Issue 174, February 2023 – Undetermined Social Theory: Futures, Presents, Pasts

Rising, Falling, Flying (1934), Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Issue 174, February 2023

Undetermined Social Theory: Futures, Presents, Pasts


Johann Arnason’s unanswered question: To what end does one combine historical-comparative sociology with social and political philosophy?

Peter Wagner

Johann Arnason’s work combines the most erudite historical-comparative sociology, discussing highly knowledgeably enormous stretches of world-history, with the most subtle social and political philosophy, drawing creatively on the traditions of hermeneutics and phenomenology. Invariably, his works introduce more nuance and sophistication into the analysis of even very well studied socio-historical phenomena. At the same time, he addresses such major phenomena in terms of modernity, democracy and capitalism, agreeing that there often – maybe always – is a combination of empirical, conceptual and normative issues at work when analysing human history. Nevertheless, readers of his work may at the same time be impressed by the nuance and sophistication and at a loss with regard to what such further refinement of our socio-historical knowledge entails in terms of understanding our own time in its historical context. Searching through Johann Arnason’s work, this article identifies unexplored questions in the conceptual and historical relation between civilization, modernity, and equality and tries to understand why they have been left open.

Sociology as political philosophy: Alain Caillé’s anti-utilitarian sociology

Frédéric Vandenberghe

The article presents an overview of the intellectual trajectory of Alain Caillé, the founder and animator of the anti-utilitarian movement in the social sciences (MAUSS) in France. Going back to early influences of Claude Lefort, Karl Polanyi and Pierre Clastres, it shows the centrality of the symbolic constitution of the economy in the development of an intellectual front against rational choice. It also considers how Marcel Mauss’s famous Essay on the Gift has been developed into a ‘gift paradigm’ that aims to unify the various social sciences into a comprehensive alternative to the interest paradigm.

Comte’s posthumanist social science

Florence Chiew

Auguste Comte’s classical status in sociology and social theory is routinely taken to mean outdated. Coupled with this perception, there has been a pervasive tendency within contemporary discourse to presume a positivism that is largely rationalistic or scientistic and therefore critically and analytically useless. This paper explores how some of Comte’s lesser acknowledged perspectives on science, history, ‘progress’ and what it is to be human may yet compel us to reexamine our ideas about the kind of positivism we think we have inherited and therefore need to renounce. I focus my reading of Comte through the lens of genealogies of thought not normally associated with his work, for instance, science and technology studies (STS) and posthumanist social theory.

Towards a post-pandemic social contract

Domonkos Sik

Social contract theories serve a twofold purpose: by addressing acute crises, they elaborate solutions to long-standing social paradoxes. The article reinterprets the stakes of the Covid pandemic from this perspective. Firstly, the long-lasting structural paradoxes of late modernity are linked to the acute crisis of the pandemic with the help of critical theories of late modernity. It is argued that the pandemic provides opportunity for revaluating those social contracts, which are based on universalist principles of justice. Secondly, two paradigmatic historical examples (Hobbes, Rawls) are overviewed in a meta-theoretical fashion, so that the dimensions of revaluation could be highlighted. Thirdly, the foundations of a post-pandemic social contract are outlined. As the pandemic is inseparable from the structural paradoxes caused by unconstrained systems based on universal principles of justice, the post-pandemic social contract aims at preventing the system paradoxes by revaluating their universal principles in a ‘trial of particularity’ (Derrida, Levinas).

The limits of satire, or the reification of cultural politics [open access]

Nicholas Holm

In the first decades of the 21st century, humour has been increasingly embraced as a legitimate means by which to cover, analyse and intervene in political issues. Most frequently, this political application of humour has been interpreted through the lens of ‘satire’: a term that evokes an idea of humour as a politically meaningful cultural act. Such an account of humour connects satire with the long-standing theoretical tradition of ‘cultural politics’ that explores the ability and mechanism of cultural forms to inform, inspire or enact political change. However, while satire may appear as the manifestation or culmination of a cultural political agenda, I argue that the concept ultimately works towards the closure of cultural political possibility. Drawing on the work of Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson, I argue that satire is better understood as a form of reification that prematurely resolves how, when and why cultural forms can do politics.

(De)facing the face of lecturing with Deleuze and Guattari

Tyson E. Lewis

This paper articulates the separate accounts of facial education and lecturing found in A Thousand Plateaus in order to theorize a new concept of lecturing for a post-digital university. Many accounts of Deleuze and Guattari in educational theory turn away from lecturing as hierarchical and striated, yet this approach denies Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorialization of the practice through their description of a lecture by the character Professor Challenger. When read alongside their plateau on facialization, Challenger’s unusual performance can be interpreted as an interruption of the abstract machine of facialization that animates traditional accounts of lecturing. The article concludes with implications for a de-faced form of lecturing for a post-digital university.

Western tourism at Cu Chi and the memory of war in Vietnam: Dialogical effects of the carnivalesque

Todd Madigan and Brad West

In this article we analyze the social memories of the Vietnam War afforded by tourism at the Cu Chi battlefield. Specifically, we explore the experiences of tourists at the site in order to address the under-theorized relationship between carnivalesque and dialogical discourses. Drawing on field interviews and ethnographic engagement with young adult Western tourists who took tours led by Vietnamese guides, we document how the tourists’ playful engagement with the past at Cu Chi facilitates the development of new dialogical memories of the war. Our interviews reveal a strong concern with the suffering of both occupying forces and the Vietnamese communist forces, a finding that points to the need for scholars to better appreciate the multiplicity of ways that social performances function in shaping social memory. Ultimately, we challenge social performance theories whose explanations reduce shifts in social memory to audience interpretations of authenticity.

Review essay

On the genocide concept

Jon Piccini

A. Dirk Moses’ The Problems of Genocide builds on his decades of work in the field of genocide research. This review article looks at the impact the book has had to date before considering its two key arguments – that genocide’s invention in the 1940s distilled a centuries old ‘language of transgression’, which in turn served to justify and normalise what Moses dubs ‘liberal permanent security’. I conclude by considering the possibilities and limits of ‘conceptual history’.

Book reviews

Book review: The Human: Bare Life and Ways of Life

Claire Colebrook

Book review: The End of the Village: Planning the Urbanization of Rural China

Brooke Wilmsen

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