A conversation with Flora Sapio on Chinese politics and the rhetoric of friend/enemy distinction


*Flora Sapio is a China legal scholar currently serving as research fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World. Her research is focused on criminal justice and legal philosophy. She is the author of Sovereign Power and the Law in China (Brill, 2010); co-editor of The Politics of Law and Stability in China(Edward Elgar, 2014); and, Detention and its Reforms in China (forthcoming, Ashgate, 2016).

The following is a transcription of my conversation with Flora Sapio on the problem of enemyship in contemporary Chinese politics and the rhetorical approach in the investigation of political rhetoric:


(October 8th, 2015)

Hello Flora, excellent post on “Carl Schmitt in China” at The China Story Project! I have shared your essay on “The Current” page of Public Philosophy Journal (where I currently work as a content curator), please have a look.

Flora Sapio: Thank you! Glad that you liked it. If I could rewrite it I would use a different tone…a bit less provocative perhaps…


I thought the tone of your essay is pretty fair — especially considering the controversial political connotation of Schmitt’s work, and the increasingly heated enemyship rhetoric in Chinese politics nowadays.

Yes, I think so. The problem, however, is that the idea of ‘enemy’ is still there. If only one could find an antidote to this idea…


Traditionally the in-group/out-group, or “us/them” distinction in Chinese political consciousness has been framed as a distinction between “civilized us” versus “uncivilized others”. Do you think that would be a possible (for better or worse) as alternative to the nationalistic “friend-enemy” rhetoric?

It would not be an alternative if the distinction was premised on a difference in status, i. e. The civilized people superior to the uncivilized ones. The idea of suzhi is problematic as it could be used to ground this distinction and order beings hierarchically.


That’s a good point, on the problem of hierarchical differentiation generally… But some may argue that the Confucian tradition frames the “civilized/uncivilized” Sinocentric distinction as grounded in the difference in terms cultivated-sociability, rather than being something that’s more fixed into “biological” or “fundamental nature”. Of course one can also easily argue that classical Western liberalism also expresses similar notions civilizational-centrism, but the “civilizational” rhetoric certainly doesn’t mitigate the danger of fundamental enemyship.

Yes. I was talking to Michael Dutton (Goldsmiths, University of London) yesterday, and this is what exactly what he argues. He argues for the inevitability of the distinction. He holds that any attempt at eliminating it will reproduce it. Any attempt, he goes on, would only intensify the friend-enemy distinction, under any guise. Therefore he things the best way to look at politics is to focus on what he calls the intensity. The intensity becomes a tale of what he calls “political affect” and “the fluidity of political affect”. This flow, he says, is the power of the concept of the political. Dutton and I are close friends, but I tend to disagree with him on this one. The “intensity” is undefined, the flow is also undefined, and the list goes on… in any case the distinction remains there. The point is that I do not accept the existence of such distinction itself!


Right. That’s the part I also find troubling, the assumption of fundamental distinction, and the idea of positively “measure” the the so-called “intensity” of political rhetoric and affect…

Exactly! But first, what are all these entities we are talking about? Intensity?!


On this precise point I do have something to say! But before going overtly critical, I would like to first point out a few basic assumptions and observations on the political that I don’t fundamentally disagree with Schmitt. First and most broadly, I do broadly agree with Agamben and Schmitt’s general premise that the study of the political is not merely the study of the procedures and artistry of governance, but more importantly looking into human’s power over the “truth” of human subjects. In short, the political concerns with the way incontestable societal knowledge is decided and resisted. Thus, the substantive functioning of the political is precisely grounded on the way society distinguishes the political from the non-political spheres of social life. Furthermore, I must point out that the distinction between political/non-political is not an fixed one, but based on the orientation of embedded social norms – that the religious and scientific spheres are only distinguished from the political sphere when they are being recognized as such from the in-group perspective of their corresponding moral community; whereas from the perspective of those who call themselves “enemies” of the religious or scientific, their relationship the those spheres would be precisely a political one. That being said, it is also important to avoid unproblematically equivocating this political/non-political distinction to the Hobbesian “war of all-against-all” frame or Carl Schmitt’s fundamentalist argument for the “friend-enemy distinction”. While it is true that political communities are organized around rules and procedures to help negotiate tensions among different groups, and that a polity that straddle many dlarge can be forms when these rules to resolve differences would be formalized into laws, and then turning into deeply held norms, and ultimately to “common” logos. But Schmitt also points out that as societies are organized into large amalgamations of various groups, no matter how stable the “rule-of-law” framework might be, law are imperfect human creation and there will be “exceptional” circumstances where friend-enemy conflict will not be able to resolved via the rule of law, and ultimately leading to breaking down of the rule of law and towards a life-and-death state hostile dissociation. And from here, Schmitt argued for the necessity for an absolute sovereign power to intervene and decide on those exceptional life-and-death matters in order to preserve the rule of law. However, it is through this observation that Schmitt wrongfully concluded that the concept of the political is fundamentally based on the friend-enemy distinction. What Schmitt got terribly wrong, I suspect, is that he simply saw the “friend-enemy” distinction as the fundamental basis for all social-knowledge differentiations. In fact, the “friend-enemy” dichotomy is merely an exceptional manifestation of societal tensions between the contestable and the already-decided matter of knowledge (or truth).  Basically, what Schmitt overlooked, is the critical role of the rhetorical/antirhetorical distinction in providing the foundation of the political. Even though it is tempting for rhetorical scholars to claim that “everything is rhetorical”, society tend to make substantive distinctions between the rhetorical from its antithesis. Just like the case with the political, what we functionally consider “rhetorical” is relative to one’s orientation, but nonetheless the distinction is still remains a critically important one. To better demonstrate this point, let’s look at following sets of examples in everyday life: rhetorical question, versus simply question (question without adjectives) being the antithesis of rhetorical; expressions considered as rhetorical devices, versus expressions considered as being literal and the antithesis of rhetorical – religious as non-rhetorical (religious expressions perceived to lose their “authentic” religiousness character if perceived as being rhetorical); cultural as non-rhetorical (cultural expressions lost their “authenticity” when perceived as being rhetorical); scientific as non-rhetorical; economic as non-rhetorical, etc.

The list can go much longer, but note what we perceive to be anti-rhetorical largely overlaps with what Schmitt identified as the antithesis of the political. However, I am not to suggest that the rhetorical is equivalent to or indistinguishable from the concept of the political. Nor would I suggest that the rhetorical originate from the political. Quite opposite, it is the political that is a derivative of the rhetorical. The rhetorical/anti-rhetorical distinction, being grounded on the difference of human language and norms, has been a part of the human condition as long as in-group/out-group distinction itself. However, what we consider to be political as a distinct concept arose only in a particular stage of civilizational development. The political emerged with the rise of polity as a sustained mode of organizing human society into a moral community, from which discrete communities previously unrelated in terms of personal ties are being organized under a set of rule framework of nomos or the law-state. The polity therefore only appear at certain stage of human development when human communities expand beyond the scope of blood kinship and totemic ties, thus requiring a new layer of less “personal” norms that would apply to social spaces beyond the reach of locally-grounded communal habits and customs. When the political community grow even larger, new rules must be devised to deal with those societal tensions that cannot be resolved by pre-existing socially-embedded norms in order to prevent fracturing the polity into normatively dissociated local “clans”. The political thus can be understood as a specific mode of rhetorical response to the historical exigence of resolving customarily non-resolvable societal tensions, of which the “human-enemy” distinction is merely one facet of such tension, and a particularly associated with conditions when both politics and rhetoric were considered “low”.

Thus, the political became a discursive space, organized under certain set of differently developed formal rules, to manage and decide those expressions of explicit societal differences, and resolve the antagonisms that arise within the polity’s jurisdiction. The functioning of the political thus is grounded on the foundational distinction between rhetorical and anti-rhetorical, of which itself is the discursive manifestation of human difference. The political is developed as historical inevitability of rhetorical modality, but both the political and more generally the share the same substantive function of taming explicit differences by signifying those expressions-of-difference as being “rhetorical/political”, thus demands explicit discussion and to be “properly resolved” via corresponding formal rule frameworks. However, keep in mind that while the rhetorical in the most general sense is fundamentally a human condition, the political as a specific mode of the rhetorical is not. Political, being the constitutive organ of polity, could very much function by deciding on exceptional cases of societal tensions in ways that help maintain and preserve the abstract form of polity at the expense of human living under its jurisdiction, thus historically resulting various rather anti-human conditions. Under these constraints, the various symbolic practices have been deviced that shape and maintain socially embedded norms that distinguish rhetorical/contestable and “truth” claims – it is what makes possible for expressions appear explicitly “rhetorical” in the first place. The possible analytical task of the implications of political discourse is perhaps to recompile a “rhetorical atlas” on the history of the “nomos of the land” – with a strong eye towards the constitutive capacity of various discursive practices in terms shaping the governance landscape of the emergent political order that defines the particular totems and taboos.The unique advantage of this “rhetorical atlas” approach is that it allows for functionally integrated analysis of formally differentiated discursive practices. On the one hand, the functional-specific orientation of an atlas allows for an integrated presentation of the substantive functions of variable rhetorical practices that straddle civilizational terrains. Yet at the same time, through discrete presentation of locally-limited cases, the atlas preserves formal differentials among particular derivatives of the integrated discursive function. For the purpose of specially analyzing the political, the “integrated rhetorical function” would be the interpellative power of the anti-rhetorical – in the sense of shaping and reproducing the substantive “societal constitution” that governs the rules concerning collective deliberation and decision, claim-making and truth-making, remembering and forgetting, and the opening and closing alternative possibilities. “Formal differentials” would be the diverse set of particular manifestations of discursive practices that are formally distinct in relation to the historical, social, political and economic conditions of their locality, and produce variable historical consequences . Yet these different forms of practices does not necessarily preclude integrated comparative analysis when they substantively function towards the anti-rhetorical ends – to the end of flattening the uneven terrains of human subjectivity via depoliticisation of the lifeworld, and managing human impulses and arbitrariness with the rule of law.

Alright that’s quite a mouthful, but basically, I’m trying to look into ways to render judgement on the political practices via a critical-perspectivist approach, by looking at what kind of “truth about human subject” are the political practices creating, and operating on top of what kind of existing “truth-framework”. In that light, that’s why I’m looking into ways to frame the ongoing tension between Mainland and Hong Kong as grounded in economic distinctions, from which distinctive societal knowledge-norm would emerge, and come into conflict of each-other. The friend-enemy dichotomy would only be the totemic breakdown of knowledge distinction into metaphysical distinctions of being, of which is a state of non-negotiation, thereby become more like a abstracted ritualized antagonism rather than political contestation

Definitely yes! And in this sense one of the greatest mistakes of most “post-whatever” movements and currents has been their indirect embrace of the friend-enemy distinction. A distinction they have accepted by positioning themselves on the losing side of it. In attempting to practice what has been called “resistance”. They have furthered the very same divide they wanted to resist, and the result has been their own marginalization.

The societal tensions you mention are very real. They have been all around us everywhere but they could not be felt by Schmitt. The “truth” of how Schmitt had to be – the mold he had to fit in – was decided a priori by the political, social, scientific and religious forces of his day. Somehow Schmitt seemed to fit the societal, scientific and religious molds without too much effort on his part – his break with Catholicism and alcoholic escapades apart. Given his background, perhaps he was not in a position to feel the societal tensions that Franz Kafka could feel so very easily…or, if Schmitt indeed felt those tensions, well they just are not visible in his works.

You are making an extremely important point. The rhetorical/anti-rhetorical distinction, or what I call the “symbolic dimension”, is indeed grounded in human language and human norms but, its being grounded in human language is precisely what makes the distinction usable for the goals you mention – abstracting and ritualizing the distinction. The idea to recompile a rhetorical atlas is simply brilliant! It is out of similar considerations that I have begun to look at all those “formulas” I am looking at. One of the difficulties I am encountering is understanding the relative constitutive capacity of different discursive practices. Some friends know how to understand what discursive practices are important when they see them. But, this is nothing more than seeing discursive practices in action, and understanding that they are, well, constitutive of something. The ability to identify a discursive practice as a truly constitutive practice is very important, of course, and there are techniques Europeans used until the early 1980s, and which have been for the most part lost. 

But, the real questions are others: Truth is produced by discursive practices but, discursive practices themselves are generated by specific conceptual structures, or conceptual mechanisms. These conceptual structures are finite and limited in number. Some of them, as the “general will”, for instance, were picked up or created by early modern thinkers, and their meaning and function have not changed over time. Therefore, appeals to the “general will” will always produce functionally similar discourses, regardless of the historical period, country or economic conditions. A very trivial thing to say would be that all these conceptual mechanisms are a derivative of this or that theology. This would be a classical “Schmittian-Agambenian” thesis, but still a useful one, if brought to its most extreme implications. I am beginning to think that often behind a seemingly very sophisticated or elegant apparatus, concept, or conceptual mechanism there is nothing more than an archetypal figure or an archetypal idea. Or: behind any conceptual mechanism there is always an archetypal idea.

In this sense, the “formal differentials” can be understood as one of the stages of a longer process, a process starting from an archetype or archetypal figure, which then acquires diverse manifestations, as: 1. conceptual mechanism, 2. discursive practice, and 3. their specific manifestations, influenced by historical, social, political and economic conditions that can and do change from locality to locality. As you say, one can only operate on the truth framework. I believe that by so doing it is possible to retroact on archetypes, prompt a different understanding of the archetype, modify existing conceptual structure, and in turn prompt a different manifestation of discursive practices, the birth of a different regime of truth. This is more a psychoanalysis of the political : ) but, this operation has been performed before, and I am trying to understand how it has been done.