Reflections on the Question of Political Change: Novalis, Rancière and the Force of the Comet

6 mins read

By Amanda Winberg

Since the popularization of the concept in Sir Thomas More’s famous essay Utopia from 1516, the idea of a utopian society has come to signify a paradox in political thinking. Whilst the word “utopia” indicates a situation in which the preferred political ideals are finalized, it must simultaneously suggest a situation in which further political change is redundant, and where politics turns into maintenance. But if utopia annuls political change, should utopian thinking at all be regarded as a political account? This inherent conflict in utopian thinking, known to man since the days of Plato, calls for a reflection on the notion of political change.

It is generally known how different political ideologies differ in their views on political change. Let’s start by looking at two widely spread political ideologies and two basic assumptions about them. Conservatist theories share the strive for a return to traditional values, while socialist theories share the strive for a future classless society. If these assumptions are true, it would not be wrong to reformulate these assumptions in the following manner: Conservatist theories strive for a state before the political change of the traditional, while socialist theories strive for a state after the political change of society. If we adapt this perspective on our contemporary political field, two main currents, not to be simply identified with conservatist or socialist ideologies, appear. 

One could argue that the past-oriented political discourse articulates itself today in broadly revived interests for religiosity, tribalism, cultural and national identity, often sprung out of a critique of globalism. For instance, in recent years we’ve been familiarized with Jordan B. Peterson and his followers’ turn towards ideas about universal and historically rooted values, identities, and societal structures, held to be necessary for our psychological structures as well as embodied in the teachings of the Bible. But perhaps the Trump-movement is a more eminent example, with its “make America great again”. Political change is here negatively defined. 

As for the most evident future-oriented projects, one would have to turn to the general political tendencies behind the biggest reformative moments in the recent five years; to the political tendencies behind the events of the MeToo-movement and the Black Lives Matter-movement. One might say that these movements have little to do with socialism but bear in mind that I’m talking here about a shared view on political change, and nothing more. I think we can all accept the claim that the political tendencies behind these movements, let’s say feminism and post-colonialism, view the past as an historical continuous oppression, in which women lacked basic rights and Black people were regarded as goods of trade. The orientation toward the future and towards a future society, that first needs to undergo the political change to become free from oppression, seems like the logical consequence of the project, and can thus be said to result in a positive view on political change.  

By this characterization of the two main political currents in our time it becomes clear how these tendencies amount to one basic conflict: the conflict about how to view political change. Let’s see if we can understand this conflict better by bringing the German romanticist and conservatist poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg), and the Marxist art theoretician, Jacques Rancière, to the table.

By the end of the 18th century, in 1798, Novalis’ text Glauben und Liebe was published, a reactionary response to the revolutionary spirit and the recently anonymized monarchy at this time. In this text, Novalis defends the older form of monarchy. A monarchy that is not just supposed to represent the power of law, welfare, the self-interests of the citizens, and state bureaucracy, but also certain sets of aesthetic ideals, cultural flourishment, etiquette and ultimately: a natural centre for an eternal harmonious political order. Novalis expresses this view in his simile where the state is represented by the image of our planetary system, and the king by the role of the sun. Novalis thus calls for a political state in which the monarch and the citizen are understood as parts in a natural and cosmologically ordered political whole, characterized by harmony, natural grace, and cultural continuity. At the same time, Novalis realizes that even the system of the planets has its flaws since it is threatened by comets. For Novalis, the metaphor of the comet designates the revolutionary project and at the same time his very notion of political change. 

Novalis’ main concerns are on the one hand the revolutionary spirit that threatens the trust and love for the monarchic form and on the other hand the bureaucratized monarchy that takes no responsibility in maintaining this trust and love. For Novalis, trust and love for the monarchy serves as the binding structure that keeps society in harmonious order, and as this structure collapses society is exposed to chaos and collisions. 

The comet is characterized in Glauben und Liebe as something that comes from the outer rim of the planetary system, from an outer unknown, and bears with it a destabilizing force, capable of disturbing the rhythms and paths of the heavenly bodies. Unlike the characterization of the planetary system, the comet has no sophistication, no regularities it follows, but is rather the ultimate image of an object subjugated to an uncontrollable force without any natural purpose embedded in its route. In contrast to the movements of the planetary system, the movement of the comet is accidental, brute, and forceful. This emphasis on the comet’s destructive force, responsible for breaking up a former harmony without any logical purpose, expresses the negative view of political change that Novalis shares with the previously mentioned past-orientated discourse of today. 

To understand the other side and put this perspective on political change in dialogue with a truly conflicting view, we are here going to evoke Jacques Rancière’s understanding of political change, formulated in his text Disagreement from 1990. For Rancière, the very definition of politics must namely be deduced from the moments of political “wrongdoing”, that is, from the moment the comet, in Novalis sense, collides with the harmonious political whole. In Disagreement, Rancière questions the common definition of politics, where politics is taken to be the states structure productive of consensus and governing institutions that regulate our perception of language, spaces, and the behaviours of bodies. This, Rancière holds, should not go by the name of politics but by the name of the police. 

A force interfering with this “principle of the police” every now and then is, what he calls, the principle of equality. For Rancière, the real meaning of politics namely amounts to a process of emancipation, defined by collisions between movements, affected by the principle of equality, and the principle of the police as the fixed order of society designed to maintain and produce consensus (harmony). Politics can thus, according to Rancière, be found in the situation when the fixed (and harmonious) order of a societal whole needs to be reformulated due to a conscious political wrongdoing by social groups that earlier had no part in politics. 

Rancière simply makes the following point: since the principle of the police governs our perception and definition of language, the sound of animals, the strikes of the proletariat, or the Suffragettes’ throwing away their corsets become acts perceived as mere noise, chaos or hysteria stemming from something outside of the harmonious logos structure. The wrongdoings of the proletariat, the refusal of going to work, or by the suffragettes, the refusal of wearing the corsets, destabilized the fixed order of society, but achieved important political emancipations for these social groups. Once the language of their political acts could not be ignored or declared illegitimate anymore but had to be interpreted and regarded as actual political accounts, these social groups brought about a reconfiguration of the political whole, worthy, Rancière argues, the name of politics. 

For Ranciére, coming from the Marxist tradition with concepts such as base, superstructure and ideology in his critical perspective on social order, this moment of instability in both physical and perceptual order naturally resembles a moment when political change first becomes possible. What he can be thought to suggest is a close affinity between the comet’s destabilizing force, the force we’ve seen negatively characterized by Novalis, and the very meaning of politics.

Consequently, it becomes clear that the question of political change in both future- and past-oriented political projects boils down to the question of how to regard societal instability and interruptions of fixed societal structures. How, ultimately, are we to regard the force of the comet?

Novalis suggests that the comet brings about destructions of culture, faith, and trust in the established rules of society with its bruteness and wrongdoing while Rancière holds it to be a fundamental feature of political change without which there can be no politics at all. For Novalis it threatens a natural elegance of political order but for Rancière the comet signifies the very nature of politics. I suggest that we integrate both perspectives in a twofold understanding of the comet, acknowledging the aesthetics and existentialism in Novalis account but the view on political reality underlying Rancière’s. I believe in a view of the comet that on the one hand creates humbleness about the existential difficulty that every society undergoing rapid political changes are required to deal with but on the other hand admits the political necessity of occasional societal instability for the sake of political progression. 
On this view of the comet, the horrors of political change underpinning the past-oriented discourses should neither be overlooked nor reasonably transformed into an account that is political. It should be treated as an existential trauma, caused by the force of the comet that nevertheless belongs to the nature of politics. It should be regarded as a scream, caused by the sudden remembrance that the sun will someday explode: the beauty of the earth strikes us as we see everything we enjoy and hold dear vanishing in darkness before our eyes, but along with the process of acceptance, beauty is reconsidered. The thought of the sun exploding suddenly strikes anew as something pretty astonishing.

By Amanda Winberg

Illustration: Anton Wärdig

Previous Story

Pleasure, Pain & Utopia?

Next Story

Sociala medier: En väg mot utopi eller dystopi?