Apples, Potatoes, Politics: One of these things doesn’t belong

Take the group of things we call ‘apples’. Let’s not get too technical, but merely admit that we mostly know what that word entails, and that we can therefore select members of the group from non-members when we go to the grocery store. We know not to put a potato on an elementary teacher’s desk, for instance, unless she is a French teacher, in which case the potato would serve as a joke: “pomme de terre” ha ha.

What group does this grouping itself belong to? The word ‘apples’ belongs to a number of hierarchically related linguistic groups: nouns, words, etc. Apples themselves belong to a number of hierarchically related biological groups: fruits, plants, things, etc. The sound apples bridges the gap, since it belongs to a special group of sounds called phonemes (meaningful sounds) and then from there bridges off through the physical group to join apples in the realm of things.

In one sense, this is the materialist/idealist problem in a nutshell. Boring, eh? It gets interesting again when we admit that none of these groups belongs to itself, except language. That is, the linguistic construction ‘thing’ is not itself a thing: it’s an idea or somesuch. But the linguistic construction ‘language’ is linguistic. It’s a set to which the set itself belongs. I think that’s cool, but it’s still not very interesting.

When I go around talking about politics, though, I’m actually making a lot of claims regarding this kind of set theory. I talk about the Democrats and the Republicans and I call myself a political philosopher. There’s this French cat named Alain Badiou, however, who disagrees. “That’s not politics,” he argues. It’s partisan wrangling for management of state institutions. Yet if American and European political parties have succeeded in identifying that partisan wrangling with politics tout court, if we’ve come to believe that they supply the only viable modes of political action and devote all our energies to partisan elections, than the set of politics has beeen covered over, replaced. It’s as if we’ve all begun to think of potatos when someone says ‘apples.’ A good trick… and in fact, it’s a political trick. In essence, (and this is a bit more of another Frenchie, Jacques Ranciere) the political set is made up of tricks like this: setting the viable actions and restricting the terms of debate. “Tax relief” instead of “tax cuts.” “Saving Social Security” vs. “fixing the entitlements system.” “Gay marriage” vs. “equal rights.” That’s politics.

The Dems and Reps have been such good politicians that we forget to pay attention to politics, which would maybe be something like campaign finance reform (remember that?) or voting rights for felons, or the institutional requirements of capitalism like the status of regulation as a ‘taking,’ or the relationship between public goods and private property, or the role of common citizens in the habituation of their children. The parties engage each other in these debates, and so a few thousand people spell out the basic shape of the political landscape, and then stage these massive PR campaigns for bipartisan representation as a governmental form. Politically, we’re all of us vegetarians: we’ve stopped thinking that the meat of politics is healthy for regular folks to consume, and left it to the policy wonks and party strategists.

Do you need set theory to say that? I dunno, but the right has made a lot of progress by publicizing their understanding of the true nature of politics amongst the party faithful. That’s the whole liberal media bias meme in a nutshell: demonstrating the various attempts to set the terms of a debate on the part of the left. (I’m thinking of the absurdly named “No Spin Zone.”) Maybe we could use a bit of that, ourselves.

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