Issue 166, October 2021: Nomads of critique

Flowers of a Hundred Worlds (Momoyogusa): River in Winter (Fuyu no kawa), (1909-10), Kamisaka Sekka, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Creative Commons

Nomads of critique

166, October 2021

New perspectives on Rosa Luxemburg’s concept of the transition to socialism

Peter Hudis

The ongoing project to issue the Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg, which will make all of her writings available in English translation, provides a critical lens to re-evaluate aspects of Luxemburg’s theoretical contribution that has often been passed over in much of the secondary literature on her. Of foremost importance in this regard is the distinctive contribution that she made to the understanding of how to achieve a transition to socialism in a developing society that remains surrounded by the capitalist world market and imperialist powers. This paper aims to show that her reflections during and after the 1905 Revolution, especially as reflected in a series of rarely studied articles and essays in the Polish revolutionary press, provides an important corrective to how the transition to socialism was understood by other Marxist currents.

Walter Benjamin’s communism

Alison Ross

What does ‘communism’ mean in Walter Benjamin’s writing? It has been used in some quarters to claim that Benjamin has a quasi-Marxist theory of communist society. This paper will argue instead that Benjamin’s communism is framed by his distinctive conception of experience and that it is understandable only through that conception. Benjamin’s image of ‘communist society’ refers to a specific type of experience (‘collective experience’) rather than a type of social organization. The paper discusses the conceptual background of that image and also points out a number of the difficulties that Benjamin’s conception of collective experience faces given its genesis in a model of individual experience.

Ignored works

Esperança Bielsa

This essay interrogates ignored works of art as a special kind of object that can shed some light on the nature of contemporary art worlds, as well as on wider social processes regarding our relationship with things and with our past. It provides a materialist perspective focused on discarded objects as an alternative to a mystifying view of the artworld that takes artistic autonomy for granted and obliterates the social conditions of creativity and success. Ignored works are normally outside the reach of art history and the sociology of art, yet the increasingly bigger realm of unrecognized and unvalued art provides, after the failure of the historical avant-garde, a space where critical autonomy can still develop. This essay attempts to illuminate this mostly invisible realm by relating it to other similar categories such as waste and forgetting. Finally, ignored works’ connection to notions of authenticity is pointed out.

Castoriadis on the being of human: An elucidation of creation ex nihilo

Jodie Lee Heap

Taking inspiration from the vast breadth of Castoriadis’ oeuvre, this article provides an ongoing elucidation of the being of human as creation ex nihilo. It does so by engaging with Castoriadis’ reflections on the vis formandi pertaining to the human condition and his tentative introduction to the concept of the ‘human Nonconscious’. Across many of his essays, Castoriadis refers to the vis formandi of the being of human as an ‘a-causal’ and as a corporeal power of formation and of creation. Associated with the defunctionalized and the corporeal dimensions of the radical imagination, these two domains of formation and of creation are, for Castoriadis, fundamental to the ontology of the being of human. By exploring Castoriadis’ theoretical and practical reflections on the vis formandi of the being of human and the role he accords the two dimensions of the radical imagination, this article offers a new mode of thinking about the being of human as creation ex nihilo – one that addresses the mind body divide by proposing that the human Nonconscious can be envisaged as the dominion of the embodied imagination.

Looking for a sociology worthy of its name: Claude Lefort and his conception of social division [open access]

Andrea Lanza

The aim of this article is to question the nature of the socio-anthropological approach in Lefort’s thought. The author explores the complex relationship between Lefort and the Durkheimian French school of sociology in four stages: in the first, he shows Lefort as a sociologist ‘worthy of its name’ or, in other words, a sociologist interested in questioning the ‘institution of the social’. In the second, he focuses on the disturbing elements that Lefort introduces: the political and the division into the French sociological approach. In the third stage, he focuses his attention on the sociological approach in Lefort’s way of thinking about democratic society. Finally, he concludes by referring to Lefort’s apparent opposition between philosophy and social sciences – and the errors that this may have engendered – in order to demonstrate the continuity of Lefort’s sociological approach.

Critical theory and the question of technology: The Frankfurt School revisited [open access]

Gerard Delanty, Neal Harris

Unlike the first generation of critical theorists, contemporary critical theory has largely ignored technology. This is to the detriment of a critical theory of society – technology is now a central feature of our daily lives and integral to the contemporary form of capitalism. Rather than seek to rescue the first generation’s substantive theory of technology, which has been partly outmoded by historical developments, the approach adopted in this article is to engage with today’s technology through the conceptual apparatus offered by the early Frankfurt School. This rationale is guided by the conviction that the core ideas of critical theory still offer a sound basis for assessing the nature of technology today. Through a reconstruction and engagement with some of the core concepts of first-generation critical theory, as well as the work of Bernard Stiegler and Andrew Feenberg, we can arrive at a more robust theory of technology, capable of critically interrogating the role of technology in contemporary society.

Thanatopolitics and colonial logics in Blade Runner 2049

Ali Rıza Taşkale

This article critically engages with Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, focusing on the relationship between colonial logics and biological engineering that understands the natural world as property. First, it discusses the connections between the film and the shifting status of biopolitics becoming thanatopolitics, prompted by advances in synthetic biology. It argues that the film’s preoccupation with the reproductive capacity of its replicants retraces a racialized (post) colonialism and reconfigured slavery, or the voluntary labour of the occupied – as normalized in synthetic biology and the ongoing processes of devaluing of some lives over others for socioeconomic reasons. Second, and relatedly, the film reveals how deeply the thanatopolitics of a biopolitical economy is rooted in an intensification of racialized and colonial logics. The film thus doubles as a medium in which to grasp the centrality of colonial and racial logics to the ongoing real subsumption of life by capital, and the ways in which it continues to shape the present.

Southern lights: Metropolitan imaginaries in Latin America

Jeremy Smith

This essay aims to examine metropolitan cities of Latin America with two aspects of the literature in anthropology, history, and sociology in mind. First, the essay addresses an imbalanced focus on cities in the USA and Canada by sketching the significance of migration, creation, and urban development in four major metropolises of Latin America. Second, in place of a framework of urban imaginaries, which has dominated the sociology of Latin American cities in recent years, I argue for a more precise notion of metropolitan imaginaries that better frames the creativity of particular cities and their level of integration into international and regional networks. With this more precise notion, I distinguish southern cities as highly connected places, which attract migrants and bring economic and cultural traffic to their shores, ports, plazas, and streets. They are lively centers of Atlantic modernity with connections that generate greater magnitude for creativity and, as such, bear international significance as places of architecture and urban design. In their informal settlements, impulses of organic creation further distinguish southern metropolises from their North American counterparts. The quality of international and regional connections distinguishes these cities from other urban centers in Latin America, a point underestimated in the literature on urban imaginaries. In this essay, I examine 19th and 20th-century Buenos Aires, Mexico City, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. Each is distinguished from most cities by the magnitude of migration, the diversity of their populations, and the connections they have to global and regional developments. Crucially, each one stands out for the quality and impact of their metropolis-making, particularly in creative architecture and urban design.

The Eurocentrism of neo-Roman republicanism and the neglect of republican empire

Kevin Blachford

Republicanism is an approach within political theory that seeks to secure the values of political liberty and non-domination. Yet, in historical practice, early modern republics developed empires and secured their liberty through policies that dominated others. This contradiction presents challenges for how neo-Roman theorists understand ideals of liberty and political freedom. This article argues that the historical practices of slavery and empire developed concurrently with the normative ideals of republican liberty. Republican liberty does not arise in the absence of power but is inherently connected to the exercise of power.

Book Review Essay: The Unmasking Style in Social Theory

Eduardo de la Fuente

Peter Baehr’s new book examines unmasking in the history of social theory, politics and contemporary media. In this review, I focus on the assessment of styles of theorizing in social theory and sociology in particular. Baehr shows that through its inheritance of an Enlightenment commitment to a critique of power and domination, mainstream sociology (including the discipline’s conservative critics) have absorbed an “unmasking” model of critique where instead of “scientific refutation” or “principled disagreement” what is practiced is the removal of a “disguise”. I consider the book’s rich history of masking and unmasking in social thought, as well as the claim that “dramaturgical” and Anglophone sociologies are more favorably disposed towards the “masking” trope; although, I also observe the book’s historical depth is not matched by contemporary breadth (for e.g. it doesn’t consider the migration of social theory into new domains). I conclude by asking whether reflection on styles of thought in social theory can be separated from a sociology of sociology; and also ask whether the masking and unmasking dialectic is yet another chapter in the long history of what the Greeks called theoria.

Book Review: Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism: Ontology, Epistemology, Politics

Wayne Hudson

Book Review: At the Risk of Thinking: An Intellectual Biography of Julia Kristeva

John Lechte

Book Review: Critical Theories and the Budapest School: Politics, Culture, and Modernity

J. F. Dorahy

Book Review: Again, Dangerous Visions: Essays in Cultural Materialism

Gary Pearce

Book Review: The Political Economy of Inequality

Henry Paternoster

Book Review: The Jewish Question: History of a Marxist Debate

Chamsy el-Ojeili

Book Review: Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-capitalist Futures

Andrew Simon Gilbert

Book Review: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Intellectuals: Evil, Enlightenment and Death

Greg Melleuish

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