Issue 165, Misconnections
The prescience and paradox of Erich Fromm: A note on the performative contradictions of critical theory
Jeffrey C. Alexander
As social theorists seek to understand the contemporary challenges of radical populism, we would do well to reconsider the febrile insights of the psychoanalytic social theorist Erich Fromm. It was Fromm who, at the beginning of the 1930s, conceptualized the emotional and sociological roots of a new ‘authoritarian character’ who was meek in the face of great power above and ruthless to the powerless below. It was Fromm, in the 1950s, who argued that societies, not only individuals, could be sick. This essay traces the intertwining of psychoanalytic and sociological methods that allowed Fromm to create such new ideas. At the same time, it highlights how Fromm’s sociology was hampered by an economistic Marxist approach to the institutions and culture of democratic capitalist societies. Such theoretical restriction prevented Fromm from conceptualizing how institutions like democracy, science, and psychotherapy can provide resources for widespread emotional recuperation and civil repair.
Recovering the primitive in the modern: The cultural turn and the origins of cultural sociology
Jeffrey C. Alexander
This essay provides an intellectual history for the cultural turn that transformed the human sciences in the mid-20th century and led to the creation of cultural sociology in the late 20th century. It does so by conceptualizing and contextualizing the limitations of the binary primitive/modernity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, leading thinkers – among them Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Freud – confined thinking and feeling styles like ritual, symbolism, totem, and devotional practice to a primitivism that would be transformed by the rationality and universalism of modernity. While the barbarisms of the 20th century cast doubt on such predictions, only an intellectual revolution could provide the foundations for an alternative social theory. The cultural turn in philosophy, aesthetics, and anthropology erased the division between primitive and modern; in sociology, the classical writings of Durkheim were recentered around his later, religious sociology. These intellectual currents fed into a cultural sociology that challenged the sociology of culture, creating radically new research programs in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
A missed connection: Löwith and Adorno on progress
Despite appearing side by side as keynote speakers at a congress in 1962 devoted to the question of progress, Löwith’s and Adorno’s accounts of progress have never been linked. This paper is an attempt to establish this missed connection, to reveal important connections, striking similarities, and a fundamental difference between these two eminent thinkers’ work on progress. For one, Löwith diagnoses the three main problems that Adorno attempts to solve with his dialectical account of progress. Moreover, each is sympathetic towards crucial aspects of the other’s account: Löwith towards Adorno’s claim that progress is dialectical, Adorno towards Löwith’s claim that progress necessarily has a redemptive aspect. A fundamental disagreement nevertheless divides them: whether the problem of suffering in history is part of our ontological condition, or something we must struggle against and overcome through political action. By establishing this missed connection, I hope to show how progress might still have an important role to play in our present-day historical and political consciousness.
Hans Blumenberg on the rigorism of truth and the strangeness of the past
In this paper I discuss Hans Blumenberg’s The Rigorism of Truth, a short polemic that criticizes Freud and Hannah Arendt for placing (what he considers) a misplaced faith in the liberatory potential of rational truth in moments of historical disaster. The secondary literature suggests that this piece exhibits either all the signs of a late, Romantic capitulation to the ‘need’ for myth, or Blumenberg’s failure to recognize his own faith and debts to the ‘mythology’ of reason’s emancipatory hopes. My argument hinges on the claim that these readings put undue emphasis on the philosophical anthropology component of Blumenberg’s work. Instead, I offer a new reading of the essay, in keeping with an alternative reading of his theory of myth. The essay transforms, then, from a polemic regarding the need for myth, into a nuanced description of the ways in which we can overestimate our capacity to overcome it.
Heroes and the many: Typological reflections on the collective appeal of the heroic. Revolutionary Iran and its implications
The heroic figure is a human fiction of the wholly singular. In the hero, discourses about ideals and exemplariness, extra-ordinariness and exceptionalness, agonality, transgressivity, or good and evil become condensed into a single individual. Thus, the hero is the opposite of the masses. As it is argued in this article, the answer to the question of what distinguishes a hero lies in the supererogatory moment, the reference to the hero’s quality of more than can be expected: the heroic figure does more than he or she has to, more than duty requires of an ordinary person, and this is the reason they are heroized. However, this also points to a dialectic moment of the heroic in which the opposition between the hero and the many seems to be suspended. Following Niklas Luhmann, the hero represents the paradox of conformity through deviance, because through the example of their abnormality they produce in others a desire to imitate them. In the end, there is a collective appeal of the heroic that affects even the conceptual complement of the hero: the crowd which is characterized by the disappearance of the individual within it. Inspired by Luhmann’s sociological reflections on the heroic as well as Elias Canetti’s anthropological perspectives on the phenomena of the crowd, this article traces the rhetoric of the hero along its path from the singular to the plural. Against the backdrop of the analysis of the heroic in revolutionary Iran, a generalizable typology is proposed that distinguishes between the hero, the collective of heroes, the heroic collective, and collective heroism. This order reflects a progression that is analogous to the conjunction of the one and the many, moving qualitatively from the distinct figure of the hero to the indistinguishable masses.
The Kelsen-Bauer debate on Marxist state theory and the equilibrium of class forces
This serves as an introduction to a debate between Hans Kelsen and Otto Bauer concerning the nature and relative autonomy of the state, and the theories that informed the political practices of the Austro-Marxists and of the SDAP (Austrian Social Democratic Workers’ Party) immediately after the fall of the monarchy and during the early years of the First Republic. Both pieces (translated below) were published in Der Kampf (The Campaign), the SDAP’s theoretical journal, in which many key texts of Austro-Marxist thought appeared. The debate is of theoretical interest, particularly with respect to Marxist state theory, but is potentially also of renewed relevance to an age of post-GFC (Global Financial Crisis) austerity. Bauer’s distinction between functional oligarchy and functional democracy is identified as one such potential contribution to current debate and analysis.
What do you call it when Jeremy Corbyn walks into a Seder? Jewishness, Gustav Landauer (1870–1919) and ethical subject-formation [open access]
Then UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s attendance at a Passover Seder organised by the radical leftist group, Jewdas, in April 2018, led to a brief but vitriolic controversy involving Anglo-Jewish umbrella organisations concerning who qualifies to speak as a Jew. This article uses this controversy to engage with Judith Butler’s attempt to address this question, suggesting that in decentring Zionist claims to Jewish subjectivity she fails to take account of how different Jewish subjectivities are formed, and thus ends up proposing a ‘good Jew/bad Jew’ binary that dissolves Jewishness into universal humanism. Drawing on the work of the German-Jewish mystical anarchist Gustav Landauer (1870–1919), the article proposes a different way of understanding subjectivity that retains ontological inherency as a plausible precondition for ethical solidarity. As such, the article’s argument has implications not merely for a reworked understanding of Jewish subjectivity but for the politics of subject formation more broadly.
The aesthetics of political resistance: On silent politics [open access]
This article analyses the aesthetics of silent political resistance by focusing on refugees’ silent political action. The starting point for the analysis is Jacques Rancière’s philosophy and his theorisation of the aesthetics of politics. The article enquires into the aesthetic meaning of silent refugee activism and interprets how refugees’ silent acts of resistance can constitute aesthetically effective resistance to what can be called the ‘speech system’ of statist, representative democracy. The article analyses silence as a political tactic and interprets the emancipatory meaning of silent politics for refugees. It argues that refugees’ silent acts of political resistance can powerfully affect aesthetic, political subversion in prevailing legal-political contexts.
Scholastic fallacies? Questioning the Anthropocene
The view that we live in the Anthropocene is increasingly gaining currency across scientific disciplines. Especially in sociology this is said to require a paradigm shift in analysis and theory formation. This article argues that such a conclusion is premature. Owing to a scholastic fallacy – the uncritical transposition of the concept from the natural to the social sciences – Anthropocene lacks analytic clarity and explanatory power evidenced by: a normative overreach that erroneously imagines an idealised world citizenry with collective action capacities; an obfuscation of the unequal distribution of ecological pathologies caused by capitalism; a normative indeterminacy concerning modes of redress; and an abstract ecological universalism offered as moral panacea. The article suggests that sociology needs to address the Anthropocene’s heterogeneity marked by contradictory regional interests and inequalities that neither appeals to social justice or ‘one humanity’ nor an escape into a dissolution of ontological differences between actors and artefacts can redeem. To that end, sociologists are asked to undertake a critical reconstruction of the concept.
Coronavirus, the great toilet paper panic and civilisation
Panic buying of toilet rolls in Australia began in early March 2020. This was related to the realisation that the novel coronavirus was spreading across the country. To the general population the impact of the virus was unknown. Gradually the federal government started closing the country’s borders. The panic buying of toilet rolls was not unique to Australia. It happened across all societies that used toilet paper rather than water to clean after defecation and urination. However, research suggests that the panic buying was most extreme in Australia. This article argues that the panic buying was closely linked to everyday notions of Western civilisation. Pedestal toilets and toilet paper are key aspects of civilisation and the fear of the loss of toilet paper is connected to anxiety about social breakdown, the loss of civilisation. This is the fear manifested in the perceived threat posed by the virus.
Can we still be at home? Agnes Heller and China
This paper offers a short history of Agnes Heller’s relationship to China through three aspects: imaginative aesthetic enjoyment, real encounters with Chinese cultural spectacles and actual audiences, and the construction of an academic community through creative dialogue. These discussions suggest that Heller felt at home in China. Although Heller has passed away, a home for us remains in her work through remembering her and engaging further with her writings.
The Budapest School: Beyond Marxism
J.F. Dorahy’s The Budapest School: Beyond Marxism (2019) offers contemporary readers a conscientious assessment of the intellectual initiatives of Ágnes Heller, György Márkus, and Ferenc Fehér, both in the years immediately following their apprenticeship with György Lukács, and later, through their independent philosophical endeavours. Dorahy’s book also pinpoints the Budapest thinkers’ proposal for a radical democratic reckoning, and begins to suggest how that proposal might today bear on global practice and globally-minded theories. The book is an excellent introduction to the ideas of Heller and Márkus. But through them, it is also a striking and thoroughly relevant consideration of the possibilities for an ethics of planetary commitment, and for a critical theory fixed upon incorporating the vigorous rootstock of radical democracy with a multidimensional, pluralistic social order.
Revolution Today, The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, Into the Tempest: Essays on the New Global Capitalism
The Distortion of Nature’s Image: Reification and the Ecological Crisis
The Crisis Paradigm: Description and Prescription in Social and Political Theory
Erich Fromm’s Critical Theory: Hope, Humanism, and the Future
Matheus Capovilla Romanetto