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On the Dialectics of Universality

“We the people” — the utterance, the chant, the written line —
is always missing some group of people it claims to represent.
— Judith Butler

The concept of universality is historically convoluted and remains widely contested. Most simply, it can be understood as that which is common to all within the domain of the political.  However, as will be discussed here, it is not a static concept but one that must evolve, thus requiring continual translation and rearticulation. Written in response to Étienne Balibar’s seminar, “Universalism: Perpetual Peace or Perpetual War?” presented at The European Graduate School in October 2022, this essay will attempt to clarify — albeit, for my own understanding — what we mean when we speak of universality, through the concepts of enunciation, translation, and violence; and further, what hope we may have in the function of the universal for a more liveable world.

To begin to address the question of what the universal is, we might first take a step back with consideration of its antonym: the particular. As relational categories, the universal and the particular are each dependent upon the other. In her essay on the topic at hand, Iwona Janicka explains this well in suggesting that we cannot fully understand the idea of ‘animal’ as a universal category without also thinking about particular instances of the animal, such as dogs, cats, etc.1 What this example clarifies is that in each particularity, there is an implied universality. Janicka takes this example further in sharing that through particulars such as white and black, we have the implied universal category of race; through particulars such as gay and straight, we are confronted with the universal category of sexuality. This is applicable to religion, language, nationality, human rights and so on. Further, there is an additional category to consider in attempting to understand the universal: the singular. The journey from the singular, to the particular, and finally, to the universal, is always at risk for being one of violence as what is required to make this transition is often the negation and exclusion of the former to arrive at the latter.

There are three terms within this topic often used interchangeably but are worth distinguishing separately for the sake of understanding: the universal, universality, and universalism. As a whole, what is of significance in this concept, and perhaps the reason for which we keep returning to it, is “the possibility of being equal without necessarily being the same, and thus of being citizens without having to be culturally identical.”2 Judith Butler, having written extensively on the topic, defines the universal as that which “pertains to every person, but it is not everything that pertains to every person.”3 Balibar takes this further in his definition of universality as the very enunciation of the universal.4 He then distinguishes universalism — admittedly borrowing from Butler’s work on ‘competing universalisms’ — by looking to historical examples such as religious monotheism or discourses on human rights, which are always in conflict.5

The universal, though often implied, has to be enunciated. That is, it must be declared, articulated, and negotiated. It must be given a language, specific to a certain time and place, which will be discussed further in a later section on translation. To declare the universal, is not only to make it known, but to lay claim to it, to call it one’s own, as a right to belong. For Butler, the universal is established precisely by such enunciation, the performativity of reiterative speech acts. Yet this is an utterance that, at times, must be demanded. In fact, there are certain circumstances in which people may find it necessary to declare themselves, not just the universal, for or against the universal.6 As history has taught, that which is implied can’t always be assumed, and what is presented as “universal” does not always have one’s best interest in mind. Elsewhere, Butler suggests that “there is no universal that is not finally negotiated at (or as) the conjuncture of discourses.”7 Both Butler and Balibar arrive at such notions of the universal by way of Hegel, who was able to illustrate the paradox in enunciation, which is that in giving the universal a name, it becomes particular. Thus, by way of enunciation, within universality itself, is a turning against itself, and a struggle with its own negation.8

If there is, in fact, a struggle within the universal against its own negation, then it could be suggested that violence is intrinsic to universality. This is just one of many ways this notion of the universal is tied to violence and conflict. Universalist discourse is also violent, even when articulated by those attempting to help, such as when reference is made on behalf of “illegal” immigrants, the language used to describe this group of people is itself a violent term. As aforementioned, what has been declared ‘universal’ may not actually have everyone’s best interest in mind. In fact, various movements speaking in the name of the universal do not even agree on what is good for all.9 The other side of what is dubbed universal is precisely those who get excluded, as Butler writes:

Although universality at first denoted that which is self-identical to all human beings, it loses that self-identity as a consequence of its refusal to accommodate all humans within its purview. [...] Those who are dispossessed or remain radically unrepresented by the general will or the universal do not rise to the level of the recognizably human within its terms. The ‘human’ who is outside that general will is subject to annihilation by it, but this is not an annihilation from which meaning can be derived: its annihilation is nihilism. In Hegel's terms: its negation is the death that is without meaning, the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive…10

The universal does not always bring people together. On the contrary, as Balibar has noted, sometimes such categories are used to justify discrimination.11 As a case in point, consider the invention of citizenship: wherein protection is offered against unnecessary suffering for certain inhabitants of a place, while under the same governance as inhabitants not recognized as citizens whose suffering could very well be prevented. On this topic, Ariella Azoulay questions: “Does the universalist model of citizenship always have the intention of creating stateless individuals or, to be more precise, of creating noncitizens who are governed, even though they are denied citizen status?”12 However, even when included in a given universal category, there is still a loss or sacrifice of some particularity (not to mention singularity) for a presumed sense of belonging.13 Something is always lost, sacrificed, or excluded in order for both particularity and universality to function.

Zadie Smith, in her book of essays entitled Feel Free, shares the following line which seems fitting for discussing the importance of the role of translation in the context of universality: “Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.”14 Smith is writing here on the topics of optimism and despair, but specifically on the notion of progress; or, stated differently, of moving forward. Isn’t this what we’re always striving for? This hope that we’re moving forward? Translation opens us up to consideration of and participation with the other. What is more, this encounter with the other opens up the possibility for something new to occur. This hope is also a hope for a less violent way forward. As Butler has emphasized, the claim to universality is tied to language and a given syntax, and rooted in a certain time and place. Without the work of translation, universality “cannot cross the linguistic borders it claims” — or, it can do so only by way of “colonial and expansionist logic,” which is, of course, incredibly violent.15 Butler’s call is that we must continually push the limits of our language, which is precisely the work of enunciation, translation, negotiation and repetition. Perhaps it could even be argued that there isn’t a single instance in which translation does not require negotiation. To take this a step further, implicit within this negotiation is the possibility of interruption:

If a demand comes from elsewhere, and not immediately from within my own idiom, then my idiom is interrupted by the demand, which means ethics itself requires a certain disorientation from the discourse that is most familiar to me. Further, if that interruption constitutes a demand for translation, then translation cannot be simply assimilation of what is foreign into what is familiar; it must be an opening to the unfamiliar, a dispossession from prior ground, and even a willingness to cede ground to what is not immediately knowable within established epistemological fields.16

What Butler speaks to here is key for any hope in the future of universality, and it is through this work that such claims might take on new meaning. Butler, in referencing Hegel, who revised over and again his own definition of universality, writes: “that the categories by which the world becomes available to us are continually remade by the encounter with the world that they facilitate. We do not remain the same, and neither do our cognitive categories, as we enter into a knowing encounter with the world.”17 This is our ethical imperative, one of many, that the function of the universal might truly enable us to work together in navigating the conditions for a more liveable world.

To conclude, the concept of universality is dialectical in nature: it must divide in order to unite. Such categorizations are often violent, or at the very least, they are often the grounds from which violence is incited. What keeps me interested in the function of the universal is the hope for a more liveable world, which is made possible through translation. What is implied in the concept of translation is an acknowledgement of difference: we do not speak the same language. Thus translation addresses the question of what now? that arises in universal claims and opens the door to a more true common ground.

1. Iwona Janicka,“Hegel on a Carousel: Universality and the Politics of Translation in the Work of Judith Butler,” in Paragraph 36, no. 3 (2013), 363. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43151988.
2. Étienne Balibar, “Translation and Conflict: The Violence of the Universal — a conversation with Étienne Balibar,” interview by Jean Birnbaum, Verso, 2017.
3. Judith Butler, “Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York: Verso, 2000), 17.
4. Étienne Balibar, “Democracy, Oppression, and Universality: an Interview with Étienne Balibar,” interview by Güneş Tavmen and Senjuti Chakraborti,Verso, 2017.
5. Balibar, “Democracy, Oppression, and Universality.”
6. Étienne Balibar, “Universalism: Perpetual Peace or Perpetual War?” (seminar, The European Graduate School, October 28, 2022).
7. Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 22.
8. Étienne Balibar, On Universals: Constructing and Deconstructing Community, trans. Joshua David Jorden (New York: Fordham University Press, 2020), 38.
9. Butler, “Competing Universalities,” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (New York: Verso, 2000), 163.
10. Butler, “Restaging the Universal,” 23.
11. Balibar, “Translation and Conflict.”
12. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 44.
13. Balibar, On Universals, 36.
14. Zadie Smith, Feel Free: Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 2019), 41.
15. Butler, “Restaging the Universal,” 35.
16. Butler, Parting Ways, 12.
17. Butler, “Restaging the Universal,” 20.