A Report on A Workshop with Etienne Balibar 


Samir Kumar Das & Sanam Roohi

Calcutta Research Group (CRG) with the support of Ford Foundation, had undertaken a multilinear, multidimensional and an intense engagement with the concept and realities of ‘Social Justice’. The second critical studies conference was a part of this engagement with the concept of social justice and an effort in that front. The Conference was held from 20-22 September 2007. The title of the Conference was chosen as “Spheres of Justice”. 

The Second Conference had a special feature. Just after the conference there was “A One-Day Workshop with Etienne Balibar” on 24 September 2007 which took place at Swabhumi’s Rang Darbar. A select group of participants were invited to join the workshop. On the first half of the day, Etienne Balibar spoke on his the question of his recent research interest, current research work and his reflections on it; and on the second half of the day there were five commentators who took up five important topics of his work and commented on it. It was followed by interjections from the participants and created enormous thought provoking dialogue. 

The workshop was attended by Ranabir Samaddar, Samir Kumar Das, Paula Banerjee, Subhas Ranjan Chakraborty, Pradip Kumar Bose, Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, Samik Bandyopadhyay, Shefali Moitra, Manas Ray, Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Rajarshi Dasgupta, Anirban Das, Anindya Batabyal, Sudeepta Ghose, Arup Sen, Shefali Moitra, Neilratan Shende, Chittibabu Padavala, Ishita Dey, Ratan Chakroborty, Samaresh Guchhait, Sanam Roohi, Pieter Boele van Hensbroek, Justine McGill, Francisco Naishtat, Ivaylo Ditchev, Ajay Gandhi, Brett Neilson, Biljana Kasic, Giorgio Grappi and Sandro Mezzadra. 

The workshop was preceded by a day-long meeting on 8 September 2007. That meeting was intended to (a) familiarize the participants with some of Balibar’s current works; (b) discuss the introductory remarks to be presented by the designated commentators in the proposed workshop on themes related to his works and (c) work out the modalities of conducting the workshop with him.  

Following this, the one day workshop aimed to delve deeply into the ways in which current political and social thinking has addressed the issues of justice in its discussions on themes such as citizenship, race and neo-racism, role of the masses in democracy, borders, the nation form, etc. These are some of the issues, which have not only engaged the attention of Etienne Balibar in course of his work in the last forty-five years in the area of political and moral philosophy, they are also considered as central to recent understandings of justice. Balibar’s writings open up multiple entry points to our understanding of justice in the present world.  

The day was divided in the pre-lunch and post-lunch sessions. During the pre-lunch session, Etienne Balibar spoke on his current philosophical engagements. In his remarks he recounted his engagement with “polemical issues of the ‘event’ and present” as a part of the series of the introductory lectures on Philosophy and Current issues for the newly established Centre for Contemporary study for French Philosophy.  

In the History of 20th C, Heidegger in his seminal work on Time and Being analysed the category of the ‘event’. Certain contemporary philosophers also contributed to the theory of the event. In Foucault and Althusser’s work the category of “event” was part of the critique of the teleological time. In this context he reminded us that philosophy of the “event” is also about philosophy of the “present”. This is explicit in Foucault’s later interest in Kant’s Essay “What is Enlightenment?”  For the first time Philosophers were debating with their own ideas; i.e, what makes the time singular and specific and how the old and new are fighting together. The leanings of these ideas can be found on concrete analysis of “concrete” moment.  

In this context Balibar highlighted that the concepts of “over determination” and “under determination” should be taken together. Concept of “conjecture” is some kind of trope. Althusser and Foucault break away from the conventional use of “event” and instead uses it in a radical sense. He recalled his conversation with one of his friends when he went to Algeria as a Peace Corps Volunteer. His friend was the leader of the Maoist Students organization who felt that he was obsessed with theory. Prof. Balibar reflected on whatr drives him to find the subject of the theory. One possibility could be divine intervention the other possibility and the relevant one is “masses”. Masses have been the center of Mao’s writings. For Balibar, this question obsessed him throughout his life. 

It is through encounter with masses, meeting people and institutions one can locate the spirit of the times. It is important to disentangle the “social” of social movements, to understand the differences and crystallize discourses, practices and institutions. His personal experience is that “differences” are never absolute which make communication and sharing of experiences inexplicable. This is why he is favour of “‘dialogic’ way of making philosophy” as it speaks of “plurality of voices”.  

There are two concerns that has been the subject of his writing in recent times. The two concerns are question of universality and universalism. The strategies of speaking the universal have sparked his previous interest in Spinoza. The return to Spinoza has been marked by his interest to understand Spinoza’s position of secularization of civil societies. The classical theorists like Hobbes and Locke’s view on religion could be seen as points of departure for the representation of the strategies of the universal.

The contemporary transformation of the world capitalist market undoubtedly has acquired new meanings for the strategies of the universal. This is where things have become delicate. The utopian ideals of postcolonial tendencies, planetarism are dead. What these utopian ideals share are the structures of power and institutions which institute political community. The idea of utopia is an imaginary compensation of the gap between the political institutions and universal principles of rights which are invoked in the institutionalization of the institution. In this context, he referred to Hannah Arendt’s critique of rights of man as a severe blow to the nation. There are two possible reactions to this. Firstly, that the universalisation of politics and cosmopolitanism remained a dream and now we re residing in a post- nationalist and cosmopolitan world. Second is a more pessimistic position and is rooted in the ideas of universal and utopias as meaningless.  

He then focused on the Strategies of politics of universal. He referred to the theological programme that is embedded in the genealogy of the politics of the universal, which aims at bridging the gap between theory and practice. The transferring of emotion to practice is a transformation that is entailed in the notion of planetarism the way Spivak uses it. The idea incorporates desires of postcolonial assertion. Studies on Post-colonial societies focus on cross-border and civic movements. It is essential for people from old colonial powers to revisit the post-colonial societies in a meaningful way. The concept of planetarism in way proposes a framework to provide genealogy of politics. It is not a history of ideas. It has to become associated in a more heuristic manner. The genealogy must embody central aspect of history of hegemony and counter-hegemony of the politics of the universal.  

In the typical hegemonic structure one cannot do way with the concept of crisis. To understand the political diagnosis of the hegemony of crisis one can refer to the existing sociological tradition of the linear evolutionist progressivist explanation of history which does not include successive layers of domination and idea of decadence. It includes disenchantment of the world and various forms of rationality. One can draw the idea of secularization from Nisbet. It is deeply rooted in Western tradition of thought. One crisis follows the other. While the old ones are still unreserved the contemporary politics of universalism contains a juridical-political framework of the Western Modern state that has entered a crisis that is irreconcilable. The idea of the political universality is embodied in the idea of the universal Declaration of Rights and is situated in the “return of the religious” is deeper than the universalistic claims in the West. 

In the post lunch session Sanjeeb Mukherjee, Pradip Kumar Bose, Ranabir Samaddar, Manas Ray, and Paula Banerjee made the initiatory comments centering on issues of citizenship, Althusser’s legacy, methods of political inquiry, and neo-racism and borders, respectively.  

Sanjeeb Mukherjee highlighted how the idea of the nation has largely remained as the unthought of liberal modernity. Philosophers who tried to defend the nation ended up in serious philosophical difficulties. The nation is once again a major area of conflict in the making of the EU or in the spread of globalization. Balibar in some of his recent writings has tried to do two things; one, he examines the writings of Rousseau and Kant on the formation of the people and the nation, and secondly, he engages with questions of nationalism and citizenship in the EU. 

Pradip Bose, speaking on the Althusserian legacy in Balibar’s work highlighted how Althusser, on several occasions, referred to Spinoza as the only authentic antecedent to Marx's materialism.  Some of crucial spinozian features that Althusser invoked were the absolute distinction between real objects and objects of knowledge, the notion of a 'cause immanent in its effects', etc.  Etienne Balibar and others have taken these ideas at length, whose writings on Spinoza are important in contemporary revaluation of his work in France and elsewhere. 

Ranabir Samaddar spoke on how since the beginning of the twenty first century when the latest spurt in capitalist development of the world, known more popularly as globalisation, has been redefining class relations in a major way, affecting inter-state, inter-region, and inter-group relations on a global scale, we are in some sense back to the basics of class struggle. Following Etienne Balibar asserted how politics carries with it the after image of an oscillation between the scene of simulation where politics appears clean of the anthropological conditions and the scene of raw power and contest where the disciplinary functions are being constantly challenged. In other words, in politics power is challenged and resisted in both of its forms: psychiatric power and bio-power (including the subjection of the body to labour process). The issue of method is related to this dynamics. In this way we can avoid what is largely a useless debate today, namely, whether this method will produce a subject or not. What is derided as “eclectic” will be rediscovered as plural, attuned to multiple levels of reality and analysis, practical, and of course empiricist. 

Manas Ray’s focal point was the questions of sovereignty and contemporary strategies of liberal governance as worked out in the political philosophy of Etienne Balibar. The areas I focus on are rights, race and immigration in the context of the post-War demographic changes in Europe, especially in the current phase of ‘war on terror’. 

Paula Banerjee critiquing the nationalist democracy spoke on the postcolonial societies everywhere, which are caught up in the politics of borders leading to extreme sensitivity about issues of security / insecurity around the question of population settled/unsettled in and across these borders. Added to this problematic is the understanding that the ideological construction of the state is almost always weighted against ethnic, religious and other minorities who then are usually relegated to the borders of democracy.  Democracy is affected by the socio-spatial consciousness of those who construct it.  Nationalistic democracies aim at being a hegemonic form of territorial consciousness.

During the course of the two meetings a few issues emerged as the focal point of discussion.