Giacomo Marramao’s Topological Folds: On Reading The Passage West

Teresa M. Vilarós
Texas A&M University

Volume 8, 2015

There is an evident topological quality in The Passage West, Giacomo Marramao’s excellent reading of the processes and dynamics of globalization. Already from the title, Marramao draws our attention to the existence of possible directions, routes, and pathways. Even the front cover of the English edition, José de Ribera’s “The Astronomer,” points to maps in the earth and the sky. As Marramao explains, “the book aims to furnish a theoretical map of the global that concludes, after a critique of the various positions in play, with the assertion of the thesis of the passage to the Occident. All other chapters,” he continues, “form a ‘circumnavigation’ of specific thematic epicentres: identity/difference, politics/law, sovereignty/global era, gift/exchange, democracy/community, tolerance/recognition, and Europe/post-national public sphere” (xv).

Marramao’s topological conceptualization of the global is presented as radial—“the book is organized radially” (xv)—, a feature Antonio Negri also chooses to emphasize in his “Afterword” (241-5), as a configuration, a format, a design (a map) that echoes the figures of traditional Euclidean geometry. I would like to suggest, however, that although Marramao’s theoretical mapping of the passage west of current globalization opens itself up in radial form, and although, yes, each chapter circumnavigates its own thematic epicenter, each contributing to generate with its movement the path that Marramao theorizes in his conclusion as the passage west of globalization, the topological quality present in his thought also signals a figure-movement that is alternative to traditional Euclidean geometry. Giacomo Marramao´s map of the global traces the movement of globalization folding and unfolding seamlessly along different and continuously fluid creases. Marramao’s conceptual mapping somewhat echoes the mathematical frame provided by the quantum topological folds of catastrophe theories. Or, putting it another way: Marramao provides us with a topological imagery of the passage west of globalization that fits in well with a quantum-leaning visualization of the global. I do not claim to be knowledgeable in physics (I barely grasp the basic propositions and theorems), nor I am knowledgeable in quantum physics beyond some basic readings. What I propose here is simply to make use of poetic license and attempt an alternative mode of imaginary when visualizing (or mapping, as Giacomo Marramao does in The Passage West) the movement and effects of the process of globalization. After all, if it were so that catastrophe theories produce only metaphors, as it was sometimes said of René Thom’s propositions, such metaphors can still provide us with powerful tools for thought.

The movements of the global described by Marramao in his book, while blustering in a variety of forms, formats, and locales, and manifesting themselves with different levels of intensity and violence, relate to one another in a bio-technological “multiverse”, or “pluriverse”, that echoes the folds of catastrophe theory presented by René Thom in the 1960s. Following Umberto Galimberti’s Psiche e techne: l’uomo nell’età della technica, Marramo describes such a “pluriverse” as “a mechanical dispositif of means without ends”, but one that “is also, and above all, an environment. More precisely, a world-environment (Um-weltt), a ‘technocosm’ that surrounds and constitutes us” (Marramao, 24). His understanding of the global as a bio-technological environment and multiverse, shares some of its features with those present in catastrophe and bifurcation theories. It marks the sudden and dramatic shifts of world behavior and phenomena of a scale not seen before. For instance, the almost sudden closure of centennial ways of culture, borders, and values (Chapter Two, “Identity and Contingency: Zones of Conflict”, 69-84); the radically different ways of experiencing space and time (Chapter One, “Nostalgia for the Present”, 1-68); the new bio-political forms of control (Chapter Three, “Dämmerung: The Twilight of Sovereignty”, 85-105) or, among others, the fast-disappearing forms of the jus publicum Europaeum, as noted by Carl Schmitt in the 1950s and 1960s, and with whom Marramao engages in Chapter Four of The Passage West (“The Exile of the Nomos”, 107-27).

The passage west traced by Marramo, a transition without destination, a movement that suddenly morphs modernity into the virtual/nuclear age, is experienced in the mode of a radical bifurcation; a bifurcation that, set at the advent of the atomic bomb, morphs all figures of life as we used to know them (social, political, cultural, etc.) into new ones. That morphing, however, is continuous. It does not have a breaking point, and does not have a destination. As in the figure that takes us from a doughnut to a cup of coffee, the political morphs into the bio-political, the local into the glocal, humans into post-humans, machines into cyborgs, and reality into virtuality. A new quality of life, of forms of life, of the world, are at stake, and, as such, catastrophe theory, “a great interpretative/explicative framework of the structure of reality in topological/qualitative terms,” as René Thom himself explained in his essay “Prédire n’est pas expliquer,” increasingly proves to be a powerful tool for thought.[1]

The mapping of the phenomena of the global seems to be adjusting to new figures of conceptualization. Actually, this started in the 1980s, following the postmodernist turn of thought and coinciding with a remarkable renaissance in the study of the relation between physics and geometry, and, mainly, between quantum physics and topology. As Michael Atiyah explained:

In the eighties the new relations between Geometry and Physics involve the most advanced ideas on each side, and appears to be extremely deep. The traditional links between the two subjects, as embodied for example in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity … are concerned essentially with classical fields of force, governed by differential equations, and their geometrical interpretations. The new feature of present developments is that links are being established between quantum physics and topology. It is no longer the purely local aspects that are involved but their global counterparts. In very general terms, this should not be too surprising. Both quantum theory and topology are characterized by discrete phenomena emerging from a continuous background.

(Atiyah, 175)

A coherent link between the developments in quantum physics, topology, and the new forms of thought developed in the last quarter of the twentieth century can certainly be traced here. From Jacques Lacan’s interest in mathematics, topology, and quantum physics in the 1970s to the recent contributions of Catherine Malabou or Bruno Latour, the mapping and understanding of the phenomena that Marramo describes as “the global,” is, in spite of Alain Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s disdain, ongoing.[2]

Marramo writes in The Passage West that “in the paradigm emerging today […] the play of actions, reactions, and multiple interdependencies, instituted by the technological pluriverse of the global network means that science no longer enhances power but augments the coefficients of risk, of uncertainty and of contingency of decisions” (25).[3] A related branch of quantum physics (Topological Quantum Field Theories, or TQFT) also engages with conjunctions and disjunctions, the local, and the global. True, unlike Marramao’s propositions they are mathematical constructions developed mostly axiomatically that, due to their high level of difficulty, and without relying on traditional visualization images, tend to be opaque for the non-initiated. But even so, as our world moves increasingly into the bio-virtual/nuclear age, topology in relation to quantum physics, catastrophe theories, string theories, set theories, Einstein’s theory of relativity, TFQT, etc., are increasingly appealing to the humanities.

Marramao asks us to conceptualize in non-teleological fashion the plethora of phenomena that go by the name of ‘globalization’. In order to grasp the specific logic of our globalization, he writes, we must “distinguish it from earlier globalizations, we must understand it as a transit, as a passage west […] where the word ‘passage’ no longer has any of the past teleological or destinal connotations which saturated the theories of transition” (x). “Transition without destination” therefore, is presented as a form of bifurcation between our current forms of globalization (in particular the latest, techno-industrial mode of modernization) and previous forms.

The lack of destination necessarily demands a different understanding of time/space relations and therefore also a different topological relation. In his presentation of the glocal in Chapter One, for instance, Marramao describes the phenomenon of “spatio-temporal compression” identified by David Harvey in the 1990s (The Condition of Postmodernity) “as the fracture-line separating modernity from the global era” (26). The missing “destination” marker of our techno-multiverse, thus, forces us into an understanding of the new map of the world that is “only theoretically comprehensible … as a multi-dimensional reality that spring from the compression of the connected cultures and civilizations” (27). The imagery of links, pathways, and connections that today make up, or map, our understanding of the world presents itself through a configuration that is different from “the ordinary way of understanding the global dimensions of problems” (25) of previous eras. Without destination there can no longer be progression from one transformation to the next or from one “central ambit” to another, as laid out in the 1920s by Carl Schmitt’s historical conceptualization and mapping of the political.[4]

Modern mapping constantly makes literal and philosophical use of Euclidean images of vectors, lines, planes or parabolic figures. This is also the case with Schmitt, which is something that Marramao does not fail to note in his chapter on Schmitt’s Nomos, when using expressions such as “[the need] to provide a methodological compass suited to orientating oneself in the vast and tide weave of [Schmitt’s] works (110); “Schmitt’s complex itinerary” (126); or Schmitt’s layout of the “parabolic path of the modern estate” (124), among others. But Euclidean terminology and visualizations, ready to connect and lead us from one phenomenon to the next and eager therefore to find a final destination, do not prove to be a good fit in our techno-pluriverse environment. Our globalization, a time-compressed transitional field without destination and without ends, shares little with, let’s say, the imagery of (partial) planetary routes and bridges that the Romans built by the thousands, steadily and linearly taking them from one colony and province to another. Neither does it share much with the navigating chart that Columbus produced when, looking for a passage east, he generated “a true, cosmic-historical turn to Modernity” (126), that is, the moment, Marramao reminds us, when Schmitt saw “the ‘ancient, purely terrestrial nomos’ […] replaced by [a] ‘new nomos that included the oceans in its own order’” (126).[5]

Schmitt’s four central spheres of the more than four hundred years of Eurocentric dominance as developed in The Concept of the Political and later expanded in The Nomos of the Earth—the phenomenological imagery of events configuring time, movement, and space from land, to ocean, to sky, to space (the fifteenth century shift to a new order; the shift from marine dominance to the railway systems that, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, provided most of the backbone for the transit to the industrial period all around the world; and from there the passage to the sky and spatial routes built after World War II, accompanied by the passage into the age of techno-industrialization that exploded in the twentieth century quite literally, with the atomic bomb)—were all conceptualized via Euclidean imagery. Schmitt, however, offers hints toward new forms of spatial visualization in his writings on and during the Cold War. In 1957, with the Cold War in full swing, he wrote the “Nomos—Nahme—Name”, a corollary to his massive 1950 masterwork The Nomos of the Earth, in which he warns us of a radical qualitative change that was taking place in the form of the nomos.[6] And in 1962, on the occasion of his investiture as a Honorable Member of the Spanish Instituto de Estudios Políticos, he reaffirms these thoughts in the lecture titled “El orden del mundo después de la segunda guerra mundial”:

El pluralismo de espacios con el que nos encontramos hoy, es en realidad un pluralismo de grandes espacios. Pero “gran espacio” significa hoy algo muy distinto de un espacio al antiguo estilo simplemente aumentado. Al pensar en un espacio pensamos en espacios de dos dimensiones […] El Estado, en el sentido del derecho internacional, es, en primer lugar un territorio delimitado […] También nuestra idea tradicional y clásica de guerra y batalla nos retiene en un pensamiento plano […] Frente a esto debemos recordar que la guerra revolucionaria del momento […] se efectúa en los espacios multidimensionales de la guerra fría.

(Schmitt, 1962, 31)

Schmitt tells us that although the terms space (“espacio”) and big space (“gran espacio”)—and nomos for Schmitt is always related to space—are usually not perceived as a “multipolar conglomerate of permeable volumes (“un conglomerado multipolar de volúmenes permeables” [1962, 31]), in the age of the Cold War the four main spaces of differentiated density and permeability at work at the time—“territorio estatal, hemisferio occidental de la doctrina Monroe, esfera de defensa de la O.T.A.N. y espacio global de la O.N.U”—are in reality “magnetic fields of energy and human work” (“son en realidad campos de fuerzas mágnéticas de energía y trabajo humanos” (1962, 33). Schmitt is thus calling for an engagement with alternate forms of visualizing the political fields of the new order. Or, perhaps better said, from 1957 on he seems to tell us that the new nomos of the earth, the new space/order, hinting already at bio-political phenomena, demands an alternate visual conceptualization.

In the 1950s and early 1960s Schmitt was already aware of a new mode of bio-control that seemed to have come to haunt the world, a form of (self) governance he imagined as a beehive:[7]

Everything on earth based on progress and development, in both East and West, now contains at its core a precise creed: There is only production, only the problem-less fortune of pure consumption […] Unchained production no longer is partial and unilateral, but has become total and global. In other words, like the bees, mankind finally has found its formula in the beehive. Things govern themselves.

(Schmitt, 2003, 347)

In “Nomos—Nahme—Name” Schmitt was indeed already describing a biopolitical form of governance with which we are now familiar. This is a form that the biological industries and technologies that were set up in World War II developed further in the 1950s and 1960s, allowing for a bee-buzzing organism to take flight. Expanding its wings from a U.S. state of production/consumption toward the rest of the globe—to the West, in Marramao’s map—globalization is now morphing into a “hive-mind organism”, a post-human multitude formation similar to the one described by Mihail Roco and William Bainbridge as a “networked society of billions of human beings”: “From local groups of linked enhanced individuals to a global collective intelligence, key new capabilities would arise from relationships created with NBIC technologies […] Far from unnatural, such a collective social system may be compared to a larger form of a biological organism” (quoted in Vilarós, 2005, 367).

While sensing the bio-political quality of globalization, Schmitt did not live to know the power of Google, Facebook, and the plethora of smart biotechnologies of the 21st century. There is an underlying pessimistic tone in his later writings, however, that hints to the fact that he was somehow visualizing the ways, movements, and order of a world-to-come in a way that was already out of his reach. Marramao would agree with this, I think, as he concludes his chapter on Schmitt telling us that there is a pessimistic undertone in Schmitt’s later texts that may have been dictated by “his acute recognition that he was the ‘last’ in a great tradition, the final witness and spokesman for a greatness that was inexorably nailed to the past” (127). For Schmitt, Marramao writes, “the parabolic path of the modern state …[develops] in perfect parallelism with that of its doctrinal framework: the ius publicum europaeum” (124). The end of the ius publicum signals for him the end of the state as well as the end of history.

Schmitt’s linking of the end of history with the end of the age of the State and vice versa does not correspond to a Hegelian-Kojèvian ‘end-of-history’ topos. His equating of the end of history with the end of the age of the state inaugurates neither the time of the sage nor entrance into Heideggerian Ereignis. Instead it brings him paradoxically, in an uncanny turn, toward a distorted mirror image of Walter’s Benjamin angel of history: Schmitt watches in horror the catastrophe brought upon the earth by the end of the ius publicum europaeum.

Marramao’s catastrophe is of a different kind. In The Passage West, and taking his cue from Paul Valéry’s remarks in his essay from the 1930s, “On History”, Marramao insists on its non-destinal connotation. Intuitively mapping his circumnavigations in a time-compression manner that closely echoes the topological folds of quantum physics, he offers us a path to the impasse marked by the angels and demons of history. True, a new mode of globalization has taken hold, a beehive organism most probably, in Schmitt’s figure. But as opposed to prior forms our mode of globalization has no destination. Unlike Schmitt’s modern Eurocentric nomic system, for Marramao the passage west of globalization now has no east to go to. Without destination, without ends, without an end, there is no “end of history”. Globalization is for him a passage, a transition, without destination.

In the early 21st century, Marramao’s “transition without destination” sharply differs from Schmitt’s notion of the Cold War as a transitional period. Schmitt tells us in his 1962 lecture that the nature of the Cold War as an intermediate state, as a transitional state, is not akin to the “status mixtus” of war and peace in previous eras.[8] However, for him the possibility of solving the impasse created by the new ways of waging wars in post-atomic times would necessarily have to pass through the reinstatement of the order of the ius publicum europaeum; a goal, an end, a nomos that he watched disintegrate faster and faster as the 20th century moved forward.

In the third millennium Marramao’s mapping is of a different kind. He acknowledges the radical morphing of the old order of the nomos and notes how the passage west of globalization suddenly took a bifurcation and looped back on itself. He draws together, folds, and unfolds “the continuous and the discontinuous, the process, and the turning point” (241). And in doing so, in visualizing the shift as a passage west of globalization taking a pivotal bifurcation, his mapping is reminiscent of the quantum folds of catastrophe theory. Appearing as formations not inscribed in linear time, the different parameters are marked by continuities and discontinuities that co-habit and co-exist. Compressed in a single time and space logic, sets of co-existing phenomena in constellations like Globus and mundus, “mondialisation” and globalization, or the global and the local co-exist in the interface of techno-economic interdependence. They form and morph in fields of “unprecedented change of scale”, or, rather, they themselves perform an unprecedented “change in the order of things” as Marramao notes, paraphrasing Paul Valéry.

For Marramao, phenomena sometimes coalesce at different points—let´s think of the glocal, for instance, discussed above; or, of the various forms taken up by identity and fundamentalist formations (those historical instances with force but without significance in Agamben’s description), to name just two of the parameters approached in Marramao’s systematic mapping of the passage west of modernity. Marramao’s fold-like quality of his conceptualization of the global, then, allows for a different understanding of the catastrophic: a catastrophe with a quantum-like quality. So, yes, perhaps the transit, the passage west with no east is already working as the hive-mind organism feared by Schmitt: a kind of post Leviathan, or a Behemoth, that, set against a background-free set, now carries within itself the state of all things. If so, and Marramao’s time-compressed mode of globalization keeps moving west without presuming a fixed topological space or space-time relation, the passage west without ends for our mode of globalization would be performing within a background-free set. The catastrophe of the vanishing of the age of the state, then, would not be framed in a Euclidean model, but in quantic form. In doing so, it would not re-morph as the horrifying catastrophe of the mid-20th century that Walter Benjamin found intolerable to witness. Having said that, however, we should not forget that in the indifferent logic of quantum field theories, a background-free set has no local degrees of freedom.


01. See Arcangelo, 96. Catastrophe theory, “a strictly qualitative relation that can be expressed mathematically (Arcangelo, 99) may very well be expressed in other ways, as shown, for instance, by Salvador Dalí, who in his post-1945 paintings showed himself to be a highly knowledgeable self-taught mathematician, physicist and quantum theorist. Dalí was an admirer of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, René Thom’s catastrophe theory, and Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty. For a better understanding of Dalí’s relation to quantum physics and science, see Susi Marqués’ The Dalí Dimension (2004).

02. Quantum theories have been receiving the attention of the humanities for a long time now, Jacques Lacan being one of the earliest thinkers to engage in topology. In spite of what Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont comment in their 1998 response (Fashionable Nonsense) to Sokal’s 1996 hoax-article (“Transgressing”), it is evident that thinkers in the humanities see the need to think in unison with science (Catherine Malabou and Bruno Latour’s work being a great example of this fruitful relation). Hopefully thinkers in the sciences will soon see the need to engage in the humanities too. Contrary to what Sokal and Bricmont say, a thinker needs to make use of poetic license. There is no thinking without poetics, be it in science, philosophy, or art. 

03. See Chapter One of The Passage West, “Nostalgia for the Present.” I do not have a date for the writing of the chapter, but in line with the other chapters, its discussion of mondialization, orbis and mundus, and the local/glocal, seems to situate it at the end of the 1990s.

04. I am referring here mostly to Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology and The Concept of the Political (see Marramao, 109).

05. See Marramao, 126, n. 78.

06. See Schmitt, 2003, 336-50. 

07. I use here the figure of the beehive previously outlined in Vilarós, 2005. 

08. Schmitt also reminds us that the term “guerra fría“ (Cold War), as a status mixtus, had already appeared in the Spanish Middle Ages: “García Arias descubrió que el término guerra fría ya aparece en la Edad Media española, en un párrafo del Libro de los Estados de Juan Manuel” (Schmitt, 1962 24).

Works Referenced

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  • Marramao, Giacomo. The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Mateo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York, Verso, 2012. Print.
  • Márquez, Susi. The Dalí Dimension. (2004). (DVD)
  • Negri, Antonio. “Afterword: Conflicted Ties”. In Giacomo Marramao, The Passage West. Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Mateo Mandarini. Afterword by Antonio Negri. New York, Verso, 2012, 241-45. Print.
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  • ———. “El orden del mundo después de la segunda guerra mundial.” Revista de estudios politicos. (122) (marzo-abril 1962): 19-38. Print.
  • Sokal, Alan. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”. Social Text (46-47) (Spring-Summer 1996): 217-252. Print.
  • ——— and Jean Bricmont, Fashionable Nonsense. Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. New York, Picador, 1998. Available at:
  • Vilarós, Teresa. “The Spirit of the Beehive: On Carl Schmitt’s Nomos, Name, Nahme”. In World Orders: Confronting Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth. Ed. William Rasch. The South Atlantic Quarterly. 104.2 (2005): 359-370. Print.