Sina Kramer, Excluded Within: The (Un)Intelligibility of Radical Political Actors. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 241 pp. ISBN: 978-0190625986.

Reviewed by Amanda Parris, University of San Francisco.

Moving from Glas to L.A., from ancient Greek tragedy to Adorno’s melancholy science, from Hegel to Black Lives Matter, Sina Kramer’s Excluded Within: The (Un)intelligibility of Radical Political Actors makes powerful advances on multiple fronts. Unable to do justice to its multiplicity, I will focus primarily on two of these fronts. First, Kramer explicitly identifies and elucidates a concept that has been implicitly operative in the work of many thinkers roughly categorized under the name of Critical Theory: constitutive exclusion. She defines “constitutive exclusion” as “the phenomenon of internal exclusion, or those exclusions that occur … when a philosophical system or political body defines itself by excluding some difference which is intolerable to it” and analyzes its ontological-epistemological structure in the philosophy of Hegel. (5) Second, Kramer makes the tiger’s leap and provides untimely analyses of three figures that mark the limit of political intelligibility, “both grounding and troubling the distinctions that structure political bodies and the terms of political agency” (5): Antigone, Claudette Colvin/Rosa Parks, and the 1992 LA Riots/Rebellion. On her interpretation, these three “monstrous” (58) figures—fictional and historical, singular, twin, and collective―show us “modes of resistance to and paths of flight out of or beyond” politics constituted by exclusions. (6)

In Part One, Kramer diagnoses the structure and operation of constitutive exclusion, exposing the epistemological blind spot it involves as well as its quasi-transcendental character and temporality. Hegel, whose thought she claims “marks the apotheosis of systems-thinking in modern philosophy,” is her model. (59) Through close and cogent readings of the Science of Logic, Kramer shows that Hegel’s absolute knowing is an epistemology of ignorance. She argues that multiple negativity is the quasi-transcendental of the Hegelian system; it conditions both the possibility and the impossibility of the system. Against the reduction of Hegelian dialectics to the absolute negativity of determinate negation, she identifies a “rhythm of multiple negativities” in the movement of being and nothing and the moment of the universal concept. (40) Against the sublation of difference into contradiction, she shows that in Verschiedenheit the difference between the determinate and the indeterminate, the speculative and the empirical, is troubled by a different difference, “a multiplicity of more-than-two, a plural ontology.” (49) On her analysis, the negativity operative in Hegel’s system is symptomatic of the epistemological blind spot of constitutive exclusion; it is the disavowal or repression of multiple negativity. What is at stake in her interpretation of multiple negativity is not just moving beyond the impasse of the totalizing and open interpretations of Hegel (which her reading compels us to do), but of showing how the negativity of constitutive exclusion, the act of repression or disavowal, produces a “paradoxical included exclusion” (56) that both grounds and undermines, “both secures and troubles” the markers of difference. (77)

Kramer continues her diagnosis of the quasi-transcendental character of constitutive exclusion through Derrida’s reading of The Phenomenology of Spirit, and then turns to the temporality that produces epistemological blind spots. The temporality of constitutive exclusion, she explains, effects its exclusions retroactively, yet presents these exclusions as linear. This retroactive operation renders what is contingent necessary, what is effect cause, what is political a-political. In retrospect, we see this temporality in the moment of Verschiedenheit: “the distinction between determinate diversity […] and indeterminate diversity […] is decided retroactively, from the position of having already gone through diversity to opposition.” (81) But the importance of Kramer’s analysis of retroactive temporality goes beyond this insight about the Science of Logic; rather, it shows that the “critique of constitutive exclusion is thus necessarily a political critique, in that it seeks to re-politicize the exclusions by which we define ourselves” and, we might add, by which others define us. (85) If this retroactive character of constitutive exclusion produces an epistemological blind spot, it also forces us to ask, “How do we read for the invisible? How do we hear the inaudible?” (91)

To answer these questions and to avoid the trap of proliferating or displacing exclusions, in Part Two Kramer develops a negative and materialist method of critique using Adorno’s negative dialectics. She argues that constitutive exclusion is not only quasi-transcendental, but also quasi-transcendent, as the excluded, read in terms of Adorno’s concept of the nonidentical, furnishes an immanent path beyond what is. The negativity of this method provides a way to resist the assimilative demand “to determine in advance” (103) the meaning and effect of critique and to forestall “further exclusions in any reconstitution.” (109) The materialism of this method is grounded in “the experience of suffering” (116) and orients thought toward “the sedimented history” of such suffering “in order to liberate the possibilities within it.” (119) Because things could have been otherwise, this method tells us, “things may yet turn out otherwise.” (121) Instead of reflecting further on the important interventions this historical method makes in the interpretation of history for the present, I will turn to the possibilities opened up by Kramer’s use of this method in Part Three, which analyzes concrete contestations of exclusion.

Although it moves from an ontological-epistemological to a political-epistemological analysis, Kramer begins and ends the book with three “insurrectionary and monstrous” figures: Antigone, Claudette Colvin/Rosa Parks, and the 1992 LA Riots/Rebellion. (2) We can say that since Aristotle, monstrosity is (un)intelligible. In explicating the causes of monstrosity, Aristotle sought to manage the chaotic cosmogony of the naturalist poets, to reduce the deformed multiplicity of the monstrous to the unity of form, to tame the threat of radical contingency through knowledge of its purposive necessity. But in Excluded Within, Kramer identifies a different operation of power/knowledge in the epistemology of ignorance that structures constitutive exclusion: “the inability to see what is constitutively excluded is precisely what allows it to operate.” (43) If we agree with Adorno that Aristotle is the first metaphysician, then we should already take seriously the power of the monstrous, for, as Aristotle explains in Generation of Animals, monstrosity results when “that which is acted on escapes and is not mastered.” (GA, 768b) This is what Adorno might consider a failure not of nature, but of hegemonic identity thinking or, in Kramer words, the “underground economy of resources” remaindered by constitutive exclusion. (60) On her interpretation, these three “monstrous” (58) figures of contestation are flashes of Benjaminian now-time buried in the past, “shards of resistance sedimented in the history of the present.” (132) In this sense, Kramer’s critical theoretical project reclaims the threat of multiplicity and contingency, of a world that can be―because it is―other than it is.  

According to Aristotle, the female is the first monstrosity. (GA, 767b) It is only appropriate, then that in her interpretation of Antigone, which is also developed in Parts One and Two, Kramer analyzes this female monstrosity for the “crime” of contesting the constitutive exclusion that structures gender and politics. (142) Kramer objects to Butler’s conclusion that Antigone’s contestation fails because she appropriates the language of that which she contests. Against Butler’s emphasis on intention and identification with the father, Kramer points to “the radical potential—sparked for a moment—of the outside of politics, inside, calling into question the limits of sovereignty, authority, and politics as they are defined by constitutive exclusion.” (144) In her untimely reading of the twin figure of Rosa Parks and Claudette Colvin, a twin figure as monstrously conjoined in the Montgomery bus boycott as in Aristotle’s examples, Kramer argues that the NAACP’s choice of the “middle-class feminine respectability” of Parks over “young, angry, poor,” unmarried, pregnant, and darker Colvin, is structured by a constitutive exclusion that renders both, in different ways, unintelligible as political agents, and leverages some forms of exclusion over others. (146) Following Cohen and Sparks, her analysis points to the “real costs” of such political strategies: the domestication of radical political agency; the exclusion of Blackness based on a politics of respectability; the reinforcement of exclusions based on class, gender, and sexuality, which have made their contestation more difficult. But in seeing and hearing Colvin, Kramer’s analysis more importantly underscores the contingency of the NAACP’s choice and “calls us to remember that which we have never known.” (153)

The final figure of concrete contestation is the 1992 Los Angeles Riots/Rebellion, a figure whose very name foregrounds the geographical and historical dimensions, as well as the political ambiguity, of the event. While framing the riots/rebellion in terms of the historical convergence of riots and blackness in the (post-) Nixon era, an era that takes black riots/rebellions to be “a criminal act and not a political event” (160), Kramer seeks to both “confirm and complicate” the Afro-pessimist claim to “the singularity of anti-black racism” in the political unintelligibility of the event. (164) The shards that complicate this claim are many; they include the forgetting of the murder of Latasha Harlins just two weeks after the beating and arrest of Rodney King and the suspension of the liquor store owner who murdered her, a forgetting that “occludes the role of gender in the riots” (168), as well as the forgetting of the multiracial geography of the riots, in which half of those arrested were Latinx, into whose communities Immigration Officers, not the National Guard were sent. (173) Beyond complicating the narrative of the riot, though, Kramer’s interventions force us “to pay attention to the political significance of looting” (177), one which we can read into the contestation of “the very political conditions of ownership” and the “racial technologies of profit making” (178) at work in Ferguson and other cities in the U.S. today.

Like its object, which “cuts through ontological, epistemological, and political levels” (6), Excluded Within is multiple, operating in different registers. But, as indicated in the analysis of concrete contestations just described, the objective of the book is unmistakably political. Kramer writes in “the radical hope” of “a future in which no constitution would necessitate an exclusion.” (33) In the Postscript, she claims that this future cannot be one of mere inclusion, but requires the reconstitution of political bodies and political agency in terms of what she calls a pluralist political ontology. This ontology, Kramer suggests, should be inspired by Maria Lugones’ “interdependency without domination” (184) and Audre Lorde’s ability to see others as “other faces of myself.” (187)  But, as the plural ontologist Spinoza has shown us, hope is the twin of fear, and at other times in her book Kramer raises a possibility I find frightening: “This critique operates in service of a future without constitutive exclusions; or if we find some exclusions are necessary, that they are determined democratically.” (85) To invoke democratic exclusion in a world in which democracy is used to exclude, ravage, and decimate seems a failure to countenance the somatic moment in thinking the political past for the future, a failure that Kramer so carefully critiques throughout Excluded Within. Hence if I have one criticism of the book, it would be that Kramer needs to say a lot more about the future, a project I hope she takes up in later work. This criticism notwithstanding, in Excluded Within Kramer makes a vital contribution to Critical Theory, especially feminist, queer, and anti-racist theory. She provides rigorous textual and political analysis and, more importantly, she raises pressing epistemological-political questions that open up real political possibilities. Although she situates her own project in the work of Derrida, Laclau, Mouffe, Butler, Lacan, and Sexton, her work on constitutive exclusion could also be in productive dialogue with Agamben, for whom the inclusive exclusion of bare life is constitutive of Western politics, and Rancière, for whom the primary site of politics lies in the contestation of exclusion. Indeed in engaging the work of Rancière, we might begin to think through the democratic reconstitution at which Kramer gestures and toward which Excluded Within so forcefully and compellingly directs us.

Additional Works Cited

Aristotle, Generation of Animals, in The Complete Works of Aristotle Vol. I, (ed.) J. Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).