As has often been noted, the structuralists often used the concept of games and, in particular, chess to describe the difference between speech and language. Play on the board can be likened to speech. In making a move one engages in an act of speech. However, these moves are rendered possible by the structure of language that precedes any play or moves made on the board. On the one hand, we have the rules governing the game. These rules can roughly be equated with the syntagmatic dimension of language or rules presiding over how elements of language can be combined, what moves can be made, and so on. The syntagmatic could be called the axis of combination. In a game like chess you have the initial arrangement of all the pieces on the board, and then you have the rules of movement for each type of piece which also presides over the conditions under which they can move. For example, you can’t move your bishop until a space opens up with your pawns.
On the other hand, there is the paradigmatic dimension of language. This dimension might be called the axis of selection and refers to changes in connotation produced through substitution. This dimension is harder to capture in a game like chess, but can be readily seen in language. Take a simple seme such as “pat”. Through selection or substitution of phonemes we can get the following:
Generally the syntagmatic and paradigmatic dimensions of language are deeply bound up with one another and can’t be disentangled, as in the case of my name “Levi”. Through recombination we can get the following anagrams out of my name:
The structuralist thesis here is that language, structure, remains the same despite the infinite number of speech-acts it renders possible through substitution and combination. Structuralism, of course, has always had a difficult time accounting for diachrony or linguistic change. It approaches things through their synchronous structure, presenting a atemporal or eternal view of language. The point, however, is that we can produce an infinite number of meaning-effects out of this synchronous structure of combination and selection, just as we can play an endless number of different games in chess despite the finite number of rules and pieces that compose the game.
I am not here endorsing structural linguistics, but using these basic concepts as posing the question of the event or rupture within the social field and politics. Following Kuhn, we can distinguish between two types of politics: normal and revolutionary politics. What sort of games are we imagining in these two politics? Normal politics would be that form of politics that proceeds by making moves within an existing structure. The question here would be one of how to make the best, most strategic move within an existing structure. In the United States, this would be the game played by new or third way democrats with their talk of pragmatism, realism, and incrementalism. There thesis is that structure is fixed, that the game’s rules are defined and set, and that the best one can hope for is to make strategically effective moves within that structural field. Here, of course, the rules of the game never change. Minor victories can be achieved against ones opponent, but the identities and distribution of classes ultimately remain the same regardless of the moves that are made. The deep grammar of the game never changes; there are only tactical moves that confer advantage over ones opponent. Here it’s worth noting that the aim of this game is to best ones opponent.
Revolutionary politics, by contrast, envisions the possibility of making a move or series of moves that changes the syntagmatic and paradigmatic structure of the game itself. In revolutionary politics one is not so much playing against an opponent– though that too –but aim to mutate the deep grammar of the game itself. In revolutionary politics– the politics of rupture and event –victory consists not in triumph over ones enemy (here I’m thinking of Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction), but in transformation in the very nature of the game. Revolutionary politics institutes an entirely new axis of combination and selection; an entirely different set of rules and identities. Revolutionary politics is successful when we begin by playing one game, but do so in such a way as to create a new game through moves within that game. It is for this reason that revolutionary politics necessarily targets its own side to the same degree that it targets its opposition. Its own side also reinforces and defends the deep grammar of the game that the revolutionary seeks to transmute. Within revolutionary games, then, the operative distinction is not the friend/enemy distinction, but rather the speech/language, sentence/deep-grammar distinction. The revolutionary game dreams of a “speech” that mutates or transmutes the very grammar that renders it possible.
It is for this reason that revolutionary politics is indiscernible to normal politics. Normal politics can only discern moves within an established game. It is incapable of imagining a game other than the one it is playing and for this reason can only discern a system according to the friend/enemy distinction structured by a deep grammar that is seen as an essential and immutable structure of being itself. “This is the way the world is! Be a realist! Nothing is to be done!” The figure of the revolutionary is therefore encountered with deep perplexity. On the one hand, the revolutionary seems to be on their side, fighting for their causes. Yet on the other hand, the revolutionary seems to be a double agent because she targets her own side as much as she targets the other side. Her motives are always interpreted with distrust because she doesn’t seem to be entirely committed to triumph over the enemy. And indeed, she’s not entirely committed to triumph over the enemy because she’s angling for something much more profound: a mutation of the structure of the game itself that defines the rules of the game, the identities at play in the game, and the hierarchies that distribute these identities within the game. Revolutionary politics aims at a non-Euclidean transformation of the Euclidean sphere of play so as to institute a very different space of action, life, meaning, goals, and affect. To normal politics this looks like chaos because normal politics is unable to imagine a different game. We could say that normal politics is scholarly prose, whereas revolutionary politics is poetry at its best: that poetry that transforms the fabric of language.