Issue 132, February 2016

Cultural Trauma, Morality and Nihilism



Culture trauma, morality and solidarity: The social construction of ‘Holocaust’ and other mass murders

Jeffrey C Alexander

Abstract: Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways. While this new scientific concept clarifies causal relationships between previously unrelated events, structures, perceptions, and actions, it also illuminates a neglected domain of social responsibility and political action. By constructing cultural traumas, social groups, national societies, and sometimes even entire civilizations, not only cognitively identify the existence and source of human suffering, but may also take on board some significant moral responsibility for it. Insofar as they identify the cause of trauma in a manner that assumes such moral responsibility, members of collectivities define their solidary relationships that allow them to share the suffering of others. Is the suffering of others also our own? In thinking that it might in fact be, societies expand the circle of the ‘we’ and create the possibility for repairing societies to prevent the trauma from happening again. By the same token, social groups can, and often do, refuse to recognize the existence of others’ suffering, or place the responsibility for it on people other than themselves. Empirically, this article extensively considers trauma construction in the case of the Holocaust – the mass murder of Jews by the German Nazis – but also examines trauma processes in relation to African-Americans, indigenous peoples, colonial victims of Western and Japanese imperialism, the Nanjing Massacre, and victims of the early communist regimes in Soviet Russia and Maoist China.


Ernst Jünger and the problem of nihilism in the age of total war

Antoine Bousquet

Abstract: As a singular witness and actor of the tumultuous 20th century, Ernst Jünger remains a controversial and enigmatic figure known above all for his vivid autobiographical accounts of experience in the trenches of the First World War. This article will argue that throughout his entire oeuvre, from personal diaries to novels and essays, he never ceased to grapple with what he viewed as the central question of the age, namely that of the problem of nihilism and the means to overcome it. Inherited from Nietzsche’s diagnosis of Western civilization in the late 19th century, to which he added an acute observation of the particular role of technology within it, Jünger would employ this lens to make sense of the seemingly absurd industrial slaughter of modern war and herald the advent of a new voluntarist and bellicist order that was to imminently sweep away timorous and decadent bourgeois societies obsessed with security and self-preservation. Jünger would ultimately see his expectations dashed, including by the forms of rule that National Socialism would take, and eventually retreated into a reclusive quietism. Yet he never abandoned his central problematique of nihilism, developing it further in exchanges with Martin Heidegger after the Second World War. And for all the ways in which he may have erred, his life-long struggle with meaning in the age of technique and its implications for war and security continues to make Jünger a valuable interlocutor of the present.


Negative recognition: Master and slave in the workplace

Thomas Klikauer

Abstract: The publications of Taylor (1994) and Honneth (1995) have ignited a renewed interest in the Hegelian theme of recognition. But recognition has not only positive aspects, as there are also negative connotations to recognition seen as misrecognition. What might be termed negative recognition argues that there is more to recognition than simple misrecognition. This article aims to show that negative recognition reaches beyond misrecognition and non-recognition. The paper argues that there are at least four versions of negative recognition. These are misrecognition, non-recognition, de-recognition, and pathological mass-recognition. The examples used to illustrate the existence of these four forms of negative recognition have been drawn from the world of work and general politics. The conclusion enhances the negative side of the ‘recognition thesis’ as recently outlined by Martineau et al. (2012) and others.


Parsons on Christianity

Raf Vanderstraeten

Abstract: In his late work on Christianity, Talcott Parsons obviously built upon the writings of both Durkheim and Weber. While he departed from the idea that increasing differentiation of the system of action did not have to threaten the unity of the system as a whole, his emphasis on structural differentiation was also complemented by one on value integration. He believed that, especially in the New World, religion (i.e. Christianity) has gradually become able to impose its definition of the situation in highly different, highly heterogeneous contexts of action. In this paper, I reconstruct Parsons’ historical-sociological analyses of the relation between Christianity and modern society. I discuss how Parsons appropriated the writings of Durkheim and Weber – in ways which did not fully exploit the potential of some of these writings. I suggest some alternatives, which rely less on a concern with value integration (Durkheim) but more on one with the differentiation of meaning systems (Weber).


Intimacy as freedom: Friendship, gender and everyday life

Harry Blatterer

Abstract: Friendship arguably offers itself as the freest of all human associations. A weakness of cultural prescription opens a terrain in which intimacy can be lived in a trust relationship that personifies equality, justice and respect. Friendship’s ‘relational freedom’ enables the mutual development of selves; it is generative. Therein lies ‘the beauty of friendship’, as Agnes Heller has reminded us. But the freedom of intimacy is limited. Embedded in a society that attributes different repertoires of intimacy to women and men and privileges male homosociality, friendship’s freedom is curtailed. Especially cross-sex friendships continue to show evidence of persisting tensions. ‘Erotic friendships’ that seek to realize sexual intimacy but eschew the commitments of coupledom continue to face normative-practical challenges. In this paper, I view central aspects of heterosexual intimacy through the small world of intimate friendship, a prism that refracts gendered tensions in the world at large.


From Marx to Gramsci to us: Laboratory to prison, and back

Peter Beilharz

Abstract: Marx and Gramsci remain two of the most constant presences and inspirations for those on the left. Yet there is a persistent sense that we have still to get them right. Perhaps this indicates that sources like this are now fully classics, to be returned, and returned to. In the case of Marx and Gramsci, a series of major works published in the Brill Historical Materialism series breaks new ground as well as returning to older controversies, both resolved and unresolved. Apart from remaining arguments concerning the status of materials unpublished in their own lifetimes, the major tension that emerges here is that between the task of immanent, contextual philology and the challenge of reading ‘Marx for today’ or ‘Gramsci for today’. The tension between text and context, and the question of what travels, conceptually persists.


Review essays

Conceptual histories and critical theories

María Pía Lara, The Disclosure of Politics: Struggles over the Semantics of Secularization. (Columbia University Press, 2013)
Janet Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Duke University Press, 2014)

Andrew Gilbert

Abstract: Recent scholarship has drawn on Koselleck’s methods of conceptual history and his diagnosis of ‘crisis’ in modernity to make sense of 21st-century developments in political, social and economic life and thought. This review essay looks at two texts that, in different ways, test Koselleck’s ideas in challenging and innovative ways. Lara’s use of conceptual history to shed light on the debates over secularization demonstrates how concepts become central to struggles over the definition of politics – definitions which thereafter disclose the possibilities and set the agenda for future political action. Roitman continues Koselleck’s interest in the concept of crisis and shows how conceptual history can be used to sharpen our awareness of undisclosed content and theoretical blind spots. Both show how conceptual history serves as a ‘semantic check’ on political concepts, demanding greater reflexivity and the setting of realistic political goals.

The art of the overseas exhibition: Or politics by other means

Simon Pierse, An Antipodean Summer: Australian Artists in London, 1950–1965 (Ashgate, Surrey, 2012)

Richard Haese

Abstract: The history of Australian art has been punctuated with survey exhibitions in London from the late 19th century to the present, just as our artists were drawn to Europe both to study and for the possibilities of wider recognition. This review article focuses on the post-war years from 1950 to 1965, a high point of Australian cultural expatriatism focused on London – now viewed as a significant episode in the history of Australian art. The two most influential figures supporting key Australian artists were Kenneth Clark (promoting the work of Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale) and Bryan Robertson, director of the avant-gardist Whitechapel Gallery. Robertson was responsible for organizing the most significant of these exhibitions of Australian art: Australian Painting Today in 1961, focusing on the work of a younger generation of artists that included Charles Blackman, John Olsen, Fred Williams and Brett Whiteley. Australian’s most significant art historian, Bernard Smith, who had also sought to bring about comparable exhibitions, but without success, challenged the orientation and the cultural framing by Robertson and the young Australian art critic Robert Hughes in the catalogue of this key exhibition.

Book reviews

David Roberts reviews The Fleeting Promise of Art: Adorno’s ‘Aesthetic Theory’ Revisited

Christopher A Howard reviews Technology and Social Theory

Janice Baker reviews Exits to the Posthuman Future, The Posthuman, and Posthumanism

Morgan Hamlin reviews Material Politics: Disputes along the Pipeline

Michael Hutter reviews Aesthetic Capitalism


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