Preface

Udi Edelman, Yoav Kenny, Itay Snir, Adi Ophir
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Translation: Natalie Melzer

Mafte’akh

The online journal Mafte’akh: Lexical Review of Political Thought is edited and published by the Lexicon group at the Minerva Humanities Center at Tel Aviv University. The journal, which is published bi-annually in two editions, Hebrew and English, is a lexicon in process. Each of its essays is devoted to a different concept, demonstrating the relevance of the concept to political thought and, more broadly, to thinking about the political. The questions what is political thought and what – as a quality, an area of interest, an aspect of human existence, or a type of event – is the political, are not predetermined here. They are open for renewed study and debate in every one of the lexical essays.

The essays in the journal follow an index that does not yet exist. Each one of them is a reply to the Socratic question “What is X?” Mafte’akh seeks to return to this form of question, which characterizes the beginnings of philosophy but which is also entwined in its later history and reappears with new intensity at several key moments in the annals of the discipline. Within the philosophical discourse, posing this question is neither an act of naiveté nor the result of ignorance or confusion. It is a deliberate act of disruption. The question points to a locked chamber; the answer offers a key. The word ‘mafte’akh’ in Hebrew means both ‘key’ and ‘index’.

The question always entails pointing to the matter at hand as well as distinguishing it from others – it has, in this sense, an indexical aspect. The answer is an attempt to understand, and this attempt invariably goes beyond the call to order that was originally embedded in the question. Even if the person raising the question knows the chamber well, when she poses the question she positions herself outside the chamber, seeking to enter it anew, as if for the first time. The question is not put to those who know and does not seek to receive from them that which they already know. He who poses the question is himself grappling with it. He conducts himself like someone asking it for the first time, even if he has in fact been asking it his whole life.

Sometimes the question is addressed to those discussants who presume to know, exhorting them to pause and reconsider some common concept, which they tend to use as though its meaning were both clear and familiar (such is the case, in the current issue, with the discussion of “ba’it” – home, household, and the domestic sphere in Hebrew – and of “state”). Sometimes it is addressed to them in order to propose a less common concept, which better describes something familiar and which exposes new links between phenomena hitherto deemed unrelated (so it is with the discussion in this issue of ‘minoracy’). In either case, the question impels us to slow down the flow of communication, to defer the automatic response, to pause, to reflect. And even if the answer is given in definitive terms, it does not represent the final word. No single authority can bring to an end the discussion launched by the Socratic question – not even the authority of the lexicon. At times, the lexical writing pretends to hold such powers but this pretence is no more than a discursive strategy, an effort to amass authority or wield it; it is, in other words, itself always also political.

Mafte’akh is a lexicon in process that seeks to rethink the political in a systematic, persistent, and unsettling manner by defining concepts. Some of the concepts that will be defined here are drawn from the familiar political-philosophical discourse, while others are imported from more or less neighboring disciplines or extracted from local or foreign political histories. Some are invented concepts, others borrowed from everyday language and developed so as to enable an original mode of observation of government and the state of being governed, including the various mechanisms, instruments, sites, and occasions that embody them, as well as of the political act and the various arenas and forms in which it manifests itself. The lexicon will not devote separate entries to thinkers, to existing methods and schools of thought, or to canonical texts, except where these have come to be regarded as concepts in their own right.

The conceptual analysis undertaken in the essays of Mafte’akh may be grounded in a single defined theory, or it may freely move between several theories, kindred or rival, provided that its focus remains squarely on the concept itself and on the reality that this concept expresses and interprets. In most cases, the answer to the question “What is X?” will purport to show that X is indeed a concept; that there is a more or less demarcated sphere of phenomena, both real and imagined, that this concept brings together and shapes; and that there is good reason to employ this concept or to reconsider it – i.e., that it is of interest not just to historians of political thought but also to those who reflect here and now about the political. But sometimes the opposite will hold true: the answer to the question “What is X?” will show that the concept under consideration is neither coherent nor productive but rather represents a term and point of view that are better done away with.

The question’s form is simple and unchanging; the answer takes no single form and follows no predetermined method. The writers hosted by Mafte’akh propose not only the question they wish to address but also their own way of arriving at a definition of the concept they have chosen to investigate. Sometimes the political1 is embedded in the concept itself; sometimes – and perhaps always also – it lies en route to the concept. In either case, the lexical work will offer conceptual innovations, which will shed new and original light on political phenomena, call into question the horizons of daily expectations, and critique those theoretical frameworks that give meaning to the concepts under discussion.

Mafte’akh seeks to provide the stage for a comprehensive and profound discussion of contemporary political thought – a discussion that is open to a variety of fields of research. The discussion is conducted primarily but not exclusively in the Hebrew language, with the deliberate intention of critiquing and enriching the existing public and academic discourse among Hebrew readers. The Hebrew edition will include translations of key essays in contemporary political thought, alongside original essays not previously published. The English edition of Mafte’akh will also include translations from the Hebrew edition and will be sensitive to the peculiar constraints and possibilities of the Hebrew language, as well as to the Israeli context and predicament.

Mafte’akh’s basic premise is that language is not only a tool for describing and reflecting reality but also that which limits and enables action within this reality, and the medium in which political action itself takes place. For Israeli authors, the journal serves as a platform for thinking about the political in Hebrew, in the process of which Hebrew itself is thought of in political terms. This serves both to better utilize its resources and various historical strata, and to overcome its blind spots, which are at least partly the result of its history as a minority language or its revival as the centerpiece of a national movement involving immigration, the settlement of land, and a blood battle with the native population. We expect from our non-Israeli authors the same kind of reflection upon their historical, cultural, and linguistic situatedness. A juxtaposition of different historical and cultural perspectives that does not hide the difficulties of translation will define the space in which a common – if not universal – philosophical perspective can be negotiated.

For Israeli and non-Israeli authors alike, Mafte’akh, therefore, is also a form of intervention in the political discourse, one based on research, study, and critical inquiry. This kind of intervention is inherently political. It is so because of the very nature of language and thought, and it remains so even when it fully meets the requirements of academic research, of which the most fundamental is a commitment to truth over any other interest. The political act will not be denied here; instead, it will be a constant object of reflection and a goad used to encourage particular caution in the exercise of editorial judgment.

Lexicon

The lexical organization of knowledge is an old and well-known practice whose presence is prominent in high as well as low culture, in the academic sciences and the popular bodies of knowledge. This type of organization characterizes the encyclopedia, the dictionary, and the lexicon in its narrow and variable publishing sense, taking the form of an expanded dictionary or a condensed encyclopedia. It is based on four principles: a) the compiling of entries in a given field; b) the alphabetical ordering of entries, which are almost always nouns, proper or common; c) the offering of explanatory definitions or defining explanations alongside the entries; d) a lack of any guiding principle that predetermines the selection of entries, their number, their specificity, and their relative density in various areas of the field. These principles enable both the traditional function of the lexicon and its use as a lever for critical understanding of human reality.

A lexicon is a tool for organizing knowledge. Typically, it is thought of as a tool for the dissemination of existing knowledge, a sort of guide containing instructions for the employment of unfamiliar terms and concepts. Only rarely is the lexicon associated with the creation of new knowledge. Even the growing awareness of the historicity of knowledge has not, for the most part, changed the way the lexical entry is written, its rhetoric of compilation and completion, and the image of lexical knowledge as playing a secondary role in the production of knowledge. The traditional lexicon appears as a vehicle that carries knowledge, not an instrument that produces it, and certainly not a condition that enables it. Accordingly, the organization of lexical knowledge is usually perceived as a means of transforming knowledge belonging to a given field into a convenient resource; the lexicon is relegated to the shelves of reference books, and is not designated to be the focus of research.

Mafte’akh, as a lexicon in process, seeks to combine the compilation of existing knowledge with the creation of new knowledge. In commissioning contributions to this lexical project we assume and expect innovation, in full awareness of the problematic nature of this expectation – since the quest for a definition inherently limits the originality of the lexical essay given the expectation that it spell out, or at least significantly allude to the concept’s history, and that it respect the differences among the concept’s manifestations in various cultures and its uses in various theories. The pretension to propose a definition – that is, to circumscribe, to enclose, to extract the essence, to reduce and gather the core of the matter, to sum up what is known, to glean from history only what is still considered relevant, the highpoints in the career of a concept or theory, the turning points in the evolution of a given phenomena – this pretense, along with the affirmative nature of the language of description and definition, supposedly limit the aspiration for critical reflection and for the production of new knowledge. Writing a definition for a lexical entry is often perceived as an attempt to end a certain conversation, real or imagined, possible or impossible, and to conclude an ongoing interpretive task or scientific investigation in a manner that will seal once and for all the question that the definition tries to answer.

We willingly embrace these limitations, viewing them as rules of the game and constraints that are imposed on the possible moves but that by no means preclude new ones. In Mafte’akh, new knowledge will appear firstly in the open list of concepts, reflective of the choices of a dynamic, local discourse community, which will gradually incorporate non-Israeli researchers, and in the organization of the lexical space, whose outlines will be slowly and patiently sketched through the accumulation of concepts. It will emerge from the unpredictable ways in which these concepts will be intertwined, weaving and unraveling coherent discourses. This networking will itself become an object of study and a prism through which present political conditions may be seen in a new light.

But it is also in their definition of the single concept that the writers who contribute to Mafte’akh offer new knowledge. The task of providing a definition is situated along a continuum that runs between two poles: at one end lies the connotative definition, which sketches the boundaries of a concept by tracking its common uses, avoiding any attempt to adjudicate between them; at the other is the denotative definition, which seeks to offer a complete and systematic explanation of the matter being defined, regarding its particular linguistic expressions and connotations as marginal or secondary. An essay that is responsive to the terms of Mafte’akh’s invitation will strive to situate itself along this spectrum without cleaving to one or the other of its extremes. On the one hand, it will explore the common uses of the concept by exposing its dependence on cultural and political contexts and on limiting, misguiding, or distorting presuppositions. On the other, it will reflect an effort to extract the essence of the matter from the concrete appearances of the use of that concept that indicates it and from the multiplicity of phenomena that the concept seeks to unify in its various appearances. The proposed definition will seek to go beyond a summary of the concept’s multiple uses throughout its history and across various cultures to touch on what is most essential about it. In both directions, the critical and the essentialist, there is a need to give up the perspective that views the concept as a given entity, ready-at-hand. The more liberated a definition is from the concept’s history and distribution across the cultural landscape, the less able it will be to rely on existing sources of knowledge, forcing it instead to demonstrate that most basic of abilities already demanded by Socrates when he sought definitions: the ability to think. In other words, the rules of the game as Mafte’akh defines them dictate that there is no contradiction between essentialism and a critical analysis, openness and innovation.

Mafte’akh invites its writers to formulate definitions that are conscious of the historical nature of the concept, think about it critically, and at the same time do not shy away from the commitment to provide a positive answer to the question “What is X?”; that is to say, definitions that are prepared to put forth an essentialist answer and to submit the desired essence to critique and reinterpretation. This approach, which may be described as “experimental essentialism”, rests on new explanations, speculations, and ideas, which have yet to be put to the test. It does not view the definition as representing the accepted starting point of a discussion, nor as a declaration that the discussion has reached its final conclusion with nothing of any import left to say on the matter. On the contrary: the definition is presented as the starting point of a new conversation. The open lexicon is designed to accommodate the continuation of the experiment, while the publication of the definition invites readers to partake in it and engage in a critique of its conditions. Even Diderot and d’Alembert, when working on their Encyclopedia project, understood that nothing in the lexical organization of knowledge precludes the option of incorporating into the principles that guide the selection of entries an expectation to depart from the conventional compiling enterprise whose exclusive focus is existing knowledge. Nor, as Foucault, Koselleck, and Skinner have shown in different ways and contexts, is an expectation for innovation in any way precluded by the attempt to reconstruct a concept’s history and explicate its function in a given historical context. These expectations are precisely those that guide us in the creation of the present lexicon of political thought.

The experiment does not end with a definition; it continues with the cross-referencing of various concepts and their weaving into unstable conceptual webs, whose boundaries are not predetermined. Unlike the organization of knowledge that characterized non-alphabetical compiling enterprises, from Pliny’s ancient Natural History to Hegel’s Encyclopedia, in modern lexical logic the placement of an entry is not determined by its ontological or logical content, and reflects no necessity; it is determined arbitrarily according to the entry’s name, and, like the name, is insignificant. As an external order that nonetheless allows for internal arbitrariness and an organic evolution of the web, the alphabetical order is a necessary condition of the open lexicon – it avoids hierarchy but prevents anarchy. Out of awareness of these conditions, the lexical environment we offer is designed so as to facilitate unexpected intersections and encounters between concepts. These will occur as the result of adding new entries; increasing the number of points in sparse areas of the web, thereby making them denser; and developing new definitions, leading to a greater density of the lines that run between them. The more the web is open with respect to new concepts but at the same time restricted in its area of interest, the more such meaningful intersections between its concepts will occur, and with them will increase the productive and creative potential of the body of lexical knowledge.

Deleuze and Guattari argued that concepts, too, have personalities. If we take into account the fact that concepts are distinct, individual entities that function always as generalizations, this seems entirely reasonable, but only provided that their singular qualities are properly identified. This identification is the reason for drawing all the conceptual distinctions, on the one hand, and for the lexical effort to assemble various terms under the heading of a single entry, on the other. Concepts, like people, are never alone, they are nothing as singulars – they always need the company of others. Isolating a concept from its web, like cutting off and isolating a person from his home and social network, is done only for purposes of an investigation and questioning, scientific or other. This is precisely what the lexical organization of knowledge does. It presents common nouns – i.e., concepts – as one of a kind, treating them as proper names and laying them side by side, one after another, in the confines of the same space. It marks them by their address and then enters their home – delving deep into the concept, as though there were no outside. All other relevant concepts to which the concept is linked are supposed to be reflected in it, as if it were a windowless monad. That is the role of the definition. Later on, the windows will open up and a series of referrals, links, and other forms of connection will restore the concept to its web. These links take on different forms, at least since Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopedia, and they have evolved alongside the modes of representation all the way to the hyperlinks of the current virtual space. But the basic idea remains the same: concepts always appear in the company of others, they split up and branch out, come together and separate, and their various forms of connection all depend on the net extended by the editors of the lexicon.

It may, of course, be argued that the author of the lexical entry alone determines those concepts to which his concept will be linked, while the editors merely carry out the technical task of implementing those links that already exist within the definition. But selecting the concepts within a given field and determining their density and the nature of their distribution in the field under discussion are not technical matters, and it is these decisions that create the web and shape it. The lexicon-in-process that is being launched here is open in principle to any conceptualized phenomenon – provided that the author of the entry that deals with this phenomenon will demonstrate the concept’s relevance to thinking about the political. Hence, the conceptual web spun by Mafte’akh is boundlessly open and its concepts can be condensed to infinity. If a political lexicon clusters its concepts around the mechanisms of the state but ignores the presence of the political in high and low culture, in science and sports, its web will be spread out accordingly, and it will be of aid mostly to those who look for the coin under the lamp post. Mafte’akh seeks to scatter more coins (that is, to expose the political in more and more phenomena), or shine more lamp posts (to enable the examination of phenomena that have already been identified as political through new and diverse discourses and media), and, as much as possible, to do both.

A dynamic, open, constantly evolving lexicon whose definitions aspire to an experimental essentialism offers an environment in which reality is carved up anew each time, often according to changing principles of organization. This re-organization of the web may pose a threat not just to particular isolated definitions but also, more generally, to the rules of discourse or the research paradigm, where these serve as a mechanism for grouping concepts and for stabilizing the relations that hold between them. The lexical intervention always has the potential to enact a de-territorialization of knowledge. It is impossible to know the nature of the interruption in advance; impossible to control the kinds of connections that will form between concepts and the possibilities that each new encounter between concepts will generate. In this kind of space, being side by side, being present together, even mere coincidences take on different meanings in a way that is similar in nature to that which takes place in a museum space. In its links and referrals, the web always has a potential existence. The reader is exposed to a small sliver of it and she can reconstruct it, step by step, but never fully capture it. The web is never present but is always presupposed. When the entries are laid down side by side, according to a combination of alphabetical randomness and the editing policy that determines their accumulation, various encounters are created that go beyond the borders of the web and that are altogether unpredictable. There is an open-ended aspect to this coming together, as when two visual images are placed side by side and even the most skilled curator cannot say in advance what will be born of their encounter.

Mafte’akh is a lexical journal that offers itself, with each new issue, as a kind of gallery environment, in which a small number of entries are displayed side by side. Those who think that knowledge advances only in measured steps, and always from carefully chosen starting points, along familiar routes to predictable destinations, will say that nothing good can come of this kind of environment. Those who understand the importance for the production of knowledge of the chance encounter – between people, between people and books, and between them and objects, concepts, and images, between texts and images, etc. – will value this environment and appreciate its productive and critical potential.

Editing/Curating

The technological-political constellation of our time, and in particular the internet, enable and invite new efforts of communication and of the organization and distribution of knowledge. Recent years have seen the emergence of a number of phenomena revolving around the organization of knowledge that are a source of inspiration for Mafte’akh. The first important phenomenon is the prospering, democratization, and globalization of online encyclopedias. Wikipedia, the internet encyclopedia, is the most prominent among them. Its decentralized structure, with its hundreds of thousands of editors and writers, is perhaps the most thoroughgoing implementation of the principle of randomness and abstaining from selection of the accumulating terms and concepts; at the same time, through the use of links it allows users to navigate in many different ways, through which concepts become, or may become multi-directional and multi-dimensional webs. Another phenomenon is the appearance of professional digital encyclopedias, in which the accumulation of knowledge is still performed by experts and subject to the supervision of authoritative scholars. These bodies of knowledge are edited in accordance with more or less strict academic standards, but at the same time the knowledge collected in them and the ideas put forth under their banner are constantly changing and being updated. Two good examples of this trend are the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu) and the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (http://sociologyencyclopedia.com). A third and no less significant trend is the democratization not just of the production but of the consumption of knowledge, or in other words, the fact that the use of these online encyclopedias is free, requiring neither an affiliation with an academic institution nor subscription fees.

There are a myriad ways in which the open lexicon can partake in any one of these phenomena, but the very fact that it does so is what makes it a citizen of the digital sphere. The special conditions of this sphere both enable and limit the production and organization of lexical knowledge. These conditions intensify the temporary, fleeting aspect of each individual definition, if only because frequent updates, changes, and expansions have become easy and available and the networking is constantly changing through the addition of links and content, thereby altering the meaning of the defined concept even if the defining text itself remains unchanged. Writing in the internet environment invites – perhaps even requires – reflection on the entanglement of texts and images, on the possibility of isolating a single concept from complex networks, and on the practice of reading, which has become more frantic and less controlled by predetermined plans because of the availability of links and connections and the manner in which these are incorporated into texts.

As an electronic journal, Mafte’akh will enable an ongoing discussion between its writers and readers. The materials will be open for debate and comment, for development and expansion from one issue to the next, both through the publication of further essays on the same concepts and through the addition of more links among the different concepts, creating new routes for wandering between them. Mafte’akh is bound by the usual rules of academic judgment and relies on the accepted scientific mechanism of selection – strict peer review and a meticulous and responsible process of editing and quality control. Yet as an open electronic journal it seeks to go beyond the limitations of the sealed print publication and beyond the limited target audience of a scholarly journal, creating new gatherings and paving new access ways to a broad audience of readers and participants, who will either arrive at the journal deliberately or come upon it by chance. The flexible nature of the transition between concepts, and the unique wandering pattern of each reader will, we believe, contribute to the emergence of new meanings not dictated in advance by the lexicon’s writers and editors.

Mafte’akh is an open journal also because it limits itself neither to familiar forms of the organization of knowledge nor to an existing scientific discipline or a cluster of familiar disciplines dwelling in the shadow of a single faculty. The essays that appear in the journal are asked to define a concept in a way that contributes to thinking about the political, but the questions what counts as a definition and what counts as political are left open, and may be raised anew with each entry. We assume that reflections on the meanings of concepts and the essences of the phenomena that they denote cannot be confined by disciplinary boundaries, nor indeed by the perimeters of that domain of knowledge typically defined as academic. No form of conceptual thinking that pertains to the political and no place in which such thinking takes place is foreign to us.

This is especially true of the areas of art, visual culture, and curatorship. A common perception in academic writing views visual culture – including art – almost entirely through the prism of its final products, tending in its investigations of these objects to use them as mere illustrations, as an ornament accompanying the written arguments and ideas. Thus, works of art, like photographs or images of buildings and architectural drawings, appear as tools that serve the academic writing, even as the writing itself deals with the attempt to extract from these objects a meaning or truth that is concealed in them. Art, according to this understanding, depends for its ability to say something on the discourse that interprets it, and can indeed tell us nothing that the scholarship has not already said – and said better and more accurately.

Various museum spaces, galleries, and other places that from time to time are transformed into occasional arenas of artistic activity have recently become distinct sites of knowledge production. Activities of compilation and creation, invention and editing, all take place there. The act of curatorship often appears as an initiative designed to create knowledge or to function as an architect of distinct, experimental sites of knowledge, in which its organization, classification, and dissemination are reconsidered; all this, while also publicly exposing the work and making use of diverse interactive mechanisms. This activity usually has a conceptual dimension and nearly always opens up new ways of looking at the political. Mafte’akh seeks to join this effort and proposes acknowledging the power of art to pose theoretical questions, put forth anthropological, sociological, and philosophical insights, and offer new perspectives on the political.

Contemporary art is a space and medium in which take shape reflections that are attuned to social, political, technological, and media-related processes. Oftentimes, this thinking is conceptual in form and content, especially among multimedia artists, whose work incorporates video art, photography, sculpture, installations, and text. Such multi-dimensional thinking allows them to address, directly or indirectly but with great intensity, displays of violence and law, authority and hierarchy, the setting of boundaries, processes of containment and exclusion, the social construction of the body and the self, modes of production and exchange, objectification and commercialization, and more. This conceptual thinking is embodied not just in the final products of art but also in the very fact of the artistic event and activity, and it demands an ongoing effort of translation into the language of theoretical discourse, even when this discourse is one of the sources that furnish the artistic undertaking. Academic research ought to recognize the aptitude of such art to think with and about concepts, to precede its own scholarly insights regarding the present reality, and to reveal aspects that are overlooked by scientific language. In our own attempt to learn from art, we begin first with a curatorial conception of the lexicon itself: we see it as a non-hierarchical structure, resembling the organization and mode of operation of the museum space, which enables the presentation of diverse contents side by side, in different groupings either in a single space or in adjoining spaces. This sort of space – whether it is the virtual space in which this open lexicon appears or the actual space of the museum or gallery – allows for the joint presence of various entries side by side or one after the other; invites reflective wandering; and enables both divided attention and a deeper observation of a single object or text. The product of curatorial work, Mafte’akh seeks to create an ongoing dialogue between texts and images, and to prepare new possibilities of movement – while attempting to learn about new possibilities of translation – between the different forms of producing and disseminating knowledge.

The Present Condition

The attempt to redefine basic concepts of political thought, to invent new uses for familiar concepts or add to the cycle new ones, imported or originally conceived, has a clear political and intellectual motive, namely, the feeling that the hegemonic political theory has become calcified and is effectively incapable of grappling with the profound changes taking place in the conditions of human existence in this time and place; that the main contribution of the prevailing political discourse to thinking about these changing conditions is one of reduction, simplification, and a dumbing down. A partial picture of these changes can be conveyed schematically through a short and incomplete list of the local and global conditions that define the context in which we operate today:

A state that defines itself as a Jewish democratic nation-state, in which nearly half of those subject to its rule are not Jewish, a third of these are not citizens, and a quarter of the territory over which it rules is not within its recognized territorial borders; a free market, in which the bulk of the capital flowing through it is in the hands of giant corporations, whose power far exceeds that of many states and which produce new ways of amassing wealth and of impoverishment, of subjugation and alienation, and which dictate rules of commercialization and competition for every sector of human activity anywhere on the globe; new forms of religious politics that demand participation in government, if not governmental monopoly, and effectuate the return of religion to various areas that had undergone secularization; new technologies of genetic engineering generate new possibilities of human existence, and new media technologies create new forms of being-together; regimes perceived as democratic create new forms of imperialism and of postcolonial rule, and redefine war as a form of governmental action; the law, whose role in states considered democracies is to protect individual liberties, licenses states of emergency, which turn into states of lawlessness and abandonment; the institution of citizenship, designed to protect the governed from their government, creates new conditions for forsaking both citizens and non-citizens within the nation-state, as well as those who knock on its doors or are exposed to the new wars that it conducts; more and more aspects of the life-world and of the body itself are subject to surveillance, supervision, and intervention by various ruling apparatuses, some of which are affiliated with the state while others are relatively immune to its intervention; mass-scale disasters, caused, enabled, or hastened by the current conditions of human existence, have taken on a global form and threaten the whole of humanity and many of the species living on earth; various international and transnational bodies set the standard criteria (legal, moral, economic, or technical) for the proper conduct of states, public institutions and corporations, and put into use new patterns of intervention; and alongside all of these – new forms of civilian solidarity and political struggle cut across state- and culture-boundaries, making use of the very same technologies that serve the state and the market in deepening their hold on life.

The nature of most of these phenomena is distinctly global – they cut across political and geographical boundaries and are represented and sometimes also generated by sophisticated media that erase gaps of time and place, rendering irrelevant many traditional spatial distinctions. And yet, the globalization of politics, culture, and the economy does not blur local distinctions between the rulers and the ruled, the hungry and the sated, the suffering and the contented, between disastered areas and fortified ones in which people try to surround themselves with walls of concrete and indifference; indeed, sometimes globalization highlights and intensifies these differences. Israel today is an emblematic site for these trends: it is a site in which global processes collide with particular intensity and at several key junctions with local divisions, creating conditions of unprecedented affluence for parts of the population, and conditions of chronic disaster for others. At the same time, these processes render the official field of politics – that domain in which the public struggle for the common good is supposed to take place – more detached than ever, both from the world of most of the governed population, including citizens and non-citizens alike, and from the daily workings of the mechanisms of power.

This reality is not an arbitrary, external circumstance in which our intellectual work happens to be caught up; rather, it is the contemporary condition in which political thought becomes public action and the element that shapes and limits it, calling for constant reflection and problematiztion. But whereas fundamental changes have occurred in the political reality, the mainstream of political philosophy remains trapped in a neo-liberal discourse whose premises do not withstand critical scrutiny. Rather than serving as an arena for criticism of the neo-liberal economic discourse, philosophy willingly participates in propagating throughout all areas of reality the dogmatic principles of this discourse, designed to allow the free flow of capital in a way that controls human conduct, translates the human into “human capital”, and renounces everything that cannot be capitalized.

To the local version of the hegemonic philosophy must be added a further characteristic: it willingly participates in everything that guarantees Jewish supremacy, while at the same time dogmatically proclaiming the demand for such supremacy a universal principle, justified by its very pronouncement. Similar versions of this characteristic appear in other places, near and far, for neo-liberalism, contrary to a common preconception, has no difficulty cooperating with various ideological forms, where demands for religious, cultural, or national supremacy are embodied by state apparatuses monopolized by the groups demanding such supremacy. Needless to say, the state that embodies this demand is unreflectively presumed to be a necessary form of the political existence.

More broadly, it can be said that political philosophy and political science, judged by their usual conduct here in our part of the world, collaborate with the market forces and the new forms of state rule. They burnish the language that serves these forces in their various forms of intervention and modes of constructing reality, conferring onto these forces their image as necessary, natural, and self-evident. It is precisely this image that voids the political of its initial power: the insistence on rethinking among many, in public, the limits of the possible.

The critical discourse thrives elsewhere. Since the nineteen seventies, continental philosophy has deepened and expanded the treatment of the political. Such foundational concepts as “power”, “sovereignty”, “right”, “subject”, “state”, “community”, “Europe”, “the East”, and of course, “the political” are being radically rethought, and canonical sources reread with interpretive approaches that have undergone the linguistic turn in its poststructuralist form. At the same time, and under the influence of these developments, a new kind of theory-guided critical work has developed in various disparate academic fields (such as cultural studies and legal studies, international relations, sociology and anthropology, psychoanalysis, the studies of science and technology, and in interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks like postcolonial theory and gender theories) that scrutinizes slices of reality, past and present, in all areas of life, exposing the presence of hitherto unobserved political structures and relations. This work systematically cuts across institutional and disciplinary boundaries and does not shy away from interacting with extra-academic forms of action belonging to culture, art, and civil society.

Contemporary continental philosophical thought has provided inspiration and direction to this critical work, and indeed has equipped it with a rich conceptual tool kit. But all too often this critical theory plucks the concepts from the tool kit ready-made and pre-packed, without pausing to reflect upon their precise meanings or upon the difference in their meanings, rooted as they are in different philosophical approaches. This tendency to avoid the conceptual explication pertains also, and perhaps first and foremost, to certain key concepts that have come to be code words of sorts in critical theory, such as “critique”, “power”, “the political”, “subversion”, or “resistance”.

Moreover, in both continental political philosophy and the various branches of critical theory there is a clear lack of theoretical work devoted to politics in the local and current sense of the term, i.e. to the structural arrangements of government or to the most basic questions of liberal democracy, regarding, for example, systems of representation, separations of powers, and equal access to those arenas in which take place the struggles for seizing power or undermining it. More conspicuous yet is the absence of constructive thought – the kind of thought that studies what is possible in order to reflect about what ought to be, and does so in a detailed and creative manner. Such thought does not derive the possible from counterfactual models of the real and then proceed to apply it to reality through the mediation of abstract formulas; on the contrary: it extracts the possible from a careful reading of concrete reality, in full awareness of the irrevocable historicity of this reality, and searches for cracks in What Is so as to expand them and allow What Ought To Be to find its wording, manifest itself, and be embodied in action.

Certainly, returning to the basic philosophical question “What is X?” is not a magic cure for all the afflictions described here, but it holds the promise of breaking through the closed horizons of the neo-liberal (and, in the Israeli context, nationalistic) hegemonic political discourse. The return to this question is carried out in a space of open discourse, in which thematic and methodological restrictions have been lifted and replaced with a challenging but simple formal requirement, one that is at once straightforward, austere, and demanding. Deliberately disregarding the separation lines drawn by and for specific disciplines and schools, this inquiry is driven by an insistence to get to the bottom of things without predetermining wherein lies the heart of their matter – that is, of course, the political matter – and with a willingness to embark on the adventure that a radical conceptual analysis summons. Mafte’akh offers a productive framework for this adventure, combining conceptual thought that demands redefinition, with a lexical organization of knowledge. This framework forms part of the effort to create an alternative environment for thinking about the political – it is a framework in which writers who presume to know claim for themselves an intellectual authority that is not grounded merely in their powers of comprehension and critique but also in their abilities to define, to impart concepts, and to think constructively. The open lexicon strives to develop a critical political language that will enrich political imagination and will be capable of guiding political action of a sort that is not trapped in positivist logic, which may be summed up as the thought that “what you see is what you get”. In this way, Mafte’akh seeks to be political in the full sense of the word – not just to talk about the political but also to reflect upon the ways in which this kind of talk is itself an action within the political. The concern of this action is to decipher and critique existing conditions and power relations, to expand the limited horizons of political imagination, to identify the un-necessary limits of the possible, and to try to unlock the gate through which might come corrective change.

Tel-Aviv, January 2010

Endnotes

  1. In Hebrew “Ha-Innyan Ha-polity”, the political innyan. ‘Innyan’ is a multivalent word in Hebrew, which may designate a subject matter, an interest, or the aspect on which one focuses. It is essential to keep all these possibilities open so as to avoid prejudging the ontological nature of the political: whether it is an aspect or dimension, a particular subject matter, a domain of objects, or a sphere of activity. Hence: “the political,” with no further qualification [translator's note]. []

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