Universality and Heresy

Heretics of Dune book cover
Sexy heretics!

Now the violent exclusion inherent in the institution or realization of the universal can take many different forms, which are not equivalent and do not call for the same politics. A sociological and anthropological point of view will insist on the fact that setting up civic universality against discrimination and modes of subjection in legal, educational, moral forms involves the definition of models of the human, or norms of the social. Foucault and others have drawn our attention to the fact that the Human excludes the “non-Human”, the Social excludes the “a-social”. [cf the Afropessimist version of this critique, which identifies this exclusion with its specific, racialising form in anti-blackness]

These are forms of internal exclusion, which affect what I would call “intensive universalism” even more than “extensive universalism”. They are not linked with the territory, the imperium; they are linked with the fact that the universality of the citizen, or the human citizen, is referred to a community. But a political and ethical point of view, which we can associate with the idea or formula of a “community without a community”, or without an already existing community, has to face yet another form of violence intrinsically linked with universality. This is the violence waged by its bearers and activists against its adversaries, and above all against its internal adversaries, i.e. potentially any “heretic” within the revolutionary movement.

Many philosophers – whether they themselves adversaries or fervent advocates of universalistic programs and discourses, such as Hegel in his chapter on “Terror” in the Phenomenology or Sartre in the Critique of Dialectical Reason – have insisted on this relationship, which is clearly linked to the fact that certain forms of universalism embody the logical characteristic of “truth”, i.e. they suffer no exception. If we had time, or perhaps in the discussion, our task now should be to examine the political consequences that we draw from this fact. I spoke of a quasi-Weberian notion of “responsibility”. Responsibility here would not be opposed simply to “conviction” (Gesinnung), but more generally to the ideals themselves, or the ideologies that involve a universalistic principle and goal.

A politics of Human Rights in this respect is typically a politics that concerns the institutionalization of a universalistic ideology, and before that a becoming ideological of the very principle that disturbs and challenges existing ideologies. Universalistic ideologies are not the only ideologies that can become absolutes, but they certainly are those whose realization involves a possibility of radical intolerance or internal violence. This is not the risk that one should avoid running, because in fact it is inevitable, but it is the risk that has to be known, and that imposes unlimited responsibility upon the bearers, speakers and agents of universalism.

Etienne Balibar, On Universalism

If I had to give a name to the present moment in philosophy, I would call it the time of the heretics – this is the moment in which heresy is elevated into a value, almost a (negative-)universal value, the value of the exception, of that which is not tolerated by any politics which “[embodies] the logical characteristic of ‘truth'”. Can one distinguish the figure of the heretic from that of the renegade? Certainly the renegades like to think of themselves as heretics; but the true heretic is always something more and other than simply a renegade.

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