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An anarcheology of the polemos

My book on Heraclitus and anarcheology is almost out. As a taster in English, a bit of an article I wrote about the polemos:

Heraclitus developed a resolute taste for fire. For him, since his old days, things are inherently flowing. His ontology was one of interactions, of contrasts, of perspectives and also of the polemos. His old fragments (2009) are often presented with struggle or conflict – sometimes war – figuring in the place of the polemos. Fragment 53 talks about it as what made some slaves while making some masters. It is like the burning of the fire. But the polemos is not presented as a ex-nihilo creator – but rather also what made some gods while making some mortals. Slavery but also mortality is driven by the polemos. It is the vulnerability of all alliances. All things come to being through polemos, says fragment 80. I take it to be an overall centrifugal force that ignites what it finds. It is the force of dispute, the engine of all polemics. The force of polemos is that of disruption that can come from anywhere. It is no fixed arché but rather an element of displacement and disturbance that acts as an insurance against any ontology (or politics) of fixed ingredients. It is a force of friction that has no fixed ontological status, no fixed place in any chart of beings. Heidegger (see Heidegger & Fink, 1979) translates polemos with a German word for dispute, Auseinandersetzung – what moves out to another position. It is an interesting way to portray controversy. Polemos is dissolution. It belongs to a realm of displacements, negotiations, disputes and frictions that stops nowhere short of ontology itself.

Heraclitus, a philosopher of shape-shifting fashions, survived his own mutations according recent anarcheological work (see Bensusan et al. 2012). Not that he remained himself, but he survived. He lived to be a world-traveler and aged to cherish his widespread anonymity. Due maybe to his mountain herbs, he had strength to leave Ephesus for good and carry on alive for millennia. Anarcheology, the study of what is not established, with its preference for versions and subversions, has thoroughly considered his late output. Those an-archeological efforts (an anarché-ological endeavor) date his last texts from his days in Deir Al Balah, Gaza, before the bombings of 2009. Rumors have that he was planning a second edition of his book on physis to be published in the several languages he spoke in his late years. He used to say that in him lived the philosophers who didn't intend to have their grip on things but rather would approach everything in their tiptoes. The manuscript that he was carrying with him in his last years disappeared after the Israeli attack and no more than about two hundred new fragments remained. Some of these new fragments that circulate in different versions provide an aggiornamento of the doctrine that the polemos ties ontology and politics together. Heraclitus´ account of the polemos appears as a way to bring together ontology and politics that encompass some of the tenets that process philosophy, speculative materialism and facticity attempt to capture. It appears as an alternative to the bedrock image and to all efforts to make politics alien to ontology.

Polemos is presented as a political plot inside everything. It is not something that can be contemplated from the outside as it also acts through our awareness of it. It is thoroughly situated. It is as if Heraclitus were saying that no matter is immune to fire – one can maybe contemplate things from beyond anything inflammable, but one wouldn't then be able to breathe there. Among the many ways the polemos finds to spread its disruption, our knowledge of it is one of them. He writes:

130. Whenever something comes about, a polemos comes about and then there is politics.

131. Polemos often lies where we don't expect. It lies not only in the catapults, but also in the surprise that meets the polemos, in the temptation for polemos and in the knowledge of polemos.

Polemos cannot be controlled through knowledge because it is present in the very cage that attempts to cage it. Any exercise in ontology takes on a political stance. The polemos is the force of resistance against the establishment of realms and dominions – an arché and what springs from it. Dominions require subjects that act as inanimate subservient instantiations of something else whereas the polemos opens up a plan d'instantiation akin to a plan d'immanence where no arché is implemented in anything but on inflammable stuff. Polemos brings about a vulnerability to fire, an incapacity to be merely following orders. It is the spark of things, rather than what subjects them. The kingdom of polemos, an-arché, anarchiste couronné. Heraclitus has several fragments on the polemos and an-arché:

138b. The powerful of the time ends up claiming that the polemos is asleep. It sleeps, but doesn't obey.

155. I keep meeting people that act as if disputes are about poles. Polarization distorts the polemos – polemos has no poles. Its force lies in the sliding of the poles. […] only when we get tired, we choose sides.

178*. There are no archés. What we take to be archés are often no more than the slowest things to change. Like a turtle that holds the world. Or laws of nature that guide the world. Or a unitary cosmos that ground all its parts. Slow things are not always a metronome setting the pace for the orchestra. Often, they are just another instrument. Polemos, on the other hand, is just about a lack of archés – it is an an-arché.

198*. [...] [On the other hand,] attachment to archés springs from an interest in control: find out who is the boss and we shall deal with him. Find the laws of the land and we will crack our deals. But no empire lasts because no realm lasts. Not even the realm of all things. There is no principle that could prevent any other beginning. Bacteria, worms and viruses as much as roaches and rats didn't surrender to the alleged human victory over the animal world. Human gestures are themselves full of anomalies that resist the humanizing principle imposed to all things and mainly to whoever happens to be born in the human species.

252. The polemos doesn't do anything, but it doesn't leave anything done either.

259*. The polemos is no demiurge. It gives birth to no chaos, to no order. It leaves a trace of exceptions behind it. Eventually, they germinate...

Polemos is a capacity to disrupt, just like doubts. To say that it is not in our heads but at the kernel of things is to say that there is no non-slippery core to anything. Fragment 145 says:

145. It is quite common to exorcise the polemos from the world by holding that each thing has its core. A core is a conquered territory where battles have already been fought and everything is properly trained and tamed. In order to persuade us that the world is rid of any polemos, we posit a world that has no more things than the ones that seem to be still. And then we can say, with the sort of philosophy that is most popular in the last centuries,that the polemos is in our heads.

In contrast, Heraclitus sees physis as polemos, the force of the inachevé. It is a force that lies in the weaknesses of the alliances, on their vulnerability. Disruption is not an incident, but rather what he prefers to see as characters in his ontological plot. He diagnoses what is lost in the translation of physis as a realm of natural laws:

141. When physis, which is polemos, was replaced by a realm of laws – and nature stopped being strong to become merely ruling – it freed itself of wild dispositions and became merely an instrument of order and progress. What was left of the polemos itself was then thrown into the realm of chance.

And then he sees the laws of nature as something that is conveniently left outside the scope of politics:

157b*. Nature, by contrast, is no more than our scapegoat.

271. [it often seems as if we are] taming nature in order to tame people. The world is presented as a universe of servitude. Sometimes of inescapable servitude. The open possibilities are no more than concessions. So people fight for concessions. [but, in fact,] no one has ever anything to lose other than their chains. To win or to lose are things that happen only to those who are ruled.

There are no hierarchies (no archies) other than the ones determined by the existing alliances, by the current political configuration of things. Heraclitus takes necessity and contingency to be equally up for grabs, not derived from archés and not held by bedrocks.

196*. […] While the river changes, it changes what it drags and what can swims in it. Nothing is necessary or contingent once and for all. The flowing of the river changes not only what there is but also what there possibly is. No law is immune to flooding. Some of them are just too costly to challenge at the moment.

Heraclitus' conception of the ontological as something that has little to do with fixity and his suspicion concerning the politics of bedrock ontologies are expressed by fragments like the following:

210. While everything is connected to everything, there is no whole

212. Borders are where the war stopped. Being? It cannot be anything but a cease-fire.

213. [They say, someone says] that words are prejudices. So are things.

223. In the middle of all there is polemos.

237. I hear people asking what the world is made of. It cannot be made of anything but of world, I want to say. They want a list. There are things that cannot be in a list. There are lists of things that wouldn't fit in the world, the world wouldn't fit in any of them.

277b*. Thought cannot strip off the garments of the world. It is itself garment. Nothing, not even the world, is ever fully naked – nor fully clothed. Physis loves to hide itself – it cannot be fully unveiled. Thought has nothing to do with the naked universe. Physis, and the polemos that infests it, is rather in the undressing.

The description of an ontology cannot be itself more than an intervention on how things are. Ontology is not in the description, but rather it is in the performance of describing things. It fits no narrative, it requires a performed gesture, a situated intervention. Ways to describe motivate political movements – the polemos acts through them. See differently and you will act differently. Ontology is not about faithful accounts, but about teasing the world. In that vein, Heraclitus writes:

222. A friend once explained to me that ontology is politics viewed from above. I never stopped thinking about that. But I feel the vertigo.

147. In the beginning there was no politics. Neither was there polemos. Nor was there a beginning.

228*. […] No description of the world can afford not to stir it. Don't read me as if I was saying that there are polemos or logos or anything. I don't deal in catalogues. Everything can be ripped apart. When I talk about what there is, I want to unlock something. This unlocking matters. What matters is what escapes from one's words.

286. When I talk about the polemos, I'm not describing the underground of things, I'm rather inserting underground on them.

286a. [...] I don't do geology, I dig tunnels.

286b. Words are actors. They perform different characters in different acts. At most they carry a style throughout. Polemos is a style of acting.

Heraclitus argues against formality in ontology. We cannot consider the difference between reductionism and non-reductionism, or between monism and pluralism, without considering the difference between saying that everything is a rock and saying that everything is fire. While not in the business of taking everything to be one thing – fire, polemos or whatever – Heraclitus points at the difference between an ontology inspired by layers of rock and one that draws on flames and burst. He certainly wouldn't take all ontology to have a similar architecture – not only each monism entails a different sort of reduction but also each pluralism (or even each way to conceive the world as made itself of fragments) carries a different multiplicity. Each ontological performance produces a different gesture towards what there is. His gesture would rather mostly be one of asserting the polemos as something that cuts across ontology and politics – and as such has a formal element – in order to play it against their ready-made forms. His gesture is to look across what there is while digging tunnels, inserting movement and igniting the inflammability of things. At the same time, his gesture is to avoid the fire to be seen as lava that will solidify and, instead, point at the ubiquitous molten rock.


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