College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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constitutive exclusion, unintelligibility, negativity, difference, politics


This project, “Constitutive Exclusion and the Work of Political Unintelligibility,” is a study of the ontology and epistemology of post-Hegelian conceptions of difference and their political meanings. It is motivated by the desire to understand what determines how political bodies constitute themselves through defining who is and who is not intelligible as a political agent, and how persons formerly unintelligible as political agents can become intelligible. I emphasize that constitutive exclusion is ambiguously both a structure and a process for operation: it is neither a structure which determines a particular operation, nor is it an operation which founds a certain structure. Constitutive exclusion then is both a structure and an operation by which a system, symbolic, or political body is constituted through the exclusion of some difference which is intolerable to it, or against which it defines itself. This exclusion is, however, never truly “successful,” in that the excluded element necessarily remains within the body that has excluded it, and that element continues to do the work of constituting the body through its internal exclusion. The movement that I describe is therefore twofold: on the one hand, a system, body, or ontology constitutes itself through the production of an excluded element that it nevertheless harbors within itself. On the other hand, this internal harboring of the excluded element is ignored, unrecognized, or disavowed. Constitutive exclusion is productive, therefore, of a remainder, a constitutively excluded figure that occupies what Derrida calls a “quasi-transcendental” position with regard to the delimited space whose boundary it serves to draw. The constitutively excluded figure is both the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of that constituted space. The exclusion of that figure makes the constitution possible, and yet its remaining nevertheless within that constituted space renders it impossible. It is an insurrection from within. The constitutively excluded figure simultaneously grounds and troubles the bodies that rely upon it.

At the level of philosophical systems, I argue throughout the dissertation that constitutive exclusion operates on ontological, epistemological, and political levels, and in fact tends to draw the distinctions between these levels. On the level of political systems, I argue as well that political bodies and the terms of political agency are drawn through constitutive exclusion. Such constitution renders constitutively excluded figures politically unintelligible. Though they continue to do the work of drawing and maintaining the boundary of the political body, they remain unintelligible to that body as political agents, and if and when claims are heard from those quarters, they appear to those on the “inside” as wild, strange, threatening, destructive, or mad. Translating the claims of such agents is therefore difficult: rather than simple inclusion on the terms as already established, translation necessitates the reconstitution of the political body itself.