Instituting Thought. Three Paradigms of Political Ontology


Roberto Esposito


The title and subtitle of this book are related in a doubly asymmetrical manner. First because the title – Instituting Thought – only refers to the third of three paradigms mentioned in the subtitle; but also because, instead of examining it from without, I place myself and proceed from within, attempting both its definition and its radicalization. Setting up in an already established construction site, modifying its outlines to the point of reconfiguring them into a new shape is, moreover, a consequential way of proceeding for a programmatically instituting thought. As in the case of the first two ontologico-political paradigms, I also interpret the third through the work of a twentieth-century author: the French philosopher Claude Lefort. Thanks to the still somewhat limited circulation of his thought – at least as compared to Heidegger and Deleuze, the referents of the other two paradigmatic axes – one can still question it in ways that are less conditioned by other interpretations, thus foregrounding, whether explicitly or implicitly, that which refers to the lexicon of institutions or, perhaps better, of instituting. This subject matter, organized into an ample series of textual and conceptual crossreferences, becomes both the gravitational center and the theoretical purview of the entire book. The pronounced heterogeneity of the three paradigms is highlighted by the shared weave that they partake in, which is defined by the category of political ontology in its specific postmetaphysical acceptation. To fully capture its meaning and scope, one needs to start by acknowledging the peculiarity of the politico-ontological approach, as compared to all other kinds of theory, sociology or even political philosophy. Unlike these, which are circumscribed within a specific regional ambit, political ontology does not relate to the area of being that concerns politics, but rather to the essential relationship that conjoins being and politics. And this is the case for both sides of the relationship – the necessarily political configuration of political praxis as well as the ultimately political character of every event. As concerns the first side, it is obvious that any political action implies a conception of space, time, and human beings – and therefore of being. One can certainly state that the different rankings of political philosophies, ancient and modern, are predicated on the more or less intense awareness that their authors had of this implication. The extraordinary philosophical prominence of the political works of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Hegel is due to their being not only theories but precisely political ontologies. This is true also of the great political thinkers of the twentieth century, from Weber to Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault – who are all authors of political ontologies in the fullest sense of the term, rather than of philosophies. Moreover, every philosophical definition of being entails presuppositions and effects of a political nature – even those that deny that this is the case, since this very negation is based in principle on an opposition between the political and the impolitical. To claim that something, an action or a discourse, is not political already situates it within an opposition of a political nature. That which presents itself as apolitical or antipolitical does so as a consequence of removing its instituting moment, which, as such, is always political. Additionally, any modality of being – beginning with its own “power to be” – expresses all the political tension of the relationships it originates from and tends to alter.


Of course, the relationship between being and politics – which is constitutive of political ontology – has been understood in very different ways in the course of time. For a long period, indeed for the entire course of the history of metaphysics, it was interpreted as a basic foundation of a substantive kind, one that was destined to guarantee the correctness of political action. In other words, one imagined that politics could, or should, be guided by specific principles, grounded in the sphere of being and expressive of it. This kind of presumption characterized a significant part of the philosophical tradition, both of Platonic and of Aristotelian origin – but also the one that derives from Christian roots. Obviously it is not possible to establish any continuity between ancient and modern politics, given their crystalclear lexical dissimilarities. When compared to ancient politics, theological or natural, modern politics begins with and is constituted precisely starting with their revocation. Modernity, in the most pointed sense of the term, implies the negation of that which precedes it, of every transcendent presupposition. The abandonment of the state of nature as a preliminary condition for the state of politics, as theorized by Hobbes, bestows on the category of negation a central role in the modern configuration of power: only by negating that which precedes it can the political order establish its place. But, even though it characterizes the foundation in negative terms, modern political philosophy remains tied to the logic of foundation, brought to its culmination by Hegel precisely through the dialectical use of negation. Only with the crisis of Hegelianism does this dispositif begin to show the first signs of degradation, which Nietzsche will push to a point of no return. After Nietzsche, all attempts at restoration notwithstanding, the hypothesis of grounding politics in the sphere of a substantive being seems to be definitively exhausted, a process tied to the ongoing deconstruction of the notion of substance itself.


This, however, does not mean that political ontology itself disappears. Instead one could say that it is precisely the consummation of the metaphysical foundation that entails the need for a different establishment of the political. Only now it is inscribed in the fissure into which the foundation has precipitated – in other words, in its not being a foundation any longer. From this point on, any political conception presupposes a negative horizon: not only a negative foundation, one already theorized by modern political philosophy, but a non-foundation, a lack of foundation. Starting from this point, the relationship between being and politics no longer refers to presence but to absence, to a void, a gap. This explains why the principal political ontologies of the twentieth century are all inscribed in the groove of difference: from the point of view of ontology, politics is defined by the relationship between being and difference. This is what opposes them to the ancient and medieval ontologies of identity, pushing the ontologies of difference toward contemporaneity. In this sense, to borrow Foucault’s celebrated expression, they are all “ontologies of actuality.”


But they do exhibit a decisive variation, precisely as regards the role of difference, which changes as a function of the theoretical frameworks of which it is a part. Inside the paradigmatic triangle formed by being, politics, and difference, the three terms constantly change position and meaning, combining with one another in unprecedented ways. It is these shifts that define the diversity of the three paradigms we examine here. Politics can exhibit a trait that reproduces ontological difference within itself, as Heidegger maintains. Or it can instead constitute the intrinsically differential characteristic of a being extended over a single plane of immanence, as in Deleuze’s perspective. Finally, in yet another semantic register, interpreted by Lefort – but one that we can also define as neo-Machiavellian or conflictualist – social being is instituted by a symbolic difference that possesses the characteristics of politics. These are precisely the figures delineated by the three most important ontologico-political paradigms of contemporary philosophy: the post-Heideggerian, the Deleuzian, and the instituting paradigm, which is still in the process of being elaborated. These three paradigms don’t succeed one another chronologically but exist contemporaneously, interweaving in complex ways, which sometimes juxtapose them and sometimes exhibit one as the reverse of the other. But they do give rise to a diversity of effects on the philosophical debate, effects that the following pages emphasize, motivated by an intent that is itself ultimately political. My thesis is that, while the first two paradigms – the post-Heideggerian and the Deleuzian, which follow different and sometimes opposed modalities – are inscribed in the current crisis of the political and thus contribute to its exacerbation, only the third, the instituting, is able to reverse this drift with a new, affirmative project. What divides them is the role that the negative plays for each one with respect to the constitutive relationship between ontology and politics. In Heidegger the negative is present with such intensity that it opens up a gap between the two, while in the Deleuzian paradigm, conversely, it is erased, owing to their complete overlap. What characterizes the instituting paradigm, on the other hand, is a productive relationship with negation that allows one to articulate being and politics in a reciprocally affirmative relation.


2. Tracing the first ontologico-political paradigm – which is oriented toward the deactivation of action, and therefore also definable as a “destituting” paradigm – back to Heidegger is neither a foregone conclusion nor one devoid of problems. This is not only because he never claimed to be a political thinker, not even in the dark period of his rectorate, but also because all contemporary philosophers who, in various ways, could be ascribed to the destituting paradigm are situated in a political orbit that is radically counterposed to Heidegger’s. And yet, this very clear distance in political orientation notwithstanding, all of them, from Schürmann through Nancy to Agamben, consider him an essential theoretical point of reference. In this respect the same paradoxical relationship that had tied Heidegger to his great Jewish disciples – Marcuse, Arendt, Löwith – repeats itself. In this case, too, naturally, each of the philosophers I mentioned follows his or her own original path, in which references to Heidegger alternate with just as frequent ones to Bataille, Benjamin, and Foucault. And yet the traces left by Heidegger in their thought remain indelible. How come? What paradigmatic thread ties intellectuals of the extreme left to a thinker whose political orientation was always toward the right? In order to answer this question – which has made people use the phrase “left Heideggerianism” – one needs to look at Heidegger not from the perspective of his inauspicious political commitment in the 1930s – a perspective that is all too much in evidence today – but rather from that of the impolitical turn that succeeded it, and in ever more pronounced forms, from the postwar period to the 1960s.


The following pages provide a fairly detailed account of Heidegger’s itinerary, reconstructing the transitions and the discontinuities of a grand thought that ever more clearly modifies its conception of politics. These are pages that never elide the profound connection to the theoretical center of gravity of his work as a whole, represented by the “negative” dispositif of ontological difference. From this angle, one can even trace an obviously imperfect parallel between ontological difference and the political–impolitical bipolarity. In both cases the relationship is characterized, and constituted, by a negation. Just as alētheia is recognizable only in the negative modality of “non-concealment,” analogously politics originates negatively from an impolitical presupposition that both founds it and defies it. Having originated from something non-political – the impolitical site of the polis – politics is not able to correspond to it with a sufficient degree of radicalism. The complex equilibrium that still allowed Heidegger in the 1930s to imagine the instituting of the political, even if by thinkers and poets, breaks at some point, projecting the two poles, the political and the impolitical, in ever more divergent directions. When this happens, the impolitical – understood, up to a certain moment, as the negative foundation of politics – becomes its absolute negation. This is the case when politics – any type of politics, including that to which, in the early 1930s, Heidegger had entrusted the task of saving the West from the anti-metaphysical grip that was strangling it – appears to him to be incorporated and perverted by technological Machenschaft [machination], a legacy contemporary to the Romanization of the Greek language. That is when, having lost its contacts with an ever more degraded politics, the impolitical expands to the point of occupying the entire ontological horizon, clearly separating itself from the destiny of humankind. From this point on, the only way for humans to respond to that which calls them is to deactivate their action, ready to listen to a poeticizing or meditative thought.


All of Heidegger’s work, starting in the early 1940s, revolves around this destituting paradigm. That which was conceived as the negative presupposition of all political institutions and of instituting itself now becomes its very clear rejection. Politics, which at this point has been entirely absorbed by technology, should no longer be instituted, but destituted. Any kind of “doing” should be undone. Only the radical tonality, the decisive lexicon related to taking a decision, is what remains of the political – a decision that now coincides with a non-decision, one that corresponds to the oxymoron of the will to not will. But, once all political possibilities have been voided, even the impolitical, deprived of its original foundational power, ends up annihilating itself. If the impolitical is thought of as the source of the political, when the latter implodes into technology, the impolitical ends up sliding into nothingness aswell. Once the political has been annihilated, the impolitical, deprived of a point of contrast, sinks with it. Insofar as human beings are concerned, since they are ontologically prevented from transforming reality, they can only wait for the fulfillment of destiny. What is striking in Heidegger’s language is the activist tone taken by that which one can subject oneself to only in a passive manner: the non-postponable nature of the ultimate option that continues to suggest the category of potentiality – but only so long as it remains unrealized, sheltered from an activity that, in realizing it, would empty it. It is this impolitical intensity of the deactivation of all politics that post-Heideggerian thinkers absorb from Heidegger, transposing it, in similarly radical fashion, into a horizon that is as theoretically revolutionary as it is practically inert.


One needs to add that the Heideggerian roots of this destituting line are not the only ones. At its origin, not always fully consciously, lies a paradigm that in its day was defined as impolitical, inscribed on the reverse of the official side of twentieth-century philosophy. I am thinking of authors who were not professional philosophers, such as Karl Barth, Simone Weil, Georges Bataille, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti. They are the first to coin the, elevated and tragic, language of dis-activation: from “decreation,” to “passive action,” to “non-agent,” “not translated into act,” “decreation,” “blocked at the stage of pure potentiality.” The entire lexicon of the destituting paradigm was born between the 1920s and 1930s and was then resemanticized at the end of the century. At its center we find a negative presupposition – expressed by the prefix in im-political – which excludes any affirmative judgment. In this world one finds nothing but conflicts of power and interest, separated by an invisible line from what is not and will never be able to be. The impolitical is not something situated beyond it, that does not exist as such, but that invisible line itself. It accomplishes nothing but express the impossibility of representing goodness, justice, and value politically. But the impolitical, in turn, cannot escape the contradiction of being able to define itself only on the basis of the political, from which it distances itself. It is this insurmountable antinomy that places it on the same slim ridge that both conjoins and disjoins gnosticism and mysticism, pushing one into the reverse of the other. That which ultimately remains, notwithstanding everything that distinguishes individual interpreters from one another, is the shared depoliticizing outcome that the entire paradigm of deactivation produces. Removed from any perspective oriented toward action, protected from the temptations of work, bent on the anarchical removal of principles, it dissolves the possibility of the political in the as yet unrevealed enigma of a potentiality devoid of act.


3. The ontologico-political paradigm whose influence is most strongly felt in Deleuze’s works is antipodal to the post-Heideggerian paradigm. Deleuze himself, while recognizing Heidegger’s philosophical stature, views his own oeuvre as a sort of confutation of the latter’s. While they both share a number of themes, what sharply separates them is the plane, which Deleuze himself defines as one “of immanence,” that is in principle destined to abolish all kinds of ontological difference. Since being is univocal, in other words constituted in the unique form of difference, instead of being separated from an ontic dimension, difference coincides with the becoming of being itself. Without dwelling on the transitions that lead Deleuze to elaborate this plane of immanence, we can state that its effect is the exclusion of the notion of the impolitical itself, a notion that, on the other hand, Heidegger’s political reflections do revolve around. Once the negative presupposition of the political has been suppressed, the latter expands to the point of filling the entire movement of reality. This is what Deleuze argues, at least starting from 1968; and this period is identified, not only by him, as the period in which the realization of the political and the politicization of the real resolve into each other without residue. From this perspective the French philosopher’s work – especially the Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus – can be seen as the most intense political ontology of the twentieth century, in other words a work in which the two terms, ontology and politics, experience the highest degree of superposition, one that frontally collides with the irremediable fracture Heidegger opened between them.


This does not mean, however, that the matter is closed. It is in fact precisely this superposition that prevents Deleuze from elaborating an effective political thought, almost as if the three areas of being, politics, and thought could not find any possible articulation within his philosophy. This also helps explain the sharp distinction between a first, more technically philosophical part, essentially devoid of political references, and a later one, which exhibits a strong political orientation but is perhaps not as philosophically rigorous. The impression one receives is that, the more politics is superposed on being, becoming the constitutive cipher of its becoming, the less it is being thought of in its specificity. Once it has been extended to the entire ontogenetic process and is its immediate expression, politics ends up losing its own contours, and in the end confuses them with those of being, in which it inheres. If being is political as such, according to Deleuze’s own explicit declaration, how can a specifically political activity be distinguished within it? What differentiates it from that which it is not? Or from another kind of politics, oriented in the opposite direction? I believe that the reason for this impasse – which has not prevented a motley galaxy of political thinkers, in addition to neo-naturists, post-humanists, and hyperimmanentists, from drawing inspiration from the Deleuzian paradigm for their theses – should be sought in Deleuze’s loss of contact with the category of negation. It is true that his emancipation from the negative – which does constitute the principal explicit objective of his ontology – never happens all at once or completely. One can instead say that his work is indeed troubled by it in all its parts, without ever managing to completely discard it. So he passes, sometimes on the same page, from the mutual implication of difference and negation to the opposition between them, from a conception of difference as a figure that affirms the negative to another, which instead excludes it, and he never opts definitely for one of the two. This is the reason for a tragic vein that runs through an oeuvre that is all too often interpreted in an insufficiently problematic fashion. The fact remains that the greater the influence of Bergson, this staunch proponent of the misleading and therefore non-existent nature of the negative, the more Deleuze abandons the category of the negative. This development, in turn, has entropic effects on the determination of the political, since one cannot ask oneself what politics is, even a certain kind of politics, without simultaneously knowing what it is not. This is the way in which a position that is programmatically hyperpolitical – in the sense that it interprets any event in political terms – is reversed, if not into a depoliticizing outcome, at least into a failed determination of the political: of its subjects and objects, of its ends and means, of its organizational forms and strategies. And this is not due to a default, as in the case of Heidegger, but to an excess of politics – which, being defined as identical to everything that exists, risks becoming something that is not at all defined.


If the Heideggerian paradigm can be called destituting, the Deleuzian, even taking its most influential political translations into account, can be called constituting. Obviously, not in a technical – that is, juridico-political, sense; but certainly in an ontological sense, as an eternally creative form, and also, precisely for this reason, one that is decreative of the reality just created. Just as the primacy of constitutive power – one proposed, within the same ontological perspective, by Antonio Negri – overwhelms constituted power, so the infinitely productive power of being resolves each “state” into its own becoming, dissolving it as such. This is the effect of the substitution of the category of production, transposed to an ontological level, for that of praxis, a category still too charged with the negative to be able to merge with the plane of immanence. In the course of an extensive interpretation of creatio ex nihilo – taken beyond the moment of Genesis and rendered co-eternal with the world – productive creation exposes the created to an unceasingly renewed creation, which is made possible only via the abolition of what precedes. In the Deleuzian paradigm, even thought is qualified by the continuous creation of new concepts rather than by a differential resumption of that which has already been thought. This is the same relationship that exists between the virtual and the actual: the latter is no more than the momentary and deceptive fixation of a process that flows ceaselessly from one virtual to the next. Understood in this manner, the constitutive act, which “dissolves” being into an eternal becoming, is at the same time destitutive of that which it creates, and therefore ultimately also destitutive of itself – just as desire, which moves the entire Deleuzian political ontology, is always at the same time a desire for life from the universal point of view and a desire for death from the individual point of view: a desire for escape and abolition, for emancipation and self-repression. This is true of any desire, which is limitless and therefore also inclusive of its opposite.


This is what explains the insuperability of capitalism, as elaborated upon by the philosopher. Within Deleuze’s ontological dispositif there are two ways in which capitalism cannot be denied: on the one hand, because negation does not exist, only affirmative difference does; on the other, because no other social formation can unleash the flows of desire and nomadic movement to the degree capitalism can. It is true that capitalism simultaneously harnesses them with bonds, blockages, and striations that must be vanquished by means of what Deleuze refers to as “counter-effectuations.” But this occurs from within capitalist effectuation itself – since there is nothing external to it. It is an effectuation that needs to be fully completed, freed from its contradictions and indulged in, in an ever-accelerating fashion. In this sense acceleration, or intensification, appears to be Deleuze’s only political category: one oriented not to changing the present state of affairs, but rather to pushing it toward implosion. What needs to be accelerated or intensified is always the reality that is unfolding, never a different one, which is declared impossible. As in the case of Nietzsche, the only way of facing nihilism is to drive it to its extreme outcomes, making what had been passive up to that point active. This is how Deleuze believes that capitalism – with all the slivers of fascism that characterize it – should be led to self-destruction: by infinitely accelerating its movement, in a coincidence of creation and destruction, constitution and destitution. Driving affirmation to its acme also means affirming that which is counterposed to it, thus leading to the collapse of both forces. As Hegel had explained, absolute affirmation coincides with absolute negation. At the apex of its development, the constituting paradigm tends to join the destituting paradigm from the opposite side, in a shared rejection of instituting thought.


4. What distinguishes instituting thought from the destituting paradigm and its messianic matrix, as well as from the constituting one and its eschatological inspiration, is its taking leave of the lexicon of political theology while it remains aware of the incompleteness of modern secularization; this awareness is especially strong in Lefort. The instituting paradigm is protected from the return of the theological because it is extraneous to the presupposition of the One that, albeit in different forms, remains at the heart of both Heideggerian and Deleuzian ontologies. Social being is neither univocal nor plurivocal, but conflictual in the instituting paradigm, and this is why it can be defined as neo-Machiavellian. What characterizes the social – all interhuman relationships – is neither the absoluteness of the One nor the infinite proliferation of the manifold, but the tension between the Two. Even when it proclaims its compactness or seems to fracture into infinite differences, society is always characterized by a fundamental antagonism, one that ultimately all the others can be related back to. The role of the political, both central and ineradicable, is to stage this division, raising it from the empirical plane of the clash of powers and interests to the symbolical one of the government of society. The institutional bent that gathers the social around the division that runs through it is symbolic – in its distinction from both the real and the imaginary. Sumbolon, according to its own etymon, evokes an order that is not alternative to the conflict but is produced by it and productive of it, in a form destined to constantly change on the basis of the power relationships that are established each time between the parties to the conflict. This does not mean that instituting praxis, from its Machiavellian matrix through all its subsequent incarnations, is neutral. It certainly takes sides, it is partisan – oriented toward an expansion of freedoms and a narrowing of inequalities. It is difficult to imagine something that represents the instituting paradigm better than the Roman institution of tribune of the people [tribunus plebis], mentioned by Machiavelli in his Discourses. Born of the conflict with the nobility and itself a generator of new social clashes, this is perhaps the clearest example of an instituting power that does not destroy a given institutional equilibrium, but innovates it in an affirmative sense. From this point of view Machiavelli’s thought is at the heart of the instituting paradigm. The political is that which unites society via its divisions, rendering a fracture that had not reached awareness and was therefore potentially destructive up to that point symbolically manageable. Within the instituting paradigm, difference remains what it is, without splitting into the ontological fracture between the political and the impolitical, as in Heidegger, or being flattened out into the Deleuzian coincidence of ontology and politics. If the political is made into the institution of the social, it is thereby contained in the social, but not identified with it. One is holding fast to the symbolic limit, thus preventing the social from coinciding with itself and subsiding into absolute immanence.


Obviously such a dynamic, which inscribes transcendence into immanence, so to speak, presupposes a radical revision of the category of institution, by comparison with the canonical ways in which it has been treated in the domains of political science, sociology, and the law. The passage from the noun (“institution”) to the verb, “to institute,” already points to a deep transformation with respect to all the katechontic, eschatological, and messianic dispositifs of political theology, which are all explicitly hostile to any encounter with history. Rather than referring to a consolidated order of rules and laws, instituting refers to a task that coincides with that of politics and is destined to continually change the normative framework in which it operates – and to do so without either deactivating it in a salvific mode or dissolving it in the name of a creativity so accelerated that it destroys what was just created. An instituting logic exhibits a profound relationship with the historicity of existence, one that is far removed both from the deactivation of destituting power and from the acceleration of constituting power. The instituting movement is always a creatio ex aliquo – neither a decreatio nor a creatio ex nihilo; it keeps together origin and duration, innovation and conservation, functionalizing the one toward the further empowerment of the other. As Lefort’s teacher Merleau-Ponty argued, the institution, however original, always arises in the context of a preexisting situation; it always makes use of fabrics that were woven previously, in the fields of the arts, the sciences, thought, and, naturally, politics. It does not entrust itself either to the Heideggerian temporality of the event or to the Deleuzian one of repetition – exceeding both the severe majesty of being and the inarticulate flow of becoming. To institute in the grooves of what was already instituted creates stability and stabilizes creation – and does so without revolutionary proclamations, messianic prophecies, or anarchistic intentions, since there does not exist and there has never existed a society able to forgo power. Instituting praxis deconstructs any substantiality of power, doubts any claims to belonging, reveals its empty center, which can be occupied each time only by the forces that prevail in that moment, before they are substituted by others, which are just as replaceable. Within the instituting paradigm, political subjects do not precede the conflict in any substantive fashion but are shaped and transformed by it. The category of subjectivation, which coincides with the always collective movement of instituting, takes the place of the category of subject.


An important contribution in this direction was provided by the legal institutionalism of the first decades of the last century, represented by figures such as Maurice Hauriou, and especially Santi Romano. At the center of their work, whose foundational value was also recognized by Carl Schmitt, are the challenges they pose not only to the obligatory relationship between institution and legal person – via the reference, brought into play by Hauriou, to an institution-thing that recalls the category of the “impersonal” – but also to the identification of institution and state, an identification Romano declared was “in crisis” already in the first years of the twentieth century.


Their work exhibits elements of a rupture with the legal lexicon that has not yet been sufficiently exploited in its ontologico-political and even philosophical presuppositions. This is about the paradigmatic contrast between institution and law, which was then taken up and even developed with originality by the young Deleuze. The state not only is not the sole – or the main – form of institutional arrangement, but it always coexists with other institutions subordinated or superordinated to it, which are autonomous and compete with it because they are situated outside the sovereign regime, if not actually opposed to it. But in Romano’s elaboration these can be considered institutions to all effects and purposes, so long as they meet the condition of being internally organized; and this applies even to those that the state declares illegitimate on the grounds that they are hostile to it, as in the case of revolutionary associations. This does not necessarily mean that they have reasons that are ethically inferior to its own – in fact they are often superior. It is difficult not to grasp, or to underestimate, the innovative power of the instituting paradigm with respect to the two currents of legal normativism and decisionism, with which it was necessarily in conflict. A radically different conception of the law separates them: the first two currents rely on a paradigm that is enclosed in the language, also sovereign, of the primacy of the written law and of the will of the legislator; institutionalism on the other hand relies on a paradigm that is open to the pressures of society and to the exigencies of history, it has to respond to the urgencies of necessity and to the needs of life. In this sense the law is the object of a struggle that centers on its own meaning even before centering on the issue of specific rights. To say that the law, instead of responding to institutions that are fixed in time, never ceases to institute means attributing a performative force to it that unleashes all its performative power. Precisely insofar as it is “unnatural” – entirely artificial – instituting law can intervene effectively in life: not in order to save it or re-create it anew, as the paradigms of political theology propose in a politically inactive manner, but in order to change it from within. This is a possible starting point from inside the crisis of contemporary political philosophy. Today the only paradigm of political ontology that is capable of politically rearticulating being and thought is the one that refers to instituting praxis.


The first person to talk about a postfoundational political ontology is Oliver Marchart: he does so in an important book, dedicated to the thought of Nancy, Lefort, Badiou, and Laclau, which opportunely substitutes this term for the excessively generic and trite “poststructuralism.” As he develops the tension between the polarities of politics and the political, la politique and le politique, Politik and das Politische, he sees the second term as possessing that energetic element that is destined to confer vitality to the first, which is still devoid of a foundation. The impolitical, conceived of as a supplement to the lack of legitimation in postclassical political ontologies, withdraws at the very moment at which it institutes the social. This withdrawal is not, however, equivalent to the negation of the foundation – which would restore the same metaphysical mechanism that had been deconstructed, only in the negative – but instead intends to assume it in a weak version, which oscillates between presence and absence without ever coinciding with either one or the other. According to Marchart, one should beware of confusing postfoundationalism with anti-foundationalism or, even worse, with the postmodern thesis that “anything goes,” “since a post-foundational approach does not attempt to erase completely such figures of the ground, but to weaken their ontological status.” Having reemerged as “the political” – in a sense that does not coincide with that used by Carl Schmitt – this artificial foundation has the function of preventing “politics” from closing in on itself, flattened out into mere administration. In this fashion something similar to what Heidegger defines as “ontological difference” would be inscribed at the heart of political ontology. Resting on an absent base, a new artificial foundation would work affirmatively, precisely because of its own negativity.


This perspective is not fully convincing, not only because it makes reference to a weak ontology, but also because it takes a very heterogeneous group of philosophers back to the same paradigm. While Marchart does reconstruct their different itineraries, pointing out semantic and conceptual dissimilarities, he does so within a single horizon. A problem of this kind – also present in Carsten Strathausen’s book on neo-ontology, where he assembles a series of thinkers who share an overcoming of Marxian and post-Marxian dialectics but do not really have much in common – is instead absent in Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen’s research on political ontology. They divide the thinkers included in Radical Democracy into the opposed categories of lack and abundance: “two different versions of radical democracy follow from this: one that emphasizes the hegemonic nature of politics, and another that cultivates a strategy of pluralization.”4 The former, generally thinkers with a Lacanian background, like Laclau for instance, think of the political starting from a constitutive lack, and institutionalize it as an absent foundation. Not only democracy, but also the hegemonic alternatives that succeed one another within it are always internally destabilized by a lack of substance that renders them structurally incomplete and impermanent. On the other hand, the ontologies of abundance, in which one can easily recognize Deleuze’s profile and that of nomadic thinkers, create ever new networks of materiality, flow, and energy. The sign of some sort of lack transpires in their case too, but it is always filled by new differences, which succeed one another in a potentially infinite becoming. In this game of mutually reflecting mirrors, there seem to be two political theologies that face each other, counterposed and complementary, one negative, the other positive. For one – one could say – there is nothing within being, for the other, nothing external to being.



Instituting Thought: Three Paradigms of Political Ontology (Polity Press, 2021).