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Now Available! Telos 163 (Summer 2013): Cultural Revolutions

Telos 163 (Summer 2013) is now available for purchase in our store.

Profound change in society may involve shifting control of political power, the character of economic systems, or access to resources, but it can also have to do with the structures of meaning we bundle together in various understandings of culture. This issue of Telos looks at the explosive forces located specifically in the intangible dimensions of culture and how they may play out in revolutionary or counter-revolutionary processes.

No process has been more disruptive of inherited traditions and stable structures than globalization, the spread of the dynamic economy of capitalism coupled with liberal democracy. In a bold account, Jörg Friedrichs explores the hypothesis that the program of liberal cosmopolitanism faces a significant rival in global Islam. “What if the liberal-cosmopolitan values enshrined in world society are challenged by the globalization of rival communitarian values? What if transnational Islam represents precisely such a moral-political challenge? Or, in a nutshell: what if the Islamist vision of a global community (umma) represents the communitarian mirror image of cosmopolitan world society?” The essay poses the question of political Islam—certainly much larger than the extreme of jihadist terrorism—and its aspirations to articulate modes of alternatives to liberal modernity. Friedrichs investigates the cultural underpinnings of tensions within the current world order, while rejecting some of the comfortable sloganeering of the past decades, “the inappropriateness of ‘inter-civilizational dialogue,’ on the one hand, and a ‘clash of civilizations,’ on the other.” Thus instead of denying the incompatibility between the rivals, Friedrichs calls for greater reflection on the differences in order to manage them more effectively. Starry-eyed cosmopolitan nostrums that gloss over differences are of little help.

The two following essays similarly tease out the radical cultural consequences of religion. Greg Melleuish and Susanna Rizzo explore the secularization hypothesis and its demise, through a wide-ranging and magisterial intellectual history. “In a very general sense, the post-secular simply means that the Enlightenment narrative, based on the axiom that the history of humanity culminates in a world that is simply secular in nature, which is based on the Westphalian model of the sovereign state, is no longer tenable. The inherent developments and contradictions of modernity have falsified those very premises on which it built its narrative.” This post-secular turn implies that seemingly non-rational elements, religion and culture, return from the margins to which enlightenment had banished them. Hence the need to rethink the very agenda of history that, in the context of secularism, once implied the narrative passage from faith to reason. Now, untethered from the teleological narrative of rationalization, we postmoderns have lost a sense of an authoritative center, as we face instead a plethora of competing narratives, none of which can make a compelling truth claim. “The post-secular narrative is, in fact, essentially counter-teleological in that it is founded on denying the validity of the postulates regarding historical predictability on which the secular narrative is founded.” A profound destabilization ensues.

Paolo Morisi shifts the terrain to the history of Catholic politics in modern England. In contrast to the political landscape in many continental European countries, England never developed a single umbrella Catholic party, such as the Christian Democrats in Germany or (until recently) in Italy. Nonetheless the early twentieth century witnessed a vibrant combination of activism and intellectual vision, most notably around figures such as Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. The radicalism of “distributism” articulated a compelling alternative to the bureaucratic welfare state, precisely by drawing on aspects of Catholic social teaching. For Morisi aspects of this tradition have returned to British politics, both in elements of New Labor as well as in the “Red Tories.” If Catholic teaching never coalesced into one hegemonic party, it has certainly contributed significantly to the shaping of British politics and the character of the social state.

As a cultural terrain, language is the stage on which political dispute unfolds, not simply as rational debate but as symbolic conflict. Reem Bassiouney describes how political disputes have been carried out through ideological evaluations of language difference in the Egypt of the Arab Spring, marked by the diglossic divide between Standard Arabic and Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. The “standard” language is in fact not standard at all, separated by a gulf of educational and social difference from the colloquial spoken by broad swaths of the population. Yet Standard Arabic, cast as the language of the nation, ties it both to the classical texts of Islam as well as to the aspiration for a wider Arabic nation. Were the colloquial to subvert the legitimacy ascribed to the standard, those two links could be severed. As Bassiouney shows however in great detail, the split between types of Arabic permeated the politics of the revolution. The Mubarak regime was associated with standard language, at great distance from the people; yet appeals to shift to the colloquial language stood under the suspicion of participating in an imperialist agenda to separate Egypt from the wider Arab world. At times the revolutionaries laid claim to the vibrancy of colloquial language, but the conventional power of standard language could also be mobilized in terms of revolution. Does this linguistic binary continue to contribute to the contradictions in Egypt between democracy and authoritarianism that have unfolded since the fall of Mubarak?

Danilo Breschi describes the world of Italian communist culture in the postwar era with its durability of the Stalinist myth. Communism was a way of life and a source of cultural identity. During the 1960s, splits within the subculture began to emerge, with left militants denounced by the party as “Chinese” or as Trotskyite, even as a low-level civil war ensued between far left and far right terrorists. Yet “what was really underway in those years was a subterranean process of change and reform. Many young people soon abandoned, or never embraced, extremist views, or the utopias of communists and Maoists, with their doctrines of armed struggle and terrorism. The industrial revolution of the 1960s imposed on the Italian people a new lifestyle for both men and women that can be called the culture of individualism.” Was this a cultural counter-revolution? Cultural shifts put pressure on the party, but it was the blunt instrument of 1989 that put an end to the plausibility of communism as a mass movement. The collapse of its twin, Italy’s Christian Democracy, would soon follow. What remains is a radical individualism in an Italian political landscape that has become radically decentered, as evidenced by the recent election. Breschi concludes with an interrogation of the cultural substance of the Northern League and how, despite its opposite ideological leanings, it inherited aspects of communist culture—and how in the wake of the Bossi scandals that shook the League, some of that same populist cultural capital may have passed on to the Five Stars Movement of Beppe Grillo—a long way from Togliatti.

Jens-Martin Eriksen (who, together with Fredrik Stjernfelt, authored Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism, published by Telos Press) shifts the question of culture to the politics of radical monoculturalism, the “differentialist” thesis that cultures are mutually incompatible, especially given their rootedness in religion. At stake are the parties of extreme nationalism that emphasize a radical hostility to immigrant Islam, from Jobbik in Hungary to the Sweden Democrats, the Freedom Party of Austria, or the National Front in France. Yet the problem is not restricted to the political fringes. Indeed, the polling successes of some of the parties on that list surely indicate that much more is at stake than the margins. Eriksen reflects on the outcome of the 2009 Swiss referendum against minaret construction, in which the victorious camp of the anti-Muslim opponents drew significantly from centrist voters. As Eriksen argues, the official European policies of multiculturalism have contributed to the development of social systems of separation, a de facto apartheid, which can generate radicalism, both in the camp of the excluded immigrants and among liberal enlightenment heirs who value equality more than difference. Hence his somber conclusion: “In many ways, such a rigorous approach to multiculturalism ends in a form of culturally determined apartheid in which Muslims and the rest of society live separately and with their own norms, which in the Muslim minority are formulated and enforced by the clergy and the structures of the civil society that exert influence on the individual. To the extent that they actually are able to gain acceptance for these standards and keep the groups separated, . . . it is possible to talk of real, existing apartheid. By failing to realize the dangers of this extreme multiculturalism and by respecting and accepting all demands, provided they are justified by culture and religion, the Social Democrats and the Left have ended up accepting precisely the opposite of their raison d’être: universalism and equal rights for all.”

Chris Hackett begins his essay, a sovereign journey through philosophical history, with a bold conjecture: “If it is the case, which we would like to prove in this essay, that hope itself is the sacred element that lies at the heart of philosophy, sine qua non, then the question of the relation between theology and philosophy can be posed in this way: What does philosophy have to do with hope?” Transcending reason, hope invokes dimensions of religion, faith, and metaphysics, and the thesis ultimately implies a transformative capacity at the heart of philosophy and of culture: hope as the revolutionary spirit? Hackett builds his argument by tracing the history of knowledge and its limits, first through a contrast between Plato and Heraclitus, then through St. Clement of Alexandria and Aquinas, to Heidegger. “[I]f prolēpsis shows St. Thomas’s fidelity to and radicalization of the Greek metaphysics from Heraclitus to Aristotle, and this, precisely as Christian theology (in continuity with St. Clement of Alexandria), this is only because, for Thomas, Christian theology is fundamentally thinking in the light of the already inaugurated eschaton, in which the human creature (proleptically, and in this way, truly) participates in the divine self-knowledge (theology) and therefore the knowledge of all things (philosophy). The most consistent reading of Heidegger may finally be that he is (like Heraclitus) a philosopher of hope.”

Yet the focus on hope or change or even revolution runs the risk of obscuring the ongoing condition of repetition, permanence, and control. This is the topic addressed by Shay Hershkovitz, who argues that the “process of production of social meanings is itself an expression of domination and control; and that this control is immanent to capitalist consumer society.” Reviewing theories of control from Marx through the Frankfurt School and Gramsci to Foucault, Hershkovitz argues that it is in the production of meaning that social control is primarily manifest. He labels this a “second-order control,” and, via Luhmann, he describes a self-controlling consumer society.

This issue of Telos concludes with Joshua Rayman‘s review of John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline.

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