ('reel') which pre-exists the action of the political subject" (TM, 348). In an altered sense, one might employ Levinas's phrase, "the origin before origin." If the place of power preexists the political actor, then it is important to make precise what one means by this "before," or at least what one does not mean. In Machiavelli's thought, there is not a valorization of tradition or of nature. Observe how he distinguishes between the problems of a hereditary prince and those of a new prince, that is, the prince of a newly acquired territory. The privilege of the "hereditary prince" is simply that his subjects have become accustomed, by long experience, to his oppression and thus he has no motive for introducing destabilizing changes. The "natural prince" is called natural by nothing more profound than the habituation of his subjects, not because of any natural disposition of the body politic, or because of the institution of "good form" founded upon a design of Providence, or a natural finality. Nevertheless, the new prince must introduce changes which will necessarily be opposed by some of his subjects, and thus we see that "between the regime of one and that of the other, there is no substantial difference, but a difference in degree" (TM, 351).


Excerpted from THE PHILOSOPHY OF CLAUDE LEFORT by Bernard Flynn
Copyright © 2005 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................xi
Selected Bibliography of Claude Lefort....................xxxiii
Part 1. Lefort as Reader of Machiavelli 1 The Prince....................5
2 The Discourses....................40
3 Machiavelli: The Practice of Interpretation....................59
Part 2. Lefort on Premodernity 4 Premodernity....................83
5 European Premodernity....................100
Part 3. Lefort on Modernity 6 Modernity and Revolution....................131
7 Modernity and Law....................150
8 Modernity and Rights....................164
9 Modernity and Ideology....................185
Part 4. Lefort on Totalitarianism 10 Totalitarianism as "Measures Taken"....................195
11 Totalitarianism as Regime....................207
12 The Fate of the Concept of Totalitarianism after the Fall....................233

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews