Towards a synclastic politics (which necessarily incorporates populism)

Timothy Appleton

The discovery of the chrono-synclastic infundibula said to mankind in effect:

What makes you think you’re going anywhere?

  • Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut ‘s second novel, The Sirens of Titan, published in 1959, focuses on a Martian invasion of Earth. In fact, this is the most pathetic invasion imaginable. 149,315 Martians die and only 461 humans, a ratio that is even worse than some of today’s conflicts. In fact, the only territory that the Martians manage to invade decisively, on the entire planet Earth, and that only temporarily, is a small meat market in Basel, Switzerland. In truth, the total failure of the Martian army is due to the fact that its invasion is launched by an earthling, with the intention of showing the occupants of his own planet that they should learn to live together, if they wish to be saved as a species. A catastrophist, one could say. This human secret agent, Niles Rumfoord, is able to visit the Earth and organize the Martians, among other things – traveling not only in space but also in time –, because he has become a wave phenomenon (here we have the typical Vonnegutian allusion to quantum physics) after passing – along with his dog, Kazak – through a distortion in space-time (as Matthew McConnaughey does at the end of the movie Interstellar). The term Vonnegut uses to describe distortions of this type is “chrono-synclastic infundibula”. He describes the latter in the following way: “places…where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch.” Why do I mention this concept? To be able to give an answer, first one must ask, how should we subdivided the curious title: “chrono-synclastic infundibulum”?

First, we assume that the prefix “chrono” – that is, the reference to time – is a different way of referring to truth. There are two reasons to think this is the case (three, if we include the fact that Vonnegut says it himself). First, the phenomena that become “compossible” (to paraphrase Leibniz) in one of these spaces actually constitute distinct temporal existences. This is what allows Rumfoord and his dog to have different lives on different planets (in part, simultaneously). That is to say, within the chrono-synclastic infundibula, there exist parallel truths, which have no direct relationship with one another. As Vonnegut says: “it would be nice to go to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum and see all the different ways to be absolutely right.” The second justification for this interpretation is the fact that truth has, in, for example, Jacques Lacan’s sense, an irreducibly temporal character, since there is no other dimension in which it could develop.

The term synclastic is, from our point of view, the most important element in the concept. It designates what we could perhaps define as the “sheath” in which the truths mentioned above become “compossible.” A synclastic surface is one whose two main axes move in the same direction, thus producing shapes that could include, for example, a dome. It is opposed to an anticlastic surface, where the two axes move in opposite directions, like a horse’s saddle. In formal terms, a synclastic surface is one in which the Gaussian curvature is positive everywhere, and anticlastic is one in which the Gaussian curvature is negative everywhere.

The infundibulum is the strangest part of Vonnegut ‘s terminology. This appears to be primarily a reference to the Taj Mahal, which, according to the novel, is the shape that Niles Rumfoord chooses for the roof of the house he has built on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In a certain sense, this element functions as a synecdoche for the chrono-synclastic infundibula as such. Why? First, the fact that Niles and Kazak are wave phenomena implies that they pulse in spirals. According to the novel, at some moments these spirals intercept the spirals of the celestial bodies, leading to moments in which Niles and Kazak materialize in such bodies. Since, for some as yet mysterious reason (to cite the same book), the spirals of the protagonists and those of Titan perfectly coinicide, Niles and Kazak continually materialize on that moon (in addition to occasionally materializing elsewhere in the solar system). Along the same lines, an infundibulum (funnel, in Latin) appears to have a physical function. This is something that is reflected in the fact that it echoes the antennas that the Martians in the novel have on their heads. That is, it seems to be a vague way of communicating between fields, or between creatures. In other words, the infundibulum metaphorizes Niles and Kazak’s journeys. I would insist, however, that the infundibulum seems to me to be essentially a literary flourish, without any wider significance. On the other hand, the idea of a pole emerging from a synclastic surface may lead us back to a secondary aspect of the topic, which is of some importance and which I will discuss later.

I mention all this because I think it can be related to contemporary political theory. In a word, I believe that the concept of the synclastic allows us to develop a theory of the State that can be rendered compatible with the concept of a populism of singularities, an idea that I have developed in my last two books (see below).[1] Like Vonnegut’s “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” the populism of singularities deals with a potential compossibility between different types of truths (this time, political ones). To understand why, we must first ask ourselves: what is, exactly, a populism of singularities?

The populism of singularities is built on a Laclausian idea that seems to me to be definitive: what limits a social field is a political antagonism. Our proposal would add that there are several types of social fields, which cannot be made compatible with other similar fields without adding another (higher?) order of antagonism (let’s call it the “hegemonic antagonism”). Now, in the event that an antagonism of this type is added, the validity of the first is cancelled. So since, for us, it is axiomatic that antagonisms, in the plural, exist, we deduce that the second form of antagonism – the transversal-hegemonic one – must be set aside. One form I use to present this logic is the motto “society does not exist” (which echoes Lacan’s theorem “woman does not exist”). What the reference to Vonnegut now allows me to do is to add a reflection on the State to the above argument.

Continuing with the previous argument, if it is true that society does not exist, neither does the State (another principle that I have defended in my recent books). But here a clarification is required. When I talk about the State, in this context, I understand it in terms of a “State of States”. That is, I do not rule out the existence of a state formation within a specific social field – in fact, it is necessary that such exists, if a political movement is to separate itself from it in the first place, which is the latter’s defining characteristic – but this has nothing to do with what people usually call the State, which is generally understood as a gathering together – and, of course, an associated stratification – of all possible social fields, like that of the society that accompanies said State (and which also does not really exist). It could be added that, since a State within a specific social field must be considered an imaginary construction – perhaps we could call it, Lacanianly, “a State-supposed-to-exist” –, we assume that what ultimately does not exist is the State understood as the “imaginary of the imaginary.”

At an expressly political level, these ideas reflect another syllogism, which I would also include under the concept of the populism of singularities. First, populist politics occurs at a distance from the state (to paraphrase Alain Badiou). Second, this implies that we cannot completely ignore the existence of such a State. It seems to me that contravening this second principle, based on the first, would be to fall into what I would call the anarchist fallacy. In other words, the State (as State of States) does exist at the imaginary level (as imaginary of imaginaries) and this fact has “material effects” that may be non-negligible and which, therefore, may have implications for political praxis. To avoid any potential misunderstandings: this is not necessarily the case, but it may be. Here I think of the words of Jorge Alemán: “The State always belongs to them.” Once again, my interpretation of this motto would be: as long as the State has some form of existence, it will never be the appropriate object of a genuinely populist politics. The new argument I would like to present now is that the State understood in the way I have just outlined must be understood as a surface of synclastic curvature. In what sense?

We have already said that the State (of States) does not exist, except imaginarily (the imaginary of imaginaries). Furthermore, we have recognized that this imaginary existence has its effects (however “un-real” they may be). On the other hand – and this is where Vonnegut’s intuition begins to be important – the State in this sense cannot be imagined as a pure segmentation or sectionalization of hierarchies. This would imply that we are dealing with a rectangular-prismatic space, which, according to what we have argued above, would not be feasible (this is also a way of avoiding another political fallacy that is popular today, especially in the United States: that of intersectionality). If this were the case, all political truths would be mutually compatible, and the hegemonic exercise would be complete. My argument, then, is that the space of the State (of States) should be better conceived as the effect of a curved surface. Perhaps we can speak of a Columbian moment in our theory: we suddenly discover that the relevant terrain is a curve. I consider a surface of this type important because it could intersect with all possible social fields, each of which will have a completely different dimensionality. Only a curved surface would be able to do this. But we must add something here. This curved surface must be curved in such a way that the entire surface goes in the same direction. In other words, it must be a synclastic surface. The other possibility, anticlastic, would not be valid, because we assume that the internal “diversity” of the latter type of surface would imply that it would be real, rather than imaginary, and, as we have already established, the State, as we understand it, is imaginary, not real. What about the other terms that Vonnegut cites , which we mentioned earlier?

First, I think we can get rid of the prefix “chrono”. It is true that, as we have already stated, each singular instance of “the people” develops its own truth, and that this truth necessarily develops over time. But we don’t want to risk the prefix “chrono” being understood either in a physical or a metaphysical sense, which, after all, is Vonnegut ‘s intention. Thus we abandon it. We also abandon the reference to the infundibulum. This is simply because, as Derrida explained long ago, structures do not have transcendental centers. We believe that they may have a point of tangency, typical of curves, but this would be a single point, not a pole, which would indeed imply the presence of a center. Despite excluding this aspect from our fundamental definition, however, we could add that infundibulum – since it emerges from a synclastic surface – does have the capacity to remind us that the (multiple) social fields, plus their relevant antagonisms, exceed and intersect the synclastic surface. In this sense, the synclastic curve of the State must be understood as porous, and extremely mutable. In other words, it is capable of being penetrated by a single social field at any time, without any problem whatsoever.

Thus I believe that with the reference to the synclastic, one has the prospect of a new political program. I do not think that this perspective can be called “synclastic populism”, because what we are discussing here is the State, which I do not believe has to do with populism as such. Therefore, perhaps it would be better to refer to it as a synclastic politics, which encompasses both elements: The State (of the States) – imaginary (of the imaginaries) – and populist praxis. Here we also find a minimal conceptual distinction between populism and politics as such, a distinction that it seems to me that Laclau’s works, with their hegemonic focus, have had the effect of making disappear.

[1]Timothy Appleton, The politics that comes: Towards a populism of singularities , (Barcelona: NED Ediciones), 2022; Timothy Appleton, A Lacanian Conception of Populism: Society does not exist , (London: Routledge), 2023.

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