In his book Philosophical Chronicles (a published set of radio addresses), Jean-Luc Nancy deals with a host of issues from daily life from the perspective of a philosopher, and some of them are deceptively simple, yet profound. His address from January, 2003, which addresses the word “politics” [politique], makes two very important points that have been haunting me for some three months now. First, Nancy points out the excessive use of the word politics, and its use in realms not normally considered “political.”
In the artistic domain in particular, it is often seen as necessary to declare that a work or an intervention has a political relevance, a political sense, or even a political nature. Whereas in the past we would come across the notion of the political commitment of an artist (of a writer, a philosopher, or a scientist), today we must refer to a necessarily political dimension in their practice itself. What cannot be said to be “political” appears suspect in being only aesthetic, intellectual, technical, or moral. (24)
I am appreciating Nancy’s point as one who is likely to always look for the politics of an artistic piece—whether a movie, novel, or even a TV commercial—or really in anything that deals with ideas, stories, or life in general. I think that it is good and right to illumine the hidden politics in “everything,” but I also think that this can be constrictive and destructive to make absolutely everything political.
The second point Nancy makes, which is a consequence of the first, is that this excessive use of the word political is vague, leaving the term empty of content.
…“political” would mean that which goes beyond all the particular delimitation of discipline and activity, operating at the level of the entire society (even that of humanity), of its conditions of existence and meaning “Political” is thus invested with unlimited content. This usage of the word derives from a more or less conscious idea that everything is or should be political. [Now the big sentence] Now, this idea constitutes nothing other than the content of what one calls “totalitarianism.” (24-25)
Nancy elaborates briefly on how this manner of thinking absorbs everything into the sphere of the political. The consequence is this: if everything is political, then nothing is political, because the political has lost its specificity as “political.” This totalitarian use of the word politics tends to assume that political or communal existence is an end in itself, a self-justifying entity. Nancy thinks that the inability to limit politics (and to see it as directed at ends other than itself) has contributed to the loss of the artistic nature of politics (“as art in the old sense,” techne).
Nancy’s main point is simply that we ought to specify what we mean when we use the word “political,” but beyond that I think there is a danger of which he is warning us—that of making everything so political that we choke the life out of it, or subsume creativity to the ends of a “politic” in a way that betrays that very creativity. This would seem also, to me, to be a death of politics, parallel to the death of art proclaimed by artist-thinkers like Alexander Rodchenko (for if everything is art, then nothing is art, for there is nothing to define and distinguish as art, and no thing has more artistic value over another thing).