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Action, Error, Ethos:

Political Ontology as Tragedy or Comedy?

This thesis is presented by William Cameron (390702)


to the School of Social and Political Sciences
in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of
Bachelor of Arts (Honours)
in the Field of Political & International Studies
in the School of Social and Political Sciences
Faculty of Arts
The University of Melbourne

Supervisor: Professor Adrian Little


Date: 12th October 2015
Word Count: 14,978 words
Thesis Declaration Form

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William Cameron 390702

Table of Contents

Thesis Declaration Form i

Table of Contents ii

Acknowledgments iii

Abstract iv

Introduction 1

Chapter One: Error, Ethos, Ontology 5

Chapter Two: Becoming Tragic 16

Chapter Three: The Coming Comedy 26

Chapter Four: On ‘Not Getting It’ — The Hubris of Missing the Punchline 36

Conclusion 48

Bibliography 51

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Acknowledgments

I want to express deep gratitude to my supervisor, Adrian Little, who masterfully cultivated
the right ethos of inquiry by asking the right questions. Thanks also to Nicholas Avery and
Justin Clemens for their unique and valuable insights. Last but not least, I must acknowledge
Luara Karlson-Carp, whose emotional and intellectual partnership kept me happily suspended
between tragic seer and comic schmuck throughout the project.

***

…And utterance and thought as clear as complicated air and


moods that make a city moral, these [man] taught himself.
The snowy cold he knows to flee
and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in:
every outlet works but
one.
Death stays dark.

Death he cannot doom.


Fabrications notwithstanding.
Evil,
good,
laws,
gods,
honest oath taking notwithstanding.

Hilarious in his high city


you see him cantering just as he please,
the lava up to here.

— Anne Carson, Sophocles’ ‘Ode to Man’


in Antigonick (2012)

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Abstract

The thesis advances the concept of ethos as an approach to political action that, instead of

trying to avoid failure, embraces the generative potential of error. Employing the framework

of political ontology, the theories of ethos in the work of William Connolly and Giorgio

Agamben are engaged. I argue for the utility of an aesthetic-affective grounding for political

action, comparing Connolly’s ethos of tragic care with Agamben’s ethos of comic indiffer-

ence. Interpreting the generative potential of failure in terms of Oliver Marchart’s post-foun-

dational moment of the political, the thesis concludes with an argument for a ‘tragicomic’

ethos. A ‘tragicomic’ ethos is shown to guide political action towards both the institution of

new political forms and the de-institution of old political forms. This is because tragic care is

attuned to the first type of action, while comic indifference is attuned to the second type of

action. The thesis is an important contribution to emerging political theory scholarship on

failure, as well as a path-breaking comparative study in classical dramatic affects as they ap-

ply to political action. In taking aesthetic-affective qualities as its object of investigation, the

thesis also presents a unique and novel interpretation of Connolly and Agamben — two of the

most influential contributors to political thought working today.

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Introduction

Early in September 2015, a photograph of the drowned three-year-old corpse of Alan Kur-

di, who tragically died fleeing war-torn Syria, evoked feelings of pity and shame around the

world. This affective response compelled European leaders to act on a rapidly worsening

refugee crisis. However, by the end of the month, as states began tightening borders and

streamlining processing operations, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was once

again criticising the inadequacy of Europe’s response. The European council president re-

buked these accusations. He argued that relative to the hypocritical indifference of many oth-

ers Europe genuinely cared. Even if the solutions under discussion failed to extend human

rights protections as far as the UNHCR would have liked, he argued, governments could only

do so much.

Despite coming from a caring place, political action frequently fails to achieve desired out-

comes. Care gives way to indifference, as the pathos that brought action about in the first

place is slowly eroded by the intractability of the problem it sets out to solve. The UNHCR

was established in 1951 with a mandate to resettle displaced peoples within three years and

then disband. In 2015, the institution celebrates its 64th anniversary. In the same year, the

number of those seeking refuge is approaching the post-World War Two levels to which it was

founded in emergency response (Ogata, 2000). The unexpected longevity of the UNHCR, as

the organisation itself admits, reflects “the international community’s continuing failure to

prevent … root causes of conflict and displacement” (Ogata, 2000: x). As popular sentiment is

funnelled into actions that are measured against institutional mandates, the response to the

current crisis in Europe results in yet another failure by state actors to meet instituted norma-

tive prescriptions.

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***

What would it take for the affects aroused by tragedies like the death of Alan Kurdi to be

directed not simply towards trying to better implement existing norms, but instead to a recog-

nition of the inherent imperfection of political structures and their inevitable failure? As

William Connolly wonders, could tragic affect be politicised toward an acknowledgment of

the limits to hegemonic theory and practice (2008: 120)? And could the cultivation of such a

mindset embrace the generative potential of failure to create new forms of political action? Or

might there be something in comic indifference — following Giorgio Agamben, could “laugh-

ing off” the burdens of the old way of doing things hold the key to opening up a new horizon

for action (Prozorov, 2014: 10)? Taking seriously the idea that emotion guides action, these

questions inform the underlying problematic with which this study grapples:

How does a tragic or comic ethos guide political action towards the creative embrace of fail-

ure?

Essentially, I want to rethink the how of failure. This is an urgent problem because of the

prevalence of political theories that, in setting prescriptive normative targets for action, define

failure as pejorative — something to be avoided (Freeden, 2009b). The UNHCR, doggedly

pursuing outcomes founded in liberal human rights theory, has been failing to fulfil its objec-

tives for over half a century. Yet, in every crisis (including the current one), failure is at-

tributed to the inadequacy of actors and not the inherent flaws of social formations. Conse-

quently, failure’s real potential — the institution of new political ideas to replace old ones —

is continually overlooked.

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The type of theory equipped to respond to the creative embrace of failure therefore cannot be

normative. This is because such theory’s aim — the application of prescriptive goals —

means that the “how” of failure is already cast in pejorative terms. This is true whether we

ascribe to analytic-type normative theory (a framework aimed at identifying “the content of

the rules of morality” (MacDermott, 2008: 16)), or critical theory-type normative theory (an

approach which, despite supplementing moral ideas with empirical critique, still posits a

moral framework (Habermas, 1994)).

The approaches of William Connolly and Giorgio Agamben, which this study investigates,

draw on a theoretical tradition which calls into question the edifice of normative theory. The

theoretical tradition they draw upon makes use of the genealogical method. Genealogy aims

to expose the contingency of norms — the fact that despite their being so, their being is not

necessary. That is, genealogical critique exposes the historicity of normative truths. It is a

method that traces the historical development of such truths to illustrate that their emergence

was not due to metaphysical necessity (Foucault, 1984). The goal of genealogy is to critically

open up new space for action — to expand and advance “the undefined work of

freedom” (Foucault, 1984: 40).

In the first chapter of this study, I will show that within the framework of genealogy ‘failure’

can be redefined as ‘error’, a learning experience to be embraced and not avoided. As such,

throughout this thesis I primarily refer to ‘error’. When I do refer to ‘failure’, I mean it only

insofar as it relates the primary concept of error. The creative potential of error is defined in

terms of Marchart’s post-foundational political thought (2007). In the first chapter, I also es-

tablish ‘ethos’ as an orientation to action that does not rely on prescriptive goals but instead

draws on affective and aesthetic resources.

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Coming to terms with the affects guiding political action in the work of Connolly and Agam-

ben is the focus of the second and third chapters. Each author is shown to devise a non-nor-

mative ethos based on a dramatic aesthetic metaphor — tragedy for Connolly and comedy for

Agamben. According to Aristotle, drama is the aesthetic imitation of action, involving a fore-

grounding of character (Greek: ethos), and a plot for which revelations of unexpected conse-

quences — failures — are the most powerful element of emotional interest (Walton, 2015).1

Tragedy and comedy aesthetically represent action, mobilising contrasting affects in their pre-

sentation of actions performed by characters that result in failure. In other words, dramatic

genres are conceptual tools for aesthetically re-thinking the how of failure. They show us non-

pejorative ways to feel about making mistakes.

In the final chapter, I compare the tragic and comic ethê2 of Connolly and Agamben. I draw

their insights together to make the claim that a way of failing that fully draws on the creative

potential of error must be ‘tragicomic’. Simply put, this is because the tragic ethos is only

open to the institution of new forms, while the comic ethos is only open to the de-institution

of old forms. In conclusion, I argue that a tragicomic ethos based on the works of Connolly

and Agamben can guide political action toward the creative embrace of failure. I also suggest

some further directions for research that this study opens up.

1 This particular account of drama is based on the Poetics of Aristotle, a systematisation of the poetic
forms of Greek culture. Although it is now commonplace amongst literary theorists to refute Aristo-
tle for his narrow-minded interpretation of drama that “downgrade[s] the performance aspects of
theatre” (Walton, 2015: 5), it is the one that has most permeated the imagination of political theorists
and is therefore most relevant to the interests of this study. Dithyramb and satyr play, two other im-
portant Greek dramatic forms, are excluded for the same reasons — neither genre has had as strong
an influence as tragedy or comedy on philosophical modernity.
2 Plural of ethos.
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Chapter One: Error, Ethos, Ontology

In his recent article in Political Studies, Adrian Little (2012) has called for political actors

to adopt a “different mindset” that, instead of pejoratively defining failure as something to be

avoided, embraces the “generative power of unintended consequences”. Arguing from the

complexity theory-based recognition of a non-linear relation between action and outcome, and

adopting Michel Foucault’s understanding of error as the epistemic foundation of new knowl-

edge, Little shows that when agents accept the impossibility of judging the impact of their ac-

tions they are freed from the constraint to succeed and can thus become “attuned to the oppor-

tunities that may arise” from failing (2012: 16). Little’s article highlights the constitutive cen-

trality of failure in political action at an epistemological level, as a creative process which

makes possible new forms of political theory and practice. I claim that applying this recogni-

tion to the subjective experience of actors can further expand creative potential. I wish to ar-

gue that this is a necessary step to take because of the gap that Little’s “action-oriented” read-

ing of Foucault opens up. On this reading, “understanding subjective experience”, the “prima-

ry philosophical role” that Foucault attributes to error, is downplayed in order to illustrate the

need to embrace error at an institutional level as the “main challenge to established rational

structures” in policy-making (Little, 2012: 15). This foregrounding of “action rather than ac-

tors” allows Little to move beyond subject- and structure-oriented interpretations of Foucault

to demonstrate the effects of decision-making in complex societies where the outcomes of

decisions are unknowable (2012: 13). However, the separation here of the act from those who

undertake it is problematic. If political actors need to be “future-oriented” with regards to

failure and “attuned to the opportunities” for innovation and creativity that it affords (Little,

2012: 16), what will this look like in the here-and-now of the process of political struggle?

How will political actors orient themselves towards failure when so much of contemporary

political orientation is based around chasing the successful achievement of prescriptive

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goals?3 Side-stepping the central role that subjective experience plays in Foucault’s philoso-

phy, Little leaves these fundamental questions open.

Expanding on Little’s inquiries into error, this chapter establishes the notion of an error-ori-

ented ethos for political action. Ethos, it will be shown, was becoming a central concept in

Foucault’s work at the time when his essay on error was written, and this chapter begins with

the suggestion that ethos and error, when taken together, provide fertile ground for thinking

about political action. The “return of the subject” in the late Foucault, under a conceptual

framework that has variously been called an “aesthetics of existence” or “care of the self”,

situates and informs this study of ethos. I then link this idea of ethos as “art of living” to the

“ontological turn” in more recent political theory literature, via Foucault’s foregrounding of

Martin Heidegger’s notion of thrown-ness. What Oliver Marchart calls the “post-Heidegger-

ian” tradition of political ontology (2007), the study of how our contingent (yet necessary)

foundational conceptions of the world as such condition what we take to be the possibilities

for political action, develops this idea of an ethos of self-fashioning in an explicitly political

direction. I argue that the only way for Little’s epistemologically uncertain mindset to become

3 Michael Freeden argues that prescriptive political theorists have “epistemologically and conceptu-
ally flawed aspirations”, due to the essentially contestable nature of political concepts and the conse-
quent ambiguity of success and failure (2009b: 161). Freeden forces us to consider that any concept
deployed in political thinking is reliant upon the imposition of semantic conclusiveness, and that this
is only possible through the enactment of an arbitrary cut-off point ending a logical sequence with
the potential to otherwise go on forever (2009a: 156). While this is a fairly banal observation of lin-
guistic reality, it begs spelling out because so much political thinking ignores this fact when it as-
cribes to the “ultimately doomed objective of finality” (Freeden, 2009b: 2), seeing the arbitrary and
contingent conceptual formations of a particular moment as durable solutions. A basic feature be-
longing to political concepts is their essential contestability, and this expresses itself in their ambigu-
ity, indeterminacy, inconclusiveness and vagueness (Freeden, 2005). For Freeden, this fecundity of
meaning plays out in the world of political decision-making, leading necessarily to “infinitely rich
combinations of ideas” as the practical needs that impose themselves on a polity fluctuate and devel-
op across time and space (Freeden, 2005: 125). The quest to successfully bring principles of prescrip-
tive theory to practice overlooks the infinite mutations of the conceptual components constituting
those principles, or in other words the epistemological fact of a priori contestation of what even con-
stitutes success (Freeden, 2009a:152).
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an orientation amenable to political action is for it be fleshed out into a reimagining of politi-

cal ethos. This discussion prepares the way for the exploration of the tragic and the comic —

specific aesthetic representations of action — as they relate to political ethos, which forms

the remainder of the thesis.

I.

Foucault, in his late essay ‘Life: Experience and Science’, proposes a shift towards an epis-

temology “deeply rooted in the ‘errors’ of life” (2000: 477). This shift entails a reformulation

of the theory of the subject. Following the historian of science Georges Canguilhem, Foucault

critiques the vitalist interpretive frame through which biology and natural history have tradi-

tionally been conducted, reaching the conclusion that when the normative commitment to life

as a consistent force is subtracted, one can conceive of life itself as “that which is capable of

error”, or even as “disturbances in the informational system” (2000: 476). In this way, “the

question of anomaly permeates the whole biology” (Ibid). The human, with its untethered

conscious mind, is a living being that is never entirely in the right place, and because the mind

has no “set point of view” toward the specific exigencies of its environment, it produces con-

cepts that allow for a certain form of life. Concepts are the tools with which the human, an

essentially erring entity, confronts the infinite possibility of its situation. For Canguilhem,

then, “error is the root of what produces human thought and its history” (in 2000: 477). Truth,

and indeed the true/false dichotomy per se, is, as a concept, just one such response to these

conditions of essential errancy — one finite invention out of infinite possibilities (Ibid). The

implication is that epistemology, instead of being oriented towards the discovery of truth,

might instead be understood as the formation of new ways of truth-telling out of the experi-

ence of error.

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Crucial to this shift is a renewed understanding of the subject — both the subject of knowl-

edge and the subject of action — as the epistemic relation shifts from ‘grasping’ at objective

truths to ‘disclosing’ them subjectively through error. While the operation of power through

disciplinary truthful discourses has become a widely accepted insight of Foucault’s oeuvre in

much social and political science literature, Milchman and Rosen claim that the theorisation

of self-constitution through “subjectification” that emerges in writings from the last years of

his life “has thus far elicited little or no mention in the literature” (2007: 55). The recognition

of error’s central role in epistemology is instructive in this move. Whereas knowing through

objective true discourse involves the acceptance by the subject of a truth whose authority is

purportedly beyond all question, experience of error can also be seen as the subjectification of

true discourse, or the enunciation of truth arising from the subject’s own practices of freedom

(Milchman & Rosen, 2007: 56). This is in line with Foucault’s understanding of his own phi-

losophy not as the world-disclosing quest for propositional statements of truth, but instead as

an act of self-disclosure that takes “the displacement and transformation of the limits of

thought” as its goal (Milchman & Rosen, 2007: 45). It is an approach to thought that pushes at

the boundaries of instituted reason, always looking to problematise truth and therefore inter-

ested in the generative possibilities of errancy. In ‘What is Enlightenment?’,4 Foucault elabo-

rates his method as an attitude opposed to the currents of scientific modernity but at the same

time committed to furthering the Enlightenment goal of expanding human autonomy. Impor-

tantly, modernity is not an historical period, but:

4 This essay was written in homage to an essay Immanuel Kant submitted to the Berlinischer
Monatsschrift magazine in 1784, in response to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’ In this essay,
Kant famously declares the motto of the Enlightenment: “Sapere aude”, “Dare to know!”, as the im-
perative that people think for themselves and throw off the shackles of intellectual infancy. Foucault,
as we will see, draws out this tradition of Enlightenment thought. This is the ‘counter-modern’ tradi-
tion, and it is opposed to ‘modernity’ as the hegemonic way of thinking inherited from the Enlight-
enment (Foucault, 1984).
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“a way of thinking and feeling…, of acting and behaving that at one and the same time marks

a relation of belonging and presents itself as a task. A bit, no doubt, like what the Greeks

called an ethos.” (Foucault, 1984: 39)

And modernity’s ethos is a “desperate eagerness” to imagine the present moment other than it

is, a “grasping” relation to the world that tries to transform it by first subjugating it (Ibid).5

Foucault contrasts this analytical scientific method with another legacy of the Enlightenment:

Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy. While the Kantian project of once and for all apprehend-

ing the transcendental conditions of human subjectivity falls under the rubric of the modern

ethos, Foucault forces us to consider that the limits Kant placed on thought through his famil-

iar deduction of categories are historically contingent (Simons, 2015: 15). So what Kant saw

as the necessary limits on human knowledge and freedom, Foucault casts as mere products of

a particular anthropological discourse centred around the category ‘Man’. In this way, the

revolutionary ethos of the Enlightenment, the furthering “as far and wide as possible the un-

defined work of freedom” (Foucault, 1984: 46), requires constant interrogation of the objecti-

fying discourses that define what we take to be the possibilities for our existence — what

Foucault calls “permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy” (1984: 44). To become a

subject of action, then, requires the adoption of an ethos counter to normative discursive

knowledge about what one’s place in the world ought to be, an ethos that, crucially, pays at-

tention to error as a disclosive site of possible transgression and, hence, freedom. But how

does Foucault determine the norms of his critical ethos when determinate concepts, as doc-

trines of the “dogmatisms and despotisms” of discursive truth, are the very object he seeks

emancipation from?

5 This diagnosis of the dangers of objectification is reflected in contemporary complexity science. As


Paul Cilliers points out, the study of complex dynamic systems has uncovered a fundamental flaw in
the analytical method which, in ‘cutting up’ a system to examine it and grasp its parts, destroys the
intricate relationships those parts had to each other and thus prevents it from being understood
(1998: 2).
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By redefining the term ‘autonomy’, Foucault moves from the rational to the aesthetic in order

to guide the ethical work of freedom. For Kant, the meaning of autonomy followed closely

from its Greek etymology: autos (‘self’) and nomos (‘law’), the authority of one’s own will

over one’s own actions (as opposed to their control by some external force). Leaving aside the

complexities of Kantian deontology, suffice it to say that the constructions of will and authori-

ty in this definition are, on Foucault’s account, internalisations of power apparatuses rather

than expressions of some inner kernel of rationality (Simons, 2015: 19). In contrast, and in an

effort to pursue the undefined work of freedom, Foucauldian autonomy centres on the sub-

ject’s ability to transgress the limits that constituted them as what they are — a self-creation

that is not determined by rational precepts but guided by aesthetic criteria of style. This disap-

pearance of a morality based on a set of codes “must correspond”, for Foucault, to “the search

for an aesthetics of existence” (in Milchman & Rosen, 2007: 51). Where, then, do the intellec-

tual resources for such an aesthetic ethos come from, and how does it translate into a project

of practical critique?

If objectifying discourse and truth regimes are linked to an ethos of disciplining governmen-

tality, the corollary ethos that Foucault advances orients one towards self-government by sub-

jectifying discourse. The work of autonomy calls for care of the self in such a way that the

power of the subject can be turned against the power of the apparatuses of governmentality,

transgressing disciplinary truth by critiquing and denaturalising phenomena that appear obvi-

ous and inevitable (McNay, 1994: 148). This power is aesthetic because it is informed by styl-

istic criteria not subordinated under any determinate precept. That is, the important question

becomes not what one does in order to achieve freedom, but how one does things. Turning to

the stoic philosophers of Graeco-Roman antiquity, Foucault emphasises the importance they

placed on ethos over logos. That is, the manner in which ethical thought was transmitted and
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imagined by the stoics put precedence on the voluntary and rational structure of conduct over

the content of specific rules and codes of conduct (Harrer, 2005: 79). In contrast to the modern

scientific method, stoic philosophers stressed the need to conduct spiritual exercises to gain

access to certain truths, as well as to prepare a link between knowledge and practice such that

the subject’s entire being would be transformed in the image of her master’s teaching (Harrer,

2005: 89-91). These exercises are at the root of the ancient concept of ascesis.6 So, in contrast

to the contemporary popular understanding of the ascetic as one who tries to access spiritual

truth through bodily austerity, ancient asceticism is more a set of “performances within a

dominant social environment intended to inaugurate a new subjectivity, different social rela-

tions, and an alternate symbolic universe” (Valantsis in Milchman & Rosen, 2007: 59). For

the stoics, asceticism was an aesthetic activity, the fashioning of the self into a being who was

ready to act in accordance with the truth. Of course, Foucault differs from the stoics in his

shift away from the normative truth-telling we explored above. The ascetic exercises he advo-

cates, then, are subordinated not to an aesthetic shaping of ethos based on an objective doc-

trine of truth, but instead to one aimed at subjective transgression through error. Intentional

and voluntary actions thus work to turn the self into a work of art, an oeuvre under incessant

creation and renewal. This is a radically creative process in which subjects seek “to change

themselves in their singular being” through a constant awareness of discursive limits on their

being and a creative fashioning of new ways to overcome them (Foucault in Milchman &

Rosen, 2007: 58).

The ethos of care of the self can be seen as a limit activity, opening up the possibility of creat-

ing new types of subjective experience in opposition to the insidious deployment of power at

the level of mundane everyday experience. As McNay puts it, it is “an ethic of who we are

said to be, and what, therefore, it is possible for us to become” (1994: 145). The next part of

6 Literally, “training”, from the Greek askein: “to exercise”.


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this chapter will deal with the horizon of ontological thinking that this politicisation of being

itself opens onto, showing how a care of the self approach might become a collective activity

through engagement with political ontology.7

II.

Political ontology is part of a broader movement in political inquiry that Stephen White

terms an “ontological turn”, “a growing propensity to interrogate more carefully those ‘enti-

ties’ presupposed by our typical ways of seeing and doing in the modern world” (2000: 4).

What is meant by this is not a regressive return to attempts to ground political theory in a de-

finitive ontology, but rather a recognition of the very groundlessness that underlies the institu-

tion (and destitution8) of society itself. This way of thinking is based on an intellectual lineage

that can be traced back to two important German thinkers: Martin Heidegger and Carl

Schmitt.9 The latter makes the key distinction between the concept of politics as the realm of

7 I want to introduce a few of the criticisms of the aesthetics of existence approach that characterises
Foucault’s ethos, with a view to demonstrating the potential for this study to address them. Accord-
ing to Lois McNay, there are three main areas in which deficiencies arise (1994). The first is the no-
tion that an ethos founded on the “stylisation of daily life” amounts to nothing more than “an amoral
project for privileged minorities”, conjuring up the image of an effete, narcissistic aesthete discon-
nected from the nitty-gritty of political struggle (McNay, 1994: 149). Secondly, Foucault carries over
the implicitly masculinist and heroising fantasies of the stoic tradition, resulting in a problematic
overestimation of the ability of the sovereign self to control itself through masterful agency and as-
cetic exercise. Finally, Foucault’s notion of aesthetics is theoretically underdeveloped because of a
failure to situate it within “the context of a more sustained analysis of contemporary social
relations”, resulting in an ethical moment that is “little more than a fetishised notion of aesthetic
practice” (McNay, 1994: 150). The discussion of political ontology which follows flows from the
first two of these criticisms, while the subsequent sketch of a dramatic aesthetics of action responds
to the third.

8Marchart employs the term ‘destitution’ in a neologistic fashion, not in reference to poverty but as a
verb antonymous to ‘institution’ — shorthand for ‘de-institution’.
9 Pierre Bourdieu (1991) was the first to use the term “political ontology” in relation to Heidegger,
however Marchart, whose definition guides this study, follows a different thread that leads him away
from Bourdieu’s diagnosis of Heidegger’s philosophical system as belonging to a “conservative rev-
olution”. It is ironic that Heidegger and Schmitt — two of the intellectuals most commonly associat-
ed with Nazism — have come to wield such influence on left-wing political thought.
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social institutions such as the state, and the concept of the political as the potentially violent

foundation which makes politics possible (Schmitt, 2007). Heidegger (2008: 31), in probing

the fundamental questions of being, marks out an “ontological difference” between the ontic

categories of metaphysics, and the ontological mode of Being itself that underlies them. Polit-

ical ontology, then, is a tradition that views the Schmittian notion of the political through the

lens of Heidegger’s notion of the ontological difference, allowing for analysis of “political

difference” as the contingent site which imperfectly grounds politics (Marchart, 2007: 11).

That is, a notion of “political difference” allows us to think the purely negative foundation, or

absent ground, as the conceptual realm of the political on which the plural and particular ontic

categories of conventional politics are built (Marchart, 2007: 7). Slavoj Žižek (1999) explains

the political implications of Heidegger in a way that clarifies the resonances with Foucault’s

analysis of error and ethos. The important similarity is a shared focus on “thrown-ness”. To

explain: because none of us is the ground of her own existence, we are all “thrown” into the

position of having to take responsibility for grounding our being in the world (Dahlstrom,

2013: 212). Put differently, Heidegger suggests as the key to humanity’s “sense of being” the

decision to adopt a project by means of which “thrown-ness” is actively assumed into a finite

historical situation. In order to exist in the world, our being has to be projected in a particular

way. This projection is always a political decision because it is groundless and is therefore

grounded in power alone. The political act of grounding decision is therefore located in “the

very heart of ontology itself”, as the choice of the historical form of Being consists in “a deci-

sion not grounded in any universal ontological structure” (Žižek, 1999: 20). Foucault, in a

similar vein, remarks in his essay on error that the concept, and the discursive formation of

truth that derives from it, can be conceived of as a “reply to humanity’s thrown-ness” (2000:

476). So, putting Heidegger and Foucault together, we can think of concepts as the ontic pro-

jections of an ontological situation that are always decided on in a given socio-historical field.

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Marchart makes clear the ontological implications of what he refers to as post-foundational

political thought. If no final ground for society is available, we have to come to terms with the

contingent forms of society’s institution/destitution. This need not be a cause for nihilism or

anxiety, as awareness of contingency — the absence of grounds — is also known as autono-

my (Marchart, 2007: 155-156). This is because the “dissolution of the markers of certainty”

remains “the very pre-condition for politicisation and emancipation” (Ibid). If the great chain

of being is in a state of constitutive disorder, radically unstable due to the never-ending inter-

play of difference between ontological being and ontic beings, then ontology itself becomes

something that must be decided upon. This decision, in the name of freedom, must be politi-

cal. It must defy those heteronomous attempts to re-ground being (and hence politics) through

already-instituted reason, logic, empiricism, or epistemology. When we accept that Being

cannot be accessed through epistemic means — that there is no horizon of truth in ontology

— the question of how we make errors becomes more important. Error can open onto “the

instituting/destituting ground of a political decision” (Marchart, 2007: 164). That is, error ei-

ther results in the institution or destitution of a new conceptual grounding. The errant concept

is either normalised or pushed into alterity. Thus a politicised relationship to Being is not sim-

ply anti-foundational, leading onto a rejecting of all grounds, but instead recognises the ne-

cessity of contingent grounds and the political nature of their institution/destitution.

Ethos is important to post-Heideggerian political ontology because of the link between

thrown-ness and mood in Heidegger’s thought. It helps to think of ethos in the conventional

sense of ‘collective mood’ here. For Heidegger, moods are a pre-subjective “fundamental at-

tunement” to being in the world. That is, moods are not properties of subjectivity, but are

more originary than any subject-object or inside-outside distinction (Heidegger, 2008: 176).

There is, then, no state of existence outside of mood — we are always-already attuned to a

particular mood as part of our collective existence. Michael Flatley points out that mood is
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“part and parcel” of political projects of any kind, as it is through the world-disclosure of

mood that we can exert agency and engage in collective action at all; in other words, it is im-

possible to do anything politically if people aren’t “in the mood” (2008: 20). The mood we are

collectively in discloses the fact of thrown-ness — it causes either a turning towards or a turn-

ing away from it. We can become attuned to the contingency of our being in the world, and

hence perhaps re-ground the projection of our collective existence, only when we are in a cer-

tain mood. Such a mood or attunement might characterise the self-fashioning of an aestheti-

cally-informed political ethos as the ‘groundless’ ground of collective action oriented toward

error. I want to argue that this way of thinking about affect, as an entry point to free engage-

ment with the world, inflects the Foucauldian aesthetics of existence in a collective direction.

As a starting point for post-foundational action, I posit the idea that an ethos attuning actors to

a ‘free’ response to the political moment could be cultivated collectively. That is, a shared

ethos based on a particular affective quality might allow political actors to embrace the poten-

tial of moments of error to re-ground contingent social forms in a different ontological direc-

tion. We now turn to political theories that engage the specific aesthetic categories of tragedy

and comedy to provide the affective attunement necessary for post-foundational action.

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Chapter Two: Becoming Tragic

William Connolly’s pluralist ethos is aesthetically informed by a tragic ontological imagi-

nary which attunes political action to care for the abundance of life. Like that of Foucault,

Connolly’s ethos pursues a process of subjectifying disclosure which, in contrast to normative

adherence to objectifying discourse, cultivates the continuous embrace of the creative poten-

tial inherent in the uncertainty of error (Connolly, 2008: 9; 2013b: 119). Unlike Foucault,

however, Connolly formulates his ethos as a political response to an immanent naturalist on-

tology of becoming. Two important qualities of this ontological figuration are fragility and

finitude, and this chapter establishes the aesthetic utility of the tragic genre in expressing an

orientation to action grounded in awareness of these twin existential facts. Before this exposi-

tory task can be fulfilled, however, it will be necessary to introduce the protean forces that

constitute Connolly’s materialist ontology. The excess of difference over identity that these

forces continually produce, it will be shown, ensures that the concepts with which we attempt

to grasp existence are always already both limited and tenuous in their capacity to do so.

Tragedy, as the dramatic genre which aestheticises the recognition of these limits to human

thought, will then be discussed. As we will see, the unique tragic vision developed by Connol-

ly affords his theory of ethos the affective resources necessary to account for the conse-

quences of his ontology of becoming. In other words, his focus on what I will term tragic

“care” for the entanglement of social life in material processes beyond human control informs

the core ethical imperatives of his “new pluralism”: critical responsiveness to disturbances in

one’s own conceptual system and presumptive generosity to the conceptual systems of others.

The collective attunement to error in this tragic ethos, based on a spirit of care for the abun-

dance of life, is finally delineated in contrast to the spirit of existential revenge that Connolly

detects in the implicit ethos of many normative theories.

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I.

Connolly’s ethos is grounded in an immanent naturalist ontological vision which, recognis-

ing that political action derives from a multiplicity of contending forces irreducible to human

agency, imagines political actors as participating in a world of becoming replete with tragic

possibilities. In this “new materialist” ontology, social and natural processes are reduced to a

single immanent plane of existence composed of overlapping force-fields all of which, impor-

tantly, incessantly self-organise and dissipate in radically uncertain ways (2013b: 409). For

Connolly, a force-field is an “energised pattern in slow or rapid motion periodically displaying

a capacity to morph” (2011: 5). Incipience is the defining characteristic of the morphing

process of force-fields; the outcome of change was not implicit in the explicit structure of a

particular pattern of material force, but instead came about through an unpredictable process

of interplay between different patterns (Connolly, 2011: 162). Interpretation of events, then,

must recognise causality as emergent rather than efficient — drawing on the insights of com-

plexity science, Connolly ascribes to the idea that time cannot be represented in a linear fash-

ion but instead should be imagined as “a bumpy, twisting flow” (2011: 149). This is not to

deny the occurrence of relatively stable temporal periods when the extrapolation of the future

based on the past is both possible and necessary; it is simply to emphasise that the predictabil-

ity of material processes periodically collapses during events of rapid change. Connolly, bor-

rowing from quantum physics, calls such events “periods of phase transition” (2011: 72;

2013a: 406; 2013b: 15). Phase transitions are threshold moments of real, material creativity,

when a plurality of processes operate together in uncertain, unpredictable ways. Connolly in-

vokes the biological example of the stem cell on the verge of developing into a definite type

of tissue to illustrate the presence of “pluripotential” creativity in non-human processes (2011:

162). Because creative potential is derived from the interaction of overlapping material forces,

new things, forms, and concepts always emerge from a horizon of plural possibility that exists
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ontologically. That is, just as the stem cell’s future existence is constitutively unpredictable, so

too do political developments, and indeed all acts of human creation, lack a teleological

grounding. Creative political action, then, is not a product of wilful agents but instead some-

thing that emerges through participation in phase transitional periods: on this view, actors

must “allow multiple pressures and concerns to reverberate through” themselves, ensuring a

readiness for experimental action in an emergent context (Connolly, 2013b: 134-135). An

immanent naturalist ontology forces us to consider creativity as the real outcome of overlap-

ping material forces, which humans entangle themselves in during moments of disequilibrium

that cannot be logically systematised.

This conception of being as becoming — as an openly creative multiplicity of entangled ma-

terial systems constantly shifting between equilibrium and disequilibrium — requires a ‘trag-

ic’ understanding of human action that foregrounds fragility and finitude while warding off

the temptation to hubris. Connolly draws on ancient Athenian tragedy in a way that emphasis-

es the “uncanny resemblance” between the dramatic tradition and an ethos committed to liv-

ing in a contemporary world of becoming (2008: 120). Aware of the problematic extrapolation

into the present of a practice situated in a temporally remote society, Connolly explicitly pos-

es the question: “Can a tragic vision illuminate life beyond Greek culture?” (2008: 123). For

Connolly, Friedrich Nietzsche is the main “modern prophet of the tragic” (2008: 134). The

latter’s tragic vision goes into constituting what White usefully terms a “post-Nietzschean

sensibility” in Connolly, an influence most apparent in the vitalism imbuing his immanent

naturalist ontology (2000: 113-114). Nietzsche’s opposition to the duty-derived moralism of

Judaeo-Christian ethics, and development of an alternative approach to ethical life rooted in

an immanentist attachment to this world inspired by the ancient Greeks, exerts significant in-

fluence on Connolly’s political theory and its reading of tragedy. It is a tragic vision acknowl-

edging the fundamental fact that, due to the ontological conditions outlined above, ineradica-

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ble dimensions of conflict are “rooted in the human condition itself” (Connolly, 1991: 191).

An ontology of becoming, in other words, ensures the impossibility of ever being able to fully

grasp the world and the political-theoretical implication that, even in the good society, exis-

tential suffering would continue to appear as unforeseen material processes continually throw

up different challenges for political organisation. The core goal of Connolly’s agonism is to

ensure recognition of the ontologically unavoidable excess of difference over the ontic institu-

tion of identity.10 He thus interprets the ontological difference of Heidegger as a call “to relax

the drives to mastery and integration by giving more room to elements in the self and the

world that deviate from them” (1991: 33). Heidegger, then, is viewed through the frame of

post-Nietzschean vitalism, where life as a force of affective intensity and abundant excess is

something to be affirmed in the face of identities and institutions that deny their contingency

(1993: 373). Connolly also admits to “filling out” his understanding of Foucauldian genealogy

and care of the self with a dose of Nietzsche,11 describing them as approaches to the “fugitive,

deniable, and contestable experience, always resistant to articulation,” of being (1993: 374).

While both put forward the notion that being is not reducible to logical categorisation, and are

thus strongly opposed to Kantian transcendentalism, Connolly supplements the genealogical

method with a speculative realism opposed to Foucault’s social constructionism (1993: 374).12

Following Nietzsche, Connolly’s ontology of becoming translates to a tragic political theory

10From the Greek agon, meaning “struggle” or “contest”. Agonism insists on the ontological prima-
cy of difference, with the implication that vibrant democracy requires an institutionalised dimension
of conflict rather than the consensus-seeking models of liberal or deliberative democratic theory (see
Mouffe, 1999). For a more detailed account of how the term ‘agonism’ is deployed in contemporary
radical democratic theories like Connolly’s, see Wenman, 2013.
11 Foucault, while heavily indebted to Nietzsche in both developing his genealogical method and
devising an “aesthetics of existence” approach, nonetheless made some substantial changes to the
latter’s approach. For more on this, see Milchman & Rosen, 2007.
12Connolly’s immanent naturalist ontology is decidedly speculative: he describes it as one particular
“positive-ontobelief” among many (see, for example, 2013a: 141), never having recourse to proof
through definitive transcendental argument and hence always open to refutation by competing
claims. As will become clear, this is a crucial performative element of the critical responsiveness and
agonistic respect which constitute the core values of his pluralist ethos.
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which affirms the impossibility and undesirability of normatively theorising away conflict in a

world of fragility and finitude. Before we can see how this translates to an error-attuned ethos,

the way in which these existential themes find expression in tragic drama must be considered.

II.

Tragedy, in depicting the entanglement of prominent individuals in greater forces that lead

to dire consequences, aestheticises the limits of action and the fragility of identities and insti-

tutions. It evokes an affective response of pity at the recognition that mortals are fated to

commit errors, the consequences of which can cause unintended suffering and destruction.

Peter Euben (1990) argues that democracy in classical Athens was significantly shaped by

tragic drama, and that the origins of Western political philosophy itself must be recognised as

emerging from this tradition. The political influence of tragedy on the demos of the Athenian

polis derived from its public presentation of “the need for distance from one’s own” — a dual

vision which, in momentarily suspending the web of relations that constituted the political

community, provided the opportunity to articulate the experience of politics from a spectator’s

vantage point (Euben, 1990: x). Aeschylus’ Persae, a tragedy depicting Persia’s defeat by

Athens from the point of view of the foreigners, displays precisely this institutionalised “polit-

ical philosophical moment”: the ritual of dramatic spectacle afforded the Athenian demos an

opportunity to experience the complexity of political action from another perspective. In this

way, “a wisdom borne of suffering and loss” complements the exultation of victory, and the

polis always maintains an awareness of the fragility and finitude of its own institutions and

identities by contemplating the plight of the vanquished other (Euben, 1990: xi-xii). The “Ode

to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone (a contemporary rendering of which is found at the open-

ing of this thesis), is something of a touchstone in philosophical modernity’s appraisal of

tragedy. Euben provides a summary of the Ode that resonates with post-foundational political
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thought. For Euben, tragic drama is a simultaneous validation and problematisation of estab-

lished cultural boundaries, above all a reminder that the settled categories informing our ac-

tions are contingent constructs that, while indispensable, can lead us to disastrous conse-

quences “when excesses transform wisdom into delusions” (1990: 35). Those excesses, tragic

hubris, are often the result of the hero’s attachment to particular concepts and consequent ig-

norance of the ontological defect that these concepts cover over. Hamartia, originally identi-

fied by Aristotle as the inciting incident in the drama which sets off the chain of tragic events,

must not be essentialised as a “fatal flaw” in the protagonist’s character, as is often done

(Jones, 1980: 15).13 Instead, it is an error brought on by conditions over which the hero cannot

possibly have any control.14 The emotions of fear and pity, believed by Aristotle to be evoked

by tragedy, might therefore derive from what Kalliopi Nikolopoulou calls its “profoundest

realism and ethical importance” (2013: xx): the realisation by the audience that the tragic

hero’s suffering is ontologically universal, that unintended consequences can follow from ac-

tions no matter their supposed rightness. Tragedy chastens our belief in both individuals’ ca-

pacity for mastery over their actions, as well as the notion that the world is in any way guided

by providence, inculcating a wisdom borne of care for human finitude and existential fragility.

The appropriation of tragedy in Connolly’s ethos emphasises a grateful, rather than a venge-

ful, response to existential imperfection which ensures that care for the abundance of life in

this world overrides attempts to control it. As we shall see, this mood of tragic care informs

13The desire to impute the occurrence of hamartia to personal moral failing (particularly strong in
nineteenth-century literary criticism) arose in part due to the use of the term in Greek New Testament
sources, where it became entrenched in the Christian imagination as synonymous with sin. For more
on this, see Jones, 1980.
14 The goddess Artemis makes plain this distinction in Euripides’ Hippolytus. In the play, Theseus
takes vengeance on the eponymous character, his son, for believed wrong-doings. After his son is
killed, Artemis tragically informs Theseus that his son was in fact innocent all along, but at the same
time comforts him by declaring: “His death was not your will; men may well commit hamartia when
the gods so ordain.” (Euripides in Sackey, 2010: 89).
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the values of critical responsiveness and presumptive generosity that define Connolly’s ago-

nistic pluralism.15 Emphasising the affinities between Greek cosmology’s “multiple gods who

do not place human welfare high on their list” and immanent naturalism’s “multiple, open

force-fields of numerous types”, a tragic vision incites political actors to be more like the wise

seer who respects greater forces and less like the tragic hero who is ignorant of them (Connol-

ly, 2011: 155). For Connolly, the “most important lesson” that the seer imparts is the need to

cultivate attachment to a world of becoming, rather than coming to resent it (2011: 169). Tire-

sias, the blind seer in Sophocles’ Antigone, reads omens through affective attachment to non-

human processes that others would pay little attention to, such as the flight paths of birds. This

attachment lets him see what Creon, king and agent of the law, cannot: the “razor’s edge of

fate” on which all are poised, the real disastrous incipience that the king’s commitment to es-

tablished legal categories ironically contributes to as he becomes entangled in greater forces

outside his control. Connolly interprets this omen-reading attunement to the world beyond

simple agency as a “fund of positive energy” in excess of being which must be “grounded in a

protean care for this world” (Connolly, 2013b: 132). Tragic vision, then, lets political actors

experience periods of phase transition as pluripotential events. Importantly, in his recent work

15 This foregrounding of an affectively generous ethos is what stands out in Connolly’s tragic vision
when it is compared to other radical democratic theorists who have had recourse to the Greek tragic
tradition. Cornelius Castoriadis, for example, while sharing Connolly’s interest in the fragility and
finitude that tragic drama forces us to confront, puts the classical virtues of friendship and pity for-
ward as tragedy’s two corollary democratic affects (Klimis, 2014). The tragic experience of catharsis
is no less than the realisation that our political institutions are contingent, evoking a love for the col-
lective fate of humankind grounded in feelings of pity and compassion (Klimis, 2014: 213). Such
feelings — post-foundationally — encourage citizens to create and institute their own ways of being
through the mutual exercise of wisdom. But the ethical position that emerges from such a sensibility
strays very close to authorising the tyranny of the majority — as Agnes Heller attests, for Castoriadis
democratic despotism is impossible as the autonomous will of the majority is always just (Heller,
1989: 179). Connolly’s idiosyncratic appropriation of tragedy, in contrast to Castoriadis’ more con-
textual approach, could be criticised for anachronism on the grounds of his reading a modern “world
of becoming” into an ancient cultural practice, but such a move is integral to what Mark Wenman
has identified as his “Madisonian republicanism” (2013: 116). Despite the radical departures he has
made from American republican pluralism, the fundamental ethico-political goal of that tradition
remains pre-eminent in Connolly’s project: namely, providing “an antidote to the prospective tyranny
of intensive minorities” through the enactment of an agonistic democratic politics (Wenman, 2013:
100).
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Connolly emphasises the capacity of minor figures in the plays to reflexively ponder the

events unfolding around them. Creon’s son Haemon, for example, warns his father to check

his hubris and acknowledge that leadership requires a capacity for engagement with alterna-

tive perspectives (2013: 139). The lesson of the seer is thus something that all of us should

cultivate, as we all must face the two dictates that constitute Connolly’s “problematic of polit-

ical action in a world of becoming”: the limits of individual agency as it interacts in multiple

agential force-fields indifferent to it, and the human tendency to hubris that can make us for-

get the fragility and contingency of identities and institutions (2011: 7). This means that pre-

sumptive generosity to the beliefs and identities of others is required so that our critical re-

sponsiveness to incipient emergences takes into account the different terms on which others

may interpret things.

III.

Connolly’s pluralist ethos calls for a mood of tragic care that affords political actors the

resources to respond to error in a manner attuned to creative disclosure rather than imposi-

tional grasping. Error in Connolly’s immanent naturalist ontology is a sign of phase transition,

and the proper response is careful attunement to an emergent context through an approach to

life marked by gratitude for its abundance and not a vengeful insistence on human mastery or

divine providence. This existential gratitude is Connolly’s approach to care of the self: the

idea is that a self which works on appreciating the gift of being overflows with positive affect,

causing it to care about the world and its other participants (1991: 157). In a similar vein to

Foucault’s critique of the ethos of modernity, Connolly conducts a genealogical critique of

what could be called the “hubristic” ethos rooted in impositional laws by contrasting a tragic

vision of becoming with Kantian transcendental postulates to show up the contingency of the

latter (2013b: Ch. 3). While a tragic ethos ensures that we think politics from problematic

starting points marked by radical uncertainty, leaving us open to creative political action that
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exceeds whatever identity we bring to it, Kantian morality seeks instead to delineate apodic-

tic, certain a priori. Such categories, including notions of free will and moral responsibility,

are shown to derive from a contingent set of assumptions inherited by Kant from the Christian

tradition and Newtownian physics, which project “impositional laws” onto nature and cause

ethical experience to be mediated through a rubric of obedience to such intrinsic laws (Con-

nolly, 2013b: 123). Where the categorical imperatives of Kantian practical reason might thus

perceive errors as punishable offences against universal moral laws that inhere transcenden-

tally for all human agents, the tragic ontology of becoming fosters the nourishment of a prac-

tical wisdom in which focus shifts to “emergent”, rather than “impositional” laws (Connolly,

2013b: 123). In this way, Connolly draws sustenance from the tragic tradition to re-orient us

away from any lingering sense of necessity associated with Kantianism. The contingency of

the latter tradition must be revealed because, for Connolly, its blindness to fragility and fini-

tude — to tragedy — means that its followers are more likely to act from a spirit of existential

revenge (2013b). For Connolly, contemporary theories of democracy indebted to Kantian

transcendental argument (Rawlsian political liberalism and Habermasian deliberative democ-

racy) are thus in danger of responding to periods of disequilibrium in a hubristic manner that

ignores the potential for creative participation in emergent ways of thinking. In other words,

their ethos fosters a ‘turning away from’ thrown-ness, and a pejorative interpretation of error

that ignores both its inevitability and its value.

A tragic vision imparts Connolly’s political ethos with an existential gratitude rooted in a sen-

sibility of care for life in an immanentist ontology of becoming. Tragedy reminds political

actors of the force-fields which both limit their agency and threaten strong identities; this does

not weaken actors but actually strengthens them by encouraging responses to error that are

capable of recognising emergent concepts and formations, instead of imposing transcendental

categories onto them. In the final chapter of this thesis, the limitations of a tragic ethos de-

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rived from an immanent naturalist ontology in fully realising error’s potential will be explored

through comparison with the different approach to political ontology and care of the self that

lead Agamben to his comic ethos.

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Chapter Three: The Coming Comedy

Comic attunement is an indispensable element in Giorgio Agamben’s transformative post-

foundational project. After recognising that deep-rooted impasses in metaphysical thought

foreclose radical action, Agamben seeks to mobilise the comic affect of indifference to open

up a joyful political ethos in which actors have a freer relation to normative thought. Indiffer-

ence is a comic attitude because, for Agamben, it functions as the means to overcome a ‘seri-

ousness’ in the ontological tenor of Western politics ensuring the perpetuation of traditional

concepts at the cost of the emergence of new ones.16 This chapter turns, then, on Henri Berg-

son’s classic hypothesis that indifference to seriousness is the “natural environment” of the

comic and a condition of laughter itself (2003: 11). Thus before we can begin to analyse how

Agamben’s comic ethos could provide a platform for approaching errant action, an account of

precisely what might be meant by seriousness in his thought is required. Our discussion will

begin, then, by expositing the ontological arguments that inform Agamben’s methodology and

cause him to order it around an idea of the facticity of concepts. It will become clear that

Agamben is trying to suspend the serious mood in which concepts are known — the ‘shame’

of being a subject in language. A discussion of Agamben’s own theory of comedy, as it relates

to this suspension of shame, reveals that comedy opens onto an ethos of ‘innocence’ and play-

fulness from which actors can approach concepts in a freer, more creative manner.17

16 I apply Bergson’s term to Agamben’s philosophy in order to communicate it in explicitly comic


terms. As will be shown later in the chapter, Agamben uses theological terminology relating to ‘glo-
ry’ to designate what, essentially, is historically inscribed as ‘serious’.
17This chapter deals almost exclusively with the abstract system developed by Agamben. Chapter
Four below, in which Agamben’s political theory is compared and contrasted with that of Connolly,
concretises and clarifies some of the abstractions in this chapter.
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I.

In basic terms, the main purpose of Agamben’s philosophy is to find a way of relating to

being itself that avoids putting our existence to work in any particular direction.18 While his

writings defy any attempt at classification and cover many topics, they are remarkably consis-

tent in method — Justin Clemens indicates that his “net is wide, but he catches the same fish

time after time” (2008: 55). The erudition and diffusion of his works can make it extremely

difficult to discern just what Agamben is trying to achieve, and a range of terms show up in

secondary sources to describe his core goal. For example, when Sergei Prozorov talks about

inoperosita (in-operativity) (2014: 30), Catherine Mills refers to “completion” (2008: 128),

and Matthew Abbott highlights “the abolition of the present metaphysical scheme of

things” (2014: 28), they are all designating the same objective that presents itself again and

again across dozens of works. Because we are trying to illustrate the distinctly comic dimen-

sion of this method, the term “indifference” will be deployed throughout this discussion as a

short-hand for all of these. Happily, the term has a couple of layers of meaning that link com-

edy to Agamben’s broader project: while being “indifferent”, as we saw, was identified by

Bergson as a basic requirement for laughter, William Watkin asserts that “rendering indiffer-

ent the metaphysics of dialectical difference… is the aim of every work Agamben has written

since, at least, 1978” (2014b, xii). The first part of this chapter aims at unpacking this rather

obscure citation.

What, then, is a “metaphysics of dialectical difference”, and how do we “render” it indiffer-

ent? It should be obvious that the first part of this question is to do with foundations, and

18 It needs to be stressed from the outset that, in trying under spatial constraint to unify a complex
system of thought that defies brief explanation, this chapter presents a highly schematic reading of
Agamben’s critical philosophy. For a detailed yet accessible discussion that is most relevant to the
questions of comedy engaged in this thesis, see Prozorov, 2014. For a detailed account of ‘indiffer-
ence’ in Agamben, see Watkin, 2014b. It could be said that the interpretation of Agamben advanced
in this chapter is primarily a combination of the perspectives of Prozorov and Watkin.
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Agamben’s theory is that all Western concepts are “bifurcated” into a “common”, founding

part and a “proper”, actuating part; the innovative logic here is that contrary to expectations,

the proper seems to “construct” the common as its foundation “retrospectively and retroac-

tively” (Watkin, 2014a: xii). So, Agamben is using a philosophy of concepts that does not

view metaphysical foundation as some distant origin that happened already in a remote past.

Instead, it acknowledges that the so-called ‘common’ origin keeps occurring always in the

present and thereby renders intelligible the ‘proper’ particular of which it is the origin (Pro-

zorov, 2014: 70). The complicated thing about this method, dubbed by him “philosophical

archaeology”, is its basis in a logic that is “historically impossible”: it is a crossing of di-

achrony and synchrony that aims to “make the inquirer’s present intelligible as much as the

past of his/her project” (Agamben, 2009b: 32).19 This has to be done, Agamben claims, be-

cause origins are not “diachronically pushed into the past” but “synchronically opera-

tionalised, working to ensure the comprehensibility and coherence of the system” (2009b: 92).

In other words, dialectical difference, between the founding origin and the actuating proper,

exists as a consistent, foundational metaphysical identity of its own that is kept constant

across discursive time (both diachronic and synchronic) in a mutually-constitutive condition

(Watkin, 2014b: xiv). Agamben, in other words, is coming to terms with an historically con-

tingent, quasi-transcendental field that exists in the blindspot of our conceptual systems, out-

side the binary logic of identity/difference.

This blindspot is important because, despite its invisibility, it structures the imagination of the

knowing subject in all its inquiries. The efficacy of thought itself cannot be taken for granted,

19Agamben’s method is inspired by Foucault’s genealogical method. The reason why he calls it ‘ar-
chaeology’ is that it seeks to delimit and suspend archē, or origins, as they limit the potentiality of
contemporary thought. He thereby transcends the mere tracing of the contingency of truths and goes
on to gesture toward their inoperativity or indifference. Because I am focusing this discussion on the
comic qualities of Agamben’s method, I have not been able to explain the links between genealogy
and archaeology here. For the clearest exposition of this method to date, see Agamben, 2009b.
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but instead has to be attributed to this “field of bipolar historical currents” (Agamben, 2009b:

110). Agamben uses the word “signature” to designate the currents in this field that keep our

ways of knowing constant. Signatures are the regulatory practices determining the efficacy,

use and interpretation of signs through hidden “rules, practices and precepts” (Agamben,

2009b: 66). Again, it is categorically impossible to attribute any properties to the signature

because it is structuring our discursive thought from the outside, making it “the sheer fact that

a certain being — language — has taken place” (2009b: 65).20 The signature is the sheer fact

that a sign exists at all. Agamben, therefore, in delineating his approach to the metaphysics of

dialectic difference, is conducting an “ontology of knowledge” which, to clarify further the

singular consistency of his method, Watkin emphasises as “the main purpose of […his] work

as a whole” (2014a: 151). The ontological insight that thinking about signatures affords is that

the being of signs imprints itself on all knowledge.

In what Prozorov dubs a “crescendo effect” (2014: 6), the implications of the semiotic theory

in Agamben’s ontology of knowledge spiral upwards into the realm of political ontology. Sig-

natures, by placing limits on the types of knowledge and actions available to subjects, struc-

ture the ontic possibilities of human collectivities by restricting human potentiality. Potentiali-

ty is key to understanding Agamben’s work because a fundamental aspect of his thought is the

post-foundational insistence that there is no conceivable activity that defines or determines

what it means to be human (Prozorov, 2014: 31). The problem with signatures, then, is that

they curb originary freedom, and Agamben has a detailed theoretical edifice to describe how

this process plays out. In politics, a signature expresses its operation as an “apparatus” of

power. This key term is defined thus:

20 As Kant pointed out, existence is not a real predicate (more precisely, it is not “a predicate which
is added to the concept of a subject and enlarges it”, because the fact of existing applies equally to all
concepts) (A600/B628, 2007).
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“I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has in some way the capacity to capture, ori-

ent, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions, or dis-

courses of living beings” (2009a: 14).

Language is the most ancient apparatus, in which the first primate was “inadvertently cap-

tured” millennia ago. The logic here is one of division: as a conscious subject of language, the

living being is divided and separated from itself. At this point, immediacy with its environ-

ment, its awareness of its own thrown-ness, is foreclosed. That is, a vital part of the living be-

ing is secured in the apparatus, which then orients and determines the activity of the living

being. So the “specific power” of the apparatus is the “capture and subjectification in a sepa-

rate sphere” of the “all too human desire for happiness” (2009a: 17). In other words, appara-

tuses produce political subjects out of living beings by orienting their desires towards a de-

termined sphere of objects that the apparatuses themselves set up. In The Kingdom and the

Glory, Agamben engages theological concepts to demonstrate how this sphere functions

(2010: 97-103). One of the problems encountered by medieval theologians was the status of

vegetative and procreative organs on the “glorious body” of resurrected Christ. If the glorious

body’s stomach and penis, for example, no longer served a function, then the Church doctrine

that the resurrected body was the perfection of nature would be contradicted as that very body

would be shown to possess redundant attributes. The solution was for these organs to take on

a purely symbolic existence, in which their very uselessness on the glorious body became an

exhibition of the virtue associated with that organ (Prozorov, 2014: 39). The sphere of objects

captured by the apparatuses is marked by a similar logic of glory. The ontological fact of the

pure potentiality of the living (human) being is intercepted, a part of that potentiality is cap-

tured, and the potential function of that part of the living being is secured in a determinate

form by the seriousness of its glorification.


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II.

Turning to the second part of our earlier question of how to render indifferent the meta-

physics of difference that signatures (in their quasi-transcendental historical contingency) im-

part on thought, it should now make sense to say that indifference in Agamben’s method

refers to an orientation that restores the full potentiality foreclosed by the signature’s opera-

tion. Indifference is a disclosive mood. Apparatuses, as the ontic political manifestation of

hidden ontological signatures, are the entities with which Agamben wants to wage “hand-to-

hand combat” to achieve this disclosure (2009a: 17). The site where this combat must take

place, then, is in the reclamation of our potentiality from that glorified sphere where appara-

tuses work to capture and confine it. Our subjectivity itself, however, is produced by these

apparatuses, and thus we always exist in relation to them. The glory of their capturing of our

potential being, then, is proportionate to the shame we experience as subjects of language.

Shame is what Agamben calls the hidden “emotive tonality” of linguistic subjectivity (Mills,

2008: 91): it is the affective modality through which we experience the separation of our liv-

ing being from the immediacy of itself and its environment. In other words, the subject cannot

but feel ashamed when the operation of the language in which it exists is constituted by the

foreclosure of part of its being, whose glory the subject is then subordinated to. The implica-

tion of this hidden tonal structure of language is that the living being, to reach the freedom of

its full potential, must become indifferent to its constitutive shame even while it becomes in-

different to the glory of the apparatus. As the next section of this chapter will show, Agam-

ben’s theory of comedy gives an account of this transformation. Comedy, relying on the dis-

closive mood of indifference to seriousness, is the key to reclaiming foreclosed human poten-

tiality. It can achieve the suspension of the groundless seriousness that gives the apparatuses

of government their power by granting the living being innocence over the shame of its sub-

jection.
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Comedy, for Agamben, reminds us of the excess of living being beyond apparatuses and the

forms of subjectivity they produce, and that a comic ending to their tragic operation therefore

remains possible (Prozorov, 2014: 24). Agamben uses Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy as the

departure point for the construction of his own comic paradigm, seeking to understand what

makes this epic on the afterlife ‘comic’ (1999a: 22). This involves tracing the development of

modern “personhood” from the classical theatrical models. Invoking the etymology of “per-

son” itself is instructive: the Latin persona from which our word is derived originally refers

exclusively to the mask worn by an actor in a play, indicating that the mask, not the actor, is

the place where the character is represented. Building on this important distinction between

mask (person) and actor, Agamben goes on to outline the contrasting conventions associated

with tragic and comic genres. The “‘comic’ conception of the human creature” is that it is

split, “divided into innocent nature [actor] and guilty person [mask]” (Agamben, 1999a: 21 —

emphases my own). This splitting opens the space for Dante’s novel theory of shame and rad-

ical attitude to the law. The hero, in tragedy, experiences subjection to law as a subjection of

his guilty human nature to destiny that, for all his moral innocence, he cannot overcome be-

cause his mask is fused to his (natural) face. The hero in comedy, on the other hand, is able to

use the law as “the instrument of personal salvation” because his person (mask) is something

that is freely assumed and hence can be freely “abandon[ed] to the hands of the law” (Agam-

ben, 1999a: 20-21). So, on the threshold of Eden (the earthly paradise of pure natural inno-

cence), Dante the sinner registers “of necessity” his personal name — his mask — and with it

purifies himself of personal guilt. Virgil, the ancient poet who has hitherto guided Dante

through the afterlife, disappears at this point — a pagan without recourse to God’s grace, his

nature is still tragically identical to his guilty person. In this way, what in tragedy represents

the greatest possible burden for the hero, his personal guilt, in comedy ends up providing the

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very way out of that same burden because that creaturely part of the hero out of law’s reach

can simply abandon its doomed mask and keep, as it were, rolling along.

III.

Returning to Agamben’s discussion of apparatuses from the vantage point of his reading of

Dante’s comedy, the contemporary exigency in response to which he devised the former

should take on a clear dramatic significance. For Agamben, a proliferation of apparatuses in

post-industrial society is leading to the dissemination of tragic subjectification, “push[ing] to

the extreme the masquerade that has always accompanied every personal identity” (2009a:

15). For Agamben, the moral person-subject of modern culture can be understood as an ex-

trapolation of the “tragic attitude of the actor, who fully identifies with his own

‘mask’” (Agamben, 1999a: 20). In contrast, a mood emerges on the comic stage that is capa-

ble of maintaining a creaturely space of natural innocence untainted by personal guilt. Dante’s

“comic choice” signifies a “renunciation of the tragic claim to innocence” and the doomed

identification with moral personhood, paving the way to a different kind of ethical happiness

founded on “acceptance of the comic fracture between nature and person” (Agamben, 1999a:

16). Under a comic paradigm, then, the removal of the burdensome mask corresponds to a

resumption of our proper relationship to being itself. Not only is the actor no longer prohibit-

ed from disrupting the sequence of events with extemporised bodily gestures, but his ‘clown-

ing around’ now constitutes the central aspect of the performance itself, the space through

which meaning shines through. The gesture, thus understood, “opens the sphere of ethos as

the proper sphere of that which is human” for Agamben (2006: 56).

In comedy, gestures are those actions which remind us of the actor behind the representational

mask. As we have seen, the mask of subjectivity is the product of the troubled relationship

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between the ontological living being and the ontic apparatuses of power. The kind of action

that Agamben seeks, then, cannot be conducted by the willing subject but must instead issue

from the excess of being that remains excluded from her. Gestures are not actions in the tradi-

tional sense of the term, but instead can be thought of as a “taking place without conventional

criteria”, that is, “before, without, or beyond convention” (Clemens, 2008: 49). The require-

ment of the gesture, in other words, is indifference to the metaphysics of dialectical differ-

ence, and part of this requirement is that the gesture exists outside of the temporal-spatial log-

ic that metaphysics institutes. Clemens’ ambiguous phrasing here illustrates this point well:

the gesture cannot be made sense of in the chronological flow of time, but comes from a place

in being that is at once subtracted from, in a different time to, and surpassing any metaphysi-

cal frame. It is thus working in the same field as the signature, a point which is made by

Agamben when he describes his method of philosophical archaeology as a gesture “carried

out at the threshold of the indifference of memory and forgetting” (2009b: 106). It is in this

space, where actors are indifferent to the seriousness of historically inscribed apparatuses, that

the comic “happy ending” is achieved: there is no fulfilment of a determined end, but instead

the neutralisation of an actualising force that frees up the infinite powers of imagination (Pro-

zorov, 2014: 30). An ethos that is free from the governmentality of apparatuses, emanating

from beneath the representational mask, neutralising the force of quasi-transcendental signa-

tures, is one that recognises that political action must not be guided by instrumental logic

(Agamben, 2006: 156). The task of this politics is not the voluntarist proffering of a better

world, but a venture to “restore to potentiality all that has that has not been actualised, the

possible worlds that have been willed out of existence and demand to be restored to their pos-

sibility” (Prozorov, 2014: 52).

For Agamben, a comic (or ‘gestural’) approach to political ethos means embracing the radical

notion that the only true political actions are, in fact, errors. This point becomes clear when, in
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Notes on Gesture, Agamben states that the gesture is always a gag, in both the proper mean-

ing of putting something in someone’s mouth to hinder speech, but more significantly in the

sense of an actor’s improvisation to compensate the loss of memory or the inability to speak

(2006: 155). Proper political action, by which one suspects Agamben is talking about a radical

generative act that brings something new into the world, is “the communication of a potential

to be communicated”, and this can only be achieved via a “non-making sense of

language” (2006: 156). This ethos is post-foundational, exposing the lack of an original or

final source in spheres of ‘human being’ and using this experience of groundlessness as the

starting point of action (Levitt, 2008: 205). It is founded on an indifference to the need to

make sense in conventional terms, and even more basically the need to subordinate action to

any ends whatsoever. As Barbara Formis puts it, alluding to Agamben’s appropriation of Fou-

cault’s care of the self approach, “it is not the goal reached but the route traversed in doing so

that allows the emergence, and not the production, of gesture” (2008: 187 — emphases my

own). This ethos is not oriented to producing action in the face of error, grasping its form, but

is instead open to the emergence of ulterior powers, the disclosure of foreclosed possibilities.

The flip-side of Agamben’s gestural politics, therefore, is that it has “nothing to fall back on

but its affirmation of its possibility, which is by definition also a possibility for it not to be ac-

tualised” (Prozorov, 2014: 9). But, as we have seen, that is the whole point of the project. A

comic political ethos of indifference is all about opening up the potentiality for action and

thought, freeing it from the ‘serious’ apparatuses and leaving it there to be reclaimed in the

name of living beings. Reclaimed, not so it can be put to any particular use, but just so that it

isn’t constantly being used in the same way. Agamben is clear in visualising what such a com-

ic ethos opens onto:

“one day humanity will play with the law just as children play with disused objects, not in or-

der to restore them to their canonical use, but to free them from it for good” (2005: 64).
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Chapter Four: On ‘Not Getting It’ — The Hubris of Missing the Punchline

In the preceding two chapters we have explored how, in the work of Connolly and Agam-

ben, tragic and comic moods inform an aesthetics of the self. We have also seen how this

practice is oriented towards the cultivation of a political ethos poised to embrace error as a

source for ontological re-founding. This final chapter proposes a rapprochement between

tragedy and comedy. I advance the claim that a post-foundational attunement to the possibili-

ties of error ought to avail itself of the complementarity of the affects intrinsic to both dramat-

ic genres. I begin by rehearsing Connolly’s criticisms of Agamben, in particular the former’s

detection of a “will to system” in the latter’s analysis of biopower and sovereignty. I contend

that Connolly, not situating himself in the broader Agambenian project, doesn’t quite ‘get it’

— he makes the mistake of ‘taking seriously’ the hyperbolic arguments Agamben employs

which are, according to Abbott, simply what happens when the political ontological method

being pursued “bleeds into the ontic” (2014: 20). Indeed, contrasting Agamben’s political on-

tology with the ‘onto-politics’ advanced by Connolly reveals shortcomings in the latter’s im-

manent naturalism. Connolly’s attachment to tragic finitude means that the genealogical

method with which he brings transcendent sureties onto a plane of immanence is blind to the

contingency of the very object on which it founds its (quasi-)necessity: life. Tragic care for

the abundance of life is blind to Agamben’s suggestion that life itself is “the cultural object

par excellence” (Levitt, 2008: 208). Building on the themes of Chapter Three, it will be

shown that comic indifference allows Agamben’s political ontology to go where Connolly’s

cannot. I thus submit the vitalist ground upon which the latter author relies to archaeological

scrutiny. This demonstrates (as all good comedy should) the compromised nature of our own

tragic limits. I argue that care and indifference can function as complementary affects in a

‘tragicomic’ ethos oriented towards error, respectively guiding pluralist possibilities of insti-

tuting action and singular impossibilities of destituting action.

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I.

In his reading of Agamben’s critique of sovereignty, Connolly communicates a failure to

grasp the quasi-transcendental field on which the critique operates. Connolly thus interprets

Agamben’s Homo Sacer to be infused with existential revenge. Ironically, in his blindness to

the comic spirit infusing Agamben’s work, Connolly attributes to him the very tragic hubris

against which both authors are contending. In doing this he misses not only the post-founda-

tional affinities between both their projects but also their shared debt to a Foucauldian aesthet-

ics of existence. So that we are clear exactly what Connolly takes issue with in Agamben, it is

worth providing a cursory summary of the logic of sovereignty as it is presented in the Homo

Sacer series. In line with Agamben’s understanding of the bifurcated nature of concepts in

Western thought introduced in Chapter Three, we might say that he sees sovereignty as a sig-

nature whose operation splits the thought of life into two distinct modes: the common (found-

ing) nutritive life (zoe), which humans share with other non-sentient beings, and the proper

(particular) political life (bios), which the human capacity for language ensures is ours alone

(Agamben, 1998). As long as sovereignty remains operative as a signature in thought, the ap-

paratuses devised by human communities will continue to produce political structures accord-

ing to that signature. This means that politics will reflect the impossibility of the dialectic of

difference sovereignty imposes between a part of the life form that is included in the polis and

a part of the life form that is excluded from the polis. In other words, the signature of sov-

ereign power operates on both zoe and bios, ensuring that the part of the human animal which

is fictively excluded from the polis is brought back under the domain of sovereign power as

“bare life” — “life exposed to death”, neither properly animal nor properly human (Agamben,

1998: 88). Sovereignty can be thought of as an “anthropological machine” violently produc-

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ing the dialectical difference between human and animal (Mills, 2008: 113),21 and bare life is

what happens to the liminal fragments of being that cannot be put into either category. Agam-

ben indicates that until sovereign power becomes inoperative as a signature (until we right

now become indifferent to it and stop the anthropological machine), all beings remain in dan-

ger of exposure to the absolute violence of being reduced to bare life.

In his review of Agamben’s work, Connolly presents what he considers to be a more nuanced

reading of sovereign logic by highlighting its ambiguities and uncertainties. For Connolly,

Agamben is guilty of “the hubris of academic intellectualism”, and, through a “political drive

to authority”, exhibits the fatal flaw of ignoring the “illogicalness” that inheres in the materi-

ality of biocultural life (2007: 30). Thus, Agamben’s study on the paradoxes of sovereignty

cannot be distinguished from the teleological mastery and existential resentment of Kant’s

transcendental idealism — beneath the façade of translating Kantian antinomy into paradox

“beats the heart of another scholar who reduces cultural life to logic” (Ibid). Pointing out

Agamben’s identification of the “camp” as the underlying law of modern politics, and his in-

vocation of Auschwitz as the paradigmatic instantiation of this guiding logic, Connolly brings

up the role that “a change in ethos” might have played in altering the course of sovereignty.

Connolly argues that the complex resonances between fascist attitudes at different levels of

society, rather than the inexorable unfolding of an inherent sovereign logic, produced the out-

come of the Holocaust (2007: 35). Rather than overcoming sovereignty altogether, then, Con-

nolly sees the aim of a radical political project as the cultivation of a generous and positive

pluralism that might “help to alter the ethos of sovereignty and capital alike, without trans-

forming capitalism into a new world order” (2007: 41). Predictably, he counters Agamben by

invoking care for life as the way to stop sovereign excess. Connolly emphatically rejects

21The concept of the anthropological machine is a continuation of Foucault’s critique of post-Kant-


ian anthropocentrism’s reliance on the normative category “Man” — the post-humanist critique of
philosophical anthropology.
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Agamben’s political project; he sees it as antithetical to his tragic formula that difference ex-

ceeds identity.

The presentation of Agamben in the preceding chapter suggests that Connolly’s assessment is

missing something — specifically, the ontological site on which the former is doing battle. If

we recall that philosophical archaeology seeks to render inoperative identity/difference signa-

tures on a quasi-transcendental historical field, Connolly’s reading of Homo Sacer betrays an

ignorance of Agamben’s unique archaeological method by thinking that it applies to the ontic

level of political struggle.22 While he is not incorrect about the inapplicability of Agamben’s

method to the complex and diverse empirical structures of contemporary globalised politics, I

follow Prozorov in contending that Connolly’s immersion in tragic finitude “obscures the af-

firmative attunement that grants this critique both its meaning and its power” (2014: 3). In-

deed, where Connolly sees only “logic” in Agamben’s thought, and counters with his own

pluralist tragic ethos as a means of resistance and transformation, his critique entirely glosses

over the sphere of comic ethos Homo Sacer opens up. Getting where Agamben’s ethos is

coming from, then, requires familiarity with his political ontology, or rather the type of politi-

cal ontology he deploys. Interestingly, Marchart, whose delineation of post-foundational

thought we explored in Chapter One, joins Connolly in condemning Agamben’s “theoretical

extremism”, claiming that his “radically pessimist philosophy of history” gives away the in-

sights of an ontological problematisation of politics by subordinating Being to conceptual

rigidity (2007: 238). In what follows, I employ Abbott’s revised definition of political ontol-

ogy as not just insisting on the contingency of ontological concepts, nor merely thinking of

new ones to open up new ontic possibilities, but above all attempting “to think the political

22 Ernesto Laclau, in the same volume, makes a similar mistake, condemning the “naive teleolo-
gism” and the lack of sensitivity to structural diversity in his Agamben’s method (2007: 12-22).
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through the exigency of the ontological question” (2014: 15). Agamben’s ethos of comic in-

difference does precisely this.

II.

Coming to grips with the exigency of the ontological question, and how Agamben’s politi-

cisation thereof is comic, means reintroducing Heidegger’s ontological difference. On Ab-

bott’s “resolutely ontological reading”, Agamben’s analysis of sovereignty and bare life “has

to be understood as beginning from a transposition of Heidegger’s ontological

difference” (2014: 19). Thus, zoe as common nutritive life corresponds to Being as such, and

bios as political linguistic life corresponds to particular ontic beings. The sovereign signa-

ture’s exclusion of animal life from the official “working” of the polis leads to the re-inclusion

of the human animal as “bare life”, sovereignty’s unthinkable negative ground. Analogously,

traditional metaphysical thought designates the category “Being as such” as the “archi-signa-

tor” of every signature, and the attempt to think metaphysically about Being itself (that is, to

think ontically about the ontological) is no less than a flight from the un-grounding force of

properly owning up to the pure gratuity of existence (Agamben, 2009a: 66). Recalling the

Heideggerian idea of thrown-ness should clarify the stakes here: Agamben is drawing an

equivalence between the unthought “fact” of living in political thought and the sheer sense of

groundless contingency that metaphysical thought turns away from. So, “bare life” is the

reappearance of this existential fact in a system grounded on its exclusion; “the figure of the

return of a repressed metaphysical … fantasy that haunts our politics” (Abbott, 2014: 21). It is

a piece of the groundless potentiality of being that the apparatuses of sovereignty capture and

secure. This is why Agamben employs the Roman legal category of homo sacer as a paradig-

matic case for bare life. He who is sacrificed by the state, subject to an unconditional death, is

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glorified as a ‘sacred man’. As such, the homo sacer elucidates the unthought consequences

inherent to the fantasy of a distinction between organic and political life (Agamben, 1998).

The signature of sovereignty captures, through divers apparatuses, the originary fact of living

(our sense of being thrown into the world) and glorifies it in much the same way that me-

dieval theologians glorified Christ’s functionless penis. Glory prevents us from properly own-

ing up to the un-grounding force of the ontological question, from recognising the miracu-

lousness of our existence and accepting the world in its absolute contingency. According to

Abbott, the kind of political ontology that Agamben deploys is aimed at becoming indifferent

to metaphysical signatures, turning toward thrown-ness and embracing the irreducible glory

of life itself (2014: 28).

Agamben’s political ontology is trying to render indifferent the signature of sovereignty that

separates life from itself, based on the wager that a properly post-foundational politics can

only be conducted from an ethos of attunement to the absolute singularity of life. Comparing

Agamben’s appropriation of Heidegger’s ontological difference with Connolly’s is instructive

of the divergent directions in which the two authors take political ontology. As we saw in

Chapter Two, Connolly construes the difference between Being and beings as “similar to Ni-

etzsche’s elusive presentations of life”; for Connolly, awareness of ontological difference pro-

vides a method of experiencing the bumpy processes of a world of becoming (1993: 385).

This post-Nietzschean position contrasts with Agamben’s which, as we saw, demonstrates that

Nietszchean vitality and the dangerous forces of biopower are both contingent on the signa-

ture of sovereignty. Abbott helpfully characterises the difference between, on the one hand,

Agamben’s attempt to render the “anthropological machine” that produces bare life inopera-

tive, and on the other, Nietzsche’s striving to bring vitalism back into a way of living made

anaemic by juridical morality. Agamben forces us to consider that simply reconciling the na-

ture-culture dualism, as Connolly’s post-Nietzschean immanent naturalism does, is insuffi-


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cient. Becoming more attuned to the diversity of life overflowing identity and moral code,

while admirable, still leaves in place the very idea that there is some a priori life force avail-

able for our cultivation in resistance against resonance machines of existential revenge, ignor-

ing the insight that the notion of an underlying life force itself is “a product of the machine,

and not something that pre-exists it” (Abbott, 2014: 138). Where Connolly wants to draw on

attachment to life to fuel the development of a positive resonance machine (2005), Agamben

conducts a “genealogical inquiry into the term life” itself in an attempt to bring the anthropo-

logical machine to a halt (1999b: 239). But, contrary to Connolly’s attitude, I claim that the

negative direction of Agamben’s ethos means that a rapprochement between the two can be

achieved.

III.

Reflecting on the contrasting yet complementary nature of tragic and comic drama points

to this reconciliation. Agamben himself has said that “every tragedy … projects a comic

shadow” (1999a: 132). Indeed, the complementarity of both classical genres is recognised as

far back as Plato’s Symposium, when Socrates says that all good tragedians should also be

able to write good comedies (Nikolopoulou, 2013: xxix). The implication is that comedy and

tragedy both impart important lessons, providing different affective qualities that can attune

us to different potentialities. An emerging trend in political theory, of which Connolly is a

part, is to remind us that “we cannot escape the tragic dimension of our lives” (Moon, 2004:

25). It is wise to appreciate “the limits of theory”, and an absence of this methodological im-

perative leads to the “unjust or harmful exclusions and forms of repression” that characterise

modernity’s litany of political failures (Ibid).

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But this ignores the lessons of comedy — as the other face of tragedy, it shows us that our

finitude is itself ungraspable. Alenka Zupančič puts it well when she observes that tragic fini-

tude has emerged as our “contemporary grand narrative”, a chastening reminder of limits

merely filling the empty transcendent space where the metaphysics of infinity used to be

(2009: 48). Comedy is a reminder that “not only are we not infinite, we are not even

finite” (Zupančič, 2009: 53); it opens a window onto tragedy by reminding us that the finite

conditions of existence presented in the latter are not even fully knowable. Zupančič points

out that the tragic attitude of being satisfied with pointing out an endless process of differenti-

ation fails to see the impasses and contradictions that inhere in this very process. That is, “fas-

cination with everything that is coarse and dense can be a way of avoiding a crucial

lesson” (Zupančič, 2009: 47); the foregoing discussion has shown us that this observation

could well apply to Connolly himself. Simon Critchley drives home a similar point, claiming

that laughter is “an affirmation that finitude cannot be affirmed because it cannot be

grasped” (1999: 119 — emphasis my own). The tragic paradigm confronts finitude by calling

on the individual to act out their destiny within the limited constraints of necessity, pursuing

action in full knowledge that life’s strictures doom us to failure. The problem with this ap-

proach is that it “disfigures finitude” by assuming that it is possible and desirable to pursue

affirmation of life in the face of the certainty of failure and death (Critchley, 1999: 110).

Comedy, by contrast, insists on the impossibility of this relation; laughter comes from a

recognition of “the limited condition of our own finitude” (Critchley, 1999: 120). Whereas

tragic heroes are larger-than-life representations of finitude, demonstrating the futility of fight-

ing against the confines of our mortal existence, comic anti-heroes are infinitesimal reminders

of our ordinary feebleness whose impotent subversion of all glorified identities can make us

laugh at anything. As Agnes Heller observes, comedy needs seriousness to advance; our

laughter is based on a change in regard to the conditions of our existence as we “notice from a

distance something which we may have been too immersed in to see, our own follies includ-

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ed”, and then make fun of it (2005: 210). The “suspension of direct experiences” in the comic

moment leads us to see anew our involvement in processes in a way that no other art genre

does (Heller, 2005: 212). In comedy, laughter’s disruption of the processes of finitude’s per-

petual play of difference takes us to a place of singular indifference where our positive in-

volvement is suspended and our constitutive inability to grasp the limits of finitude itself

comes into view.

IV.

The mutuality of tragedy and comedy suggests a reciprocity between the affective qualities

of care in Connolly’s ethos and indifference in Agamben’s ethos. I argue that a properly post-

foundational approach, one that can fully take advantage of error by remaining open to the

contingency of all concepts, must conduct an aesthetics of existence informed by both dra-

matic genres. What’s more, I claim that it is possible to do this by bringing together the theo-

retical systems of both authors presented in this study without tearing apart their respective

internal logics. Agamben would not deny that his comic ethos needs a tragic ontological con-

ception to advance. That is, for the comic gesture of ‘showing up’ the limits of finitude to

work, we saw in Chapter Three that a ‘serious’ belief in that finitude has to exist in the first

place. Connolly, meanwhile, is very forthcoming in admitting that his ethos employs a partic-

ular ‘onto-faith’ (that is, a weak ontological system). Seeking to illustrate that his own theory

cannot escape tragic finitude, he inserts a clause of essential contestability into the formula-

tion of his ethos in accordance with the pluralist virtue of critical responsiveness. Self-reflex-

ivity, the willingness to acknowledge incompleteness and tensions in whatever beliefs one

follows, is crucial for Connolly (2013b: 139). Thus where the utility of Connolly’s tragic

ethos ends, Agamben’s begins — there need not be any conflict between the two.

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My interest in proposing a ‘tragicomic’ ethos, then, is to give equal weight to the affective

qualities of both dramatic genres, and to suggest how they might inflect an ethos oriented to-

wards embracing the generative potential of error. Tragedy, emphasising our immersion in the

play of difference, corrects for the inability of Agamben’s political theory to account for the

differentiated and embodied effects of power apparatuses on categories such as race and gen-

der (Mills, 2008: 135-136). While his comic ethos holds forth the possibility of a singular

transformation to come, it must be supplemented by a tragic attunement which gives differ-

ence ontological primacy. This is so as not to relegate political action combating the likes of

racial and gendered oppression to the ‘merely ontic’. Although accommodating such identity/

difference categories is precisely not what Agamben is trying to achieve (he wants to suspend

the forms of thinking that make racial and gendered oppression possible in the first place), I

argue that, in line with comedy’s reliance on tragedy, an ethos of care for difference over

identity is a necessary precursor to the singularity of a comic attunement to life. In contempo-

rary conditions of pluralism, the process of political struggle must account for difference if

the grounding moment of political ontological decision-making is to be an emancipatory one

(which, as Marchart showed us, is the point of left-Heideggerian post-foundationalism). If the

institution of new forms is to accommodate a plurality of voices, then the projection of the

social that the political moment engenders ought to emanate, a la Connolly, from an atten-

tiveness to the plurality and complexity of life. Thus I emphasise the tragic as the first element

in a tragicomic ethos.

Leaving open the possibility of the comic, on the other hand — which is all Agamben ever

asked us to do — would in turn correct for the tragic entrapment in contingent institutions that

Connolly’s over-attachment to a finite conception of life consigns him to. I follow Mark

Wenman’s criticism that, under the agonistic democratic model Connolly advances, “the
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strictly revolutionary moment is inconceivable” (2013: 14). Connolly’s reply to Agamben,

which we saw earlier in this chapter, clearly illustrates what Wenman is talking about: the

emphasis is on the task of infusing global constituencies with “more flexibility, inclusivity,

and plurality” to help foster more creative modes of political action within existing institu-

tional frameworks (2007: 41). For Connolly, faith in a tragic ethos is a sufficient condition for

the manifestations of new political forms — there is no need to negate or rupture, just to be

attuned to new possibilities. On Little’s view, Connolly is in danger of bemoaning the “bas-

tardisation of contemporary democracy” by the forces of existential revenge without contem-

plating the seeds of inevitable failure harboured within hegemonic democratic institutions

themselves (2010). This leads to what Little, following Walter Benjamin, refers to as “democ-

ratic melancholy” — melancholy here being “a term of opprobrium for those more beholden

to certain long-held sentiments and objects than to the possibilities of political transformation

in the present” (Benjamin in Little, 2010: 976). In light of the ontological commitments of

Connolly’s work, I would go further than Little in suggesting that perhaps the object of his

melancholia is not just democracy but, as the foundation of his ontology, a tragic vision of

finite ‘life’. Agamben’s critique of biopower demonstrates the aporia this leads to. A political

imaginary drawing sustenance from pre-rational ‘pluripotentiality’ as an opposing force to

repressive normative thought can only go so far. At the point where Connolly’s care for life

and hope in its deliverance of something new reaches its peak, then, Agamben tells us that our

proper task, if we are interested in the generative power of unintended consequences, would

be to become indifferent.

A tragicomic ethos can account for both movements of Marchart’s post-foundational moment:

if institution and destitution are the two outcomes of political ontological decisions, then

tragedy attunes actors to the former (grounding) action, while comedy attunes actors to the

latter (un-grounding) action. In other words, error might disclose a moment of grounding, or it
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might disclose a moment of un-grounding — political actors guided by a tragic ethos can only

be attuned to the first modality of the political moment, whilst those guided by a comic ethos

can only be attuned to the second. The grounding of new institutions and identities requires

the kind of careful attentiveness to the nitty-gritty horizon of pluripotential incipient processes

that Connolly promotes. Nevertheless, un-grounding, the destituting movement, or on my

reading liberation from what Watkin calls “the economic control of our held-in-common sig-

natures”, requires that we take a step back from immersion in process to “allow us to stop

knowing [things] always in the same way” (2014b: xvi). This insight of Agamben’s political

ontology (which, as we saw, is an ontology of epistemology) is committed to the idea that the

how of our knowledge is founded on the exclusionary negation of a zone of impossibility. The

comic ethos, then, entails becoming indifferent to the signatures of existent knowledge such

that the ‘singularity’ of that which was impossible — that which the oppositional distinctions

of knowledge signatures had foreclosed in their operation — emerges as immanent potentiali-

ty. Thus, when actors employ a positive affective fund to draw creative energy from the onto-

logical uncertainty of a new situation, pace Connolly, a negative suspension of affect might

also be necessary to disclose the full potentiality of what that creative energy would be able to

enact. As we have seen, the positivity of Connolly’s tragic ethos relies on a conception of life

that Agamben’s method exposes as complicit in the reproduction of a contingent and destruc-

tive metaphysical system — eventually, a time will come when we have to laugh it off.

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Conclusion

In this study I have tried to develop a way of feeling about failure that, instead of pejora-

tively defining it as something to be avoided, guides political action towards its creative em-

brace. I have constructed novel readings of aspects of both William Connolly and Giorgio

Agamben to provide a sketch of how the dramatic affects of tragic care and comic indiffer-

ence might achieve this. Ultimately, I have argued for a ‘tragicomic’ political ethos. This is

because, in moments of failure, it provides the affective attunement necessary for the equally

important tasks of both grounding new ways of doing things and un-grounding the old ways.

I began by establishing ethos as an approach to political action that dispensed with trying to

successfully achieve prescriptive goals. Ethos conducts an aesthetics of existence, informed

by a disclosive mood, that turns towards the potential of ontological institution/destitution in

moments of error. This is to say, ethos gives political actors a different ‘way in’ to action that

recasts failure as an experience to be embraced for its creative potential. Connolly’s ontologi-

cal vision leads him to tragedy. His ethos is an attempt to avoid hubris by caring for the tragic

fragility and finitude of a world of becoming. This affective stance allows actors to creatively

embrace error, through attentive attunement to new ontic political forms as they arise ontolog-

ically. Agamben’s ontology of epistemology establishes the idea that concepts limit human

potential through the serious mood of their existence. The comic ethos, for him, seeks to sus-

pend this mood through the affect of indifference, opening up a space for the full potential of

error to be realised. These two contrasting interpretations of ontology lead to different meth-

ods of political ontology. Tragedy foregrounds possibilities for the institution of new political

arrangements that are responsive to difference. Comedy, rather, is indifferent to the thought

structures that produce identity/difference; it is concerned with opening up those potentialities

that are foreclosed by conventional thought. I argue that both tragedy and comedy are neces-

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sary elements in an ethos that guides political action towards the creative embrace of failure.

Taken together, the two categories unlock the potential for both grounding and un-grounding

decisions in the moment of the political.

The limited scope of this thesis means that its conclusions are largely exploratory, calling for

deeper engagement with the relevant theoretical literature to further draw out its findings. In

many ways, this is little more than a preliminary roadmap for future research. That said, and

whilst only two authors have been studied here in detail, I think it is undoubtedly the case that

the application of dramatic metaphor to the study of other approaches to political theory is a

worthwhile endeavour. Of course, the level of engagement with both authors has been neces-

sarily schematic. As such, the philosophical task before us is to more thoroughly unpack the

intellectual legacy that runs from Nietzsche, through Foucault, to both Connolly and Agam-

ben. The hostility with which theorists such as Connolly have received Agamben’s project

suggests that more detailed studies than this, which demonstrate the latter’s compatibility with

political theories of finitude, are required in order to advance scholarship on post-foundational

political thought.

***

Recorded in a recent New York Times article (Rawlence, 2015), the words of a man living

in North-East Kenya shed a different light on the refugee crisis with which this thesis opened.

“I belong nowhere. My country is the Republic of Refugee,” he says, looking out over

Dadaab, the UNHCR-operated camp where he was born and has lived his entire life. Dadaab

was established in 1991 as a temporary refuge for 90,000 people fleeing conflict in Somalia;

today, it is home to 500,000. Around the world, there are 14 million stateless people living in

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William Cameron 390702

what the UNHCR terms ‘protracted situations’, not just in the Global South but also in devel-

oped countries like Australia. Tragically, this way of doing things is not working.

Caring about this tragedy means extending one’s political identification beyond the borders of

the nation-state. Recognising the fragility and finitude of territorial sovereignty, we recognise

that rights are derived from an attachment to life itself — by acting from this ethos, the fail-

ures of the ‘protracted situation’ can engender the formation of an international citizenry.

Those with state protection recognise their own fragility and through this identify with the

refugee. Connolly, following Foucault, sees such an ethos as a way for the will of individuals

to inscribe itself in a political reality dominated by the state, producing creative extra-statist

and cross-nationalist forms of action (1993). Camps could be re-conceptualised as open cities,

international zones empowering residents to move and trade within the normal international

visa regime. Agamben thinks that indifference to citizenship itself, though, is the lesson to be

learnt from the refugee; as a border-concept in the logic of sovereignty, the refugee helps clear

the field for a renewal of categories (1994). The real refugee crisis, therefore, will not be re-

solved until those with state protection go beyond caring about the stateless’ lack of formal

citizenship and instead find the power to laugh at their own status as citizens. When we all

recognise ourselves as belonging to the ‘Republic of Refugee’, all our cities can become in-

ternational zones once more, happily free from the serious signature of the nation state.

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