Postmodern Socialism: Romanticism, City and State

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The lapse from this austere dialectical imperative into the more comfortable stance of the taking of moral positions is inveterate and all too human: still, the urgency of the subject demands that we make at least some effort to think the cultural evolution of late capitalism dialectically, as catastrophe and progress all together. Such an effort suggests two immediate questions, with which we will conclude these reflections. And, even if we can do so, is there not something ultimately paralysing in the dialectical view of historical development proposed above; does it not tend to demobilise us and to surrender us to passivity and helplessness by systematically obliterating possibilities of action under the impenetrable fog of historical inevitability?

Holdings: Postmodern socialism :

It is appropriate to discuss these two related issues in terms of current possibilities for some effective contemporary cultural politics and for the construction of a genuine political culture. To focus the problem in this way is, of course, immediately to raise the more genuine issue of the fate of culture generally, and of the function of culture specifically, as one social level or instance, in the postmodern era.

Everything in the previous discussion suggests that what we have been calling postmodernism is inseparable from, and unthinkable without the hypothesis of, some fundamental mutation of the sphere of culture in the world of late capitalism which includes a momentous modification of its social function.

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What we must now ask ourselves is whether it is not precisely this semi-autonomy of the cultural sphere which has been destroyed by the logic of late capitalism. Yet to argue that culture is today no longer endowed with the relative autonomy it once enjoyed as one level among others in earlier moments of capitalism let alone in pre-capitalist societies is not necessarily to imply its disappearance or extinction.

It also suggests that some of our most cherished and time-honoured radical conceptions about the nature of cultural politics may thereby find themselves outmoded. We are submerged in its henceforth filled and suffused volumes to the point where our now postmodern bodies are bereft of spatial coordinates and practically let alone theoretically incapable of distantiation; meanwhile, it has already been observed how the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonising those very pre-capitalist enclaves Nature and the Unconscious which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity.

The shorthand language of co-optation is for this reason omnipresent on the left, but would now seem to offer a most inadequate theoretical basis for understanding a situation in which we all, in one way or another, dimly feel that not only punctual and local counter-culture forms of cultural resistance and guerrilla warfare but also even overtly political interventions like those of The Clash are all somehow secretly disarmed and reabsorbed by a system of which they themselves might well be considered a part, since they can achieve no distance from it.

The rise and malaise of postmodernism

Yet the earlier features of the postmodern which were enumerated above can all now be seen as themselves partial yet constitutive aspects of the same general spatial object. The argument for a certain authenticity in these otherwise patently ideological productions depends on the prior proposition that what we have been calling postmodern or multinational space is not merely a cultural ideology or fantasy but has genuine historical and socioeconomic reality as a third great original expansion of capitalism around the globe after the earlier expansions of the national market and the older imperialist system, which each had their own cultural specificity and generated new types of space appropriate to their dynamics.

The distorted and unreflexive attempts of newer cultural production to explore and to express this new space must then also, in their own fashion, be considered as so many approaches to the representation of a new reality to use a more antiquated language. As paradoxical as the terms may seem, they may thus, following a classic interpretive option, be read as peculiar new forms of realism or at least of the mimesis of reality , while at the same time they can equally well be analysed as so many attempts to distract and divert us from that reality or to disguise its contradictions and resolve them in the guise of various formal mystifications.

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For neither Marx nor Lenin was socialism a matter of returning to smaller and thereby less repressive and comprehensive systems of social organisation; rather, the dimensions attained by capital in their own times were grasped as the promise, the framework, and the precondition for the achievement of some new and more comprehensive socialism. Is this not the case with the yet more global and totalising space of the new world system, which demands the intervention and elaboration of an internationalism of a radically new type?

The disastrous realignment of socialist revolution with the older nationalisms not only in Southeast Asia , whose results have necessarily aroused much serious recent left reflection, can be adduced in support of this position. But if all this is so, then at least one possible form of a new radical cultural politics becomes evident, with a final aesthetic proviso that must quickly be noted.

The teaching function of art was, however, always stressed in classical times even though it there mainly took the form of moral lessons , while the prodigious and still imperfectly understood work of Brecht reaffirms, in a new and formally innovative and original way, for the moment of modernism proper, a complex new conception of the relationship between culture and pedagogy.

The cultural model I will propose similarly foregrounds the cognitive and pedagogical dimensions of political art and culture, dimensions stressed in very different ways by both Lukacs and Brecht for the distinct moments of realism and modernism, respectively. We cannot, however, return to aesthetic practices elaborated on the basis of historical situations and dilemmas which are no longer ours. Meanwhile, the conception of space that has been developed here suggests that a model of political culture appropriate to our own situation will necessarily have to raise spatial issues as its fundamental organising concern.

I will therefore provisionally define the aesthetic of this new and hypothetical cultural form as an aesthetic of cognitive mapping. In a classic work, The Image of the City , Kevin Lynch taught us that the alienated city is above all a space in which people are unable to map in their minds either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves: grids such as those of Jersey City, in which none of the traditional markers monuments, nodes, natural boundaries, built perspectives obtain, are the most obvious examples.

Disalienation in the traditional city, then, involves the practical reconquest of a sense of place and the construction or reconstruction of an articulated ensemble which can be retained in memory and which the individual subject can map and remap along the moments of mobile, alternative trajectories.

The cognitive map is not exactly mimetic in that older sense; indeed, the theoretical issues it poses allow us to renew the analysis of representation on a higher and much more complex level. The most highly developed form of such diagrams is the nautical itinerary, the sea chart, or portulans, where coastal features are noted for the use of Mediterranean navigators who rarely venture out into the open sea.


  • Brain Informatics: International Conference, BI 2012, Macau, China, December 4-7, 2012. Proceedings;
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No better answer is provided by much of the liberal tradition, which, by attaching value to the freedom of an abstracted choice, also negates the political and ethical dimensions of social life. I have argued that the orthodox socialist dream of a scientific-only approach to the valuable has withered. Moreover, both liberalism and communitarianism have run into difficulties.

And despite its critique of socialist authoritarianism and of liberalism, post-modernism has found itself unable to finally surpass these paradigms. With these failures in mind, I shall now examine the possibilities for a reassertion of emancipatory values. Within the broad libertarian tradition, one can discern an ethics of emancipation , [96] which accents the establishment of political community embodying freedom and equality, and which can avoid justifying itself by reference to foundations in History and Nature.

Socialist orthodoxy equated historical materialism with hard science and, on these terms, merged morality with necessity. Meanwhile, a number of anarchists have sought to develop a specifically anarchist ethics. They are reflections in the mind of man of what he saw in animal life and in the course of his social life, and due to it these impressions were developed into general conceptions of right and wrong. These attributes have been perverted into crime by exploitation and servitude, religion and authority. Though seldom willing to move as far down this path as Kropotkin, such naturalistic appeals to rights and justice are a common feature of the anarchist tradition.

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The naturalism of many anarchist conceptions is perhaps understandable. It neatly reverses the naturalistic thrust that posited the hierarchical order of the ancien regime as given by laws outside and above human beings. While both anarchists and Marxists have committed themselves explicitly to the view that humans are radically a product of social and historical circumstances rather than of Reason, Nature, or God , the appeal to naturalism has been irresistible as a rhetorical device and as a point at which argument about human good can be anchored.

In this way, communists have often attempted to guarantee harmony beyond the social relations that human beings are able to establish. Similar consequences flow from the Marxian tendency to dismiss politics and morality as epiphenomenal, allowing them to slide beneath the inexorable laws of History and claims to scientific knowledge of the direction of progress.

This failing is evident in the Marxian analysis of justice. Wood, for example, makes the historicist point that standards of justice can only be applied meaningfully to the modes of production in which they arise.

The question of social ordering is always a social and historical matter; the answers to such questions cannot be given in absolute terms. Against the scientistic strand in Marxism, such questions of value and justice are inescapable for human society and can certainly not be eliminated by a determinism based on human nature or assumptions about the direction of History.

An exemplar of the dilemmas confronting the emancipatory thought in this sphere is the question of rights. While Leninism has tended to dismiss such rights as bourgeois, empty, and individualistic, social democrats have frequently drifted to positions less and less distinguishable from a context-insensitive, rationalist, liberal universalism. Clearly, something more is required. The right to have rights, that is, flows from recognition of the person or group as part of and as participant in a social collectivity.

In this vein, as Kymlicka, Lukes, and Lefort emphasise, rights do express respect for people as ends in themselves; in any society, versions of the good will vary and benefits and burdens will need to be distributed [] ; minorities will always need to be protected; and we also always need to consider future generations. However, it should be remembered that, in the end, rights guarantee nothing , and, more often than not, the notion of rights is tied to the view of the person as victim and to a passive conception of citizenship.

This is to emphasise the primacy of politics and the importance of political community. At times, those within both the Marxian and anarchist traditions have objected to the positing of ethical universals outside of history and society. Against such illusions, it must be recognised that emancipatory thought does imply a moral theory. A number of thinkers, however, have been critical about both anarchist naturalism and Marxian appeals to History. Castoriadis is more interesting here, rejecting all claims that rules and institutions could have an extra-social and supra-historical foundation.

Castoriadis believed that each society posited an axia or Proto-value from which ideas of justice arose. Are our laws just? Is our constitution just? Is it good? But good in relation to what? Just in relation to what? Libertarians have denied that the bourgeois order is able to achieve the goals of the democratic revolution — liberty, equality, fraternity. Presented as the very zenith of historical progress, freedom, and equality, capitalism, radical thinkers — following Marx — have pointed out, has arisen and continues to be based on real unfreedoms and inequalities.

The values that libertarians have promoted as the basis upon which a good society might be established can perhaps best be summarised as an ethics of emancipation.

Within this broad ethics of emancipation, though, one frequently discovers two diametrically-opposed thrusts: one in the direction of individual self-realisation and individuation; the other oriented towards the freedoms of democratic community and the reliance of the individual on the social. I shall examine this tension below. But what is the content of such freedom? For Tucker, for instance, freedom in the Marxian lexicon means the liberation of human creativity.

Those left-Marxians within the broadly Bordigist tradition have accented this anti-individualism, asserted that the individual is but a marionette of social forces, and have looked forward to the reestablishment of community — sometimes even against democracy.

Now, communism knows no state, it destroys it; and nor does it know opposing social groups. It thus automatically dispenses with every mechanism of mediation which would decide what it would be fitting to do. To want communism and democracy is a contradiction. A predominant value accented by community-focussed libertarian thinkers has been the equality to be embodied by the future order. Libertarians have criticised the liberal-democratic order as unable to bring equality — political, social, economic — as capitalism entails an irreversibly unequal distribution of power.

What, overall, are we to make of the Left emphasis on community?