NOTE: In these “500 Word Reviews,” my goal is to offer initial reactions/responses to the texts that I’m reading for research, teaching, or (gasp!) sheer pleasure. Unlike professional book reviews, the focus here will be on my own personal takeaways from the texts; as such, I’ll be quoting sparingly and, when reviewing works of fiction, spoiling major plot points frequently. (I promise, of course, to give advance warning when this happens.) In my head, these short reviews are something like “warm-up exercises” for longform academic writing. While reading, all I ask is that you view these as little more than a starting point for further discussion, not a declaration of my final thoughts on the texts or issues at hand. Thanks!
Unexceptional Politics: On Obstruction, Impasse, and the Impolitic
Verso Books, 2018 (282 pp.)
What strikes me as so “exceptional” about Emily Apter’s Unexceptional Politics is how quickly the volume reorients readers’ attention to what Apter calls “small-p politics”—those small, local, contingent moments of political (dis)engagement that make large, international, enduring moments of political action (im)possible. Unlike so much of American politics in the recent past, the focus here is not on campaign rallies, party platforms, and sweeping legislative changes. Instead, Apter makes a compelling case that any comprehensive understanding of modern political systems requires us to better recognize how handshake agreements, community organizing, and local protests lay the extensive groundwork necessary for “big-p Politics” to happen. As she states in the Introduction, however, these “micropolitics” often remain hidden from view—or, at the very least, are seen as less significant than their Political other—and thus are rarely given credit for how influential they can be:
The debased foil of the Political, this micro, unexceptional politics is often barely perceptible, but it is there nonetheless, manifest at its most minute scale as a hum, a whisper, a mood, an atmosphere, a trade wind that sends particulates of ambition eddying around evanescent goalposts. (12)
Subsequent chapters explore how these various forms of “small-p politics” operate, as well as how they might be made more visible in our contemporary moment. Apter’s purpose throughout these chapters is identification and classification rather than evaluation or critique, though the book’s final section (“Economies of Existence”) does feature brief assessments of certain micropolitics in action via discussions of the economic collapse of 2008-09 and the resulting “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
Set up as a glossary of political machinations and maneuvers, Unexceptional Politics is at its best when Apter trains her eye on specific maneuvers that she can trace from literary, philosophical, and historical texts to their real-life counterparts. The chapter on “Obstinacy” is especially insightful, as her reading of resistance in Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener (“I would prefer not to”) opens to a broader consideration of the role disobedience plays in shaping the conditions for political action. “Bartleby Politics . . . baffles the discursive struts and logical infrastructures of sovereign force, foregrounding a psychopolitics distinguished by gridlock, blockage, and a host of other symptoms associated with stasis” (117, original emphasis). On the other hand, I find her argument less compelling when dealing with abstract concepts like “Thermocracy” and “Milieu,” as these chapters feel more like strategic extrapolations from texts that, at least on the surface, have far less in common with real-life deployments of “unexceptional” political maneuvers.
Still, the sheer breadth of tactics Apter investigates here is well worth the price of admission—even if, like me, you aren’t an expert in political theory. And in an era of pervasive skepticism regarding the efficacy of “big-P Politics,” Unexceptional Politics offers a much-needed reminder of the power that “little-p politics” (things like protests, marches, sit/die/teach-ins, boycotts) can still have.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons
Book cover image via Verso Books