Border Country

Étienne Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene

Verso, 192pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781844677856

reviewed by Marc Farrant

At a recent event at the London Review Bookshop to mark the launch of Verso's sixth Radical Thinkers collection (which includes the reissuing of Étienne Balibar's seminal Politics and the Other Scene), the esteemed French philosopher responded to Nina Power's opening gambit on the nature and future of Europe with a further question of his own: 'are we in Europe?'. The remark was met with a rippling burst of hysterical laughter, largely emanating from Balibar’s most avid middle-aged enthusiasts in the front two rows.

Yet a glance towards the Frenchman and his austere expression seemed to imply, at the least, that the irony at work was a great deal more serious than the delivery within which it was framed. Indeed, perhaps as never before in recent history has the question 'are we in Europe' resounded quite so pertinently. After all, not only is the fiscal union seemingly falling apart at the seams, events in Britain, and London especially, serve as reminders of the apparent strength and predominance of national identification in times of celebration, just as the same pattern has emerged in France and Germany in times of woe. And while a bunch of mad Union-Jack-wearing buffoons guffawing in the rain while eating strawberries might not seem as potentially destabilising as the resurgence of populist right-wing movements on the continent, it still serves as a reminder of the importance and resonance not only of the question 'are we in Europe?', but also 'what is Europe?'.

It is undoubtedly these two questions specifically, as well as the broader set of philosophical issues that underpin them – in particular the notions of individual and collective identity – that dominate Politics and the Other Scene. The volume itself is made up of eight individual essays; some deal explicitly with questions of European racism and European citizenship, others more abstractly consider notions of universality, identification and violence. This particular constellation of material also represents the book's intriguing and non-linear construction as a thing in itself. Most of the essays have appeared before in a variety of other volumes that date from around 1993 onwards, often repeating themselves in different volumes of both French and English publications. The book therefore represents something new and something old, a continuation of central concerns and themes that underpin both the concrete discussions of Europe and the abstract discussions of philosophical and theoretical issues. These concerns are, in Balibar's words, ‘emancipation and transformation’ as mediated through the central philosophical notions of universality and ideality and their applicability to contemporary European politics.

Indeed, Balibar's contribution to the thinking of Europe is perhaps unrivalled amongst his peers in the continental tradition of contemporary philosophy, if not the wider world of the academy itself. And while formally a Marxist thinker (he was one of Louis Althusser's finest students in the 1960s, and is credited as co-author of the seminal text Reading Capital), Politics and the Other Scene displays a far broader set of analytical concerns and frameworks, placing Balibar well within the group of what might vaguely and inaccurately be called 'postmodern political philosophers'. There are certainly parallels with the works of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, as well as Jacques Rancière, in particular the overriding sense that dissensus should and must be valued over consensus in any potential democratic matrix. Indeed, that democracy itself must be considered in this hyperbolic form; as that which permanently holds open the right to critique and the right to dissent. For Balibar then, when asked at the event his thoughts on the Occupy movement, such contemporary forms of protest symbolise this need for the ‘democratisation of democracy’.

Nevertheless, there is certainly more here to please fans of Marx than fans of Freud. The use of the notion of the 'Other Scene' seems fairly arbitrary the further one reads and is only really given a few pages in the introductory preface. In effect, the notion is used so as to illustrate the essential heterogeneity of political processes in comparison with Freudian psychic processes. For Balibar, ‘the other scene of Politics is also the scene of the other’. There is in essence always an excess, something that cannot be accounted for or predicted in advance, allowing an account of ‘Politics’ that respects this fundamental otherness despite, and indeed in opposition to, the supposed information-age of our contemporary globalised world.

Undoubtedly, however, the real points of interest lie in Balibar's fantastic application of a combination of pseudo-Marxist and philosophical frameworks to the analysis of the issues regarding the creation of a European citizenship. Three chapters in particular – 'What is a Border?', 'The Borders and Europe' and 'Is a European Citizenship Possible?' – are perhaps the most idiosyncratic, and this is largely in the attention to detail that is given to the European thematic. 'What is a Border?' unsurprisingly opens by asking precisely that question and Balibar's historicised and philosophised account of the ever-changing ontological constellation of the notion is fascinating. For Balibar, the inability to pin down exactly what a border might be, as a something that nevertheless eludes essence, is an opportunity for the rethinking of borders in our current European conglomeration.

The discussion is far wider-ranging than a mere discussion of the physical, or rather imaginary, manifestations of the borders that separate the nation states of Europe (although the crisis of the nation-state lies at the heart of Balibar's thinking of the potentialities of a trans-national or globalised citizenship). Indeed, in 'The Borders of Europe' Balibar interestingly highlights the proliferation of borders in our supposedly borderless European society. No longer are borders imaginary constructs that coincide along state lines, but topographically spontaneous entities that are manifested in security and health check zones all over the major social spaces of Europe. Fundamentally the question of the border is also the question of the institution. For Balibar, the notion of the border is intrinsically tied to the historical construction of institutions, as those entities by which our democratic freedom is guaranteed but also demarcated and regulated. He notes: ‘borders have been the anti-democratic condition for that partial, limited democracy which some nation-states enjoyed for a certain period’. Thus, the thinking of the radicalisation of democracy is precisely to deconstruct this institutionalisation of the border.

The third chapter ('Is a European Citizenship Possible?') is arguably the densest of this trio. Balibar carefully and thoughtfully guides the reader through the history of the notion of citizenship in Europe, differentiating along the way between different forms and models that might be applicable to contemporary Europe. Balibar highlights the rule of exclusion that has always necessarily maintained the notion of citizenship and its corollary notion of the nation-state. While he gives no final answer to his own question, he does conclude that, ‘a new definition of citizenship in Europe can only be the definition of a new citizenship. It must become more democratic than the old “national-social” form of citizenship used to be.’ Fundamentally, Balibar's own grappling with the concept highlights the difficulty of imagining a new Europe through a framework that we have inherited from an old one, and while his insights are penetrating his attempts at solutions tend, more often than not, to lead the reader down a blind alley.

Overall Balibar's unrelentingly rigorous prose style betrays a somewhat less conclusive general thesis. The book is perhaps best considered in the formalistic manner that Simon Critchley uses to subtitle his latest book, as a series of 'experiments'. This is not to downplay the intriguing questions that Balibar asks, but to highlight the far more imprecise manner of the philosophical enquiry that his pseudo-Marxist prose somewhat disguises. Indeed, this is often epitomised in the above-mentioned chapters by a general oscillation between a pragmatic, commonsensical and chronological historical exposition, and an abstract philosophical theoreticism.

This dual structure, rather than what should serve as a complimentary rhetorical gesture, works in a way so as to stop either side from truly hitting the mark. The historical or evidential argument never seems to quite stack up and the theory stops just as it seems to approach a far more expansive area of interest. The historicised approach also means, perhaps inevitably, that certain aspects of the argument seem drastically outdated. Some of the essays (from the late nineties and early noughties) predict Japan as a new major international force, and are seemingly blind to the rise of China. Nevertheless, Balibar's commentary regarding potential European problems, particularly economic and social upheaval, and the effects of unemployment, couldn't seem anymore relevant and accurate today. As a thing in itself the book in a sense is far from complete, but is nevertheless an essential read for anyone interested in the many questions regarding the future of Europe, whether from a theoretical perspective or not.