Note Toward a Theory of the Militant
by M. Munro
to s., with love
After all, revolution is one of the half-dozen topics
in this world worth writing about and the least miserable,
even in the face of defeat.
“Either ethics makes no sense at all,” Gilles Deleuze once wrote, “or this is what it means and has nothing else to say: not to be unworthy of what happens to us.” “Not to be unworthy of what happens to us”—a formulation as curious as it is imperious. What might it mean?
“The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics,” Giorgio Agamben has contended, “is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason why something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible—there would be only tasks to be done.” “This does not mean, however,” Agamben goes on to clarify, “that humans are not, and do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether to be or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at this point). There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality.”
In the Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae, Agamben recounts a passage where Spinoza “explains,” Agamben writes, “the meaning of the reflexive active verb as an expression of an immanent cause”: “Se visitare, ‘to visit oneself,’ the first Latin equivalent that Spinoza gives to clarify the meaning of this verbal form […], is clearly insufficient; yet Spinoza immediately qualifies it by means of the singular expression se visitantem constituere, ‘to constitute oneself visiting.’” What ethics “means” is none other, and no more, than “the meaning of the reflexive active verb as an expression of an immanent cause” (and therefore cannot but take its cue from Spinoza’s example): Ethics consists in constituting oneself visiting that “something” “that humans are and have to be”—that without which there would be no “ethical experience”: the “fact” “that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize,” “the simple fact,” in other words, and so immanently, “of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality.”
Deleuze’s formula is found in a book he composed in the midst (and impending aftermath) of the May upheavals of 1968 that shut down all Paris, the city in which he lived.
“Not to be unworthy of what happens to us” (insurrection restores to this Stoic dictum its true sense and radicality): In other words, live to warrant victory. Live, in case of defeat, that is, so as not to warrant quarter.
Ethics means this or it means nothing at all: not to be unworthy, whatever happens, of the potentiality that constitutes us.
 Joshua Clover, “Back to the Barricades,” Los Angeles Review of Books, March 6, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/back-to-the-barricades. “The least miserable, even in the face of defeat”: perhaps this is what’s meant by the striking sentence with which Hardt and Negri famously conclude Empire, “This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 413.
 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 149. Logique du sens was first published in 1969.
 Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 43.
 Agamben, The Coming Community, 43. Emphasis author’s.
 Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 234.
 Agamben, Potentialities, 234.
About the Author:
M. Munro is author of the open access chapbook, Theory is like a Surging Sea (Punctum books, 2015).